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:

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.

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.

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.

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