How to master ________ cooking on a tight budget?
May 21, 2009 3:52 AM   Subscribe

I need to eat cheaply. Can I do so while extending my cooking ability in a specific direction? What cuisines, categories, or focuses can my home cooking pinpoint while living on a budget?

Just in case this isn't clear: are there types of foods, foods from specific regions, etc., that are generally low-cost while having a fair amount of breadth? Or is this a dumb question - do all cuisines have consistent scales that more or less overlap of low to high cost food?
posted by Picklegnome to Food & Drink (22 answers total) 55 users marked this as a favorite
I understand Egyptian to be heavy on legumes and vegetables; I read this in a little description accompanying a yummy megadarra recipe I make (which, case in point, is cheap as chips - lentils and onion and spices are about it), so that'd make me inclined to check Eqyptian recipes out as my first port of call. The Wikipedia entry on Egyptian cuisine even mentions the high cost of meat being something that's lead to their focus on cooking with food that grows out of the ground.
posted by springbound at 4:05 AM on May 21, 2009

Italian. Tinned tomatoes and pasta are about as cheap as it comes, and most of the meals allow for making huge portions which can be frozen for use over time.
posted by fire&wings at 4:12 AM on May 21, 2009

Best answer: As a category, vegetarian is often cheaper just because you don't need meat. And vegan means no cheese, other dairy or honey, all of which can be expensive.

The alternate sources of protein you might include in a vegan/veggo meal are cheap too. Tofu is available cheaply from Asian groceries. Beans are super-cheap just at the supermarket and cheapest if you buy them in packets and boil them yourself. But even cans of beans are a steal compared to a steak. There are plenty of expensive vegetarian and vegan ingredients available, but you don't HAVE to use them.

There are a zillion vegetarian recipe sites to explore, too.

Plenty of vegan ones too.
posted by t0astie at 4:38 AM on May 21, 2009 [1 favorite]

Learn to cook beans and lentils. They're ridiculously cheap when you buy them dry, even cheaper than cans. A 1lb can will cost a little more than a buck, which isn't bad, but a 1lb bag of dried beans will probably be a little less than a buck, and there's no water weight in there, so you wind up getting about twice as many actual beans, even after throwing out the marginal ones. But there's a trick--which I have yet to master--to get them to cook right, and it does take a while. You either have to soak them overnight or be prepared to watch the stove for an hour while you boil them, so this isn't something you can usually whip up in fifteen minutes. But once you figure it out, beans go in just about everything, and are really quite nutritious.

Even if you don't want to do things from scratch, learning to use beans as a substitute for meat protein will save you a lot of money and open up all kinds of cuisine previously unavailable to you, i.e. the kinds of things that the vast majority of the world, not being middle-class, eats every day.
posted by valkyryn at 4:41 AM on May 21, 2009

Best answer: Learn how to cook Mexican food. It is delicious and can stretch your budget amazingly. I suggest starting with chilaquiles. I didn't link you to an actual recipe for them because there's about a million ways you can prepare them. The main theme is that you use corn tortillas (if they're stale, it's even better) which are CHEAP and top them with a homemade salsa/tomato sauce and cheese. You can throw shredded chicken breast on there, pork, eggs, beans, grilled skirt steak (so so cheap). Learn how to make chilaquiles and you've learned how to make like a month's worth of a rotating menu.
posted by sickinthehead at 4:42 AM on May 21, 2009

P.S. I bake the corn tortillas to dry them out instead of frying them like above link suggests. So don't let that deter you.
posted by sickinthehead at 4:45 AM on May 21, 2009

The times I've needed to eat cheaply I've relied on pasta and veggie dishes, rice and bean dishes, and curries. You can make a thousand varieties of either of those.

The key to it, also, is making large portions and having them serve multiple purposes. Lunch the next day. Leftovers for dinner, with a spice! Put that rice and beans into a tortilla with some spinach and slices of pepper jack cheese and you've got yourself a burrito that reaches toward excellence.
posted by entropone at 4:53 AM on May 21, 2009

I think Chinese cooking is pretty much designed to do more with less. Something like a stir-fry can be made with or without meat, with just about any selection of vegetables you like, and any number of different sauces. Get a big sack of rice to serve it over (and fill you up).
posted by LolaGeek at 5:01 AM on May 21, 2009

All cuisines do not have constant scales. Cuisines that have meat or fish in them are more costly than vegetarian ones. Also, cuisines that use a lot of spices can be costly.

Authentic Mexican food is a good start. Basically its just red beans, rice and corn. Prepared in different ways. Boiled fried or refried in tortillas or tamales. Spiced with chili peppers.

