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Making Homemade Side & Seasoning Mixes

Sep
19


I get a lot of emails like this one:

I’ve been using your Homemade Hamburger Helper recipes for about a year now. They are awesome. So easy, so cheap, and I know what’s in them. I’m getting ready to make another batch of mixes right now. My husband loves those Lipton or Knorr brand sidekicks. Rice or pasta. I started thinking there must be some homemade versions of those out there on the internet. But, I haven’t found any! I’ve been finding creative things to do with those store bought mixes, which is still nice. But, not a homemade version like your Hamburger Helpers. Are you planning/considering tackling these next?

When I posted my Homemade Hamburger Helper mixes, I had no idea they would be so popular, but that is one of my most clicked posts. The post includes a detailed explanation of how I broke down the recipes, and my scratch version of 10 popular Homemade Hamburger Helper varieties. I created the breakdown recipes myself, so I can assure you there’s no rocket science involved, and I did it because my kids like Hamburger Helper and sometimes I’m in a hurry on sports nights. You can make any of those recipes in 30 minutes flat (even if you don’t make the mix in advance).

I’m also a fan of long grain and wild rice mixes, so I created a Homemade Long Grain & Wild Rice mix.

I’ve been meaning for some time to work on some other side dish mixes, both rice and pasta, but I’m easily distracted by putting a flower on my cow’s head, feeding cookies to goats, or planning humongous events. Plus, I keep getting requests and they are all for something different. There are an untold number of varieties of rice and pasta side dish mixes, not to mention other seasoning mixes, and everyone has their own favorites. I even still get requests for different varieties of Hamburger Helper. There are detailed directions for recreating more varieties of Hamburger Helper in my Hamburger Helper post, so I’ve retired from adding more varieties to the page. I also realized I couldn’t possibly start creating mixes specific to every rice, pasta, and other seasoning mix or side dish at the grocery store, or I’d be at it till I’m 157 years old. And mostly I get excited about creating mixes for things my family likes, which doesn’t always coincide with what other people like.

So instead, I want to post how I go about replicating store-bought mixes to create scratch versions–so you can do it with all of your favorites! (Give a man a fish, you feed him for a day. Teach him to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.) And I promise it’s easy!

Processed, packaged convenience foods contain a number of additives. CindyP did a great post on Farm Bell Recipes about additives here. Additives commonly found in store-bought food include preservatives to maintain freshness for a long shelf life, food dyes to make the food prettier, sweeteners, emulsifiers, thickeners, leavening agents, spices, stabilizers, fiber, vitamins, and more. There are a lot of additives out there, both natural and artificial.

All additives to food have to be approved by the FDA, so while one could arguably say they’re not harmful, remember that the reason vitamins are added back in as an additive is because highly processed food is so depleted. Processed food also tends to have a “cardboard-ish” taste. The type of mixes we’re talking about here–rice and pasta side dish mixes or seasoning mixes–are dry mixes containing ingredients that might start clumping in a long shelf life (such as some dried vegetables and cheeses). A common anti-caking agent is cellulose powder. Cellulose is also found in wood and paper. And, you know, cardboard. NO WONDER mixes taste cardboard-ish. There’s nothing wrong with cellulose powder per se, by the way. It’s even sold as a fiber supplement. You might prefer to take it as a supplement, however, than put it in your seasoning mix. To overcome the tasteless anti-caking agent and other tasteless additives that perform various shelf life functions, store-bought mixes contain lots of sugar and salt.

I’m not a food science expert, and I don’t pretend to be one on the internet, so that’s as far as I’m going to go with that. I’m just a consumer, and I prefer to eat real food. If you’re reading this, then I think you do, too. If you click on CindyP’s post about food additives, you can find links to research on your own.

To recreate your favorite homemade mixes, buy the mix (for the last time!) and study it.

1. Read the ingredients label. Skip all the unfamiliar words. Remember that ingredients are listed in order of greatest to least measure in the mix

2. Open the package and measure. Rice, pasta, seasoning mix, whatever’s in there.

3. Make note of the package cooking directions. Your directions for cooking your homemade mix will be pretty much the same if you make your mix in the same quantity.

