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Make It Yourself: 15 Food Items and Spice Mixes I Make at Home for Quality and Savings
After mentioning the idea of a post about seasoning mixes in the mailbag yesterday, a surprising number of readers contacted me and requested a longer post. I wasn’t quite sure it would stand completely on its own, so instead here’s an article about what you might call “DIY foodstuffs” – various mixes and things that you can make at home pretty inexpensively and easily. About half are clearly in the “seasoning mix” category. Enjoy!
When I go to the grocery store and look at many of the items on the shelves, I’m often shocked at the prices for things that I know I can make at home at a less expensive rate and with a higher level of quality. It just requires me to invest some time in preparing it, but the preparation is usually quite fun – it’s something I enjoy.
I look at things like hummus, sauerkraut, seasoning mixes, salad dressings, cold brew coffee, preserved lemons, “mayochup,” and such things, and I just realize that it’s easier and less expensive to make it myself.
Here’s a list of 15 such things I make for my own use that are almost always cheaper than just buying the “pre-made” version at the store.
- Useful for: Dip for vegetables, chips or crackers, sandwich spread
Hummus is a delicious dish that’s a mix of chickpeas, tahini, lemon juice, garlic, and salt, with other ingredients as desired. It works wonderfully as a dip for vegetables or chips, but I actually really like it as a sandwich spread. Believe it or not, I adore a grilled cheese sandwich with a very thin layer of hummus on it.
At my local store, you can buy premade hummus in a fairly small container for about $3. If we were to buy hummus, we’d buy the Sabra brand at Sam’s Club, which is 32 ounces of hummus for $6.28. That’s about the best price we’ve found, but we can still make it ourselves for much less.
The big expense with hummus is the tahini, which I can find in a 16-ounce jar for $7.99. This is enough tahini to last for a very long time and make several batches of hummus. The other ingredients are very inexpensive.
My recipe is simple. If I want to make hummus, I just take the following and put it all in a blender:
1/3 cup tahini
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1/2 teaspoon cumin
1 teaspoon salt (I prefer ground sea salt)
2 medium garlic cloves, smashed
juice of 1 lemon (or 2 tablespoons of lemon juice if you have bottled juice)
1 can chickpeas (or 2 cups cooked chickpeas if you’re cooking from dry beans)
3 tablespoons water (to make it less thick)
Just blend all of that stuff until it’s a paste, then store it in a small resealable container in the fridge. It’ll last for a couple of weeks, but I think it’s best in the first few days. This recipe makes roughly 16 ounces of hummus, maybe a little more, at a grand total cost of about $2, which is far less expensive than the hummus in the store (even the bulk hummus), and it tastes a lot better, too.
Italian Seasoning Mix
- Useful for: A wide variety of pasta sauces and recipes
I prefer to buy spices in bulk from a local spice store. The initial expense for stocking up on about 15 basic spices was expensive, but then I was able to make a whole bunch of seasoning mixes and still have plenty of each spice for various recipes, so after that initial visit, I would only restock spices that I ran out of.
When I make a seasoning mix, I basically mix together a few spoonfuls of several different herbs and spices, mix them thoroughly, and store them in their own labeled container, usually a small jar of some kind.
For our Italian mix, which can be mixed with a can of tomato sauce and a can of diced tomatoes for a great pasta sauce, or for all kinds of other uses, I just mix the following dried herbs:
3 tablespoon dried oregano
2 tablespoons dried marjoram
2 tablespoons dried thyme
1 tablespoon dried basil
1 tablespoon dried rosemary
1 tablespoon dried sage
You can put this in a shaker jar if you like to easily shake it to taste right in your dishes, or in a jar where you measure it out a teaspoon at a time into dishes. Both are fine.
In writing this, I actually realized that we need to replenish several of our spice mixes. A weekend project, perhaps?
- Useful for: Side dish, sandwich topping
Sauerkraut is simply fermented cabbage in brine. It acquires a mild sour and salty flavor that’s very distinctive and it is a popular sandwich topping. Many people put it on hot dogs or bratwursts, and it’s an essential ingredient in a reuben, for example.
I love just eating it as a side dish. I also really enjoy it on a sandwich that I call a “vegetarian reuben,” which is basically thousand island dressing, gruyere cheese, sauerkraut, and a fried egg on rye bread. Don’t knock it until you try it!
