These days, the word "housemade" shows up on just about every restaurant menu. We're all for chefs and restaurants paying more attention to their ingredients. Sometimes their pickles, preserves or ricotta cheese turns out much better than your average commercial brand. But that's not always the case.
Efforts at making the best product possible are admirable, of course. But if you're suddenly trying to be a baker, charcutier, sodamaker and pastry chef along with maintaining your original restaurant concept, it's easy to find yourself in over your head.
Here are some foods it might be better to buy than to try in-house. There are always exceptions, of course. If you have the time, resources and talent to devote to a meat-curing program, have at it. But make sure to think through these areas carefully before you go the DIY route.
You get sweet brioche burger buns when a Martin's potato roll would have been better. Or, the crusty sandwich rolls are so massive you can hardly bite through them.
We've seen all sorts of creations go wrong with badly styled bread. Fresh bread is a delicious thing, but it's the freshness and taste that matters, not whether it came out of your own kitchen. Most cities have at least a few bakers doing high-quality wholesale work. As long as you get daily deliveries, no one will notice whose oven it came out of.
Building a successful bread program takes time, money and talent. Plenty of high-end kitchens have in-house bakers (and often with extraordinary results). For such restaurants, the investment is worth it. That said, we've had seriously sub-par bread at a few of what are considered the best restaurants in America.
Do your research. Find out which bakers do wholesale in your area and what they charge, and talk to other restrauteurs. Is what you can make in-house really comparable to their best offerings? And if so, do you have the energy and resources to maintain a consistent product?
No doubt it sounds cool to say you make your own sausages. But a poorly made sausage is a pretty terrible thing. And no one's excited that you made it if it's inedible and mushy. The same goes for hot dogs. When there are fine natural-casing franks out there, consider whether yours will actually be better.
We've seen similar missteps in pastrami, charcuterie… you name it. Meat products are tricky. Again, some restaurants pull off their own cured meats beautifully. But given the safety concerns, regulations and financial cost of error, this might be something best left to specialists.
3. Ice cream
We all have memories of a local scoop shop that made its own ice cream or churning our own with salt and ice. That fresh creamy stuff tasted better than anything. But good ice cream is hard to get right. We've seen plenty of otherwise excellent dessert menus brought down by grainy, icy or otherwise badly made ice cream.
Consider whether the ice cream is a supporting character or the star of the show. Do you just need one scoop of vanilla on your awesome apple pie? Consider the premium suppliers in your area and beyond. A great piece of pie is very happy with Haagen-Dazs.
4. Sodas and mixers
Bars and restaurants are both hopping on the DIY trend. For sodas and mixers with complicated and variable elements, like ginger and root beer, it makes sense that you'd want control over the balance of flavors.
If you want a root beer to be drier or sweeter, have more vanilla or juniper or licorice, making it yourself may seem like the best route.
But a housemade soda does not always a good soda make. Take time to experiment and refine your product before it makes it to the menu. And before you embark on that project, consider whether it's the most effective use of your time.
There are two things to consider here. First, condiments are one more area that will require your time and attention to get right. Second, you're fighting people's preconceptions of what a given condiment should taste like.
Maybe your ketchup is a little less sweet, more acidic and more nuanced in flavor than Heinz, but plenty of people will just want that red squeeze bottle for their burger. (And we've seen plenty of housemade mustards go wrong, too.)
If you're making your own Frank's-like hot sauce, ask yourself: Is mine better? Or, am I really just hoping for it to taste like Frank's? If it's the latter, go for the original.