4. Break down the ingredients into measurements. Use your common sense and cooking experience OR JUST GUESS.

5. Experiment and taste test. It might take a couple tries at it, but most mixes are surprisingly easy to replicate–and so much tastier without the yellow 5, cellulose powder, and so on. Once you’re satisfied with your concoction, don’t forget to write it down so you can make it again.

Keep in mind: Most packaged mixes are heavy on the salt and sugar. When making your own mixes, you may have to confront your salt and sugar addictions.

Everything in these mixes is DRIED, by the way. If you have a dehydrator, it’s your friend. If you don’t have a dehydrator, or just plain don’t want to dry cheese or chicken broth and grind them into a powder, keep broth cubes in the freezer to add to your mixes when cooking, keep cheese on hand in the fridge, etc. Just because the store-bought mix uses dried ingredients doesn’t mean you have to unless you intend to put it on the shelf. (To avoid caking, which can occur in some dry mixes, depending on what’s in there–if you find a particular homemade mix tends to cake or clump, put the mix in packets inside a freezer container and freeze til you’re ready to use.) Another option for dried milk, cheese, or chicken/beef would also be to use non-fat dried milk, powdered cheese, or chicken/beef granules, but if you’re trying to get away from processed food, you may not want to take that kind of short-cut.

Also remember to use parboiled long grain rice in homemade rice mixes. It cooks up less sticky than regular white rice and is what is used in most store-bought mixes. (If you use regular white rice, you may be disappointed in the result.)

Here is an example to demonstrate the process.

Subject: Knorr Rice Sides Herb & Butter.

1. Recognizable Ingredients: Long grain rice, vermicelli, butter, salt, cream cheese, cornstarch, chervil, celery seed, basil, oregano, marjoram, rosemary, thyme, garlic powder.

2. Measure: 1 1/4 cups, total. (Rice, pasta, and seasonings were not separate in the package.)

3. Package Directions: In a medium saucepan, bring 2 cups water, 1 tablespoon margarine or butter (optional), and contents of package to a boil. Stir, reduce heat, and simmer covered 7 minutes or until rice is tender. Let stand about 2 minutes; serve.

4. Scratch recipe breakdown: 1/2 cup parboiled long grain white rice, 1/2 cup vermicelli (broken up), 1 teaspoon cornstarch, 1 teaspoon salt, 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder, 1/2 teaspoon chervil (or parsley), 1/2 teaspoon basil, 1/4 teaspoon oregano, 1/4 teaspoon marjoram, 1/4 teaspoon rosemary, 1/4 teaspoon thyme, 1 tablespoon butter, 1 tablespoon cream cheese (softened). Note that some of these ingredients are in a different order–the herbs were listed as one unit then detailed in parentheses, so I moved up the garlic powder. I tasted-tested the salt to match the mix–1 teaspoon may be more than you want to use, but it’s what matched the mix taste, so that’s just for the record. I left out celery seed–not a big enough fan to include it. I guessed at the cornstarch, and I’m pushing back the butter and cream cheese to after the rice/pasta is cooked since I’m not using a dried form. You can adjust all of these ingredients to your personal tastes.

5. Experiment. Here I go!

I started with the store-bought mix. It took me about 10 seconds to prepare the mix–open the package, dump it in a pot, add the water. I don’t usually buy mixes, so I bought this palooza (photo at the top) to play with for this post.

Then I cooked the homemade version, combining the rice, pasta, and other ingredients EXCEPT for the butter and cream cheese. Add 2 cups of water and cook as directed for the store-bought mix. After the rice was done, I stirred in the butter and cream cheese. Getting the scratch version in the pot, by the way, took under 5 minutes. (All that tedious measuring I had to do all by myself without Knorr to do it for me. Plus I had to break up the vermicelli!)

My homemade rice and vermicelli mixture:

Note: Any caking issues with this mix would probably be due to the dried butter and dried cream cheese. Assuming you’re adding real butter (or margarine) and real cream cheese at the end, you would probably have no problem putting this mix together and keeping it on the shelf.

I definitely used more herbs than can be found in the store-bought mix. Just look at the two pots side by side. (Scratch version on the right. Photo taken before cooking.)

Photo after cooking:

I don’t even know how they get away with calling that an herb dish. You can decrease the herbs if you prefer the herb-light version, but just so you know, what you are paying for in that package is the rice and the pasta. There is but a smatter-sprinkling of herbs in there, so you are over-paying for the rice and pasta.

