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Most people say they make something from scratch when they cook or bake using only basic ingredients and nothing that has been prepared ahead or processed. The official definition describes creating or preparing something “from the beginning.” Just like other idiomatic expressions, this saying is used regularly, but the original meaning has changed.
The term dates back to the 1800s, but this idiom used to be about races or sporting events instead of cooking or baking. Bicycle and foot racers were said to start from scratch if they had no advantage. Non-scratch racers were given the advantage of an early start or shorter distance. Scratch racers had no lead and began the race at what was then called the scratch line, which was simply a line scratched into the ground to mark the start of a race.
Baking from scratch means the cook uses only fresh, basic ingredients to prepare a cake, cookies, or other treat, instead of using boxed mixes or other pre-made ingredients. Since baking from a box is fairly common, scratch cakes and baked goods are frequently the exception to the rule. Sayings like this make it possible to distinguish who is doing the old-school baking and who is fudging it a bit.
One of the most recognized ways to use this phrase is with sweet treats. All kinds of goodies can be bought ready made or baked from a boxed mixture, which requires few additional ingredients to bake. Making a scratch cake or cookies, on the other hand, means the baker started from the beginning with simple ingredients such as flour, sugar, brown sugar, baking soda, and baking powder. Many dessert lovers prefer baked goods made from scratch over something store-bought or made from a box.
This saying also applies to cooking meals, especially with the easy availability and popularity of processed and prepared foods. Making a meal from scratch means the chef uses fresh ingredients instead of items that have been purchased or pre-made. Gravy is a good example. Scratch gravy is made from mixing other ingredients with the drippings created as the meat cooks, but it takes time to prepare and get the right thickness. Store-bought gravy comes in a bottle and is simply heated and served.
A benefit of scratch baking and cooking is that it can be healthier than using pre-mixed products. Processed goods often contain preservatives that provide a longer shelf life in the supermarket. Scratch meals and baked goods use fresh, basic ingredients without unknown additions. Unknown sometimes equals unhealthy, so most true chefs prepare foods from scratch whenever possible.