There are many good reasons to prepare your own ingredients. In addition to the pleasure of cooking and preparation, the four main ones are
- the concern for quality, especially organic, or/and to avoid unnecessary preservatives and chemicals
- the difficulty of finding the processed ingredient or product, when it can be prepared relatively easily
- in a number of cases, the price of this ingredient (a kind of difficulty, but different)
- a search for autonomy, whether for reasons of simplicity, to avoid transporting food, or to save money
- taste: 'homemade' is simply often better, whether it's a matter of home-made dishes or mixtures of ground spices
Actually, these four reasons overlap. In the old days, especially in the countryside, a lot of things were prepared. Our great-grandmothers were thrifty and did not throw anything away. They picked wild fruit, plants, and when they lived by the sea, they collected shells. They all had at least one vegetable garden. They made preserves, dried herbs, etc.
This way of doing things is coming back into fashion, with a need for more natural foods. We are not in an old-fashioned "return to the land", but rather in a "countryization" of cities, with the search for solutions to cultivate what we need in the city space. The lucky owners of terraces are of course particularly spoiled, but many things can also be grown on a balcony, or even in a flat, with modern techniques such as hydroponics, some LED natural light. For the less privileged, there is still recourse to the collective gardens that more and more municipalities are offering to residents.
What's easy and what's not
Buying a pot of basil or tarragon from a garden centre and putting it on your kitchen windowsill is very simple. Growing your own seeds yourself requires a little more knowledge (how to germinate them, whether to put them in the freezer to bring them out of dormancy, how to prick out, etc.).
When you start to work with other types of preparations, such as preserves, you should not jump in head first. Poorly preserved food can be very dangerous. The only cases of botulismthat we see today are related to home-made preserves that are undercooked, or at the wrong temperature, or kept in badly sterilised containers. In this area, it is better to do too much (too long, too hot) than too little, to be well informed and, if possible, to make your first preserves under the eye of someone who knows (butcher, caterer, friend, whatever).
Canning in brine is, from this point of view, both much easier and much safer: botulinum toxin cannot develop in it, and a failed brine smells very bad (whereas botulinum toxin is odourless, tasteless and colourless).
Seeds, plants and picking
Similarly, some everyday plants can become poisonous if they are poorly prepared or stored (this is the case for the whole Solanaceae family). There are different varieties, some of which are more or less toxic (for example, for pine nuts, which are so delicious in basil, there is a Chinese variety that can trigger a severe agueusia).
Finally, plants must be picked with attention and knowledge. Not only mushrooms can be toxic, the hemlock looks strangely like the wild carrot. The place of collection is also important, there is a risk of having plants contaminated by animals or pollution (avoid, for example, road ditches or worse, roads). Not everything can be grown (go and make a nettle garden!), but the best thing to do is to try to grow as much as possible at home, and to discover the rest, as for preserves, with someone who knows!
Ancient and modern varieties
For many fruits and vegetables, the only way to enjoy them is to go and harvest them from organic farms, or to grow them at home. Sources for seeds can be the same producers (in particular, certain establishments dedicated to the preservation of old varieties), associations such as Kokopelli, or exchanges between gardeners.
Be careful, though, about the quality of the seeds you use: you'll find plenty of good advice here, when you decide to collect your own seeds.
Besides growing plants, you can also prepare many "elaborate" ingredients yourself: spice mixes, broth bases, are much tastier at home than when bought ready-made in the shops, and of better quality.
For spices, it is always better to buy them "raw" and grind them yourself as needed (like pepper), the flavour will be stronger.
Vegetable, poultry or fish brothsare easy to make, it just requires a bit of organisation (remember to preserve bones, fish heads, etc.) and a bit of time because the broth needs to simmer for quite a long time, one to two hours. After straining your broth, put it in the freezer in small mineral water bottles, which is the ideal size for later use.
If you have a traditional oven or desiccator, you can also prepare "bouillon cubes" with your spices and vegetables. No preservatives and, for vegetarians, the certainty of having only "vegetable" in the composition.
Most classic sauces (béchamel, mayonnaise, thousand island, etc.) are very easy to make at home. You only need to practice two or three times to get the hang of it and say goodbye to commercial products.
Making your own bread
Forget the frozen breads sold in supermarkets, the industrial breads wrapped in plastic… making your own bread is a pleasure and allows you to vary your tastes endlessly by adding seeds, spices, mixing flours!
Those who are in a hurry or a bit lazy will use a bread machine that takes care of everything (kneading, baking). The others will knead their dough themselves (and even go so far as to make their own leaven!). A little organisation is all that is needed: knead in the evening, let the dough rise overnight, put it in the oven in the morning before leaving for work and come back in the evening with the good smell of warm bread!
And above all, what a pleasure it is to accompany your best recipe with quality bread!