Getting more equity out of food-making sweat
August 10, 2012 5:50 AM   Subscribe

Which foods are actually cheaper to make at home using store-bought ingredients?

Setting aside things like satisfaction, lack of additives, and quality/ingredient control -- which I know are important, but I want to put those in the corner for a second -- what canned/processed foods would it be cheaper for my spouse and I to make using purchased raw ingredients, rather than buy?

Good juicer (Breville 800)
Cuisinart food processor with the chopping disc, cutting blade and bread "blade"
Kitchenaid stand mixer with no special attachments
Ninja blender
Pressure canner (stovetop) and lotsa mason jars
Olllld crock pot
Olllld immersion blender

Quebec, Canada


Things we've tried recently:
Orange juice: far more expensive to juice oranges than buy juice
Peanut butter: slightly more expensive to grind nuts than buy all-natural peanut butter
Fancy nut butter: with Costco bulk nuts, a bit cheaper to make
Bread: way cheaper to make than to buy
Pizza dough: way cheaper to make than to buy
Cookies: surprisingly a wash if you're making anything with ingredients beyond basic sugar or oatmeal cookies
Tomato sauce/paste: cheaper to buy than to make from raw 'maters
Strawberry jam: cheaper to make when you can get pick-your-own berries at a reasonable price; cheaper to buy jam in the off season
Canned beans: probably cheaper to can from dried, but dried beans are surprisingly expensive... possibly a wash vs. stocking up when there's a good sale on

We love making our own food, and preserves, and will keep doing it regardless of whether or not we come out "ahead," but I've been a bit surprised at the lack of thrift I'm finding in the process. I can find a 800 mL can of diced tomatoes on sale for $0.99 on a regular basis, for instance -- about 1.75 pounds of tomato, and the very best you can ever buy tomatoes for around here is $0.99/pound. So store-buying tomatoes to can, rather than buying canned tomatoes, is a money-loser.

What are your tried-and-true money-savers when it comes to making your own food/preserves? Where are the real savings in homecrafting your food?
posted by Shepherd to Food & Drink (42 answers total) 113 users marked this as a favorite
I know what you mean. The economies of scale that manufacturers get really makes some things a better bargain if you just buy them ready-made.

There are some things that work out to be a better bargain homemade.

I think soup would be in this category. Veggie soup you can make from leftovers, beans and pasta. Split Pea soup. Lentil soup. Like that.

Any bean product. Beans as a raw material are way cheaper than they are once they're processed and canned. That crock pot will come in handy for cooking them.

I cook from scratch not because it's cheaper, often it isn't (as you've noted), but because I enjoy cooking and I love the end result.

Taco Bell is actually cheaper than the Mexican food I make at home, but when I make it myself, it's infinitely better and I have quality control over the materials.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 5:58 AM on August 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: The web site "The Kitchn" (sic) once did a whole series of posts on this topic, where they analyzed the cost breakdown of making vs. buying various things.

Make or Buy?
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:00 AM on August 10, 2012 [32 favorites]

Best answer: Maybe try juicing fruits that are more local or cheaper than oranges? You being in Quebec, apples come to mind. Especially if you can get less pretty bulk apples from a local-ish farmer. The farmers' markets here in New York tend to have a "juice me!"/"applesauce" pile they're willing to part with at a discounted rate. Per your mention of pick your own strawberries, I'd assume you also have access to pick your own apples?

I find that pesto sauce is super easy to make and cheaper than the canned stuff. It might be even cheaper if you're vegan, since you won't be putting expensive cheese into it. Then again, basil might be more expensive in Canada?

Does juicing your own oranges become cheaper if you also preserve the peels for marmalade? Marmalade is super easy to make.

Vegetable stock, for sure. This is another place where you can economize by using scraps and parts of the vegetable that aren't usually eaten.
posted by Sara C. at 6:01 AM on August 10, 2012

(hit post too soon. Arg.)

Some of those things aren't vegan, but have a poke around.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:01 AM on August 10, 2012

Chicken stock is essentially "free" if you make it yourself, since it uses the garbage bits of a whole chicken. One chicken, one carrot, one celery stalk, an onion, and a small amount of herbs will make me roughly 3 quarts or so of stock - maybe two or three dollars of ingredients versus somewhere between six and eight dollars for comparable store-bought. Plus, I don't add salt to my stock so I can flavor it to taste later.
posted by backseatpilot at 6:01 AM on August 10, 2012 [4 favorites]

Definitely soup and all the things in that category of long-cooked meat+beans+veg: chili, stew etc. Particularly if you make a big batch (i.e. bulk priced meat) and freeze portions. (Also, the canned versions of those things are horrifyingly full of sodium and almost always just pretty gross.)
posted by fingersandtoes at 6:02 AM on August 10, 2012

Granola. Granola bars. Pesto. Most spreads and dips - hummus, for instance, is crazy cheap (but I buy an industrial-sized container of tahini, which lowers my cost considerably.) Candied fruit peels. Dried fruit.

