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Make or buy: cost effective food staples?

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I was curious after reading this article on Slate (http://www.slate.com/id/2216611) about doing a cost/benefit analysis of the effort involved to make staples at home versus purchasing at the supermarket.

She covered bagels, cream cheese, yoghurt, jam, crackers, and granola. I make my own staples at home but have never done a price estimate. Has anyone else done something like this?

I'd be interested in gathering other peoples results and opinions - perhaps even to start a compilation for reference! Many thanks!

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  1. I bake quite a lot of bread. I did a rough comparison (excluding my time) to calculate the possibility of savings on a one pound loaf. Flour (good quality bread flour) is about $1 a pound. The yeast (about 5 grams total) costs about 5 cents. The water necessary to make a loaf is about 1 cent and the salt and any other ingredients total less than 5 cents. The electric power (I have an electric range) runs about 15 cents. So if I can find a one pound loaf of bread for under $1.30 (hasn't happened yet) it's far less expensive for me to bake my own.

    1 Reply
    1. re: todao

      Well, and bearing in mind that the one pound loaf of bread YOU turn out will be of much higher quality with no preservatives or other weirdo ingredients... the comparison then becomes $1.30 for a loaf of high-quality preservative-free bread. In the store? Impossible!

    2. I just estimated that the ingredients alone cost me about $8.50 for a batch of peach jam. This does not include labor (which is enjoyable for me), or equipment (already have the canner and the jars). Add about $1.50 for the lids for one batch and that brings it to $10 for about 3 pint jars of homemade jam with locally grown, organic peaches picked by me at an orchard at the height of ripeness. I'm pretty sure that's quite a bit less than what a high-quality jam would cost at the store, but if nothing else, it makes me happy to do it. They just planted a peach tree, so I am looking forward to someday having free peaches!

      I make my own lemonade and lemon-grapefruit-ade from home grown lemons and grapefruit from my parents as well. They are inundated with fruit every year. Both my freezers are filled with juice. Making the juice is MUCH cheaper than buying lemonade. Tastier too. We also use the juice for cooking and baking throughout the year.

      I would love to make my own crusty white bread, but every time I try, it just doesn't come out right.

      1. In recent months, after reading many CH posts about how much better and cheaper soaked-and-cooked dry beans are than canned ones, I started buying dry beans. I gave in to the temptation to buy about a dozen bags of heirloom variety dry legumes online - they are SO pretty in their dry form, but virtually all of them turn sullen, solid colors after cooking. The heirlooms are at least 3 times the price of bags of dry beans at the supermarket. With a few exceptions, I do not think there's much of a difference in taste and texture between home-cooked and canned beans. So it comes down to price: most one-lb bags yield 3 cups of dry, which usually translates to 6 cups cooked. This equals the drained contents of four 15.5 oz cans. House brand canned beans, and national brand beans on sale, can be anywhere from $.50 to over $1.00 per can. So, that's about $2-4, which is twice the cost of dry beans at sale and regular prices (not counting the fuel cost of 60-90 minutes of simmering). Not a huge cost savings, unless compared to the pound price, plus shipping, for heirloom dry beans. However, not having to lug heavy cans, then rinse and recycle them, makes dry beans a better choice for me.

        2 Replies
        1. re: greygarious

          I agree for many reasons. A few years ago I learned that I could freeze already soaked beans - made a difference for me (it's just the two of us). I soak a pound bag, cook 1/3 of them, and freeze two others. Thaw and cook.

          1. re: bayoucook

            Ooh! Great idea! I freeze mine cooked but that limits the application somewhat. I'll be doing this in the future!! :)

        2. If one factors in labor costs and time, there are very few things that are cost-effective to make at home versus buying at the store.

          The reason I make certain things at home versus buying them at the store is because they are either healthier (less preservatives) or taste better. But more often than it's just for the pure intrinsic joy of making it.

          6 Replies
          1. re: ipsedixit

            Some condiments that are simple combinations of common ingeredients are no-brainers for a lower unit cost with little time invested. Cocktail sauce, tartar sauce, mustard sauce for stone crabs, and honey butter come to mind; I'm sure there are many more.

            1. re: Veggo

              Hmm, I'm not so sure about that.

              Let's take one of your examples: cocktail sauce.

              Average retail price for a bottle of cocktail sauce (5 to 7.5 oz) is probably somewhere around 4 to 6 dollars, depending on the brand. (And you can probably get it for cheaper if it's on sale, or with a coupon -- but then we digress)

              If I'm making a basic cocktail sauce, I'm going to need at least some or all of the following:

              ketchup
              horseradish
              lemon juice
              salt, or celery salt
              tabasco sauce

              I'm no so sure I can make cocktail sauce using the above ingredients for under $4, esp.if you factor in things like labor, the cost of the jar or storage container, and time.