Anyway, I vastly prefer to make my own sauerkraut. There are a variety of different kinds of sauerkraut for sale at the store, and the stuff I make myself is less expensive than the cheapest stuff and better than pretty much all but the really pricy stuff.
I simply buy a head of cabbage, which is incredibly cheap, cut off several outer leaves, chop up the rest of the cabbage, weigh the chopped cabbage, and then add an amount of sea salt equal to 2% of the weight of the cabbage. I leave it sit in a big bowl for about 15 minutes, then mash it around with my hands until it’s extremely wet.
I then pack this mix into several wide-mouth jars, about 3/4 full, with enough juice so that there’s about an inch of juice above the shredded cabbage. I then cut a few circles a little wider than the jar size out of the outer leaves and stuff them down in there on top of the kraut but below the juice level, to hold the kraut down in there. If you have any glass weights, you can put them on top of the big leaf discs. I then put a silicon air lock fermentation lid and a ring on each jar and let them sit for a few weeks at room temperature. It will bubble some, and that’s completely okay.
After several weeks, I’ll remove the silicon lid, pull out the big leaves (tossing them) and the glass weights, transfer the sauerkraut to some other resealable container, and either put that new container in the fridge (where it lasts for a month or two) or in the freezer (where it will last for a very long time, but the texture will change a bit).
You can experiment a lot with this recipe. I like adding chopped radishes to it. Some people like adding caraway seeds. I’ve added jalapeño peppers, dill, and shredded carrots, too.
Chili Seasoning Mix
- Useful for: Slow cooker chili
This is my default seasoning mix for slow cooker chili. Basically, I just mix a couple tablespoons of this in with a slow cooker full of our preferred chili ingredients – beans, diced tomatoes, a bit of tomato juice, diced onions and peppers, and so on. It turns out wonderfully.
So, what’s in our mix?
12 tablespoons of chili powder
6 tablespoons ground cumin
4 tablespoons black pepper
3 tablespoons sea salt
2 tablespoons paprika
2 tablespoons crushed red pepper flakes
1 tablespoon cayenne pepper (reduce this if you don’t like the heat)
1 tablespoon garlic powder
1 tablespoon onion powder
1 tablespoon dried oregano
Just mix all of this thoroughly and store in a resealable container in the pantry. This makes just over two cups of chili seasoning, and considering it’s used a tablespoon at a time by us, it lasts for a long time, often for a full winter season.
As with the other herbs and spices mentioned earlier, we buy the basic ingredients in bulk from a spice store and make these mixes ourselves, storing them in resealable container in our pantry.
Cold Brew Coffee
Useful for: Morning drink, occasional ingredient in a recipe
This is hands down the easiest, least expensive, and tastiest method I’ve found for making coffee at home. The only expense beyond the beans is a one-time purchase of a cold brew coffee maker, which is basically a water pitcher with a fine sieve in it. I’ve had good experiences with this one, though the one I use most of the time was bought at a going out of business sale and I can’t seem to find the exact model online. You might also want a coffee bean grinder if you’re not buying pre-ground coffee, but that’s optional.
It’s easy. Just put three tablespoons of coffee grounds into the filter for every cup of cold water. Put it in the fridge. Wait 18 to 24 hours. Put the coffee grounds in your compost bin (or toss them if you don’t compost). Drink the coffee – you can heat it up as you please. It’s very mellow, but fairly potent – some may want to “cut” it with water. I typically make about four cups at once, so I use 3/4 cup ground coffee and 4 cups of water.
There are several huge advantages to doing it this way. One, after the initial cold brew coffee filter, there are zero recurring costs. You don’t need filters or anything. You don’t need to run a machine – it just sits in your fridge. Two, once the coffee is done, you just keep it in your fridge until you’re ready to drink it. No getting up early to prep coffee. It’s just ready to go when you are. Three, I think it tastes better than drip or French press coffee. Four, there’s very little waste – the only waste is the beans, and you can put them into compost.
- Read more: A Frugal Guide to Coffee
Bagel / ‘Savory’ Seasoning Mix
- Useful for: Bagels, toast, scrambled eggs
This is based on the “Everything But the Bagel” seasoning mix that one can buy at Trader Joe’s. I love to put this stuff on buttered toast, on plain toasted bagels with butter or cream cheese, and on top of scrambled eggs.
