Updated on 09.29.17

The Experimental Kitchen

Trent Hamm

Five ways to inexpensively make gourmet foods at home - and have fun doing it.

“Sounds like an experimental kitchen.”

A friend of mine said those words to me a few weeks ago when I was discussing a couple of our latest culinary experiments. She’s right, of course. Over the past year or so, I’ve really fallen in love with making a number of foods at home, on my own, and I wanted to share some of those “experiments” with you.

Why?

Well, for starters, this is Google-X and not Ye Olde Weird Food Blog, so the truth of the matter is that most of these food experiments were initially borne out of a desire to have some more expensive food options at home at a lower cost. I wanted to have some mind-glowingly good breads and other items at home at my convenience, items that might cost $7 at the grocery store or $10 or more at a good bakery but only cost $1 or so at home along with fifteen minutes of work. The goal was to save money by reducing the cost of high-end foods down to the cost of basic store brand foods or lower.

Another reason is that I wanted to learn some new skills in the kitchen so that it would be easier for me to prepare a wider array of meals. If baking a loaf of bread or making breadsticks several times could show me ways to make that process simpler and easier, I’d be more and more likely to just make such things myself rather than buying them, because they’d be both cheaper and better that way.

A final reason? It’s fun. I enjoy making things in the kitchen. I enjoy doing it with my family, especially my youngest son who is a budding chef. I enjoy seeing how different flavors interact. I enjoy watching foods change as they cook and as they rest. Those things bring a lot of simple joy and contentment into my life.

Today, I simply want to tell you about five different “food projects” I’ve done at home over the last several months or so. They’ve all been really interesting in their own way.

Sourdough Bread

A few months ago, I decided to create a sourdough starter so that I could make my own homemade sourdough bread and sourdough pizza crust. My oldest son and my mother both love sourdough – and I quite like it, too – but it’s fairly expensive to buy decent sourdough at the store. Plus, you have no real control over how “sour” that sourdough at the store is – if you make it yourself, you can control the sour level pretty precisely with a little practice.

Sourdough starter itself is pretty easy to maintain. If you’re actively baking things, you just leave it in a covered jar on the countertop. Each day, you remove half the contents of the jar and use it for baking, then add 3/4 cup flour and 1/2 cup water of your choice. Stir it thoroughly and replace the lid. (The exact ratio of flour:water:starter might vary depending on location, but this is what works for me here.)

Getting it started is more or less the same. You just take 3/4 cup flour and 1/2 cup water, mix them together, and put them in a jar of some kind with a loose-fitting lid. If you don’t have this, you can just use a two liter widemouth jar and put some sort of loose cover on it, like Saran Wrap, and attach it with a fairly loose rubber band. You want it to be able to breathe, just a little.

Each day, you just repeat the feeding. Remove half of what’s in the jar, add 3/4 cup flour and 1/2 cup water, mix it together, replace the lid.

For the first couple of weeks, you’ll notice it changing every day. It’ll start to get “sour” over time – you’ll be able to tell by the smell. After about a week and a half, it’s ready for baking.

All you really need to do to bake with it is to remove half the starter as before (but save it this time), feed the stuff that’s in the jar, and close it back up. Then, feed the starter you “saved” and let it rest for several hours or so in a different closed container (a big bowl with Saran Wrap is fine), then follow the sourdough recipe of your choice, using this “fed” starter. This rustic sourdough recipe is a great starting point, and this is a lot more tart but it takes more time.

Here’s the cool part – if you watch the “fed” starter that you’re about to use for baking, you’ll see that it doesn’t do much for the first hour or two, then it starts to rise, then it really starts to rise, then the reaction slows down and the whole thing starts to collapse on itself. You want to use it when it’s still rising. The best approach I use is to either separate it in the morning and bake in the mid to late afternoon, or separate it just before bed and bake in the mid-morning the next day.

The bread… is amazing. It makes great toast. It makes great sandwiches. It makes great breadsticks. The breadcrumbs are to die for. The croutons are to die for. It’s just amazing.

The best part? It’s dirt cheap. It literally costs about a dollar for the ingredients – basically, just flour and water.