I think something to pay attention to is, especially with fruits and vegetables, what's on sale or in season. Right now I buy like, oh, 10 pounds of tomatoes every weekend so that I can slow roast them. They go into the freezer and I get awesome tomatoes year round. (Again, I also have a deal with a farmer, so I'm getting them for cheap.)

Ruthless Bunny is right: soup is so cheap that it blows my mind, and making it yourself is crazy cheap, way more delicious, and healthier for you.
posted by punchtothehead at 6:03 AM on August 10, 2012

Response by poster: Shoot! Thanks for mentioning stock -- I can't believe I forgot it above. We do make our own, keeping a "broth bag" of veggie leftovers in the freezer and pressure-canning 4-5 litre jars of stock every two weeks. It's a huge savings over buying it boxed in the store.
posted by Shepherd at 6:03 AM on August 10, 2012 [2 favorites]

Best answer: The Homemade Pantry: 101 Foods You Can Stop Buying and Start Making just came out, but I don't remember if there are vegan recipes or if they can be easily veganized.
posted by punchtothehead at 6:05 AM on August 10, 2012 [5 favorites]

Also, beer! If you're just looking at ingredients and compare to a similar quality product (microbrew ales rather than Budweiser or something like that) you come out ahead making your own beer. My cost is about $40-$50 for enough ingredients to make about four dozen 12 oz. bottles, and decent beer in this area is around $9 for a six pack.
posted by backseatpilot at 6:05 AM on August 10, 2012 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I've resigned myself to the canned tomatoes being cheaper thing, which if you're ok with using them, opens the door to a whole loads of things that are cheaper, for example:

Pizza sauce - canned tomatoes plus (to your taste) salt, herbs, garlic, sugar
Mexican sauce (for enchiladas etc) - canned tomatoes simmered with paprika, allspice etc.
Soup - I like to add red lentils and warm spices
posted by greenish at 6:06 AM on August 10, 2012 [3 favorites]

Best answer: If you can find a place that sells red lentils (they can sometimes be elusive), you can buy a ton in bulk pretty inexpensively. Cook a cup of lentils in water. Add ginger, garlic, cumin, cardimum, yellow mustard seeds, and salt and pepper, and you have a delicious, healthy dal.

The spices last forever, so do the lentils, and ginger and garlic are cheap. It's also incredibly easy to make. If you know of an Indian grocery in your city, they will probably have and sell these ingredients for less. This will go much further than those packaged Taste of India things.

The recipe is on pg. 600 in Mark Bittman's "How to Cook Everything Vegetarian" (I make this a lot.)
posted by aintthattheway at 6:20 AM on August 10, 2012 [3 favorites]

Salad dressing, especially something as simple as a vinaigrette.
posted by hydrophonic at 6:22 AM on August 10, 2012 [4 favorites]

Best answer: I'm willing to wager making your own seitan is cheaper than buying, at least it seems to be here in the US (MN). Especially if you're using homemade broth, the biggest expense is vital wheat gluten, which can make many batches and can be used in other things. I think I pay around US$6/bag. That's at the co-op too; I could probably find better deals online. One package of pre-made seitan runs around US$3-5. You do need some spices and things like soy sauce, so the initial cost is higher if you don't have them around, but you'll get quite a few batches. If you dig the wheat that tastes like meat, I'd look into it. Isa Chandra Moskowitz has some good recipies. I've been pretty happy with the one in Veganomicon.
posted by radioaction at 6:30 AM on August 10, 2012 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Make the Bread, Buy the Butter is essentially about an author trying to answer these questions. Her recipe choices are just okay, she seemed to focus too much on random meals instead of things we buy at the store every day (like Vermouth or pancetta), but it's still a fun read and recommended.
posted by Think_Long at 6:40 AM on August 10, 2012 [2 favorites]

On preview, it looks like you're all over the stock issue. But remember why that's a real savings: you're using something you already own which you would otherwise throw away. Any time you can repurpose leavings, scraps, or leftovers into something else is going to be orders of magnitude cheaper than buying stuff on your own. Really, it's here that most of the savings of cooking comes in.