To extend your cooking ability, for example, learn how to make a proper corn tortilla. I learned this from a expert on Mayan culture in Guatemala: the (poor) ancient Mayans subsisted entirely on corn and nothing else. However, corn won't digest completely unless you eat it with lime[not the fruit,calcium hydroxide] or ash. Thus a proper corn tortilla is always made with lime. Best I had in Mexico were home made corn lime and water mixed into a batter and cooked like a crepe on a piece of metal over a coffee-can fire. I've never had anything close in America.
posted by Osmanthus at 5:09 AM on May 21, 2009

Seconding Asian food. Get yourself a cheap rice maker and learn to make al the 1000 different things that go with rice! Even very good chinese food dishes, for example, can usually be simplified down to a very few ingredients, and they're all about stretching the more expensive ingredients, like meat, as far as they will go.
posted by raygan at 5:25 AM on May 21, 2009

It depends on what is more cheaply available to you. There are plenty of ethnic groceries around my city. I can go to the Indian supermarket and pick up a huge sack of basmati rice for relatively cheap and then all the fixings like curry powder. For veggies I find the grocery that sells the best for the cheapest. Then you can make asian foods with those basics for very cheap.
posted by JJ86 at 5:37 AM on May 21, 2009

Best answer: Indian is extremely cheap, especially if you make your own bread (roti is easy) and balance it with rice. It also scales very easily thus the per meal cost is drastically reduced. Cooking one cup of rice, making a few roti and one main vegetarian dish (or adding in a half portion of Dish #2 from a previous night) comes out to around $3-5 a meal and this makes 3-4 portions. If you buy and use meats and veggies on sale or in the discount bin, you can stretch your dollar even more.

Some great how to cook Indian videos can be found in Manjula's Kitchen.

Remember, beans and rice make a complete protein, thus a replacement for meats. I buy my rice at the Indian store, and the bag usually lasts us 4 months or more. For $16, this amounts to maybe 50 cents per cup of uncooked rice (serving for 4 portions). Flour is even cheaper as I buy it bulk. I buy chickpeas and lentils when they are cheap, this saves me 10-30 cents per can and I use one can per meal. Veggies are the expensive part and even this is not too bad, I get great veggies from the Chinese store and for some reason Costco sells the most high quality spinach I've ever seen (it lasts so long in the fridge and is so crisp and vibrant) at even cheaper than store cost. It's all about stretching your dollar if you're budget cooking.
posted by Meagan at 5:38 AM on May 21, 2009 [3 favorites]

There is a zillion cheap foods out there, so the real question is which ones are nutritious enough to sustain you for a long time. Pasta is cheap and easy to make but not nutritious, no vitamins or minerals, or protein. The same is true for white rice. Here's what's both cheap and nutritious: lentils, beans, brown rice and old fashioned rolled oats.

Lentils (the type with skins) are easy/quick to make, high in protein and have some minerals and vitamins. Beans need to be soaked overnight and take a bit longer to cook even after soaking, other than they're very similar to lentils. Main difference is that lentils will have a rougher texture while different types of beans have some different tastes and textures. so there's more flexibility to accomodate for your taste. Brown rice does not need to be soaked and takes about as long to cook as beans, the taste is very pleasant once you get used to it, it's more chewy and nutty than white rice. The main difference vs. lentils is that brown rice does not have much protein. Finally, rolled oats are very quick to cook, (actually they taste really great if you don't cook them at all but simply pour boiling water and cover for 8-10 minutes). They don't have as much protein as lentils but I think a bit more than rice. The main issue with rolled oats is that they don't combine well with vegetables for a complete meal, but are good for breakfast or lunch or something like that.

Obviously it's a bit boring to eat straight brown rice or lentils all the time, so, on a budget, you want to pick up whatever cheap vegies are on sale and sautee or steam them and add to the entree. They will provide additional vitamins, fiber and minerals, too.

And that's that! In my opinion, lentils, brown rice, and less often, beans, are the best balance of price/nutrition/taste/ease of cooking, accompanied by some combination of broccoli, green/yellow squash, winter squashes, green peppers, fresh corn, celery, romaine, spinach, savoy cabbage, and probably a few others I'm forgetting. Virgin olive oil is healthy and not very expensive if bought in bulk. Penzey's have good spices.
posted by rainy at 6:29 AM on May 21, 2009 [2 favorites]

Best answer: indian, mexican, chinese, all are good. From what I understand, carribean/south american food is quite good when it comes to economical eats (beans, rice, your friends).

One thing to think about: with a lot of chinese food, meat (in other words, the expensive stuff) is more of a flavoring agent, rather than the main draw. Think of stir fried green beans, onions, juliened carrots, maybe a bell pepper, all fried in, say, oyster sauce, or black bean sauce, with just a bit of minced pork for flavor.

With chinese, (or any other asian food) tofu can be a good friend, and tofu is dirt cheap, and an excellent source of protein.

For indian, like JJ86 said, rice is cheap. Toss some cumin, coriander, garam masala, chili pepper, and tumeric in some oil, add some minced garlic, some minced ginger, then add vegetables according to how long they'd need to saute (boil potatoes for five minutes first), and you've got a good dry veggie curry on rice. Add some coconut milk, and you've got a curry with the soupy/sauce-esque curry that loves to be sopped up with naan (aside from a real tandoor, it's easy to make, and cheap).
posted by Ghidorah at 6:37 AM on May 21, 2009

Seconding everybody who suggested pasta, rice, and legumes in bulk. I like to make wraps, so I'll usually fry up some sweet peppers, tomato, onions, corn, sometimes chicken (if it's in the budget). Then I add some cooked rice and a can of black beans to the mix and I've got three times the food and a couple of delicious lunches as well. Sometimes I use chilis to taste, sometimes it's curry, but it's always a big batch of food for a reasonable price.

