Reverse Engineering The Box (And A Homemade French Onion Chip Dip Recipe)

Katie Kimball is a wife and mother to four thriving kids who eat their vegetables.  She writes the blog Kitchen Stewardship, where she offers weekly “Monday Missions” with practical baby steps, healthy recipes, green living ideas to help her followers reach their healthful goals.  She has spent 10 years on her real food and natural living journey and shares her tips and strategies along with her prayerful encouragement.

You can also follow her on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest.

Which of these ingredients from this box of processed “food” do you have in your kitchen?

onions, salt, cornstarch, sugar, caramel (color), corn syrup solids, yeast extract, natural flavor.

If you have an average home kitchen, you probably have the first four on hand and wonder what exactly the last four mean (and are they really food?).

When cooking “unprocessed,” many of your favorite recipes may have to go by the wayside because they use a processed food (Kraft Foods and Campbell’s cream of soups are famous for their delicious and easy recipes, right?).

My goal today is to help you “unprocess” those recipes that use ingredients that are already found in a box or a can.

Onion Soup Mix: Keeping it Simple

I find that when I’m trying to reverse engineer something, it’s an exercise in common sense most of the time.

The ingredients I listed at the top are from a box of “onion soup mix.” When I first tried to replace the mix with real food in my husband’s favorite pepper steak recipe, my thought process was something like this:

  1. What’s the flavor I really need? (onion)
  2. What else does “onion soup mix” provide? (basically just a little salt, a little thickener, and a little sweetness)
  3. Do the unknown ingredients make a big difference? (they seem to add more sweet and maybe enhance the flavor)

Working from those Q&As, I kept it simple. Using real onions almost exclusively really does do a pretty good job of replacing onion soup mix when used in beef recipes.

I use lots of onions and cook them well, and the caramelizing adds the flavor that is perhaps lost with the chemically enhanced ingredients.

Other than that, a generous dash of salt and a bit of molasses (which I like in savory dishes in small amounts) completed the meal without any additional seasoning.

When I’m feeling more creative, I might try adding other spices such as fresh garlic, parsley, and other herbs I know we like. It might not be exactly the same as the old favorite, but sometimes it even gets better.

How to Reverse Engineer ANY Box

Got a recipe with undesirable packaged food? You can probably make it even better yourself. Grab the recipe and ingredients and get to work:

  1. Read the ingredients on the packaged food you’re trying to avoid.
  2. Ignore all the words you don’t understand. For real. They’re not in your kitchen anyway.
  3. Figure out the main body – is it a liquid oil, a creamy base, dried vegetables, or what? Use olive oil or melted butter or coconut oil for liquids, homemade “cream of” soup or yogurt/sour cream for creamy stuff, and the real thing for dried veggies (as a general rule).
  4. What spices are going on? Take your best guess at what would taste good in the dish if you’re not sure.
  5. Corn syrup, High fructose corn syrup, or any other ingredient that ends in “-ose” are just sweeteners. Generally they’re included to enhance flavor, mask the lack of taste, replace some deleted fats, or as a preservative. The only time you need to bother adding sweetener back in is in the first instance. Many say tomatoes are enhanced by a teaspoon of sugar (try molasses!), for example.
  6. Keep the overall recipe you’re making in mind. This especially comes into play with things like bouillon cubes. They work together with something else in your recipe (usually water), so to substitute, you need to take into account the finished product and adjust accordingly. (For example, in my pepper steak recipe, I don’t worry about the cornstarch in the onion soup mix because I already add a thickener when making the pepper steak.)
  7. Don’t be afraid to fail. Most of the time, you get to taste what you’re making before you serve it. That’s the beauty of cooking over baking – you can add ingredients right up until the end and no one will know. It’s definitely an art, not a science.

A New Example: French Onion Chip Dip

When I told Andrew I wanted to share a reverse engineered onion soup mix, he immediately rejoiced in the fact that he might be able to have a real food version of that chip dip made with sour cream and a packet of onion soup mix.

I could practically hear him jumping up and down through the computer screen text.

How could I tell him that I had no idea how to do that and had only used onions to make pot roast and pepper steak that tasted pretty good?

I couldn’t break his unprocessed heart, so I gave it the old college try with three different versions.

And the verdict from my college sweetheart (aka the Husband)?

He says if he had this dip and “the real thing” (meaning from the store) to choose from, or even the second best attempt, he’d choose the homemade version.