Another thing to consider is that a lot of the time processed food isn't made out of the raw ingredients that we buy in the store. This is significant for two reasons. First, you buy at retail but manufacturers buy at wholesale. But second, ingredients which are only used to make other things are generally less expensive than ingredients which end up in the produce aisle or whatever. Take grape juice for instance. That's made out of a variety of grapes that you just can't buy in the store. Likewise, the tomatoes that go into tomato paste and canned tomatoes aren't the same tomatoes that you buy in the produce aisle. This is actually a good thing in some cases, because wholesale ingredients are frequently are bred for taste while retail ingredients are significantly bred for looks, and they command a premium as a result. Even if they aren't different breeds, a lot of the stuff that goes into processed food is the portion of a crop, frequently the majority, that doesn't look good enough to sell at retail but is still perfectly edible. If you're trying to compete with the manufacturers, this is really something you're going to need to take into account. Flour is basically just flour, but not all produce is created equal. So when you're trying to look for your savings, keep in mind that you aren't just competing with someone who can buy at wholesale, but with someone who may not be buying the same thing that you are at all.
posted by valkyryn at 6:51 AM on August 10, 2012 [4 favorites]

Best answer: My favorite recipe blog, Macheesmo, has a series called the Homemade Trials where he compares homemade to store bought (things like chocolate pudding, canned biscuits, mac and cheese, etc). His are usually marginally more expensive, BUT he is using significantly better ingredients (often organic and non processed). If you lower your standards and use conventional ingredients, you may well beat the store.

Hummus and chili powder were two that were much cheaper even with the quality ingredients.

(Are you also counting the opportunity cost of your time?)
posted by bluefly at 7:09 AM on August 10, 2012 [3 favorites]

2009 Slate article: How cost-effective is it to make homemade pantry staples?

Most of the mentioned items aren't vegan, but the author is with you on bread and jam (and I think the granola would work, too).
posted by Signed Sealed Delivered at 7:09 AM on August 10, 2012

Best answer: i just started making my own kombucha (finally). bulk tea and sugar are SUPER cheap and store-bought bottled kombucha is SUPER expensive.
posted by nevers at 7:23 AM on August 10, 2012 [5 favorites]

One of the reasons your make/buys are so often coming out with buy on top is that you're paying a retail premium for most of your ingredients.

If you instead buy tomatoes by the bushel, as the Italian families in my old neighbourhood did, and spend an entire weekend canning up all your tomato sauce for the year, the cost equation changes. Of course, that was a crapload of work, too, and with all the families doing it on the same two or three weekends during prime tomato season, the streets near my old house ran red with blood sauce on the weekends.
posted by jacquilynne at 7:49 AM on August 10, 2012 [6 favorites]

The trick with jams and jellies is that you buy the fruit in bulk when it's in season. Hit your farmers markets and make your jam according to what's available. Most jams, if done properly will last six months or so without refrigeration, which should get you into the off season.

If you have a dog, I've discovered that dog treats are waaaaycheaper to make than buy, and way better for the puppy. Canned pumpkin, wheat germ, rolled oats, flour and eggs make an awesome doggy treat that's good for their tummies as well.
posted by teleri025 at 7:55 AM on August 10, 2012

I know what you mean. The economies of scale that manufacturers get really makes some things a better bargain if you just buy them ready-made.

jacquilynne covers part of what I wanted to say - you're paying for stuff that a lot more hands have had to handle, and one of the basic truths of capitalism is "every time someone handles something, even if it's just for a second, they add to the cost." Your store-bought tomatoes were sorted for appearance, handled in a way to prevent bruising, packed for multi-stage transport, kept in temperature-controlled space for longer. They were sold and probably re-sold and priced in the store to account for a certain percentage of damage/spoilage as well as covering the cost of keeping that store - physical building, power & plumbing, labor...

Canning and processing, on the other hand, often gets sited to take advantage of physical proximity. Tomatoes going straight into the can don't have to be as pretty and there's less waste; a tomato that would be thrown away as bruised by the store will instead just be moved over to go into chopped or diced (though as that's post-transport damage it likely just wouldn't happen at all). Your orange juice might be the best possible example of this. Even if you buy non-concentrate juice you're getting something that could be made from the ugliest orange ever grown - which no store would accept and put on its shelf - and it was processed and transported without the risk of marring the skin and minus the weight and packing inefficiencies of the rind, seeds, and pulp.

I think you also have to be cautious about which retail products you compare to your own home creations. There's going to be fillers and possible lower-quality ingredients in the store-bought, particularly if you're comparing the dead-cheapest thing available to your product.