And since it’s your own bread, you can add some additional things, too. I like adding just a hint of garlic right into the dough, just enough so you can barely taste it in the bread. A friend likes adding fresh basil and rosemary right into the bread.

What if you travel? That’s the cool part. Right after you feed it, stick your whole starter jar right in the fridge. It’ll wait for a week instead of a day in the fridge between feedings (and can last even longer in a pinch). When you’re ready to bake again, pull it out, feed it again, and start doing it daily again – it should be ready to go on the second day. That’s really all you need to do.

Not only that, this was an absolutely wonderful experiment with my children. All it really required was a jar with a lid, some flour, and some water. We got to watch the sourdough starter slowly evolve from ordinary flour and water. We got to watch it rise and fall over time. We got to bake bread together. In the end, we had an amazingly tasty treat.

If you’re interested, here are a few good links about getting started with sourdough at your own home.

Beer

Homebrewing has been a hobby of mine for a very long time. It’s a hobby that ebbs and flows – I’ll make six or seven batches in a row, churning them out to the very limit of my equipment, and then I’ll take a break and not make any for a while.

It’s a hobby that I’ve gradually acquired a lot of gear for, but the truth is that you really don’t need much gear at all to pull it off. All you really need is a five or seven gallon food grade bucket with a lid that has an airlock hole, a bubbler lock (which costs just a dollar or two at any home brewing supply store), a siphon hose (and a bulb to get it started), containers (bottles and caps, usually, but you can just save bottles if you regularly buy beer and buy a bunch of caps and a cheap capper for a few bucks at a brewing supply store) to store the finished beer in, and the ingredients for the beer. In fact, you can just buy a kit from that brew supply store. You’ll also need a pot that can hold a gallon or two of liquid and a thermometer, but you likely already have those in your kitchen.

With those things, you can make about eight six packs of beer for about $20-30 in ingredients, depending on what you’re making. The additional costs of the bucket, hose, and capper are sunk costs, but you can just keep reusing them.

A kit will walk you through the steps. Mostly, you’ll just need to add water and heat to the ingredients in the kit in the order described. Eventually, you’ll add the liquid you cook up to the bucket, add some more water to it, wait until it cools, add some yeast, and then close the bucket and pop in that bubbler lock. That’s it. Wait for a couple of weeks, add a bit of finishing sugar, then siphon it into bottles and cap them.

The nice part about this process is that once you have the gear, it’s far cheaper to make your own version of a particular beer (by following the recipe) than buying that many bottles at the store, and you can vary it yourself in whatever way sounds good to you. I made an oatmeal stout once with just a bit of cocoa powder in it and it was literally the best beer I’ve ever tasted.

My own process, refined over years, involves actually brewing the beer in a large glass carboy – think of a glass bottle on a water cooler. I’ve added a few more steps to the process, mostly to control the addition of some ingredients for particular types of beer, but it still boils down to this basic structure. I cook up what looks like a big vat of tea, put it in a vessel, let it cool down, add some yeast, put a cap on it, let it ferment, then eventually siphon it out and put it in bottles. It’s a process that my whole family often helps with, from the actual cooking to the final capping.

Here are some great beginner’s tutorials on brewing beer:

Sauerkraut

Many of the same principles that apply to sourdough bread apply to sauerkraut, except it’s even cheaper to make. Literally all you need to make sauerkraut is cabbage (which is extremely cheap), salt, and water, along with some kind of lidded container to keep it in. You can improve your chances of success (because there is a little risk of a batch going bad) if you get a container that has a water lock in the lid, as with home brewing, and a glass weight to sit on top of the kraut to weigh it down.

The best part? If you make it yourself, you can make it as sour as you’d like or as gentle as you like. You can add more ingredients like jalapeño peppers or radish or preserved lemon or caraway seeds to add new flavors and variety. Even if you screw up a batch, you’re only wasting a bit of cabbage and a bit of salt. If it turns out well, you’ve got enough sauerkraut to serve with several meals.

So, what do you actually need to get started? While you can “cheapen” a few of the items, the path that leads to the most success is with a wide mouth glass jar with a bubbler in the lid along with a glass fermentation weight that you can sit on top of the kraut to weigh it down while it’s fermenting.