              1. re: ipsedixit

                It's folly to factor in your labor unless you would otherwise be being paid for the time you spend in the kitchen and supermarket, Containers - you have them already and I hope you're not going to charge for your dishwashing.

                1. re: greygarious

                  I don't think discounting labor is the right way to think about it.

                  Because, at least for me, I value my free time -- even if I don't get paid for it. It's the opportunity cost of making cocktail sauce. If I wasn't making cocktail sauce, I could be taking a siesta or posting on Chowhound -- and I place a good deal of value (e.g. I derive alot of pleasure) in both of those activities.

                  But it's like I said above -- I make alot of things at home not necessarily because I think its cost-effective to do so. I make them at home because I find intrinsic value and pleasure in doing so.

                  1. re: ipsedixit

                    I agree with you BOTH, ipsedixit and greygarious! I value my free time SO I cook. Therefore the "price" of my labor (not bloody much, I can tell you) is not a factor in my price comparisons. I'm already going to do something I enjoy (like cooking) in my spare time, so I might as well save myself some scratch at the same time.

                2. re: ipsedixit

                  I always have all those ingredients on hand, so to mix up enough for that particular meal takes just a minute and no added outlay to me. It's not necessary to make a pint of it to hang around when you only need a bit and it's so easy to stir together.

            2. I really think you can save a lot of$$$ by making your own staples at home. I think the trick is that you have to have a large enough family to consume them to make it cost effective. Also a lot of times I find that I really enjoy doing it at home. Another trick is having enough space to store what you make. Here are a few examples that I do at home on a regular basis.

              1. Homemade salad dressing ( so much cheaper)
              2. Bread crumbs
              3.Soup stocks
              4.truffles (thats a staple right)
              5.Enchilada sauce
              6.croutons
              7.spice blends
              8. I grow my own herbs
              9.lemoncello
              10. pie crust
              11, Pizza dough
              12. chutneys and relish

              4 Replies
              1. re: Analisas mom

                I make many of these items at home- bread crumbs, salad dressing, croutons, spice blends/rubs, pizza dough. I just started growing some herbs. Homemade versions of these products taste better to me- wasn't thinking of the cost. Croutons and breadcrumbs are made from day old or stale bread. Salad dressings I prefer to make because I don't like the gummy, fake texture of storebought dressings.

                1. re: cheesecake17

                  Analisas list is exactly like mine, and like cheesecake, I do it for the taste. I admit I've turned into such a salad dressing snob that I can't stand the store bought varieties anymore. I also make bagels, yogurt, and granola, which are consumed in amazingly large quantities in our house, and that DEFINITELY save me money...even with the cost of maple syrup.

                  1. re: RosemaryHoney

                    There's one restaurant that has the most amazing salad dressing. They sell a pint of it for $5. It's the only dressing I'll buy- and I don't want to try to duplicate it at home b/c god knows that's in it!

                2. re: Analisas mom

                  I got all excited when I saw "truffles" on your list -- I pictured some sort of truffle log, LOL. But no, you mean CHOCOLATES. And, while I do love chocolates, I'd give an eye-tooth to be able to produce my own delicious truffles, the fungi kind, I mean. Now THAT would save money!

                3. The one staple I always make from scratch is chicken stock. First, homemade tastes so much better than canned. Second, I buy whole chickens and cut them up myself. The backs & wings I use for stock. Essentially, the chicken is "free". The price of the stock is a mere pittance, the cost of vegetables.

                  2 Replies
                  1. re: Diane in Bexley

                    Same with me. Chicken carcasses are frozen (or bone-in/skin-on chicken breasts that have been eaten) for later stock making. The slight cost of the mirepoix ingredients and herbs for seasoning is nothing. Put it all in a crockpot for 24 hours, and the actual time spent is virtually nothing. I probably spend more time separating out the bits of chicken (and carrots) for the cats then I do actually making the stock.

                    1. re: Diane in Bexley

                      Well, and you can use vegetable scraps if you want something that's actually free to make -- my stock is bones and skin from a couple roasted chickens and the trimmings from onions, celery, carrots, garlic and parsley. Turning garbage into treasure.

                    2. I make just about everything at home other than ketchup (which I use very little of). Yogurt is about 100 times better than what you can buy at about 1/5 the cost.

                      1. We found it wasn't cost effective to make our own mozzarella- the really good, fresh whole milk was around $7 per gallon, and the cheese wasn't very good on top of the cost.