Soups are another great option and can easily be portioned out for lunches or frozen. For example, I'll make a soup with veggie stock, sweet potatoes, carrots, ginger, and garlic. Cheap and easy, but really tasty. If you can make your own bread to go with it, that's a huge bonus. I find foccaccia pretty easy and delicious.

I always have garlic, shallots, fresh ginger, and curry on hand, and I'm trying to grow my own herbs as well (varying degrees of success there). Have fun with it.
posted by futureisunwritten at 6:41 AM on May 21, 2009

But there's a trick--which I have yet to master--to get them to cook right, and it does take a while.

Valkyryn and others: pressure cooker. You can get a new one cheap, or check out thrift stores. Dried beans to fully tender in less than half an hour, which also saves on electricity/gas of using the stove.
posted by methylsalicylate at 6:41 AM on May 21, 2009

Not exactly a direct response to your question regarding cuisines, but I've saved a lot of money by using green bags (warning: obnoxious infomercial autoplays on load), which have really worked to keep our produce fresh longer. We had a head of romaine last over a month, still crisp and green. A friend of ours bought no-name knockoffs which apparently did not work, but the bags are reusable and quickly paid for themselves in my house.

Also, try breadcrumbs (saved from bread you let get stale) or oatmeal for stretching ground turkey or beef and soups for stretching just about everything. If you can grow tomatoes (which are easy, in my experience), you can have fresh ones for way less than store price for your salads, pasta sauces, gaspacho, all kinds of yummy things.
posted by notashroom at 9:08 AM on May 21, 2009

Best answer: If I understand the question, you want to expand your mastery of a certain cuisine while spending as little money as possible. You therefore want to explore the peasant foods of a specific culture.

The poorest of the poor had the littlest to work with, so they had to work harder with it in order to make it taste good. By similarly limiting yourself, you can really hone your cooking chops.

Here's an article from today's Philly Inquirer about cooking peasant cuisine at home. It includes recipes.

Another dish that comes to mind as being a complex thing made of many simple things is feijoada.

Or how's about mole? There are 100s of ways to make it, and while most recipes call for a dozen (or two, or three dozen) ingredients, none of them are expensive things, and they're used in small quantities. Maybe learn how to make a killer mole sauce during these lean times? It'll serve you well for the rest of your life.

Another cheap thing to make and master is bread. I've recently been making this sourdough starter. I haven't mastered the bread part of the operation yet, but the starter is killer. It smells like the best San Francisco sourdough you've ever tasted. And best of all, sourdough is the cheapest kind of bread to make because it eliminates the costliest ingredient in baking -- the yeast.
posted by mudpuppie at 10:30 AM on May 21, 2009 [1 favorite]

Beans and more beans! Pressure cooker is helpful there. More helpful is to make a big pot of beans early in the week -- don't season it much if at all (maybe some diced onion, no salt though while cooking). Then each night you reheat beans with different seasonings. Even just some onion / rooster sauce / soy sauce over rice is divine and absurdly cheap. But you can also just do the "standard" seasonings of different cuisines and it will work out well -- for an indian like bean, do some onion/garlic/ginger and then cumin/hot pepper/coriander/etc. It won't be exactly traditional but it's easy and cheap.
posted by R343L at 11:23 AM on May 21, 2009

I'm doing a "pantry-only" end of the month thing right now. In my fridge, after a couple of days cooking: ordinary red lentil dal, a multi-bean dal with cauliflower and almonds, black beans cooked with beets and orange, lentil/potato curry, Tuscan-style white beans with sage and garlic, roasted root vegetables, cooked sweet potatoes, wheat berries, brown rice, and millet. The grains and beans will freeze, so this might carry me into June with some judicious fresh veggie purchases.

I like mudpuppie's suggestion to master a particular thing, like mole. I'm working on dal of all sorts - I love eating Indian food out, but it's one of the few things I've not bothered to learn to cook at home.
posted by catlet at 11:32 AM on May 21, 2009

Avoid meat. I cook a lot of chilis, sauces, and stir fries. It's always the meat that makes it expensive. Canned tomatos and beans are cheap. I'm especially fond of beans because they're more filling than any other canned food.
posted by valadil at 12:38 PM on May 21, 2009

Ethiopian food is cheap and tastes great. Injera is easy to make with sorghum flour, and most dishes have only a few ingredients - lentils or beans, basic veges like carrot, potato, pumpkin, cabbage and onion, berbere, butter, water and salt. Even if you make recipes with meat, you can pad them out with lots of other vege-only recipes to make it go further. By the time you add injera and rice, you've got a banquet for next to nothing.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 7:29 PM on May 21, 2009

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