If I have a finger for every love in my life, one is given to food and another one, likely an opposable thumb, is given to Ben, my dog. Together, those two loves have produced this recipe for homemade dog food which I have been feeding to my super/wonder-dog for years.
For those new to my blog or me, Ben is my 17½ year old terrier-cross companion who is more than a fixture in my life: he is a reflection of all that is good and true about me and my heart. You can read much more about Ben in the “Benjamin Project,” a project I started earlier this year in a bid to document his life. For 30 days straight, I posted about Ben and in that big reveal, about both him and myself, you would have also learned that started cooking for when Ben came into my life in Poland … and I still do.
Some claim that Ben’s super-dog longevity is in part owed to what I feed him and his love of my cooking; Anne reminds me whenever Ben lifts up his nose at kibble that I recently fed him scampi, so what should I expect? I want to be clear that I’m not a dietician nor am I veterinarian; I’m not even a trained chef. And one dog, not matter his age, is proof of very little. Having said all that, I’m incredibly thankful for whatever anomaly he may in fact be and I continue to cook for him late into his senior years in the belief it is fueling is longevity.
The dish that follows was inspired by the ingredient list on the back of his triple premium dog food that he used to eat before he was diagnosed with Cushing’s disease (which is presumed to be caused by a micro-tumour on his pituitary gland). This diagnosis came almost four years ago and at the time he was given 6 months to live; the most optimistic prognosis for dogs receiving the diagnosis of a microtumor when older than 12 years old is no more than two more years. And yet Ben remains a vibrant and vital force in my life. The only medicine he receives is a professional afternoon dogwalk to deal the byproduct of his excessive thirst (a need to urinate more), unconditional love, and a daily breakfast of the following creation….
I won’t lie. Making this dog food is a lot of work. However, it produces a large quantity of food which lasts Ben 3-4 months; still, it amounts to an afternoon of my life every 3-4 months. I do it because Ben loves this food; because it sustains him; because it nourishes and keeps him healthy; because I love him this much and more. I will say, however, that time aside, the dog food I produce is cheaper than any premium dog food and what Ben is eating is “human ready food” which even human’s think tastes pretty damn good.
Finally, there is one more tremendous bonus that accrues from this quarterly production. Ben’s dog food, or more accurately the boiling used to prepare the chicken thighs in the dog food, is the source of my liquid gold, my ubiquitous and ever-present chicken stock. Were it not for this fact, you might be wondering why I’m throwing veggies and ingredients like fresh rosemary and peppercorns into the water, but I learned right from the very beginning that this production produces the most “chickeny” and flavourful stock I’ve yet produced. It might even be good enough to convince some of you to get a dog.
In terms of cooking tips, there are a few things I’ve learned along the way. First of all, you’re going to need a good food processor, a good and over-sized stock pot, and a thick sturdy wooden spoon … and freezer containers (and a freezer). Next, you’ll note that not everything needs to be cooked. Ben has always loved raw broccoli, carrots, and apple so I asked myself why I was bothering to cook these ingredients. Simply ‘grind’ them up raw and throw them in with the ground beef. The hot ground beef will, ever-so-slightly, par-cook the veggies and the veggies will help cool the beef. Next, be careful how much barley and sweet potato mixture you put in the food processor. Indeed, for younger and/or bigger dogs, you may choose to not process this at all. For a 17½ year old dog, though, it helps with the digestion; but, note, these high starch ingredients will quickly slow down most machines, so add them in degrees along with other ingredients you’re pureeing like the chicken. Ben loves the beets but I strongly suggest you only use beets if you can find golden beets: conventional purple beets will be a staining scourge from stove to dog bowl if you aren’t careful. Finally, all the reading I’ve done suggests that dogs need a higher fat diet than us humans — nevertheless, I’ll throw away about half the beef drippings and instead throw back in the extra chicken fat that comes off the chicken stock.
And so there you have it … homemade dog food. A recipe a share with the world hoping it brings you a long and good life with your own much loved dog.
Prep time: 1 hour
Cook time: 2 hours
Stand time: 1 hour
Mixing/Packaging: 1 hour
Total time: 4-5 hours
Servings: 3-4 months
Homemade Super Dog Food … aka Ben’s Breakfast
- 7½ lbs (3.5kg) chicken thighs, skin removed but bone-in
- 5½ lbs (2.5kg) lean ground beef
- 2 cups barley
- 3 lbs (1.3kg) sweet potato
- 1 lb (0.5kg) golden beets
- 2 lbs (1kg) carrots
- 2 lbs (1kg) broccoli
- 3½ lbs (1.5kg) apples
- 3 cups (750mL) tomato sauce, or equivalent
(I used a marinara sauce in this case)
- 20 Ziploc sandwich bags
- 5 large Ziploc freezer bags
- 6 cups (1.5L) water
- large onion
- celery heal and tops
- 3-4 large sprigs rosemary
- 20 peppercorns wrapped in cheese cloth
- tops and tails of veggies above
(carrots, sweet potato, broccoli)
- Remove the skin from the chicken thighs and toss them into a 16 quart stock pot.