And he’ll tell you without batting an eye that there are plenty of packaged things he’d choose over my “real food” versions, so don’t think he’s just being romantic.

Unprocessed French Onion Chip Dip
Recipe Type: Snack
  • 1 c. diced onion
  • 4 Tablespoons butter
  • 1 cup sour cream*
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • ¼ teaspoon black pepper
  • 1 teaspoon dried parsley
  • ¼ teaspoon turmeric
  • ¼ teaspoon celery seed (or celery salt)
  • optional: dash to ¼ tsp. cayenne
  1. Melt the butter in a heavy pan, then saute the onions over medium for a few minutes, stirring constantly.
  2. Turn the heat to medium-low for about 20-30 minutes. Stir occasionally and cook until browned and smelling amazing. The onions will have reduced to about ⅓ cup.
  3. Allow to cool, but not in the refrigerator (the butter will harden too much).
  4. Mix with the sour cream and all the spices. Allow at least an hour for the flavors to blend, and serve at room temperature if possible.
  5. Store in the refrigerator.
* Be sure to watch the ingredients on the sour cream, which can have as many unknown processed components as the soup mix if you're not careful. Daisy brand has cream, salt, enzymes. That's as close as I can find to making my own (there are other brands that achieve it, including Aldi brand). If the dip seems lacking in something, try adding more salt (up to doubling it) or a bit of sweetener to truly mimic the processed foods. For different textures and flavors in the base, try using yogurt cheese or homemade mayo or some combination of the three including the sour cream. Barefoot Contessa's original recipe called for ½ cup of each but far less seasoning overall. Something to try: mix into Greek yogurt if sour cream is still too “processed” for the challenge. Shortcut tip: Cook the onion in a pan as you're prepping dinner, then use that pan for dinner. Saves on dishes! The no-cook version: This one isn't quite as amazing, but it's as good as the processed version and quicker in a pinch. Add to one cup sour cream: - 1½ Tablespoon dried minced onion - 1 teaspoon dried parsley - ¼ teaspoon black pepper - ¾ teaspoon salt (or more) - ¼ teaspoon onion powder (or more) - ¼ teaspoon turmeric - ⅛ teaspoon celery seeds (or celery salt) - dash cayenne

What I love most about this recipe, beyond the fact that my husband loves it, is how it knocks the chip dip in the store right out. Check out these ingredients:


If you ask me, that’s 7 actual foods plus 18 chemicals, non-foods, and food-like products.


I’ll take my 9 whole foods ingredients any day.

The terrible irony of this post is that in order to test the chip dip, I bought a bag of chips.

Processed chips.

Probably the first bag I’ve purchased in a year (hmmm, maybe that’s why the husband was so agreeable to the dip!).

If you make this chip dip during October #unprocessed, you’re going to need to make homemade potato chips, too.

But (crunch)…it will be worth it.

This recipe and other reverse engineered goodies will be part of Better Than a Box, my upcoming eBook designed to help you transform your processed foods recipes into whole foods favorites. It’s due out…soon…but it’s caramelizing right now so it tastes better, and you know how that takes a long time.

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25 Comments on "Reverse Engineering The Box (And A Homemade French Onion Chip Dip Recipe)"

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Sarah, Simply Cooked

Fantastic. Thanks for the advice to just ignore all the ingredients that you don’t recognise – they are not foods anyway!


I cannot wait to try this!


Thank you, Katie!! I had given up on dips in general because of my allergy to MSG. I can’t wait to try this and will look forward to you new ebook.

Katie @ Kitchen Stewardship

There are so many good dip recipes out there – I do another one with yogurt cheese (or sour cream), fresh garlic, some spices, and lemon juice. Super simple, so yummy on veggies!

You do dips unprocessed! 🙂 Katie

Katie @ Kitchen Stewardship

It doesn’t work every time, but about 90% of the foods I’ve tried it in, it works out great. 🙂 Katie

Tina @ MorePleaseRecipes

I will HAVE to try this! My boyfriend’s family is obsessed with French Onion dip and it’s there every single time I go over to his parents. I’m excited to try this out and hopefully convert them!


So, I’m thinking this must actually be good for you, seeing as how you burn off excess calories standing at the stove caramelizing onions, and even more if you are standing there making potato chips. And deflecting taste testers would add a cardio workout, wouldn’t it? I’m only half kidding, because aside from tasting so much better, this recipe (with homemade chips) really does have a lot of healthy ingredients without any of the garbage in commercial versions. Awesome!

