Cooking a meal from scratch can be a truly rewarding experience. It can also make you want to toss up your hands in despair, throw the uncooperative dough in the trash (for the third time) and go get take-out instead. I'm familiar with both of these experiences, and if there's one thing I've learned while cooking, it's that some foods just might not be worth the effort.
Of course, if your idea of a good time is spending hours in the kitchen kneading, punching down and rolling out dough, go for it! But for those of us who like to eat well but don't have any secret ambitions to end up on a certain British baking show anytime soon, there are some foods that are perfectly acceptable to buy from the experts. From puff pastry to ketchup to chips, here's a few foods that probably aren't worth the hours you'll need to churn them out in your kitchen.
All those buttery layers require a lot of time, and a lot of work. (Photo: SKopp [CC by SA 3.0]/Wikimedia Commons)
Having watched my fair share of competition baking shows, seeing firsthand how puff pastry is made is both inspiring and exhausting. Similar to phyllo dough, it's a flaky light pastry made from laminated dough. Creating the dough requires not only a chunk of time, but very particular temperatures as well. Stacey Ballis writes in Extra Crispy, "They need everything just right. They are finicky, fussy doughs. They require the perfect atmosphere, lots of time, and you can treat them with kid gloves and they still might fail you."
The dough needs to remain around 16 degrees Celsius/60 degrees Fahrenheit to keep the fat or butter from melting in between the layers, and then there's the resting between folds to allow the gluten to link and grow those gorgeous layers. Renowned chef Julia Child, in her "Mastering the Art of French Cooking" cookbook, recommends 73 layers. Save your sanity; buy frozen puff pastry or support your local bakery instead.
Though I love the idea of a "locally sourced" ketchup at a trendy burger spot, I must admit, the muddy, strongly spiced sauce that I dunk my fries into is usually a disappointment. Writes Tommy Werner in Epicurious: "At restaurants, nothing makes me run to the Heinz faster than reading 'housemade ketchup.'"
A standard DIY ketchup recipe has about 10+ ingredients and often requires a slow cooker and a fine-mesh strainer — making it just a little too laborious for me. Maybe our brains are programmed from childhood to only accept a bright red paste in a glass bottle, but I've yet to meet a from-scratch ketchup I love. Save those tomatoes for a seasonal pasta sauce instead.
Bagels must be boiled to get that shiny crust and chewy texture. (Photo: liz west [CC by 2.0]/Flickr)
Many bagel purists believe you can't beat the bagels out of New York City because of the city's soft water. While it's true that the Big Apple's tap water has lower levels of calcium carbonates and magnesium (hard water makes tough gluten, which begets tough bagels), there are even more tricks to the trade.
Old-school bagel shops ferment their dough in aged wooden containers at a leisurely pace, usually overnight. After that, the bagels are poached for a few minutes in boiling water before being baked in a dry oven. Now, do you want to spend the next two days slowly fermenting and boiling your own bagels? Didn't think so. Instead, visit your favorite local bagel maker or take a road trip to visit the best bagels in every state.
Marshmallows are magical chemistry. They are also, dare I say it, not exactly necessary — except when it comes to a traditional Thanksgiving sweet potato casserole. Or hot chocolate. Other than that, I'm not sure what would compel me to spend an afternoon with a couple gelatin packets, candy thermometer and a pizza wheel.
Epicurious' Werner writes, "You can go the homemade marshmallows route, but you'll never get them into that perfect, bumpy shape that looks so good melted on top of a sweet potato casserole. And getting them as small as the mini-marshmallows? Good luck."
Chips and crackers
Crunchy, crispy, heavily seasoned chips are usually not the healthiest snack. Loaded with sodium and fried in oil, they're a lot of labor without the payoff. Even if you wanted to recreate their "can't have just one" addictive flavor profile, you'd probably need a science lab to figure out its exact chemistry.
Food companies have specifically designed processed foods to be "hyper-palatable," meaning, you'll find it impossible not to eat the whole bag of chips in one sitting. Even Bon Appétit recipe developer Sarah Jampel has written her own love letter to Fritos: "You could substitute your favorite tortilla chips in this soup or fry up your old tortillas on the stovetop. Or, you could accept that Fritos are better than anything you'll concoct at home."