Food Quality and Cost Control


John Wright


From the time I was very young I showed a more than typical interest in food and food preparation. The reason was obvious Ö I loved to eat, but only those things that met my standards for taste. As a young adult I developed a broader interest in the provision of food. Specifically, there were times during my college years when I had no money and a large appetite. Those experiences shaped my thoughts about the future. I made an unbreakable promise to myself that for the rest of my life I would always eat well. That promise has been fulfilled and I am determined to enjoy ample quantities of excellent food for the remainder of my life.

I suppose most of us think that it was and is easy to keep that promise. Modern day USA in the second half of the 20th century and now into the 21st century has provided ample quantities of relatively low cost high quality food. Of course, during that same time convenience food in supermarkets and fast food restaurant chains has proven to be expensive, unhealthy and of low quality. Perforce, if you believe you can purchase high quality and tasty convenience food at your supermarket you donít know much at all about good food. Compared to top quality home cooking and that found in the best restaurants, the world of convenience foods and fast foods is pure garbage. It tastes marginal at best and/or it is unhealthy.

So what does it take to meet my standards? Barring four and five star restaurants, which are simply too expensive for routine eating and also unhealthy, the individual and especially the family have one simple choice. That choice is to devote the time and effort to food acquisition at the raw material level, stressing quality and cost. Then, it is imperative to become an excellent cook. Note that I said excellent, not merely good. If you have the good fortune to have a well-developed sense of smell and sense of taste then you can become an excellent cook, provided you are determined to make perfect food. If you lack an excellent sense of smell or taste simply donít waste your time reading more of this article. Ditto if you believe other things in life are so comparatively important that you wonít spend the time learning to become an excellent cook.

Okay Ö for those of you who have decided to proceed I will outline the activities and steps necessary for success. First, you have to know what other excellent cooks make. You have to taste the foods and determine what it takes to replicate them, often in a more healthy way. It is not a simple process, and you may take years to become proficient. This process may start with your mother or grandmother or aunt, but ultimately you have to be exposed to a very wide variety of foods prepared by many different people. And you have to remember or record what you learn. It is only by obtaining very broad personal experience that you can become qualified to judge whether or not any given dish is good or bad, for against what are you comparing any food? This means, for example, that you must travel to foreign lands to taste the best of the local cuisine, or have access to someone that has traveled extensively and is also a dedicated great cook. Then and only then might you be able to distinguish the real food from the imitations presented to the public in the USA via typical ethnic restaurants. Four obvious examples are Italian, Mexican, Chinese and French cuisine. Believe me, it is rare to find ethnic food in the USA that is even remotely as good as that served in the best restaurants in the native countries.

A special item of critical importance is to have a mate who also has your predilection for fine food, a great nose and sense of taste and a strong desire to whip your ass in cooking great food. You will make a great pair, for you will build on each otherís knowledge and skills and create your very best trying to impress each other. You will work together to analyze and determine how other great cooks make their finest dishes. You will experiment often, singly or together. That experimentation and curiosity and especially the desire to please each other (as well as to outdo each other) will produce remarkable cooking results, and those lucky enough to be invited to your home to eat will be grateful. That is one way to know when you have really arrived, but note that many people wonít know good from great due to physical limitations in sense of smell and taste.

Well, enough about the basics of the people who can and cannot cook, or who will or will not cook. Now it is time to move on to the food itself Ö the raw materials, their acquisition and handling, the cost, and the saving of labor in the kitchen without sacrificing quality in the finished product. It is time also to think about our whole approach to the philosophy of cooking. Do we eat to live or do we live to eat? The answer is both, but the latter is by far the most important to obtain the optimum enjoyment from the basic necessity of eating. How we approach what we do determines our ultimate level of excellence within the confines of our aptitudes and other physical limitations.

Most of us repeat what we learn from others. That is most often a mistake except for novices, for that approach assumes that everything important has already been learned and recorded. It is very important to assume that all things can be done better and that you are capable of using your imagination, and that of others, to develop techniques, procedures, etc. to do all things related to cooking better. Yes, I do mean continuous improvement in breadth, depth and new concepts. New recipes do have to be tried. Experimenting is absolutely essential to growing knowledge and competence. All the native aptitudes and blessings of biological capability mean absolutely nothing unless they are used. The potential energy of your life dissipates to nothing if you donít use it. The only way to succeed is to use it as kinetic energy. In short, get off your ass and get busy.