Just take a clean head of cabbage, chop it finely in a bowl, add two tablespoons of salt, and toss it around in the cabbage. Let it sit for fifteen minutes or so, then work the cabbage with your hands, squeezing it to extract some of the briny liquid, for a few minutes. Put this entire mix in the jar and add a couple of glass weights on top. The kraut should be entirely submerged under at least two inches of salty liquid; if not, add a tablespoon of salt to two cups of water, mix it thoroughly, and pour it directly on top. Put the lid and the bubbler on and let it sit.

How long? The longer you let it sit, the more “sour” it becomes, so if you like mild sauerkraut, taste it after a week, or if you like it pretty sour, check it after three weeks or so. If you ever see the liquid level getting lower and there’s less than an inch of room between the top of the cabbage and the surface of the liquid, add another cup of the salty brine into the jar.

It’s actually fun to watch it slowly change over time. It starts off looking like shredded cabbage and then it gradually ferments into sauerkraut. Even more interesting, as the bubbles come out of the bubbler, they begin to smell like sauerkraut.

When it’s done, I recommend putting small amounts into small freezer containers for long-term storage. You can use small freezer zipper bags or other containers; whatever works for you.

This is so easy to do, and it’s so cheap (especially compared to buying kraut, especially fresh kraut), and you’re able to get it exactly the right level of sourness for your tastes, and you can add additional flavors so easily … I don’t know why anyone who likes sauerkraut wouldn’t do this. (You can use the same approach with kimchi or pickles or any other similar fermented food.)

Here are some links for additional information about making sauerkraut at home.

Pasta

Homemade pasta takes a fair amount of effort, but it’s quite rewarding as you can make wonderfully flavored and textured pasta that’s fresh and silky in your mouth, without any of the “extra” ingredients one might find in pasta bought at the store. It’s also way cheaper than fresh pasta, and it can make some mind-blowing ravioli (my preferred use for it). Making pasta is also a great project with kids.

All you need is flour, a few eggs, a pinch of salt, a teaspoon of olive oil, a rolling pin, and a kitchen knife!

Start by mixing together 2 cups of flour and half a teaspoon of salt in a bowl. Then, mix in any additional flavors you might like, like a teaspoon of dried basil or a teaspoon of garlic powder or a bit of tomato paste. Don’t add a whole lot – a teaspoon or so will do. Once this is all mixed, make a little well in the middle of the flour and add three eggs and a teaspoon of olive oil.

Mix the dough with a fork until it turns into a ball and can’t really be mixed any more. Then, spread a bit of flour on the table and knead it with your hands until it’s smooth to the touch. The color should be yellow unless you added something colorful earlier. Wrap this ball of pasta in some plastic wrap or put it in a Ziploc bag for 30 minutes or put it in the fridge for up to two days.

After the dough has rested, open it up and cut it into four equal pieces so you’re working with a manageable amount of dough. Wrap up the other three. Then, spread out a little bit of flour on the table and start rolling out the dough. You will want to roll it thin enough that you can see light through it. If you really want to put in some extra effort for somewhat better pasta, fold the pasta sheet into thirds and then roll it out again, and repeat as often as you’d like.

(I’ll confess right now that one of my dream splurge purchases is an electric pasta maker. It’s one of those things that I’m sure I would use, but I can’t actually reasonably justify the cost of a good one. I have a manual pasta roller (received as a gift many years ago) but I find that it doesn’t save much time over just rolling it out with a rolling pin, so I usually just use a rolling pin.)

Once you have a sheet of pasta, dust it liberally with flour and roll it up. If you’re cutting linguine noodles, just cut thin slices off of the roll. If you’re making ravioli or some other shape, cut the roll into large pieces, unroll it, then pile up those unrolled pieces and cut them into squares.

Then, loosen all of the pasta so that it’s not sticking together and dust it with a bit more flour. If you want to dry it, now’s the time – dried pasta can store for quite a while. Just spread it out and let it dry – you can hang it over the backs of chairs! You can also freeze it – just make individual serving sized piles of the floured pasta, put them on a freezer sheet, and freeze them.

