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?

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty. Click image to expand.

Although I love to cook, I've always secretly, darkly, suspected it is costlier to craft at home what you can buy at Ralph's. Obviously, homemade bread tastes better than Wonder, but does playing Martha Stewart really save you money? While packaged food is mostly lousy, some of it can be spectacularly inexpensive. Out of work and increasingly obsessed with our grocery budget, I decided to test my intuition and run a cost-benefit analysis on how much I'd save—if anything—by making from scratch six everyday foods that I usually purchase from Safeway and my local bakery.

Except where noted, I chose the most affordable products and ingredients available (i.e., the 10-pound sack of generic sugar instead of a tiny pouch of organic cane sugar from Whole Foods) and priced everything down to the last grain of salt. Based on an estimate from my utility company, it costs around 32 cents per hour to run an electric oven. To melt butter slowly over a gas burner: 9 cents per hour. To boil water, more like 14 cents per hour. I take it as a given that everyone knows better than to quit their job—any job—to take up cracker-baking, so I attached no value to time. I happen to love messing around in the kitchen. Here's what I found:

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Bagels
There's so much mystique surrounding bagels (water vs. egg? How should you shape them? etc.), I doubted my attempts to bake them would amount to much. But aside from shaping the dough into tidy rings, which I find unaccountably impossible, bagels are one of the quickest, easiest breads you can make. I tried five different recipes, from Jewish cooking guru Joan Nathan's to the fabled Montreal bagels, which are heavier and sweeter. But the one I fell for, and have now baked a half-dozen times, is from Bernard Clayton's New Book of Breads. These are "Jo Goldenberg's bagels," named for a restaurant-deli in Paris (figures) where they were once sold. You can start these chewy, flavorful bagels at 8 on a Sunday morning and serve them to brunch guests at 11. They will be awestruck.

Cheaper than store-bought? Dramatically. If you break down the cost of Clayton's recipe, it works out to 23 cents per bagel. Moreover, if you use bulk yeast, which you should if you do much baking, the price drops to 15 cents. By comparison, one of Thomas' so-called "bagels" is 45 cents. A fresh bagel from Noah's in San Francisco: 75 cents. At H&H Bagels in New York City: $1.20!

Better than store-bought? These are by far the best bagels I've ever eaten.

Make or buy? Make.

Cream Cheese
I had the bagels. I needed some cream cheese. I turned to Anne Mendelson's authoritative and invaluable 2008 book, Milk,  for a recipe that takes about 24 hours, start to finish, most of which you can spend lying on the sofa. The only hitch is tracking down Junket—the once-ubiquitous brand of rennet. A pantry staple back when everyone was making those jiggly Jell-O-like desserts, rennet's not the supermarket standby it once was. (You can order it here, though the shipping will cost you more than the Junket itself. A better idea: Check the back of your grandmother's pantry. Seriously.) Like yogurt, cream cheese is quite simple, in theory—give some milk the proper conditions, and it will do what it needs to do.

Cheaper than store-bought? No. Homemade costs more than Philadelphia brand and almost twice as much as Safeway generic.

Better than store-bought? Not better, not worse, but not cream cheese—mild, spreadable, neatly wrapped in foil—as we have come to understand it and therefore confusing. No one knew quite what to do with this rich and tangy dairy product, and after a week, I sheepishly threw it away.

Make or buy? Buy.

Yogurt
When I was growing up, my mother made yogurt in a cute little Salton machine, but she didn't really need one, something I learned from Milk. Mendelson's classic yogurt formula, which is identical to the method offered by food scientist Harold McGee in a recent New York Times story, could not be simpler: You heat and then cool a half-gallon of milk, stir in 4 tablespoons of yogurt, and leave the mixture in a warm place (like a turned-off oven 20 minutes after you've removed the roast) overnight. In the morning, pour it into a sieve lined with a clean pillowcase to drain. (Save the whey, which you can use instead of water when you make bread or bagels.) After a few hours: yogurt. The first time I watched this metamorphosis, I felt like a sorcerer.

Cheaper than store-bought? Shockingly, yes, and by a lot. The ingredients to make 4 cups of ambrosial yogurt cost roughly $1.75. The cheapest, most insipid quart of factory-made yogurt that I found locally: $2.50.

Better? Much better. By comparison, even premium brands seem thin, sour, and harsh. The only product that comes close—Greek yogurt—costs more than four times as much.

Make or buy? Make.

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