I got busy recently by expanding my use of a most simple but relatively expensive tool for the kitchen. I bought a commercial quality vacuum sealer for the princely sum of $1400, and lots, and I do mean lots of vacuum sealing bags of many sizes, typically for three to five cents each when purchased in quantities of 1000 or more. Initially I thought I would use the vacuum sealer primarily to eliminate canning of products I grew in my garden. My initial use worked fine, but it wasnít until recently I decided to expand my domain as a response to the stupid period of history we are experiencing re. the meltdown of our economy. I decided that I would continue to have great food and save money and labor at the same time. I decided to see just how far I could extend my use of the vacuum sealer to compensate the increased cost of food, gasoline, etc. What I learned is important to share with you, for the economies and utility are significant, not to mention the improvement in maintaining food quality.

Many people decide to improve food quality and reduce cost by gardening. Me too. The key considerations are to grow food that can be preserved to carry you through the times of the year when a garden is not productive and to choose foods that will be expensive out of season. In short, devote little space to items like lettuce, which cannot be preserved. Make tomato juice or can tomatoes, and note that you can freeze vacuum sealed tomato juice, whereas freezing whole tomatoes produces nothing good. Grow a wide variety of vegetables and fruits in quantities that will feed you and your family throughout the year. Only you know what foods you eat routinely. If your choices are not easily grown then change your choices. Some foods, like pasta, are best purchased, unless you buy flour in bulk quantities and have chickens to produce eggs, or some other reliable source for high quality inexpensive eggs. Similarly, rice and beans and potatoes and onions and numerous other products are items to be purchased in bulk from stores like Costco®, along with sugar and certain canned items like clams.

The cost of fresh foods varies by season. This means, for example, potatoes can be purchased in quantity cheaply for part of the year, and they can be preserved in multiple forms. One thing I do is make mashed potatoes in quantity and then vacuum seal and freeze the final product in meal size portions to feed two people. By so doing I save the labor of making mashed potatoes each time I want them. I also do not throw food away, and that is a big ticket item that goes unnoticed by most people. Vacuum sealing and freezing yield a fine tasting product, and storing flat sealed products multiplies available useful freezer space. Do note that meats, fowl and seafood can and should be vacuum sealed and frozen, for vacuum sealing eliminates freezer burn, so go ahead and buy quantities of all those products when you can get the best price.

Note that most of the historical recommendations about using frozen products within a limited timeframe of three to six months are made obsolete by vacuum sealing. Of course, you will want to blanch certain vegetable and fruit products prior to vacuum sealing and freezing to halt any degrading of quality via enzyme or bacterial action. I always use fresh lemon juice in the blanching water for products like sectioned apples or cauliflower to eliminate unsightly oxidation that can occur even during the processing steps. Oh, I also buy lemons in large quantities and collect the juice and freeze it and then vacuum seal it in small portions the size of ice cubes. A lemon will typically provide one and one half ounces of juice so you can easily decide how much frozen product you need based on the size of your lemon ice cubes and your recipe requirements. I thus have fresh lemon juice all the time at very low cost. I donít have to worry about spoiling of food purchased in bulk quantities.

What you achieve via vacuum sealing and freezing is lower initial product cost, no waste and less labor. There will always be times when you want to supplement what you have preserved with something that does not lend itself to preserving, and that is okay. Simply remember to limit those choices so as not to waste money. This means your overall experience with food cost, quality and preparation labor will be vastly improved over conventional practices. You can make, for example, excellent ice cream and preserve it perfectly with vacuum sealing and freezing. You do not have to be the victim of stupid pricing, quantity or storage limitations represented by what is commercially available in supermarkets. I have a gelato maker with a built in freezing unit. It cost about $350 reconditioned through Ebay®. What a great way to make ice cream!

Here is another idea you can use. Buy fresh beef roasts, corned beef and fresh turkeys and convert them into sizes that can easily be vacuum sealed and frozen. Then, when you need lunchmeats, roast the smaller quantities and use an electric slicer (Harbor Freight® sells them for about $39) to create your own lunchmeats. What a cost savings with no sacrifice of quality! Do note that you cannot freeze conventional lunchmeats purchased at the supermarket as they are waterlogged and break down when frozen. An accompanying practice will be to make your own bread dough and vacuum seal and freeze the product before the yeast has a chance to cause the bread to rise. You know the rest. And milk freezes very well when you vacuum seal pint or quart quantities in nice flat bags, for thawing is rapid and product quality perfect. Thus, you can even buy milk in quantity and not worry about it spoiling. Just think about how much money you can save by avoiding extra trips to the grocery store for common items like milk, lunchmeat and bread.

