ScratchDC vs. scratch cooking: Does convenience come with a hidden cost?


The from-scratch dinner: Price: $29. Preparation time: 2 hours.Notes: The most labor-intensive of the preparations, the scratch dinner was also the most rewarding. It unearthed striking elements in the freshly ground spices: aromas and flavors clearly lost in the pre-ground versions. (Deb Lindsey/For The Washington Post)
November 12, 2013

Not so long ago, if you wanted to prepare dinner, you had no choice but to find a recipe, shop for groceries, measure out the ingredients, chop the vegetables, marinate the meat and invest as much time as necessary to put a meal on the table. Then U.S. food companies slowly convinced a generation or two that such toil was beneath them — to the point that the kitchen became a foreign land in their own homes.

Various movements of recent vintage — take your pick: slow food, farm-to-table, organic, sustainable — have helped us reclaim the kitchen and focus our attention on whole foods, but they have not solved all of the problems. Namely, work-obsessed Americans rarely seem to have time to cook, and when they do, many loathe the waste: leftover ingredients that rot away, exotic spices that linger untouched, bottles of oil that go rancid.

Leave it to American business to come to our rescue, again. McCormick, for one, manufactures tiny containers of pre-measured spices that you incorporate into a recipe supplied in the same convenient package, leaving no garlic to sprout on the counter and no jars to gather dust on the spice rack. Grocery stores have jumped into this market, too, packing their shelves and coolers with pre-cut vegetables, pre-sliced mushrooms and pre-washed greens.

Then there’s ScratchDC. Reston native Ryan Hansan launched the company last year to supply Washingtonians with meals ready to cook. That’s right: ready to cook, not ready to eat. When you order a kit (or “bundle,” as the company calls it), ScratchDC will deliver, at your designated time, a box of ingredients that are pre-measured, pre-chopped, pre-marinated, pre-everything. A recipe tucked into the twine-tied box explains every step necessary, in chatty and non-technical terms, to transform the ingredients into the finished meal.

ScratchDC doesn’t just streamline the process of preparing dinner, from recipe hunting to shopping to chopping; it does so with an approach that appeases contemporary eaters who value high-quality ingredients with a small carbon footprint. Those boxes often come stuffed with products sourced from local farms or spices bought from organic producers.

“When l launched the company, it was really a classic or cliche example of someone solving a problem in their life,” says Hansan, 27, who notes that he loathed buying a bunch of parsley when he needed only a few leaves. “We set up [shop] to see if there’s a way of working more efficiently.”

By all signs — well, all signs according to Yelp — ScratchDC has created a monster. The company has a perfect five-star rating based on 40 reviews, and that piqued my curiosity. I wanted not only to test-drive a bundle, to determine whether that perfect score was hype or reality, but also to compare ScratchDC’s approach with real scratch cooking. And just for fun, I also wanted to compare the bundle and the scratch meal with a dinner prepared using as many pre-chopped and pre-ground ingredients as I could find at the supermarket. The goal was to analyze each dinner option by cost, time and taste — that final measure admittedly arbitrary — and see whether I could pick a clear winner.

The trick was to find a ScratchDC meal online that would accommodate all three approaches. The recipe would need to include ingredients that I could buy whole as well as pre-chopped and pre-ground. I settled on an Ethio­pian dinner, awaze beef tibs with kik alicha, the latter a split-green-pea stew. The bundle costs $28, serves two (with leftovers) and claims a 30-minute cook time.

And the meal would have been done in a half-hour, had it not been for the split peas, which required nearly twice that time to reach their desired state: a soft, stewlike consistency. As I would determine later, the ScratchDC team doesn’t give those split peas enough water; they come pre-soaked, but they haven’t absorbed enough liquid to cut the cooking time much. My meal was ready in about 55 minutes, which generated no panic whatsoever for me, a mere recipe tester with nary a waiting mouth to feed.

What did sound alarms was my bundle’s injera flatbread, which had become unappetizing and unusable. Because I was not cooking the contents of my ScratchDC box on the day I received it, I stored the bundle in the refrigerator, as directed. Cold temperatures, alas, do terrible things to injera, rendering it as stiff and fragile as balsa wood. I could have avoided the problem, of course, had I cooked the ingredients the previous night, but I’d still argue that ScratchDC should include directions to remove the injera before you refrigerate the bundle.

Apart from those two issues, the ScratchDC dinner was surprisingly delicious. I say surprisingly because neither Hansan nor anyone else on his seven-member team has formal culinary training, let alone experience with Ethio­pian cooking. Regardless, I found the flavors and spicing faithful to the cuisine, though I’d suggest cooking the split peas longer for an even creamier texture. (I should note that the bundle generates waste in the form of tiny plastic ingredient containers, paper and that cardboard box. But Hansan says the plastic is cornstarch-based and biodegradable, and the rest is created from recycled materials.)

For the convenience-food version of the meal (I guess you can still call them convenience foods if you buy them at Whole Foods and cook them yourself), I purchased a container of chopped onions, a can of diced tomatoes, a can of sliced jalapeños, a jar of chopped garlic and various pre-ground spices from the bulk section to better gauge the costs. The ingredients totaled about $31, with a scant few leftovers: an extra cucumber, a teaspoon or so of pre-ground spices. Preparation and cooking time ran about 1 hour, 40 minutes, give or take a phone call or e-mail during which I might have forgotten to turn off the stopwatch.

The resulting meal was every bit as tasty as the ScratchDC bundle, with the benefit of fresh injera, but it required nearly twice the kitchen time. What’s more, the meal demanded extra time and money: I had to invest an unknown amount of gasoline and part of an evening to buy ingredients.

The scratch dinner was the real backbreaker. I ground as many spices as I could (including cloves, nutmeg, allspice and cardamom). I peeled and grated fresh ginger. I chopped, sliced or diced all the vegetables. I presoaked the split green peas for an hour. All told, I spent a solid two hours on this version, and that’s with the kik alicha cooking in record time because of the water bath. The cost? About $29, or roughly the same price as the ScratchDC bundle, again without shopping and transportation costs figured in.

The from-scratch Ethio­pian meal, however, was superior to the other two. The freshly ground spices, the cardamom in particular, invigorated the beef tibs with a bracing, almost acidic brightness, elevating the entire dish. It was tangible proof that convenience foods, even in their most elegant and well-packaged forms, can strip away layers of flavor and aroma, leaving us with a slightly compromised product. Even if we don’t know it.

ScratchDC offers ready-to-cook meals Mondays through Thursdays at www.scratchdc.com. The company’s bundles, available for delivery between 2 p.m. and 8 p.m., range in price from $23 to $36. ScratchDC is also selling a special Thanksgiving bundle, a turkey-based meal enough to feed four people, for $60.

Tim Carman serves as the full-time writer for the Post's Food section and as the $20 Diner for the Weekend section, a double duty that requires ingesting more calories than a draft horse.
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