This mix uses turmeric for color (which is why the store-bought version, left, is yellowish). I didn’t add it because I don’t care what color it is.

It should be no surprise that the homemade version tastes better since it includes real butter, real cream cheese, and more herbs.

Now some less experienced among you might say, Suzanne, how did you come up with the measurements?

A good part is cooking experience, and if you don’t have cooking experience, there’s only one way to get it–COOK–and not just cook, create your own recipes. Replicating store-bought mixes is a fun way to do it, too. Get your family involved and let them blind taste-test and challenge yourself.

I started with the measurement of the package, 1 1/4 cups. I made the assumption of 1 cup rice and vermicelli. Rice was listed first, vermicelli second, but you can’t have a tie in the ingredient order so I made the command decision to measure them equally. The other quarter cup? In the store-bought mix, it is probably largely fillers/additives. In the end result, my one cup of rice and vermicelli made a slightly bigger pot than the store-bought mix! There’s probably not a whole cup combined of rice and vermicelli in the store mix. I based the cornstarch measure on instinct. (That’s just something you learn from cooking experience.) I based the tablespoon combined of herbs on the cooked two cups (from one cup dry) of rice and vermicelli. Once deciding on a tablespoon, I broke it down based on the order the herbs appeared in the list. I based the one tablespoon butter and one tablespoon cream cheese on two cups cooked rice and vermicelli. (Experience.) The salt was totally based on taste-testing vs. the mix. (It’s TOO MUCH salt. I suggest decreasing by half.)

Once you’ve deciphered one flavor of a brand, you can make the rest of the brand’s offerings much more easily because they’re all variations on the theme. For example, Knorr Rice Sides. They’re all quite similar. No need to re-measure the package contents–they’re all the same. Start with 1/2 cup parboiled rice and 1/2 cup broken-up vermicelli and flavor accordingly. For the Knorr Rice Sides Creamy Chicken, make it just like you’d make the Herb & Butter–except reduce the herbs to about a teaspoon of parsley. Add the salt and cornstarch just the same. Add a bit of minced onion or onion powder. Add some minced carrot, or some dried carrots if you’ve been working your dehydrator. Cook the rice/pasta in all or part chicken broth instead of water, or add chicken granules to the water. Stir in a tablespoon of cream cheese at the end. (That’s the creamy part.) They add some sugar to this package, but you can choose whether or not you think that’s necessary when you taste-test the first time you try it. The cooking directions are the same. Now you can make any flavor of Knorr Rice Sides! Don’t forget to take notes when you break down a flavor.

You can do it with all the rest of the rice and pasta side dish brands, too. Pasta Roni’s Garlic & Olive Oil Vermicelli is almost ridiculous. It’s nothing more than boiling some pasta and adding parsley, garlic, and olive oil–it’s just dead simple. You can spend 10 seconds dumping the package contents into the pot, or you can go ahead and spend a whole minute and put the ingredients in the pot separately from your pantry and leave out all the unnecessary additives and food colorings. Measure Pasta Roni once, and you can figure out all their flavor variations from there.

You don’t have to use vermicelli, by the way. A lot of these brands like vermicelli. Replace the vermicelli with angel hair, spaghetti, linguine, fettucine, anything you like or is already in your pantry. In rice dishes, you can add brown and wild rice, too.

You can also do this same deciphering process with any seasoning mixes you buy, such as McCormick Grill Mates or Kraft Parmesan Seasoning Blends–buy for the last time, measure, decipher, take notes. Hint: The Kraft seasoning mixes are mostly Kraft parmesan cheese with some spices and herbs mixed in. The Grill Mates are more interesting. I can’t wait to decipher the Brown Sugar Bourbon marinade using real bourbon instead of whiskey solids, ick. (What is that, whiskey poop? I apologize for using the word poop in a food post.) Salt is actually the first ingredient listed in this mix, so what does that tell you? Next is brown sugar. There’s some tomato powder, cornstarch, garlic, onion, a few spices, food coloring, molasses, vinegar, and the whiskey solids. Next time I grill steaks, I’m going to do some with the mix and some with a scratch version. I already know which one will be better.