Katie @ Kitchen Stewardship

Oh, my goodness, I know – real food can be a workout! It’s the slicing of the potato chips that can really give you good pipes, though. 😉 I caramelized the onions by ignoring them for 20 minutes. 🙂 Katie

Dana @ FoodieGoesHealthy
Dana @ FoodieGoesHealthy

Thanks so much for sharing this strategy. I have several beloved family recipes that use this packet of onion soup mix and other “convenience foods.” You have given me inspiration to adapt some family recipes– I think I’ll work on the brisket first.


I love homemade dips! I’m not a huge french onion dip fan, but it’s a good option to have for parties and guests. My one stop real foods dip secret is that homemade plain yogurt (possibly strained if yours is on the runny side) can be substituted one for one in every dip recipe I’ve ever encountered with little to no taste difference. I’ll admit that when it comes to the fruit and granola yogurt bowl breakfast idea, I have not been able to wean myself off the sweetened “yogurt” I grew up on, so I just gave up on eating yogurt at all. But mix it up as a veggie or chip dip, and it’s such an easy way to take in probiotics!

Try using a homemade ranch seasoning mix in a dip sometime as well 🙂

Katie @ Kitchen Stewardship

I never liked chip dip of any kind, but this one, homemade – seriously addicting. I bet I would like it better with Greek/strained yogurt since I’m not a huge fan of sour cream to begin with.

Great ideas! 🙂 Ktie


I just search for a recipe.. LOL Maybe being a mom blogger and following a few mom blogs I find that many moms do that! I know I take the easy way out…. I have found recipes for dressings, pop tarts and more.

Noel B

Thanks for sharing, as this looks great. FYI I have heard that Kettle brand baked potato chips are “unprocessed” as they only have 3 ingredients and no preservatives, but I have not tried them yet myself.

Katie @ Kitchen Stewardship

A lot of chips actually have few ingredients (if they’re not the seasoned kind), but it comes down to how you rate fats and oils for #unprocessed – for me, I couldn’t squeeze oil out of corn or soybeans in my kitchen, so they don’t really count. 🙂 Katie


I tried making a ranch dressing because I normally add it to the miracle whip when I make devilled eggs. I was going to omit the miracle whip but found it to be bland. I’m not good figuring what flavor/seasoning is missing. I ended up not eating any of the finished eggs because of the Miracle Whip, but I did have to taste the yolk to be sure it was ok. I sprinkle tops with Salad Elegance for extra zap of flavor.
I’ll keep trying to get it right, I keep trying to cut out sodium & that may be my downfall.
My Quick salad dressing or dip recipe is Greek Yogurt & juices from tomato or diced up tomato. When I cut tomatoes up for my salad I squeeze the juices into the Yogurt! Mix it up & the pour it on the salad.

Hannah Cordes

I love your tips to un-process packaged food! This onion dip sounds heavenly and I’ll be making it this weekend for a football crowd.


This is fantastic! I’m hosting Thanksgiving this year and a staple of my family holiday meals is celery stuffed with cream cheese mixed with onion soup mix. I’m totally going to do the filling this way. Just use cream cheese instead of sour cream right?

Nancy Nurse

Why would you use unhealthy butters, dairy and oils?

Katie @ Kitchen Stewardship

If one is allergic to milk or lactose intolerant, sure, it’s unhealthy – but people have been drinking milk for many 100s of years, and I for one count well-raised animal products among the healthier foods we can find. REAL butter (mine is organic and grassfed) rather than “butter” made in a lab by scientists has been demonized, but mostly by the companies that sell fake butter. There weren’t any oils in this recipe…I don’t trust industrial oils like corn, soybean, etc. any farther than I can throw them. Probably less.

On saturated fats like butter:

And dairy fats:

There’s always someone who says something bad about every food out there (even water!), but for me, I measure health in large part by what humans have thrived on for 1000s of years, rather than 50-100 years.

Thanks for the good question!
🙂 Katie


Hi Nancy,

A little while back I wrote a post about milk which you may find interesting. It’s a difficult topic, and people seem to be incredibly passionate about milk in particular.

I also created a Cooking Oil Comparison Chart earlier this year with Andy Bellatti, a registered dietitian.

Hope that helps! 🙂


I’m having a definite impulse to just make and eat a batch of this for lunch today with as many vegetables as I can get my hands on. Sounds so good!