A good example of this, for me, is eggs. If you don't mind a more watery white and a pale yellow yolk then you can't beat the $0.99 factory farm dozen. Comparing that to what you get from your own chickens or buy at a farmer's market cannot win financially. If you compare it to the store's grain-fed organic eggs, however, you come up with a much smaller spread in cost.

This also relates very well with your discovery of the spread on cookies. Your home cookies are likely using sugar rather than corn syrup or beet sugar. Manufacturers will do anything they can to avoid using actual price-supported sugar. Even if you use your own corn syrup to compare you're buying it bottled in home quantities rather than pumping it out of a tanker truck.
posted by phearlez at 8:12 AM on August 10, 2012 [2 favorites]

Lemonade. Cocktails? Most prepared beverages, actually.
posted by oceanjesse at 8:27 AM on August 10, 2012

Trail mix. I don't know why, but putting all that stuff in one bag sure seems to drive up the price.
posted by Winnemac at 8:36 AM on August 10, 2012 [4 favorites]

The trick with jams and jellies is that you buy the fruit in bulk when it's in season.

This. Or you go with the fruit that's a little bruised. That's what I've gotten into the habit of doing - I get fruit just as fruit to eat, but I check it over about once a week and if anything's looking like it's a little old, it goes into a pot to make jam rather than going into the garbage.

Cost of "ingredients" in that instance - $0.

Also, don't worry about the pectin - get a candy thermometer instead (which you can use for a squillion other things). I have been informed that if a jam recipe reaches 220 degrees, it will set. So you don't need the pectin or anything, just the fruit plus half as much sugar, and then heat it until it reaches 220 and you're good.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:47 AM on August 10, 2012 [4 favorites]

And if you have a jam recipe that still doesn't set - it'd probably still be a good dessert sauce. Or turn it into a granita (this is super-easy - pour it into a shallow pan and set it in the freezer, leave it there an hour, give it a stir and leave it there another hour, and then do that about 3 more times; and you will have a sort of icy-crystally-sorbet thing that will taste just fine).

Either way, you have repurposed fruit you already got and would have thrown away for some other use.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:50 AM on August 10, 2012

Sauerkraut is always overpriced in the store and really easy and cheap to make at home. Pickles are not as economical, unfortunately, plus they are made with a different kind of cuke than the common grocery store one. I suspect the savings you see will increase as you get further from mass market foods and common skills. Hence the negative savings on plain tomato sauce but huge savings on kombucha and bread.
posted by 100kb at 8:58 AM on August 10, 2012

Best answer: Beer has been mentioned, but wine is much cheaper to make as well, if that's your tipple.

We buy the best kits we can get at a do-it-yourself shop and it still works out to $5.30/bottle, for about a half-hour of labour at the sunk cost of a few dozen bottles. If you go down the rabbit hole and buy your own equipment to press grapes, age the wine and bottle it at home, as my father-in-law does, that can drops to a couple of dollars a bottle.

Our results are a decent house wine, as good as the $12/bottle stuff---this is why we use the real juice with skins kits. My FIL makes commercial-grade wine most of which could sit on the comfortably sit on higher-priced end of the wine shelf.
posted by bonehead at 9:02 AM on August 10, 2012 [2 favorites]

Mustard, by far. Tastes much better, too.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 9:04 AM on August 10, 2012 [2 favorites]

Shepherd is already a seasoned wine and beer maker in our house. The wine kits often make fine house/table wine, but it's nothing I would serve at a tasting or for impressing guests.
posted by Kitteh at 9:14 AM on August 10, 2012

Spice mixes. Many people want tacos, they go to the grocery store and pick up taco spice packets.

Instead, you can google 'homemade taco seasoning' and find hundreds of recipes. We keep a little container of the stuff I the spice cabinet, and add as little or as much as we feel like.

While we're on the subject of tacos, flour tortillas for sure. Probably also corn tortillas, and if you're willing to invest in a tortilla press it's really fast.

Last taco thing. Fajita mix. Lots of stores sell pre-sliced, pre-bagged onions/peppers mixes. Don't fall for it. Alive your own onions and peppers.

Simple syrup. I see this bottled for outrageous prices. All you do is measure equal amounts of sugar and water. Boil until its clear. Cool, bottle, refrigerate. Mix drinks or soak fruit for desserts as you like.

Scratch brownies. I can't give you my recipe because it includes eggs. Mine are cheaper than the buy one get one free big name deals my grocery offers. Even if they weren't, the taste difference is worlds apart.