Here’s my recipe:
4 tablespoons white sesame seeds
3 tablespoons dried minced onion
3 tablespoons dried minced garlic
3 tablespoons black sesame seeds
3 tablespoons ground sea salt
1 tablespoon poppy seeds
I absolutely positively adore this stuff on toast or bagels. This transforms the most plain and ordinary toast and bagels into something delicious with just a few dashes from a shaker. I also really like it on top of scrambled eggs, for some reason.
This stores really well in a shaker, preferably one that you can easily close.
Italian Salad Dressing
- Useful for: Salads, marinade, pasta
Italian salad dressing is basically an extension of my own Italian seasoning mix listed earlier in this article. My dressing consists of:
3/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/4 cup white wine vinegar
2 tablespoons lemon juice
2 teaspoons Italian seasoning mix (described earlier in the recipe)
This is substantially cheaper than perhaps the very cheapest Italian dressing in the store and the flavor of this is much better.
I simply keep this in a salad dressing shaker in the fridge. Whenever we have a need for it, I just get out the shaker, shake it thoroughly, and use it.
This dressing is quite good on a basic spinach or lettuce salad, but it also serves as a wonderful marinade for mushrooms or almost any type of meat. I also like warm Italian dressing on hot pasta, something that I picked up in college and still enjoy to this day.
Vegetable Seasoning Mix
- Useful for: Most steamed vegetables
One of the most frequent elements of our family dinners is steamed vegetables. Steaming vegetables is easy if you have a large pot and a steamer basket; if not, you can buy frozen “steam in the bag” vegetables for a good price at almost any store.
The only problem is that steamed vegetables are bland. Really bland. Salt alone barely helps. I can eat them, but I don’t blame my family for turning up their nose at them.
Here’s a seasoning mix that really helps most steamed vegetables, like broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, Brussels sprouts, and so on:
2 tablespoons basil
2 tablespoons oregano
2 tablespoons kosher salt
1 tablespoon parsley flakes
1 tablespoon dried minced onion
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
Again, I just keep this in a shaker in the pantry. Whenever we have steamed vegetables, I shake this stuff all over it, kind of tossing the steamed vegetables as I go.
This mix seems to do an amazing job of accentuating the flavor of most vegetables, turning them from blandness to rather flavorful with ease.
- Useful for: Potato salads, grain salads, salad dressings, salsa, pasta
Preserved lemon is an interesting item. It’s a common condiment in north African cuisine, but it has a lot of other uses as well.
I love using a bit of preserved lemon in potato salad. I’ll chop up just a little bit of preserved lemon, maybe a quarter or a third of a wedge, into tiny bits, rind and all, and add in three or four drops of the thick lemon salt brine. I do the same with grain salads.
You can also use about a quarter of a slice of preserved lemon, finely chopped, in that Italian salad dressing recipe to give it a distinct flavor.
I like using it in salsa to give it a really bright flavor, and it’s also a good ingredient for grain salads. You can also use finely chopped preserved lemon with olive oil to coat pasta for a rather lemony and savory dish.
Given how simple it is to make yourself, preserved lemon is fairly expensive at the store. I vastly prefer to make it myself in a wide mouth quart jar with a lid or some other similarly sized jar. All you need are ten lemons (or so) and a bunch of kosher salt.
Just cut off both tips of the lemon, then slice it in half starting at one tip, but don’t quite cut all the way through, stopping about half an inch from the other tip. Then, make another slice from tip to tip so that the lemon ends up looking like four wedges attached together at one end.
Put two tablespoons of salt in the jar, then sprinkle salt all over the lemons, inside and out. Get them nice and coated with salt and use your fingers to get a lot of salt all over the insides of the lemons.
Then, just pack those lemons in the jar really tight. Push down on them and try to get some of the juice to come out of the lemon. By the time you put in the last lemon or two, there should be a lot of juice in there and the last lemon should be submerged. Keep putting in lemons until there’s about an inch from the top of the liquid to the top of the jar.
Put the lid on, shake it thoroughly, and leave it on the table for a few days. Shake it each day. Then, put it in the fridge for two or three weeks.
What will happen is the the rinds will get really soft and edible. When you cut them up, you cut up rinds and pulp together.
