How cost-effective is it to make pantry staples from scratch?

What to eat. What not to eat.
April 22 2009 12:17 PM

Scratch That

How cost-effective is it to make homemade pantry staples?

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Jam
Though I come from a family of ace canners, I am nonetheless ambivalent about the whole sweaty business—the steamy kitchen, infernally rattling kettles, crabby women stuck inside on a sunny afternoon. But after buying a couple of pounds of organic strawberries the other day, I decided to put up some preserves. Ninety minutes later, after simmering sticky fruit and sugar until it gelled on a cold plate, pouring the molten substance into sterilized jars, and conscientiously (my mother would say "overly" conscientiously) processing them in a cauldron of boiling water, I had succeeded.

Cheaper than store-bought? Depends. My organic strawberry jam cost slightly more than the corn-syrup-sweetened Safeway brand but less than the premium Bonne Maman.

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Better than store-bought? Yes—brighter, tarter, fresher—though a kid would never notice in a peanut butter sandwich.

Make or buy? If I'd stopped with the strawberry, I might have said buy. But when my father brought over a crate of Meyer lemons from his tree, I spontaneously made nine jars of rockin' marmalade. Now that was some exotic, crazy-good jam. It wound up costing $1.50 a jar—and most of that was jar. Safeway doesn't sell lemon marmalade, so I tracked down a petite jar at a fancy grocery store in Berkeley, Calif.: $13.50. I know. You don't have free lemons, so what's the point of this smug anecdote? One day you will have a lot of free fruit on your hands, and that's when you make jam. It's probably how jam was invented. My conclusion: Make it, but only when the fruit is free or close to it.

Crackers
Homemade-cracker recipes range from wafers of hardtack austerity to cheese pennies. But the most crackerlike ones I made—salty crackers you might spread with peanut butter and mindlessly eat while watching The Office—were the "rich crackers" from the King Arthur Flour Baker's Companion, buttery little puppies that took about three minutes to mix.

Cheaper than store-bought? A wash. Both "rich crackers" and Safeway's Ritz knockoffs cost about 2 cents per cracker.

Better than store-bought? Again, a wash. My crackers had a flaky home-baked je ne sais quoi, but they lacked the inimitable factory crunch.

Make or buy? Probably buy. It's more fun to spend your time making something people will really go crazy over, like Alton Brown's granola.

Granola
Brown's granola will change, possibly ruin, your life. You mix the components—oats, brown sugar, maple syrup, almonds—in a baking pan and pop it in the oven, where it will fill your home with the fragrance of toasted nuts and eventually make you very happy and very fat.

Cheaper than store-bought? At $1.45 per cup, no. Thanks largely to the staggering price of maple syrup, Brown's granola costs roughly three times what you pay for Quaker 100% Natural. But when compared with a premium brand like Bear Naked, which works out to around $1.70 per cup, Brown's granola begins to seem more reasonable. Plus, you can customize your granola, making it sweeter, omitting raisins, adding chocolate chips …

Better? Vastly. World-beating, super-crunchy cereal, worth every calorie and penny.

Make or buy? Make it. Budget be damned.

The experiment wasn't a complete victory for the home cook, but it came remarkably close. Stupid cream cheese. That a human being can generally produce tastier food than a factory is hardly surprising, but while I desperately hoped it would be cheaper to cook at home, I was shocked when, in many cases, it actually was. It's one thing to eat runny yogurt and flaccid bagels because they're a bargain; it's another entirely to pay for the privilege. My verdict: If you've been eyeing some intimidating culinary project—mozzarella, marshmallows, vanilla?—give it a try. It might be fun, it might be delicious, and it might very well save you some money.

Jennifer Reese, former book critic for Entertainment Weekly, blogs at the Tipsy Baker. Her book, Make the Bread, Buy the Butter, will come out in paperback in October.

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