Many people prefer ham as the lunchmeat of choice. You cannot use typical hams purchased at the supermarket for vacuum sealing and freezing. The hams are so waterlogged that they break down when frozen into lousy product. The solution is to buy country hams, but not Smithfield® hams, in states like Virginia. Smithfield® hams contain far too much salt and require too much processing, whereas country hams have less salt, are more workable physically and taste just great. These hams can be cut into large pieces, sliced on an electric slicer and then vacuum sealed and frozen. The pieces can later be cooked easily after a simple rinsing of slices up to one eighth inch thick, and made into lunchmeat or fried ham.

What about eggs or bacon or butter? Eggs freeze well if the contents without the shell are vacuum sealed first. You may want to use an anti-oxidant like lemon juice or ascorbic acid (vitamin C, sold as Fruit-Fresh®) with the eggs to avoid potential discoloration. You also may not always want scrambled eggs but having a large quantity of frozen product supports a lot of different recipes that call for eggs. Butter freezes well without any special processing, but if you want to be a purist you can package and vacuum seal butter too and then freeze it. A pound of bacon can be divided into portions less than a pound and vacuum sealed and frozen. Thus, it is not necessary to use a full pound of bacon once opened. Go ahead and buy four or more pounds at discount prices and split them into the amounts you will use at each meal. Then vacuum seal and freeze all of it.

I decided that I could buy flour in bulk without losing it to bugs. I did not want to waste freezer space either and I realized that I could eliminate the bug problem via vacuum sealing. Thus, I converted fifty pounds of flour into twenty-four bags of six cups each, assuring that when I opened a bag that it would be used within a relatively short timeframe. Do you know of any bugs that will hatch or grow without oxygen? Well, you get my point. There are unconventional ways to preserve food via vacuum sealing that have simply not been an historical part of our experience, for those methods were only employed by commercial food producers and not by people at home. You can change that limitation to your ultimate benefit. The initial cost of $1400 may seem large but it is not. You make up that cost and a great deal more very quickly considering only the food you no longer discard. But a large freezer is an accompanying necessity. Go for size.

Now for the caveats. Do not try to vacuum seal a regular loaf of bread. You can guess what happens. Similarly, do not vacuum seal conventional cereals in a plastic bag, as the cereal will be crushed. You can, however, vacuum seal conventional cereals and other crushable products in canning jars, provided you have the required accessory to use with your vacuum sealer. Of course, you best not freeze the products you have stored in canning jars. Products like butternut squash should be halved, seeded and baked first, removed from the outer surface, mashed, bagged in vacuum sealing bags and then refrigerated. Once cold, products like mashed squash or potatoes or even tomato juice vacuum seal very well. The idea is that you do not typically want to vacuum seal hot products as they can "boil" over under high vacuum conditions. Always chill liquids and other products containing liquids prior to vacuum sealing.

The commercial vacuum sealer that I bought requires no maintenance due to the design of the vacuum system. Do some research via the Internet and you will find many choices at different price levels. Do not, however, buy any of the smaller "home" units, for they are junk, they are inefficient, unreliable, they have a short life span and in use they are a terrible waste of your precious time compared to the commercial units.

Now lets move on to other means to prepare or store foods. I own a top of the line Kitchen-Aid® mixer with a meat grinder attachment. Thus, I prepare ground meats that are not loaded with water or fat. I decide what I want and what I will have, not the supermarket. I do vacuum seal and freeze ground beef, pork, etc. with great success. I am about to embark on the making of sausage. I know I will make a superb product after experimenting, but I do not know if the product will have a long storage life if vacuum sealed and frozen. My earlier experiences with freezing commercial loose sausage products indicated that they turn rancid within a few months. I will write a later article to let you know how I fare in that department.

I hope the information I have shared in this article is useful to you. The cooking aspects are most important to allow "modern" homemakers to learn to use raw materials instead of prepared foods. The vacuum sealing and freezing information is equally important, for you will save much labor in food preparation and cost. Simply consider that you can typically eat mashed potatoes on eight different occasions while having made them only once.

Use your imagination.