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!