The frugal cook: learn the basics

Categories: Expert guidance

Food writer and editor Malou Herkes on relearning the basics to waste and spend less

In recent months I’ve taken to making my usual staples from scratch. Yoghurt and butter, mustard and mayo, cottage cheese and coconut milk are, I’ve discovered, extremely easy to make. Not only that, I’ve found that I’ve started to waste less and eat more frugally in the process.

You might ask what the point is, when there are plenty of good commercial alternatives out there which often cost about the same as the price to make your own. It’s true—there’s no competing with a nice slab of artisanal cheese or salted farmhouse butter from producers who have crafted and laboured to make something exceptional. I’d like to stress that your DIY need not replace those wonderful products, but rather help to change the way you approach your cooking in the first place.

Simply put, learning the basics will give you the knowledge and skills to improvise: in knowing that by straining yoghurt you can make cream cheese, or by steeping apple scraps in sugared water you can make vinegar, or that four basic ingredients will give you mayonnaise, suddenly it becomes easy to magic meals from a bare fridge. You don’t need to go out to buy that extra tin of coconut milk if you know a half-empty, forgotten packet of desiccated coconut will amount to a similar thing in less than five minutes.

Useful by-products
Another great thing about making your own is the by-products you’re left with. Making butter is a simple process of whisking cream until the butterfat and buttermilk separate. The butterfat is your butter, and the buttermilk is a slightly tangy liquid that works wonders in salad dressings. The pickling liquid from a batch of kimchi can be used to similar effect, while the whey leftover from cheese-making can be reheated again to make ricotta, added to pancakes, or used to give depth to soups or stews.

In learning the basic chemistry of our food, we are better equipped to stretch our ingredients to their full potential, thereby wasting less and spending less money as a result. How’s that for frugality!

Many of us know little about how our everyday ingredients are made—or rather, in an everyday cooking scenario, we often forget that yoghurt, say, is not the most basic form of the ingredient; it’s milk. The ready supply of pre-made products and meals means we’re a step removed from what our food is and where it has come from, leaving us disconnected from the raw ingredients we have at our disposal. For me, relearning these forgotten skills is a positive step towards reversing this trend; one that enables us to use our initiative, when we consider what and how we eat.

Read Malou’s recipe for extra-creamy yoghurt