Which of these ingredients from this box of processed “food” do you have in your kitchen?
onions, salt, cornstarch, sugar, caramel (color), corn syrup solids, yeast extract, natural flavor.
If you have an average home kitchen, you probably have the first four on hand and wonder what exactly the last four mean (and are they really food?).
When cooking “unprocessed,” many of your favorite recipes may have to go by the wayside because they use a processed food (Kraft Foods and Campbell’s cream of soups are famous for their delicious and easy recipes, right?).
My goal today is to help you “unprocess” those recipes that use ingredients that are already found in a box or a can.
Onion Soup Mix: Keeping it Simple
I find that when I’m trying to reverse engineer something, it’s an exercise in common sense most of the time.
The ingredients I listed at the top are from a box of “onion soup mix.” When I first tried to replace the mix with real food in my husband’s favorite pepper steak recipe, my thought process was something like this:
- What’s the flavor I really need? (onion)
- What else does “onion soup mix” provide? (basically just a little salt, a little thickener, and a little sweetness)
- Do the unknown ingredients make a big difference? (they seem to add more sweet and maybe enhance the flavor)
Working from those Q&As, I kept it simple. Using real onions almost exclusively really does do a pretty good job of replacing onion soup mix when used in beef recipes.
I use lots of onions and cook them well, and the caramelizing adds the flavor that is perhaps lost with the chemically enhanced ingredients.
Other than that, a generous dash of salt and a bit of molasses (which I like in savory dishes in small amounts) completed the meal without any additional seasoning.
When I’m feeling more creative, I might try adding other spices such as fresh garlic, parsley, and other herbs I know we like. It might not be exactly the same as the old favorite, but sometimes it even gets better.
How to Reverse Engineer ANY Box
Got a recipe with undesirable packaged food? You can probably make it even better yourself. Grab the recipe and ingredients and get to work:
- Read the ingredients on the packaged food you’re trying to avoid.
- Ignore all the words you don’t understand. For real. They’re not in your kitchen anyway.
- Figure out the main body – is it a liquid oil, a creamy base, dried vegetables, or what? Use olive oil or melted butter or coconut oil for liquids, homemade “cream of” soup or yogurt/sour cream for creamy stuff, and the real thing for dried veggies (as a general rule).
- What spices are going on? Take your best guess at what would taste good in the dish if you’re not sure.
- Corn syrup, High fructose corn syrup, or any other ingredient that ends in “-ose” are just sweeteners. Generally they’re included to enhance flavor, mask the lack of taste, replace some deleted fats, or as a preservative. The only time you need to bother adding sweetener back in is in the first instance. Many say tomatoes are enhanced by a teaspoon of sugar (try molasses!), for example.
- Keep the overall recipe you’re making in mind. This especially comes into play with things like bouillon cubes. They work together with something else in your recipe (usually water), so to substitute, you need to take into account the finished product and adjust accordingly. (For example, in my pepper steak recipe, I don’t worry about the cornstarch in the onion soup mix because I already add a thickener when making the pepper steak.)
- Don’t be afraid to fail. Most of the time, you get to taste what you’re making before you serve it. That’s the beauty of cooking over baking – you can add ingredients right up until the end and no one will know. It’s definitely an art, not a science.
A New Example: French Onion Chip Dip
When I told Andrew I wanted to share a reverse engineered onion soup mix, he immediately rejoiced in the fact that he might be able to have a real food version of that chip dip made with sour cream and a packet of onion soup mix.
I could practically hear him jumping up and down through the computer screen text.
How could I tell him that I had no idea how to do that and had only used onions to make pot roast and pepper steak that tasted pretty good?
I couldn’t break his unprocessed heart, so I gave it the old college try with three different versions.
And the verdict from my college sweetheart (aka the Husband)?
He says if he had this dip and “the real thing” (meaning from the store) to choose from, or even the second best attempt, he’d choose the homemade version.
And he’ll tell you without batting an eye that there are plenty of packaged things he’d choose over my “real food” versions, so don’t think he’s just being romantic.
- 1 c. diced onion
- 4 Tablespoons butter
- 1 cup sour cream*
- ½ teaspoon salt
- ¼ teaspoon black pepper
- 1 teaspoon dried parsley
- ¼ teaspoon turmeric
- ¼ teaspoon celery seed (or celery salt)
- optional: dash to ¼ tsp. cayenne
- Melt the butter in a heavy pan, then saute the onions over medium for a few minutes, stirring constantly.
- Turn the heat to medium-low for about 20-30 minutes. Stir occasionally and cook until browned and smelling amazing. The onions will have reduced to about ⅓ cup.
- Allow to cool, but not in the refrigerator (the butter will harden too much).
- Mix with the sour cream and all the spices. Allow at least an hour for the flavors to blend, and serve at room temperature if possible.
- Store in the refrigerator.
What I love most about this recipe, beyond the fact that my husband loves it, is how it knocks the chip dip in the store right out. Check out these ingredients:
SKIM MILK, WHEY (MILK), PALM OIL, WATER, CONTAINS LESS THAN 2% OF ONION*, PARSLEY*, SALT, SUGAR, HYDROLYZED SOY AND CORN PROTEIN, HYDROLYZED TORULA AND BREWER’S YEAST PROTEIN, CITRIC ACID, LACTIC ACID, ACETIC ACID, MONOSODIUM GLUTAMATE, FOOD STARCH-MODIFIED, GELATIN, SODIUM HEXAMETAPHOSPHATE, LOCUST BEAN GUM, SOY LECITHIN, POTASSIUM SORBATE (TO PRESERVE FRESHNESS), GUAR GUM, CARRAGEENAN, YELLOW 5 & 6. *DEHYDRATED.
If you ask me, that’s 7 actual foods plus 18 chemicals, non-foods, and food-like products.
I’ll take my 9 whole foods ingredients any day.
The terrible irony of this post is that in order to test the chip dip, I bought a bag of chips.
Probably the first bag I’ve purchased in a year (hmmm, maybe that’s why the husband was so agreeable to the dip!).
If you make this chip dip during October #unprocessed, you’re going to need to make homemade potato chips, too.
But (crunch)…it will be worth it.
This recipe and other reverse engineered goodies will be part of Better Than a Box, my upcoming eBook designed to help you transform your processed foods recipes into whole foods favorites. It’s due out…soon…but it’s caramelizing right now so it tastes better, and you know how that takes a long time.