P.S. I also made the “herb & butter” rice/pasta (scratch version, of course!) another time with 1 cup sauteed chopped squash and zucchini (from my summer garden freezer stash) cooked in with the rice/pasta (using vegan margarine and minus the cream cheese), served with fried eggplant, to make a vegan main dish on a “vegan night” this weekend with Weston and Mariah. Very delicious!

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Posted by Suzanne McMinn on September 19, 2011  

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Comments

21 Responses
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  1. 9-19
    8:07
    am

    If you have a dehydrator, and don’t want to buy “quick” rice, you can dehydrate rice you already pre-cooked so it is as fast as the packets to cook. I personally don’t find it difficult to put a mix on earlier to simmer either on the stove or in my rice cooker and go do a couple other things while it’s simmering. Though I don’t have a horde of famished teenagers on hand to feed and get out the door to sports practice either.

    I probably wouldn’t mind having store bought ‘quick rice’ on hand for these things either though. If you’re going to dehydrate your own rice, you only want to precook it till it’s JUST barely tender, not as cooked as it would be for normal eating, and then it takes about 8 or 10 hours to dry depending on your dehydrator and weather/humidity conditions.

  2. 9-19
    9:31
    am

    :shimmy: I love this post because the recipes for homemade hamburger helper are what brought me to your blog. I had never read anyone’s blog before, so you are my first. That has led to other blogs that I also enjoy, and really opened up a whole new world, so there, all that from a HH recipe! I would just like to add that we use ground venison in place of the ground beef, and it is always a hit, and just that much more organic.

  3. 9-19
    9:38
    am

    Suzanne, PLEASE consider writing a Stringtown Farm cookbook. I love regional cookbooks and collect them as keepsakes when I travel. I especially love cookbooks with stories attached that put them in context. An anecdote (maybe from your blog) about Grandmother’s Bread and then a chapter of recipes. Maybe start out with your posting on arriving at the crooked little house. Include some of your great pictures. I would CERTAINLY love to have my favorite recipes nicely compiled without having to fire up the computer when I can’t find the copy I printed out. :hungry:

    This posting would be great for a chapter on creating your own homemade mixes, maybe with some of your posting about your desire to live more simply and being less reliant on pre-processed and store bought products. I bet we could start a forum posting where we shared what are your readers favorite recipes and blog posts to go along with them. You’ve certainly got enough material for several cookbooks. PLEASE, PLEASE consider it.

  4. 9-19
    10:07
    am

    Thanks for posting about this again Suzanne! I had bought the long grain rice after the original post and never got back to it to make the mix!

  5. 9-19
    10:28
    am

    This sounds tasty and so easy. Thanks for the post and your time.

  6. 9-19
    10:59
    am

    I agree with joykenn–a cookbook would be a fantastic thing! Lots of work, I’m sure, but you already have so much material…and I can think of the times my power is off or internet is down that I could just reach for a cookbook instead of relying on the computer.
    That said, I just want to add a note about the “spices” that are inevitably listed in the ingredients of many mixes and especially seasoning blends. A lot of times MSG, or monosodium glutamate, is listed but more often it’s not. If you’re anything like me, I’ve done the research and decided to avoid it at all costs! “Spices” is often an umbrella term that manufacturers use to avoid listing ingredients. Not sure exactly their motivation for that, but I tend to assume it’s to keep consumers in the dark and I surely don’t appreciate that.
    MSG is unfortunately an ingredient that ups the flavor ante of any food to which it’s added. It’s a flavor enhancer, think “Accent”. When recreating mixes and seasoning blends, if it seems there’s just ‘something missing’, it’s probably the MSG!
    Like all the extra salt and sugar that’s added to processed, packaged foods, MSG is something you can learn to live without. After a time, you won’t even miss it, and your nervous system (among other things) will thank you for omitting it!
    That’s my two cents, I’ll climb down from my soapbox now and quietly walk away…. :happyflower:

  7. 9-19
    11:34
    am

    Thanks for posting this! The last time you talked about it, I was inspired and I now keep a container full of homemade rice mix – my favorite is the Rice-a-Roni chicken flavor. I used powdered chicken bullion (with no MSG), plus parsley, garlic powder, onion powder, and pepper. I mix up a bunch and put it in a ziploc bag, which I keep in the container with the rice and vermicelli, and then when I want some, I simply measure out 1 cup of rice and 2 Tbsp flavoring. :) Easy! I’m glad you shared your method for figuring it out – I’m going to give it a try with a few of the other mixes that I like. :)