                        If you have a cow, or a milk share or other means of getting really fresh cheap milk, this probably doesn't apply.

                        1 Reply
                        1. re: Coconuts

                          Maintaining a milk cow is very expensive.

                        2. I find it's most cost effective to make my own *conveinence* foods not staples. Example: cornbread mix. If I'm making cornbread, at the same time I make up that night's batch I can build a mix for at least 3 more batches, put them in ziploc bags and store in the freezer. I use a soy egg replacement and powdered milk so all I have to add is oil and water to make up the cornbread. I use a permanent marker on the bag for the instructions so that even my husband or cooking impaired mother can mix up a batch. Heck, you could mix the whole mess IN the bag if you want to.

                          The ingredients are minimal, the taste is better than the mix, and the labor is nothing, I was making cornbread and getting out the ingredients anyway, I just measure a little more and put stuff in the bags. If I really got organized, I'd make labels and keep them on the computer to print out as needed. But sharpie on plastic bags works for me.

                          I do the same thing when I make pancakes, add powered milk or powdered buttermilk if I really want to, or just add the milk as an ingredient. These kinds of convenience foods are much more expensive in the store and ridiculously inexpensive to make at home. but cornbread and pancakes are considered staples in our house. We eat them all the time in lieu of bread for breakfast.

                          I'll make my own "convenience" frozen onions. I'll need 1/2 or 1/4 cup of onion for something so I get out two big onions, dice them both and put the rest in a freezer bag, spread out thinly so I can break it back up and masure what's needed for the next recipe. I mean, I'm already crying and getting all oniony, dirtying a cutting board and knife, I might as well make it worth my while. Yes, you loose some of the onion's fresh sharp potency, but I'm ok with that. I do this every time I need to get some onion and then I've finally gotten my way through the discount bulk bag of onions before they spoil. Then I work my way through the stash in the freezer until I get to the last bag and then I buy more onions.

                          If I need fresh onion for a salsa or other fresh/raw application then yeah, frozen isn't good. But most of the time time it works just fine.

                          Creme fraich is the other thing I use and make from scratch. Even if I could find it reliably here, and even with the high cost of whipping cream, it's still unbelievably expensive to buy and so much cheaper to make yourself. Lemon curd is cheaper to make too.

                          And croutons, and melba toast. OMG, melba toast is ridiculously easy to make. Have you seen what one of thse teeny boxes costs??? 2.50 or more? Take bread. slice thinly. Getting fancy? Cut into shapes. Put in oven at 250 for 1-2 hours. Check and turn over every half hour. Stop when it's complely crispy and dry through. That's it.

                          Yep, the more I think about it, the more I'm convinced that staples are often cheaper to buy but it's the convenience items that are more cost efficient to make yourself.

                          1. Pizza dough, in fact the whole pizza is made from scratch.
                            Pie crust
                            Soft pretzels
                            Bread crumbs

                            Pasta sauces
                            Salad dressings
                            Chicken/beef/veg stocks
                            Ketchup.. are just a few things.

                            3 Replies
                            1. re: BamiaWruz

                              I make everything on your list except ketchup, but I make my own mustard. I buy 356 brand ketchup at Whole Foods on sale because I hate the mouth feel and taste of foods made with HFCS. I bake almost everything in my house, and prefer to make my own sheet and flat noodle pastas when I have the time.

                              I grow 95% of my herbs and 75% of the fresh veggies I eat, plus what I freeze.

                              1. re: Kelli2006

                                Kelli - try Heinz organic ketchup. The way their ketchup *used* to taste! (And no HFCS)

                                1. re: LindaWhit

                                  I buy WF's 356 ketchup that is as good as Heinz and about 21/3 of the price. I preferred Smucker's catsup, but that was discontinued earlier this decade.

                            2. tabbouleh made at home is about 1/3 the cost of the deli tabbouleh.
                              similarly, hummus.
                              jalapeño jam and strawberry jam are at least half the price.
                              ranch dressing made with dried herbs, buttermilk and mayo is cheaper (and 100% better) than grocery brands.

                              2 Replies
                              1. re: alkapal

                                I agree with you, I make taboula too at home (In fact I'm making some right now) and others like tahini sauce, and hummus are always home made, labna too.

                                1. re: BamiaWruz

                                  oh right! labneh one can do while sleeping (literally!).

                              2. I've got a new one lately--I recently started roasting green coffee beans with an old air popcorn popper. I really had no idea I could make coffee this good for this small of an investment. I like good coffee, and pay for it, so I'm finding that this is pretty darn cost effective for me. Green beans cost at least half of what I'd buy them roasted for.