I’m a middle-of-the-road sort of home cook. I do not have a slavish devotion to either organic or local, although I will choose those if presented with the option. I can get lost in the meditative state that comes with slicing and dicing as much as the next person, but sometimes I just want the ease of ingredients that have been prepped for me and am willing to pay for that convenience. I do try and source humanely pasture-raised grass-fed beef for my burgers, but I have yet to make a homemade bun I find nearly as satisfying as a soft commercially produced one, and you will pry my basic American cheese out of my cold, dead, hands. You are equally likely to find me tucking into a bowl of grocery store iceberg lettuce as you will a salad of farmer’s market fresh finds.
But here is the thing. That burger? It’s gonna have a bottled ketchup on it. And a salad? It’s going to have homemade dressing. Because that is how I roll. Right down the middle of the road.
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Condiments are strange. In the land of passionate home cooking, there is often a certain kind of snootiness that makes every meal feels like the start of an Ina Garten meme. As if not making your own everything somehow makes you lesser-than. I do not subscribe to this snobbery. I only ever want the things I am eating to be the most delicious version of themselves, and so, if that means making it from scratch, and I have the time, I make from scratch. But if that means using a store-bought version? There is no shame in that game.
I do have what I think of as my condiment commandments, basic rules that state that there are certain things which are simply pretty much always better if homemade, and some which are decidedly better when not. I share them with you, not because they should necessarily be your own rules, but because I like to believe that the thinking behind them is sound.
Condiments you should always make fresh
Salad dressing is solidly in this category for me, and by making fresh, I include the semi-homemade options that involve packets of herbs or such to start you off. The reasoning is simple. Salad dressing has few ingredients, and they should all be good quality. It is also a place where a lot of hidden sugar and sodium hang out in the commercial versions, and if I’m going to have salt in my salad, I want it to be a lovely flaky sea salt and not some horrible industrial sodium. If I need sweetness in a dressing, there are all sorts of ways to do that, from honey to maple syrup to date sugar. But again, corn syrup or the like do not need a home on my salad. Having total control over over a fresh salad dressing means no preservatives or chemicals, it means the flavors are fresh and bright and not muddied by time or pasteurization. Ranch is a glorious thing, but its base should be buttermilk, and the idea of shelf-stability in a product that should be dairy based squicks me out. Good vinaigrette is the work of moments, great ranch minutes, and even the fanciest dressings come together easily with the help of a blender. Make a large batch and keep in the fridge if you want convenience, most will last a week. Try this one for a spicy tahini dressing.
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Barbecue sauce is another one I take the time to craft whenever possible. Again, hidden salt and sugar in bottled sauces are rampant, ditto preservatives and chemical agents. But more than that, barbecue sauce is really really personal. How tomatoey or vinegary, sweet or spicy, thick or thin any one person wants their sauce is super subjective, so by making my own, I know it will satisfy my own cravings, or that of my guests. Plus, it can go in so many directions when you make it fresh. Want something that leans a little Korean? Spice with gochujang and add some thick sweet soy sauce. Something a bit more Caribbean? Toss in some habanero hot sauce and allspice. Classic midwestern sticky calls for extra tomato paste and maple syrup. Again, it isn’t complicated or difficult and uses mostly pantry ingredients, so I say, ditch the Open Pit and make your own. Try this super classic version.
Marinades again are a place where personal preference and simple ingredient lists rule the day. Similar to salad dressings, they are a place for endless creativity and ease of assembly. I’d give it a shot with this Kentucky Bourbon Marinade or this Chermoula Marinade and see if you don’t get hooked on making fresh.
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Salsas out of a jar or tub make me sad. Because the ingredients are not hard to source, good stuff is really fast to make in a food processor or hand-pull chopper, and salsas by their nature are meant to be super fresh. Try this one. This also goes for any sour-cream based dip, although for these, using the packet of ranch flavor or onion soup mix are encouraged. But mix your own with fresh sour cream, please, those tubs of pre-made stuff are super awful.
Condiments you should sometimes make fresh
Mayonnaise is a tough one. On the one hand, there is just something about a freshly made, silky aioli that cannot be beat, even when used as an ingredient in other things. Pimento cheese is really elevated with homemade mayo, as is chicken salad. On the other hand, there is just something about the mayo you grew up on or came to love as an adult. Looking at you Duke’s and Kewpie. So, this is one I do both. I keep a jar of the good commercial stuff around for my tuna salad or other applications, but when I feel like something needs a little bit extra, I will make my own. Give this one a shot.
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Hummus is here to stay, and again, this is a place where you can go either way. There are very good versions available for purchase, which I recommend for daily consumption. But finding a great recipe and making fresh can be a gamechanger, so if you are looking to impress guests, it can be worth making your own. Try this hummus recipe.
Condiments you should always buy
Two words, ketchup and mustard.
Seriously, if there is a homemade ketchup that is better than the ones you buy, I have yet to meet it. There is just never the right texture or flavor in homemade versions, trust me I have tried. And anytime I have gone to a restaurant that boasts that they make their own, I’ve ended up either disappointed or asking for bottled. If you have a recipe you genuinely think competes with Heinz? Hit me up, I’d love to hear about it.
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Mustard is similar, and even more so because there are so many versions. From neon yellow ballpark style to chunky whole grain, to spicy brown or elegant Dijon, just let the nice people in the mustard business do their jobs and be grateful. Your version will always pale in comparison.
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