At this point, you can rinse off all of the wet lemon salt and keep the lemon wedges or you can just keep all of it. Over time, the lemon salt turns into kind of a thick paste or gel that I consider delicious. They should be perfectly good for a long time, though eventually the lemon will just break down into kind of a salty mush; it’s still flavorful and usable, though.
Taco Seasoning Blend
- Useful for: Tacos, fajitas, bean dips
I use this taco seasoning blend every time we have “taco night,” which is about every two or three weeks. We usually have bean-based tacos, so I’ll cook up several cups of beans and use about three tablespoons of this mix. Here are the ingredients:
6 tablespoons chili powder
4 tablespoons cumin
2 tablespoons coriander
2 tablespoons sea salt
1 tablespoon ground black pepper
1 tablespoon garlic powder
1 tablespoon onion powder
1 tablespoon oregano
1 tablespoon paprika
1 teaspoon chipotle chili powder (optional, for heat)
Again, I just mix this thoroughly and keep it in a jar in the pantry. You’ll want to use it to taste, but I’d use about a tablespoon of this per pound of meat or beans and add more from there according to your taste preferences.
‘Fry Sauce,’ or ‘Mayochup,’ or ‘Cyclone Sauce’
- Useful for: Dips, sandwich and burger topping
These are all just variants of the same thing, which is a mix of different typical condiments. Once I find a mix I like, I just make a batch and put it in a clean squirt bottle, usually a refurbished ketchup squeeze bottle.
I am most familiar with what was called “fry sauce” when I was growing up, because people would often dip French fries in it. Just mix these five things together in a bowl and put it in a clean empty squirt ketchup, mustard, or mayonnaise bottle:
1/2 cup mayonnaise
1/3 cup ketchup
1 tablespoon yellow mustard
1 teaspoon barbecue sauce or Worcestershire sauce
1 teaspoon white vinegar
It has something of a peach color and is wonderful for dipping French fries or using it as a sandwich condiment.
In the area I currently live (northern Iowa), a similar condiment called Cyclone Sauce is popular, which is just a mix of two parts ketchup to one part yellow mustard. It’s called “Cyclone Sauce” because of the mascot of Iowa State University, whose colors are cardinal and gold.
Recently, Kraft has been marketing a mixture they call “Mayochup” which is just a small variation on fry sauce. In fact, it seems to be just a mix of two parts mayonnaise with one part ketchup (roughly) with perhaps a bit of extra salt and maybe a few other seasonings in there. I’d simply rather have fry sauce.
Making a batch of your own “mayochup” or “fry sauce” is cheaper than buying such a thing at the store. If you put it in an empty ketchup or mayonnaise squirt bottle, then you have it on hand whenever you want it.
Chili-Lime Seasoning Mix
- Useful for: Fish and chicken rub before grilling, fruit, cucumbers
I originally fell in love with chili-lime seasoning while rubbing it on fish and chicken before grilling, but I gradually learned that it’s really good on cucumbers and, strangely, most fruits. It’s also a pretty good general “seasoning mix” to have on a shaker at the table, as it is tasty on things like French fries. It’s also a great seasoning for grilled potatoes – just slice some potatoes into discs, sprinkle with this stuff, add an ice cube, wrap it all up in aluminum foil, and put it on the grill for 30 minutes or so over medium-high heat.
It’s easy to make, too. Just mix all of this stuff together in a bowl, then put the mix in a jar or a shaker:
10 tablespoons chili powder
zest of three limes (the easy way to do this is with a PedEgg, which is a magical tool for getting the zest off of citrus fruits)
2 tablespoons ground cumin
1 tablespoon cayenne pepper powder
1 tablespoon ground coriander
1 tablespoon garlic powder
1 tablespoon onion powder
1 tablespoon salt
It provides a warm, bright flavor for almost anything!
- Useful for: Dips, tacos, fajitas
I usually keep a guacamole seasoning mix in the cupboard, which I’ll add to a couple of diced tomatoes (or a can of diced tomatoes), a lime (or a couple teaspoons of lime juice), and three mashed-up fresh avocados (just slice them in half, remove the pit, and scoop out the pulp with a spoon). I’ll make this every time when there’s a sale on avocados at the store.