Add the stock ingredients (see above) and fill with water to cover all ingredients plus an additional 2 inches of water. Cover and bring to boil then simmer for 90 more minutes (approximately 2 hours of total cooking).
- Meanwhile, place ground beef in a large Dutch oven (or fry in batches in a smaller pan) over high heat and begin to fry. Stir regularly, especially at the beginning, to ensure you keep the beef broken into small pieces. About half way through the cooking, drain off the drippings and discard (this will allow you to keep ‘frying’ vs. boiling he meat). When meat is fully cooked to an internal temperature of 170 degrees, remove from heat and let cool.
- While meat is cooking, in a large pot (e.g. pasta pot) add the barley and water. Wash the beets and sweet potatoes. Remove any nasty bits but DO NOT PEEL. Cube beets into 1″ chunks and cube sweet potato into 1½” chunks. Add the beets and sweet potato to the barley and water and bring to a boil.
Cover and simmer for approximately 45 minutes … at this point, the beets should be tender to the fork and barley soft to the tooth. Make sure the pot doesn’t cook dry, but if a little water remains, don’t worry. Remove from heat and let stand for 30 minutes.
- Meanwhile, wash the broccoli and apples and scrub the carrots. Do not peel any of them (the peels at extra and important nutrients). Chop the carrots into the large chunks and place them in a food processor and, in batches, process until a fine meal. Place ground carrots in a large bowl.
Do the same with the broccoli and add them to the bowl.
Core and quarter the apples and chop them fine in the food processor as well but be careful you don’t make apple sauce with them. Add them to the bowl.
Mix all together add cooling ground beef to the bowl as well and stir in to par-cook veggies and help meat cool.
- Remove lid from barley/sweet potato/beet mixture and using a sturdy potato masher, mash everything together. Let cool.
- Chicken should be ready by this point. Using a large collander or the strainer from a pasta pot, pour chicken and stock ingredients into a large bowl or pot. Hang strainer back over the stock pot and let chicken cool.
- Meanwhile, place chicken stock in an ice-bath (cold water and ice) to cool and stir regularly until stock has reduced to a warm temperature.
- Here are the steps to salvaging this exceptional chicken stock (it would be shame to throw this away). Pour the stock through a medium mesh strainer into a fat separator (e.g. used for making gravy), and let each batch in turn sit for a few minutes as the fat separates.
Pour off the stock into freezer containers (e.g. 2 cup measures are best) and ‘discard’ the chicken fat into the bowl with the meat and veggies. Repeat until all stock has been portioned out. Cover with lids, label (with date) and freeze.
- By this point the chicken should have cooled enough that you can handle it and separate the waste from the good stuff (the meat and some of veggies). Each thigh contains a single bone — discard the bones, the peppercorns, and most of the other stock ingredients.
→ Empty the 16 quart stock pot which you will use to mix the food.
- In stock pot add one third of the meat/veggie mixture and a third of the tomato sauce and mix.
- Fill the food processor two-thirds full with chicken thighs and a few scoops of the barley mixture and process until smooth. Add to the stock pot on top of the beef-veggie mix.
Repeat until you have processed half the chicken.
- Top the chicken in the stock pot with another third of the beef-veggie mixture and another third of the tomato sauce and mix together with your sturdy wooden spoon. Then process the remainder of the chicken, as above. Top the chicken puree with the last third of the beef-veggie mix and the last of the tomato sauce. Optionally add a good squeeze of beef bouillon concentrate (e.g. Bovril) or salt … dogs need salt too.Flex your arm muscles now and start to stir and mix the dog food well, making sure to mix it from top to bottom evenly: this is why you layered the ingredients in the stock pot (to making mixing easier). As your arm fills with lactic acid, you will need to repeat to yourself over and over that you love your dog.Taste for seasoning (salt) and adjust as necessary. It shouldn’t be salty but it should taste good to your palette. If you won’t eat it, fido will likely turn up his/her nose as well. Remember, this is all human food so don’t be shy to taste.
- Now prepare to bag the food. This is the finicky and fumbly part of the job. I use Ziploc sandwich bags for the portions, filling them 3/4 full with a large spoon — be careful not to get dog food on the ziplock edges or they won’t seal well.
Carefully flatten and force out the air before sealing baggies. Repeat until all baggies are full; you should fill somewhere between 16-20 portions, depending on how much food you made. Place 4 baggies in a large freezer bag and lay flat before sealing them closed. Repeat until done.
Lay flat in a freezer … and voila, you’re done.Take out a bag 24 hours before use and let defrost in fridge before transferring to another container (the baggies have a tendency to either cause condensation or leak in the fridge).
- Serving size will depending on the size of your dog, but Ben, a 25lb terrier-cross, gets three heaping tablespoons for breakfast which I microwave for 20 seconds to take the chill off of before serving. Serve ….
… and watch for the smiles.