  8. 9-19
    12:41
    pm

    Love your recipe deconstructions! Hubs loves to make HH variations. I am huge fan of Grandmother Bread recipes. Something new I’ve tried to recreate myself is Philadelphia Cooking Creme. Seems crazy to pay $3 for something I should be able to knock off for abt $1! I haven’t been completely successful (it’s been edible but not outstanding). I’m going to slow down and try the more scientific approach. See where THAT gets me. Love your blog – faithful reader and recommend it to others.

  9. 9-19
    1:05
    pm

    I make that chili cheese hamburger helper no less than twice a month..maybe more. I like Rice a Roni parmesan cheese. I’m going to try this. I will report back.

  10. 9-19
    3:25
    pm

    :yes: I declare you a Food Genius! Thanks again for your kitchen experiments, they taste great! :shimmy:

  11. 9-19
    4:57
    pm

    Great post! I’m sure it took a lot of time to write. I have to say I got a good laugh towards the end….Whiskey poop!? ROTFL!

  12. 9-19
    8:12
    pm

    Rice mixes are just about the only prefab food I regularly buy. Thank you kind lady, now I know how to get the same thing with ingredients I already have.

    We ues brown, jasmine, or arborio rice here, I don’t mind cooking it, but the seasoning always seemed daunting!

    btw, the cheapest “white” rice I ever found was a 25 lb bag of broken jasmine rice. It has other “stuff” in it, so you have to cull that out before you use it, but other than that? It’s great!

    Thanks again –

    Judi

  13. 9-19
    8:41
    pm

    Suzanne, great post! I especially agreed with this statement: “A good part is cooking experience, and if you don’t have cooking experience, there’s only one way to get it–COOK–and not just cook, create your own recipes.” I wish our society could overcome that fear of making mistakes in the kitchen and just dive in. Thanks for the knowledge. I almost never make rice dishes because I hate those mixes, but I’m feeling inspired to eat real rice now! Thanks!

  14. 9-19
    8:44
    pm

    I’d also like to say, that if you did write a cook book, I’d buy it and I’d out up with having less posts here so you’d have time to write it! It’s a great idea!

  15. 9-20
    2:21
    pm

    Great Post!!! I make my own HH since my husband loves it and I hate the cardboard store bought mixes. This post opens a whole new way to make your own.

    I vote for the cookbook ideal too.

  16. 9-21
    6:05
    am

    this is great .cant wait to try some out. Thank you for posting and all your work to do this!!

  17. 9-24
    5:40
    pm

    You–my dear–are brilliant! Makes me kind of embarrassed that none of us thought of this before. Thanks so much for jump-starting my brain. :}

  18. 10-1
    2:15
    pm

    I second the cookbook!!! Really would love a print version for those times when the power is out (all sorts of ways to cook without power, but no other way to get on the internet without power!) And yes I’ve saved some recipes and printed them, but not all. Just like the feel of a book!

    And I love this statement: “I don’t even know how they get away with calling that an herb dish.” I always say this about the mixes with “broccoli” in them…I never knew green dust could be called broccoli until I tried these pkgs at my daughter’s!

  19. 5-14
    8:03
    pm

    with the seasonings for the herb & butter rice…could you just use 2Tbsp.of Italian Seasoning since it seems to be the same ingredients?

    Thanks for this awesome breakdown…never cared for the packaged sides…but this sounds and looks yummy! Thanks for all your hard work…and i hope you have a cookbook in the works!!!

  20. 5-14
    8:18
    pm

    jdickey, yes, you could use an Italian herb blend–or really, any herb blend that you like and make it to your own taste.

  21. 5-13
    8:32
    pm

    Thanks for your proportion lesson!! I made a version of Lipton’s taco rice tonight and it received rave reviews. We actually don’t like most mixes as we find them too salty and bland. Easy to remedy here! I’ll also say that I used jasmine rice (not parboiled) and it turned out great. In my experience,Jasmine is less starchy than white so you can skip the parboil step.

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