The best option, though, is to just cook it fresh. I like to mix shredded cheeses and a hint of pasta sauce and then make ravioli by scooping a bit of the mix onto a pasta square, then putting another square on top and sealing all of the edges carefully by pressing down with a fork over and over along the edges. Fresh pasta cooks quickly – when you toss it into boiling water, just give it a few minutes and it’ll be done (trust your taste test).

Yes, this process takes some time, but it costs very little, it’s a fun project with the kids, and you can store the extras really easily. This is a fun “winter afternoon” activity that usually results in two or three amazing pasta meals… my homemade ravioli is a huge family hit, and my youngest son loves making it with me.

Here are some articles on making homemade pasta:

Kombucha

I’m including this last section because it’s something I’ve seen rising in popularity as of late and it’s something that I’ve really enjoyed making with my seven-year-old son, who absolutely loves kombucha. He would drink it all the time if we allowed it.

Kombucha is basically fermented tea, usually sweetened a bit. It has a unique flavor that’s fairly sweet (depending on how you make it) but also with a bit of a sour “kick” to it that’s a bit reminiscent of mild, flavorful vinegar. It can also naturally carbonate so that it’s fizzy, but you have to be a bit careful with it. It’s something that sounds strange to describe – I’ve found that some people love it and others… not so much.

To make kombucha, all you really need is one of those glass jars with a bubbler mentioned earlier, along with some reusable bottles to store them in (I like these) if you want to make fizzy kombucha, and some tea bags, sugar, and water. You may eventually want some other things for flavoring, too.

One final thing you’ll need is a SCOBY, which is a disc-like thing that is the active ingredient in kombucha. Each time you make a batch, a new SCOBY grows under the old one, so you can just keep chaining your batches forward once you have one. They also store for quite a while in the fridge. You can find them at a lot of food co-ops or on Amazon for a few bucks.

All you really do to make kombucha is make a sweet tea – heat up some water, add some tea bags, let it steep for a while and cool, add some sugar, then add the SCOBY when it’s at room temperature, then cover it. Let it go for about a week for your first time – the longer you let it go, the more “sour” and the less “sweet” it is. When it’s done, remove the SCOBY, add some flavoring if you like (I usually add a bit of fruit juice and stir it), and store it in the fridge.

To save the SCOBY for future batches, peel the SCOBY into two pieces, then add one of them to a cup of kombucha without the flavoring added. Put that in a container in the fridge. It’ll be fine for a long time. You can save both pieces if you’d like, but I like to just go ahead and use the other one immediately for a new batch (again, just use a cup of the old unflavored kombucha and the old SCOBY as a “starter” for a new batch of sweet tea)!

If you want to make it fizzy at this point, move the kombucha to bottles with a few inches of head space and seal them. Leave the bottles out for three days, then move them to the fridge and drink them within a few more days.

When you serve kombucha, whether fizzy or not, pour it through a fine mesh screen (like a fine kitchen strainer) to catch any remaining bits of SCOBY that might be in there.

That’s it! It’s easy to make. It’s a fun project to do with the kids. You can make it as sweet and as sour as you like by adjusting what you add to it for flavor and how long you ferment it. It’s also fun to see it brewing right there on your kitchen table.

Here are some resources for making your own kombucha.

Final Thoughts

The home kitchen is a place where you can experiment with interesting foods at a low cost. You don’t have to drop $10 or $20 on an expensive item at the store when you can make it yourself for much less. Even better, you can often make delicious items to share with others – few things liven up a dinner party like someone bringing a loaf of fresh sourdough on their arm.

It’s also a great way to become more adept in the kitchen, so that preparing less adventurous things begin to feel so simple that it actually seems easier to just make a lot of meals at home than to go out and spend a lot of money for someone to prepare basically the same thing.

Even better, making interesting things in the kitchen can become a great way for family members to spend time together learning how to make interesting foods and prepare interesting ingredients. These experiments have brought all of my family into the kitchen over the years.

What food do you deeply enjoy? You might just find that it’s relatively inexpensive and relatively simple to make at home, and it might just bring family and friends together, too.

Good luck!

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