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Scratch cooks find help on the shelf

3 min read

Restaurant and Foodservice

Chefs and home cooks alike can find new ways to innovate without busting the budget or spending all evening in the kitchen, with speed-scratch methods that combine frozen, canned, shelf-stable and even leftover ingredients into yummy and seemingly gourmet dishes.

Perhaps no foodservice organizations are more ripe to reap the benefits of new speed-scratch cooking methods and recipes than school kitchens, where parents and health advocates are pushing for more fresh-food options, budgets are as tight as ever and introducing children to new foods can be a challenge.

Using familiar shelf-stable ingredients may help school cafeterias transition students to healthier fare, perhaps avoiding a repeat of the early travails in Los Angeles when schools threw out all the chicken nuggets, corn dogs, pizza and other familiar foods at once and switched to dishes including vegetable curry, pad Thai and lentil and brown rice cutlets, as the alternative weekly BeyondChron reported last year. Thousands of students opted out of the lunch program after the changes, saying they didn’t like the unfamiliar foods.

These days, school chefs looking to get more innovative with their speed-scratch efforts need look no further than YouTube, where demonstration videos abound including a 15-minute piece starring Kit Kiefer, executive chef for Schwan’s Food Service, showing how to use pre-made Big Daddy’s pizzas as a base for homemade, nutritious pies topped with local veggies, fresh herbs and other fresh ingredients likely to already be in the fridge.

Schools aren’t the only places using speed-scratch methods to spice up the menu and diversify their offerings — supermarkets are getting into the game, as they look to add to their prepared and convenience food offerings. At 24-store Midwestern chain Dierbergs Markets, the deli case now sells pizza dough that shoppers can take home and customize, with or without ideas from the staff.

The key to innovation when it comes to speed scratch is that chefs can use the same shelf-stable, canned and frozen ingredients in multiple recipes, diversifying the menu and cutting down on waste at the same time. Restaurants typically operate on pretty thin profit margins and are limited in their ability to raise prices as food costs go up. Luckily, they’ve also got chefs in the kitchen with the talent to turn out new and even high-end dishes from familiar ingredients.

In one YouTube demo, Chef Chris Koetke shows how egg yolks, flour, seasonings and a bit of imagination can turn leftover mashed potatoes, even ones originally made from dehydrated potatoes, into a plate of gnocchi fit for a restaurant table.

Are you mixing shelf-stable and scratch to create dishes in your restaurant kitchen? Tell us how in the comments.