Q: I’ve heard several commercials referring to “scratch-made” baked goods. The usage makes my skin crawl. Is this an acceptable alternative for “made from scratch” or just an annoying bastardization?
A: The expression “scratch made” is, as you suggest, a variation on the more common and somewhat older idiom “made from scratch.”
However, both are relatively new culinary expressions that mean made from original ingredients, rather from a mix or other partly prepared products.
As far as we can tell, the longer version (“made from scratch”) showed up in its culinary sense in the mid-20th century.
The earliest written example we’ve seen is from an Aug. 22, 1940, article in the Chester (PA) Times that refers to soups that “may be made from scratch in your own kitchen or may be prepared in a hurry by a twist of the can opener.”
The shorter version (“scratch made”) showed up in print a few decades later, according to our searches.
The earliest example we’ve found is from an Aug. 27, 1981, ad in the Defiance (OH) Crescent News that refers to “scratch-made or preformed shells” for tacos.
And a March 23, 1982, notice in the Galveston (TX) Daily News publicizes a bake sale with “delicious scratch made items.”
Two other adjectival terms—“scratch” and “from scratch”—also came into use in the 20th century to describe a dish made from its individual ingredients.
In Home Made Bread (1969), Nell Beaubien Nichols writes that “from-scratch biscuits are particular favorites, and many women bake them for special occasions.”
And in Living Poor With Style (1972), Ernest Callenbach writes that a “scratch cake will contain no preservatives or other suspect chemicals.”
The use of these culinary terms increased in the second half of the 20th century as cake mixes, frozen dinners, and similar products grew in popularity.
When the word “scratch” showed up in English—as a verb in the 15th century and a noun in the 16th—it referred to the wound created by running fingernails or claws across the skin.
The source of the word is fuzzy, according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins, but it’s “no doubt related to German kratzen ‘scratch,’ and both probably had their origins in imitation of the sound of scratching.”
Interestingly, the culinary use of “scratch” originated in the sporting world, not the kitchen, as we explain in a 2011 post.
The oldest sports usage, dating back to the 18th century, meant “a line or mark drawn as an indication of a boundary or starting-point,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.
In boxing, for example, “scratch” was the line drawn across the ring where the boxers would first meet.
When “from scratch” first showed up in the 19th century, the OED says, it meant “from a position of no advantage, knowledge, influence, etc., from nothing.”
Getting back to your question, “scratch made” often shows up these days in cookbooks and other books about food as well as in food magazines.
For example, there’s a recipe for “Scratch-Made Sausage” in a new cookbook called Breakfast in Texas (2017), by Terry Thompson-Anderson.
To give a few more examples, Bren Herrera writes in Modern Pressure Cooking (2014): “This will get you started and keep you excited about boasting a true ‘scratch-made’ recipe.”
Pittsburgh Chef’s Table (2013), by Sarah Sudar, Julia Gongaware, Amanda Mcfadden, and Laura Zorch, mentions one restaurant’s “impressive sandwiches and scratch-made soups.”
And Cooking Light Annual Recipes 2014, by the editors of Cooking Light Magazine, says it includes “a delightful recipe for scratch-made ‘candy-wrapped’ tortelli—a blissful Saturday project.”
We’ve used only a few of the many examples we’ve found. Who are we to argue with so many food writers?
In fact, we see nothing wrong with “scratch made.” Its development seems parallel to “homemade” (“made at home”) and “handmade” (“made by hand”).
When used as modifiers, the longer versions generally follow (or post-modify) a noun: “pie made from scratch,” “a dress made at home,” “a sweater made by hand.”
But the shorter versions enable the speaker or writer to drop the preposition and pre-modify the noun: “scratch-made pie,” “homemade dress,” “handmade sweater.”
Like “scratch made,” the terms “homemade” and “handmade” began life as two words. If enough people use “scratch made,” it may become a single word too.
We think “scratch made” is pretty handy, and it’s probably here to stay. Sorry it makes your skin crawl.