10 Things You Should Have Learned in Home Ec

Self-sufficiency can be simple, cheap—and rewarding.

October 15, 2012

Taking self-sufficiency measures can make you happier and healthier. (And richer!)

Self-sufficiency is making a comeback. All around the country, people are banishing the use of dehydrated potato flakes, prefabricated pancake mixes, fast-food drive-through windows, and trips to the dry cleaner's because they yearn to make things from scratch again, just as our ancestors did. But unless you grew up with an ambitious Home Ec teacher or tugging at the apron strings of your great-grandmother, you might not know where to start. After all, baking a loaf of bread or fermenting a batch of real sauerkraut must be hard, right? Otherwise, why would food manufacturers insist on doing these traditional tasks for us?


"Knowing how to deal with the physical objects in our lives—which is what home ec is really about—makes us independent and creative," explains Rosanna Nafziger Henderson, coauthor of The Lost Arts of Hearth and Home. "The ready-made world is so eager to prey on our insecurities and undermine our confidence in doing things for ourselves."

"When we never get to try our hand at those basic skills, we wind up believing we're saving ourselves a lot of time when we buy processed food or elaborate single-purpose appliances," she adds. "We lose that sense of accomplishment, and half the time we waste our money on junk food or gadgets that save no significant time anyway."

Here are 10 things everyone should know how to make or work with:

1. Homemade soup stock
Did you know you could make hearty, nourishing soup stock from trimmings and bones you'd normally toss in the trash? Save bones from meals of chicken, pork, or beef in the freezer for a couple of weeks until you have enough to gently simmer on the stove in a pot of water for a few hours. Onion skins, celery ends, and carrot trimmings also make great stock. You'll save money and erase the need for canned stock, which likely harbors the hormone-disrupting BPA chemical from the can's liner.

Learn how to do it: For a typical poultry stock, you'll need 1 to 2 pounds of chicken or turkey bones for every 6 cups of water. Bones from pasture-raised birds are best. For more instructions, read this DIY soup stock guide.

2. Basic braises and stews
Your home ec classes may have focused more on sweet baked goods, but Henderson says a focus on easy and economical savory recipes would have been more useful in the long run. Filling, protein-rich stews will help you feel satisfied, unlike the empty calories and hunger-inducing chemicals you'll find in many processed foods.

Learn how to do it: Use homemade stock to cook up this rich Boeuf Flamande recipe.

3. Fermented foods
"Kids love watching things grow and transform, and fermentation is a beautiful way to transform flavors while demonstrating some amazing chemistry," explains Henderson. Fermented foods are teeming with beneficial bacteria that can help boost your immune system.

Learn how to do it: Grab a head of cabbage, a tablespoon of sea salt, and a clean jar, and use these simple homemade sauerkraut instructions to make the real deal.

4. Butter
Making your own dairy products can be really intimidating. "It's easy to throw up our hands when it comes to involved skills like these, but what better way to set people up with the confidence for a lifetime of experimentation?" Henderson asks.

Learn how to do it: You don't have to churn until your arms burn to create homemade butter. With just 2 cups of organic heavy whipping cream or a half-gallon of non-homogenized milk, you can create your own homemade butterand liberate yourself from excess dairy aisle packaging in the process.

5. Growing things
Activate your inner nurturer and learn how to keep plants—or even one potted plant, to start—alive.

Learn how to do it: Start with these directions for establishing an indoor herb garden, and in the spring, expand to include some simple, cut-and-come-again lettuce greens for superb salads.

6. Simple sewing projects
Self-sufficiency means knowing how to alter clothing. This skill comes in particularly handy when you're dealing with hand-me-downs or thrift store steals. To start a simple alternations kit, you'll need a small ruler; small, sharp scissors; an iron; sewing scissors; thread in a variety of colors; and a sewing needle.

Learn how to do it: For starters, grab that pair of jeans in your closet with insanely long legs and use these tips to learn how to hem a pair of pants. When you're ready to take your sewing to the next level, grab Henderson's book, The Lost Arts of Hearth and Home and learn all about buttons, darts and tucks, embroidery, and even clothing design.

7. Vinegar making
Making your own vinegar is simple, mainly because beneficial bacteria do most of the heavy lifting!

Learn how to do it: Follow these vinegar-making instructions to create malt, apple cider, or white vinegar for your home!

8. Homemade cleaners
Once you whip up a batch of white vinegar (or even if you have a store-bought jug of it) you can create what Consumer Reports called the best all-purpose cleaner out there: A 50-50 blend of white vinegar and water!

Learn how to do it: For more ideas, check out Green Cleaning Recipes That Really Work.

9. Yogurt making
Yogurt is a healing tonic bursting with beneficial bacteria that boost the immune system. But instead of buying small batches in tiny plastic containers that often contain shady artificial sweeteners, excess sugars, or fake food dyes, take matters into your own hands!

Learn how to do it: A Step-by-Step Guide to Making Homemade Yogurt

10. Homemade bread
Store-bought breads often harbor surprisingly high levels of salt, and even contain harmful processed sweeteners like high-fructose corn syrup. Luckily, you can make your own bread quite easily.

Learn how to do it: In The Lost Arts of Hearth and Home, the authors explain how to do it:

Add 1 cup of flour and 1 cup of untreated, nonchlorinated spring water to a large bowl and mix well. Add a little more flour and water every day for about 2 weeks. (The sour smell means it's working.) Add about 2 cups of the mixture to 1 cup of water and enough flour to make a moist dough. Then, add 1 tablespoon of sea salt and knead thoroughly for about 15 minutes.

Cover in a bowl and let sit for 2 hours, then knock down and form into a round ball. The dough will take 8 to 14 hours to rise (overnight is ideal). When you're ready to bake, crank up your conventional oven to 550° F and splash water inside to create steam. If you're baking the bread free-form (without a loaf pot or pan), slash the loaf several times on top. Bake until brown and crusty. Let cool.

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