Here’s the seasoning mix I use:
4 tablespoons salt
4 tablespoons onion powder
4 tablespoons dried cilantro
4 tablespoons garlic powder
1 tablespoon cayenne pepper
I just take one tablespoon of this mix and mix it in with the smashed avocado, diced tomatoes, and lime juice to make some great guacamole. You can keep the guacamole in the fridge for a week or so in a closed container; it’s fine when it just starts to discolor after a few days, but it doesn’t last forever!
Fresh guacamole utterly blows away anything you can buy in a store. It’s so bright and flavorful. I can literally sit and eat it with a spoon.
‘Creole’ Seasoning Mix
- Useful for: Vegetables of all kinds, rub on chicken or fish, beans and rice
This is a mix that I just use with any recipe that calls for “creole” or “cajun” seasoning. It’s not perfectly authentic in terms of true ethnic cooking, but it’s very flexible and incredibly tasty. I just mix these ingredients in a bowl and put the mix in a closable shaker jar in the pantry:
3 tablespoons paprika
2 tablespoons garlic powder
1 tablespoon salt
1 tablespoon onion powder
1 tablespoon oregano
1 tablespoon thyme
1 tablespoon cayenne pepper
1 tablespoon ground black pepper
Much like the vegetable mix and the chili-lime mixes above, I love putting this on vegetables of all kinds, including French fries and grilled potatoes, but also things like steamed broccoli. It adds a sharp flavor with some nice heat.
- Useful for: Snacks
This is just a fun one to end the article with. I absolutely love pickled eggs. It’s something I think I inherited from my father and grandfather. A pickled egg is just an amazing snack. They’re basically hardboiled eggs with a giant kick of flavor.
I like to make giant jars of pickled eggs every once in a while. I have a gallon jar with a lid that’s just perfect for it; the jar originally held a ton of pickles. You can do this with any quart jar or larger, though you’ll have to scale the recipe appropriately.
This is the recipe scaled for a wide mouth quart jar.
Start by hard boiling a dozen eggs, peeling them, and putting them in the jar. (Yes, in my gallon jar, I’ll do four dozen at once.)
Then, in a saucepan, put the following:
1 cup white vinegar
1/2 cup water
2 tablespoons salt
1 teaspoon ground mustard
1 teaspoon ground allspice
1 teaspoon coriander seeds or ground coriander
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 bay leaf
The salt, mustard, allspice, coriander, ginger, and red pepper flakes could be kept as a pickling spice mix, if you so wish.
Anyway, bring everything in the saucepan to a boil for a few minutes, then let it cool until you can touch it. Put ten or so black peppercorns in the jar with the eggs, then pour the liquid on top (you can pull out the bay leaves here). If you need more liquid, add a mix of two parts white vinegar and one part water to the top until the eggs are covered. Close the jar, then let it sit in the fridge for a week or two. The eggs will be delicious!
Many pickled egg recipes include sugar as an ingredient. I don’t particularly like the sweetness, so I don’t include sugar in mine, but be aware that it’s a common ingredient.
These are just some of the food items and spice mixes I make at home, both to save money and because I like the flavors of the things I make myself better than the store purchased mixes which are often laden with preservatives and other ingredients I don’t want.
There are three key principles underlying all of this.
First, buy your spices from an actual spice vendor. The tiny spice containers at the store are very overpriced for what you get. Instead, go to a spice store; you can usually get a much larger quantity of better tasting spices for the same price as a tiny jar at the store.
Second, small jars and shakers are really useful. If you have anything that comes in a shaker, don’t toss the shaker when it’s done; the same is true for things in small jars or squeeze bottles. You can use those containers quite easily for spice mixes and other homemade food items.
Finally, make small batches of food items to try them before making large batches. If a recipe above lists tablespoons, make it with teaspoons instead to see if you like the mix. There are 16 tablespoons in a cup and three teaspoons in a tablespoon, so it’s pretty easy to reduce most recipes. Don’t make a ton of something without knowing that you like it.
It’s also worth noting that all of these recipes can be experimented with. If you like things spicy, amp up the chili powder and the pepper. If you like things mild, tone down those elements. It’s really hard to make a spice mix bad if you make small alterations at first, and you can use those small alterations to figure out what you really like.
In any case, making your own food items and spice mixes can and will save you a lot of money and likely enliven your taste buds as well.
Read more by Trent Hamm: