Looking for low-cost baking ideas
July 10, 2011 12:46 PM   Subscribe

What are some tips or recipes for saving money on home baking?

I like baking cookies, muffins, and bread for myself and my co-workers. But since I'm also trying to save money, I sometimes run out of the more pricey ingredients, like butter or chocolate chips. I'm looking for metafilter recommendations for baked goods that can be made with cheap pantry staples.

For instance, I love this molasses cookie recipe because it's one of the only cookie recipes I've found that tastes rich without butter.

Similarly, I love no-knead bread, which uses only a tiny amount of yeast (so my yeast supplies last longer).

I'm also interested in substitution tips - for instance, substituting powdered milk for regular milk or milk+vinegar for buttermilk.

Thanks in advance for any suggestions you can provide!
posted by GraceCathedral to Food & Drink (26 answers total) 41 users marked this as a favorite
Buy in bulk. Things like sugar, flour, butter, and chocolate chips are much cheaper per pound at Costco than at the supermarket, and last a really long time if stored properly. Vanilla extract from Costco is SO much cheaper than the dinky little one ounce containers you find elsewhere. Trader Joe's pound plus bars (even though the price went up about a year ago) are a better deal than the baking bricks at the supermarket. Bake seasonally (e.g. apple pies in the fall) so you don't have to shell out extra bucks to ship something in from South America. Buy smart and you won't have to cheat yourself from using the occasional fancy ingredient.
posted by phunniemee at 1:01 PM on July 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: If I need to keep costs down, I automatically rule out any recipes with nuts - those tend to add up quickly. Chocolate does, too, and I've learned the hard way that you can taste the difference - "off brand"/generic chocolate chips, in my experience, are horrendous. I almost felt like apologizing once for a pie I'd made with generic chocolate chips.

Frankly, with baking, I've found that substitutions can often produce unsatisfying results. Rather than substitute cheaper ingredients for more expensive ones, my strategy is to try to purchase the ingredients I need at the lowest price possible. I don't know if these suggestions will help, since they all involve long-term planning rather than immediate solutions, but here's what's worked for me:
- Buy dry ingredients (flour, sugar, etc.) in bulk. I do have particular brands of flour I prefer for pastries, breads, etc., so I tend to stock up when they're on sale. I always buy the largest size available (provided it's actually the cheapest).
- This might already be a no-brainer for you, but monitor the unit price closely. Sometimes the biggest size isn't always the cheapest per pound/ounce/etc. - that usually only happens when there's a sale, though.
- Purchase fruit when it's on sale, then freeze what you can't immediately use. For example, strawberries are usually around $4.00 a container here. When on sale, they can be as low as $1.50 or $2.00 a container. I'll purchase several containers at the sale price, then slice and freeze them. Later on, if I need the equivalent of 2 containers of strawberries for a recipe, this means I'll have paid $3.00-$4.00 rather than $8.00. This works well for peaches, raspberries, and other fruits that are usually very expensive.
- I always go for the generic brand if I know it won't affect taste. Sugars, baking powder, baking soda, and butter (provided you know it's butter and not "butter spread" - those labels are deceiving) are all fine to purchase as generics, in my experience. I am brand-conscious when it comes to flours and chocolate.
- Farmers' markets and fruit stands! Sometimes they've got great deals on fruit - other times they're quite a bit more expensive than the store.
posted by pecanpies at 1:04 PM on July 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Seconding everything pecanpies said, with the addition that I buy butter whenever it's on sale and freeze it. I have about 8 sticks in the freezer right now that were about 25 cents apiece between sale price and coupons.
posted by gatorae at 1:16 PM on July 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I substitute fats and sugars all the time, depending on what I've got on hand. I've made sandwich breads and rolls with butter, olive oil (supermarket quality, not my good stuff), duck fat, etc.

You can adapt apple cake and banana bread recipes for almost any fruit, just adjust for sweetness and liquid volume. You can get beat-up/overripe fruit really cheaply, especially from farmers' markets (in my experience) and the excess can be frozen.

You might find Michael Rulhman's book Ratio helpful.
posted by desuetude at 1:22 PM on July 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: These are good suggestions, but I should mention that I don't have a car, so there's a limit to how much I can stock up. Freezing butter and fruit is a good idea, though.

Are there good sources out there for simple, old-timey, super-cheap recipes? For instance, I like making baking powder biscuits if I wind up with unexpected guests. Basically, I'd like to be able to cook like a frugal grandma.
posted by GraceCathedral at 1:24 PM on July 10, 2011

Make your own vanilla extract. Vodka + vanilla beans + time. This has to have saved me hundreds over the years (I'm a pastry chef).

You mention preferring no-knead bread because it calls for less yeast, but if you did the math on yeast I bet the difference is like a penny. Standard white bread is going to cost pretty much the same despite variations in recipes, and the main expense there is the ingredient you use in the largest volume: flour. When flour is on sale, buy some and keep it in the freezer if necessary.
posted by jessicapierce at 1:36 PM on July 10, 2011

Best answer: You can buy bulk yeast, and I suspect many other dry ingredients, online. I found the yeast I prefer sold by the pound through a retailer whose name rhymes with "Shamazon." Much cheaper than buying little jars of it at the grocery store.
posted by itstheclamsname at 1:38 PM on July 10, 2011

You could focus on finding simple, cheap recipes for rather plain things that can be dressed up with a small amount of more expensive/impressive/flavor-packed ingredients. Jam on biscuits, fruit or a small amount of chocolate atop cake, etc.

A massive vanilla cheesecake should cost you, at most, $8. Angel food cake is absurdly cheap and easier to make than most people suspect (you do NOT need the special pan!) - the price of a dozen eggs plus maybe 50 cents for the other stuff. And it's impressive as hell.
posted by jessicapierce at 1:40 PM on July 10, 2011

Response by poster: Will definitely look at buying yeast online. The only yeast I've been able to find in my grocery store is the kind in the envelope, which is something like $2.50 for three tablespoons, I think? This is the kind of thing that makes me feel like I can't afford to bake.

I did start making my own vanilla extract last year, and it's been fantastic - MUCH cheaper, very easy, and identical to the store-bought kind.
posted by GraceCathedral at 1:49 PM on July 10, 2011

Best answer: I'm always storing away stuff in the freezer to keep it from spoiling beyond the point where it can be used: sour milk, overripe bananas, bread crusts, lemon and orange rind and juice, mashed potatoes, etc. When it comes to deciding what to bake, the first thing I do is nose through my freezer and fridge and the vegetable and fruit crispers and see what I have that should be used up, and then I figure out what I can make from that. I have a number of standby mashed potato recipes (bannock bread, mashed potato cookies, potato donuts), for instance. if I don't have a recipe on hand I look on the net for a nice simple one that just calls for things I have, and like a previous poster I skip some of the more expensive ingredients such as nuts.

It seems like a nice cost-efficient way to bake to me. You'll have to buy stuff, of course, and other people are making good recommendations on what and how to buy baking ingredients on a budget, but very often you'll just be figuring out what to do with what you have.
posted by orange swan at 1:59 PM on July 10, 2011

Make a sourdough starter, and use that instead of yeast.
posted by Ideefixe at 2:00 PM on July 10, 2011

Best answer: This tip is useless for saving money unless you similarly find yourself throwing away spoiled dairy from time to time, but if you ever buy yogurt or sour cream for other purposes that you know you won't finish off, then you should use it for baking. Both are wonderful in muffins and pancakes as a milk/buttermilk substitute. Until I started doing this, I hated to even buy sour cream for taco night because I knew that half of it would get thrown away.
posted by gatorae at 2:01 PM on July 10, 2011

Best answer: Ooh, yeah, try not to buy the yeast in envelopes if possible, it's ridiculously more expensive than even a small jar. Sometimes grocery stores will stock them in slightly different places (envelopes at eye level near the bread, jars on top or bottom shelf) - and if you don't see what you need, you can ask most grocery store managers to get it in stock.

Seconding gatorae's comment about freezing dairy products. I am not much of a milk drinker, so I buy powdered milk and keep it in the freezer. It will keep for ages at room temp but does eventually go very, very bad. It's gross on its own but in baked goods you would never know it's been reconstituted.
posted by jessicapierce at 2:07 PM on July 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

2nding using fruit/veg in recipes to replace some of the fat and sugar content of recipes - with a bonus of making your baked goods 'low fat' (as cake goes anyway!) and reduced sugar without sacrificing moistness or sweetness.... mmm I want to go make apple+honey cupcakes now.
posted by missmagenta at 2:17 PM on July 10, 2011

Best answer: My local farmer's market sells pound bags of yeast that I can vouch for being awesome over a year after opening it (kept in fridge). I'll be there this week and would be glad to price a bag (it's got to be under $7) and mail one to you, if you'd like?

Also, Dorie Greenspan's buttermilk biscuits are my goto biscuit recipe: they's fine with fake buttermilk, work as rolled-out or drop biscuits, and can be baked from a frozen (raw) state. And they taste good.
posted by jessicapierce at 2:19 PM on July 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I follow a blog called The Frugal Girl. The author, Kristin, feeds a family of 6 on a very small budget, and she bakes all her own breads/rolls/etc. Here is her post on buying bulk yeast - a 2 pound bag costs $3 at Costco and lasts forever. Even if you buy it at other places where it costs $6-10, that's still way cheaper than the envelopes.

Her other big tip is to wait for flour to go on sale, then buy tons of it. Usually it goes on sale right before Thanksgiving and Christmas for the holiday baking season.
posted by CathyG at 3:06 PM on July 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

From Ms. Vegetable (who just spent an entire day baking for coworkers visiting from out of town):
- shortening can be combined 1/2 and 1/2 with butter and you keep the taste
- applesauce in cakes is fine, but applesauce in cookies is not
- shortbread is cheap
- I use a lot of peanut butter, which I can find on BOGO sale fairly frequently
- oats are cheap - and vegetarian times has a fun raspberry jam/oatmeal bar recipe that I think is fairly inexpensive
- biscotti (I think lifeasmom.com has a good recipe) can be pretty cheap, and some recipes don't have nuts/eggs/chips/and/orbutter

Good luck!
posted by a robot made out of meat at 3:09 PM on July 10, 2011

Oh, another smart thing to do is figure out which generics work as well as branded ingredients, either by trial and error, or by asking people/the internet. In my experience, generics of "non-flavored" staples like flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, etc. perform 99% as well as the branded versions. King Arthur flour is kind of amazing and does yield a slightly more tender crumb in cakes and cookies, but the difference is usually not worth the extra price, for me.
posted by jessicapierce at 3:11 PM on July 10, 2011

Best answer: This granola bar recipe is killer and responds well to a lot of various adaptations. It does call for nuts, chocolate, and/or dried fruit, which can all be expensive, but assuming you can find one or all these things on sale, it doesn't have to cost a lot. And her numbers are a bit off - there's no way the recipe can support 2-3 cups of add-ins... it can take 1.5 cups at most, and the result is absolutely chock-full of tasty bits.

I find that when I make these with chocolate, a miracle occurs; using not even half a cup of chocolate chips yields a deceptively rich, chocolatey result.
posted by jessicapierce at 3:18 PM on July 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

I found an egg replacer recipe in a vegan/vegetarian cookbook years ago:

1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
2 Tbsp flour
3 Tbsp water

Replaces one egg. Mix this up separately in a little bowl until it's foamy, then add to your recipe.
You can double, triple, quadruple it with no problems.

I've used this in cookies, muffins, carrot cake, and quickbreads. It won't work for anything that really needs you to use eggs (like angel food cake) but it works just fine otherwise.
posted by flex at 3:57 PM on July 10, 2011 [3 favorites]

Best answer: If you want to cook like a frugal grandma, see if you can get a copy of her cook book! I assume your in the US, but in Australia it is possible to buy reprinted cookbooks from the 1930s eg. the CWA cookbook. Full of cheap good cake recipes, along with how to cook sheeps' heads, polish furniture and destroy vegetables by boiling them for 20 minutes.

Depending on what you use as a flavouring, this basic muffin recipe could be pretty cheap. I've made them with apples and cinnamon, also coffee is a very cheap favour. My mum makes scones for fundraisers, which are pretty cheap, though you do have to be careful about the cost of the jam and cream.
posted by kjs4 at 5:25 PM on July 10, 2011

Have a look in thrift stores for old cookbooks. Anything from 1939-1955 from the UK is likely to have recipes that avoid butter, eggs, milk, etc, because of rationing. I have a few recipes from an old cookbook of my mother's for "eggless cakes" or "butter subsitutes" or "mock cream" etc. (I haven't been able to find them since I moved house, otherwise I'd post some here).
posted by lollusc at 5:29 PM on July 10, 2011

Very basic cake and frosting recipes can be made transcendent through the use of flavored liqueurs. Vanilla cake with amaretto in the frosting + a small handful of toasted almonds on top = amazing, and you add less than a dollar to the cost.

Buy the cheap stuff - for use in cooking you can get away with using pretty bad liquor. My rule of thumb is to buy the second-cheapest.

Or, you can make your own.
posted by jessicapierce at 5:35 PM on July 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

Since you don't have a car for Costco-type stocking up trips, take a look at amazon.com grocery deliveries and subscribe and save. They've got free delivery options for many of their products-- a quick search found both super expensive gourmet stuff and regular inexpensive varieties, some like half off.
posted by instamatic at 6:41 PM on July 10, 2011

Response by poster: Thanks so much for all the answers! I have marked as "best answer" the ones I will definitely try, but all of them are helpful. Also, thanks to jessicapierce for offering to mail me bulk yeast - this is the kind of thing that makes me love metafilter!
posted by GraceCathedral at 6:51 PM on July 10, 2011

Google searches for terms like "Depression era recipes", "frugal cooking/baking" and "urban homesteading" should get you lots of stuff.
Since you don't have a car, maybe you could sign up for a car share service like Zipcar, organize a regular carpool with friends, or even start a Meetup carpool group for hitting several stores/markets at once.
Farmers markets at the end of the day are great places for deals on produce; I usually get bruised or blemished stuff, trim off the bad parts and immediately start freezing/canning/vacuum sealing stuff. This way you'll always have fruit for pie, crumbles, ice cream toppings and more.
Zucchini can be added into recipes as bulk filler & is a great way to use up the monsters I keep finding in my garden.
You can also experiment with proportions of whole wheat or other flours mixed in with the white flour, which is handy because near me the whole wheat flour is often on sale for cheaper.
There are many egg substitutes such as tapioca flour, flax meal, avocados.
I often cut the amount of sugar in a recipe, I can usually cut by half without noticing any difference in texture, and it's still sweet enough for me.
posted by anotherkate at 8:49 PM on July 10, 2011

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