The Grammarphobia Blog

Cooking from scratch

Q: Why does cooking something “from scratch” mean making it from the most basic ingredients?

A: To bake a cake “from scratch,” as you say, means to make it without using a prepared mixture of ingredients.

You’re probably puzzled by the usage because it originated not in cooking, but in the sporting world. Here’s the story.

The noun “scratch” has had several different meanings in sports terminology, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The oldest, dating back to the 18th century, was “a line or mark drawn as an indication of a boundary or starting-point.”

In boxing, for example, “scratch” was “the line drawn across the ring, to which boxers are brought for an encounter.”

That’s where we get phrases like “to come up to (the) scratch,” and “to toe the scratch.” A fighter who “comes up to scratch” is ready and able to box.

But another meaning of “scratch,” the OED says, is “the starting-point in a handicap of a competitor who receives no odds,” a usage first recorded in 1867.

And, of course, the word is often used in the phrase you ask about, “from scratch,” which the OED says means “from a position of no advantage, knowledge, influence, etc., from nothing.”

Here’s the OED’s first citation for the phrase, from Bicycle Journal in 1876: “Mr. Tom Sabin, of the Coventry Bicycle Club, has won, during last week, three races from scratch.”

And here’s a figurative usage, from The Economist  in 1936: “Nazi Germany, starting her rapid re-armament ‘from scratch’ in 1933, was fortunate enough to have a surplus capacity in all sections of her heavy industries.”

We didn’t see any citations in the OED for the phrase used in the culinary sense.

The earliest one we could find in the New York Times archive was from a Dec. 10, 1946, article about preparing economical meals.

In discussing processed foods, the author notes that in the city “the old-fashioned style of cooking—from scratch, as it were, without frozen or canned products—is on the wane.”

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