(are you willing to count garlic as making something from store bought ingredients? You plant one clove and get back a bulb. Talk about savings!)
posted by tulip-socks at 9:20 AM on August 10, 2012 [2 favorites]

Hit your farmers markets and make your jam according to what's available.

Especially if you go near the end of the day and they are trying to get rid of leftovers. My best sauce experience was getting a whole crate of slightly overripe tomatoes for practically nothing since the guy was just going to toss them, and making multiple pints of pasta sauce and salsa out of it that I then froze (i was inexperienced & this was before the internet so I didn't have vacuum sealing tech but it tasted great). Take what other people don't want or can't use, not top shelf fresh & flawless, if you want to save.

Basically think of it not in terms of what can I make that's cheap, but what can I do with cheapo ingredients.
posted by mdn at 9:21 AM on August 10, 2012

Not that you probably care much, but popcorn.
posted by dreamphone at 9:22 AM on August 10, 2012

I'd say mayo is "cheaper" to make at home in that it uses some pretty basic ingredients that many people already have around, like eggs, lemon juice, and olive or canola oil. If you already use those things for other dishes (and own an immersion blender or food processor), then I feel it's more economical to make your own rather than go out and buy the product in a store.
posted by El Sabor Asiatico at 10:02 AM on August 10, 2012

Best answer: Other people have said tomato sauces, but I always gawk at how much other sauces are in the grocery store, like teriyaki or peanut sauce. These are so easy to make at home with general staples (soy sauce, peanut butter, vinegar, garlic/ginger, etc.) and probably so much better tasting too. Teriyaki sauce at the store is all sugar.
posted by nakedmolerats at 10:05 AM on August 10, 2012 [4 favorites]

Are you able to grow any of your own vegetables? If you can do this, rather than buying them from the store, then you'll find that certain things, like making your own tomato sauce, will suddenly become a lot more economical (purely in terms of dollars, not necessarily in terms of time spent).

Seiten, if you eat a lot of it as a vegan, is also much cheaper to make than to buy. For the most basic variety, you just need a box of vital wheat gluten and tap water. This will give you a LOT of seiten cutlets.
posted by asnider at 1:32 PM on August 10, 2012

I found this article on beans interesting. I think cakes and cookies are cheaper to make at home, but of course, more labor intensive.
posted by fifilaru at 4:54 PM on August 10, 2012

Caveat at least on orange juice - unless you're buying juice that's been juiced and bottled with no other processing, such as from a local juice shop - usually much more expensive then - you're usually getting orange juice that's been diluted back up from concentrate. It has an entirely different taste from freshly-squeezed juice. I use store-bought juice for cooking, but for drinking, fresh orange juice is so so much better that it's worth the 5 minutes of effort. If it's peeling the skins, you can get a little gadget thingy that you hold in your palm to segment the skins, or what I do, make my kids peel them!

Ditto for bread - if you can get good bakery bread at a reasonable price, then yay, but homemade bread is way better than supermarket bread, even if it costs more.
posted by viggorlijah at 11:08 PM on August 10, 2012

I find that take-out food in general can be made better and more cheaply at home, including mexican (e.g. tacos, burritos, salsas), middle eastern (e.g. hummus, felafel, grape leaves, tabbouleh), pizzas, etc.

I'm not sure where you shop, but no name ethnic grocery stores often sell food a lot more cheaply than well-known stores. I find the quality is usually better too.

I'm surprised to hear you find dried beans or rice expensive. I could buy a sack of them very cheaply.
posted by xammerboy at 5:45 PM on August 11, 2012

Re: beans: The Paupered Chef's No-Soak bean recipe means you don't have to can at all, you can just buy dried. I too am surprised you find canned cheaper --- if you take the canning out, does that change things?
posted by Diablevert at 1:38 PM on August 15, 2012

Ooh - seasoned nuts! This is wildly easy - especially if you have a spice mix already done up. For a pound of nuts, just take a couple tablespoons of olive oil and heat it up in a little skillet, and then whack a couple tablespoons of your chosen spice mix in there to toast it up for a half a minute or so. Then dump all that over the nuts and stir it around good, add salt if you need to (some spice mixes already have salt, and some don't, or sometimes the nuts you get will be salted) then spread that out onto a cookie sheet or in a big roasting pan and bake at 350 degress for about 5-15 minutes (depending on how hot your oven is and how quickly the nuts toast up).

If you have a pre-made curry powder blend or pre-made some other kind of spice mix you're trying to use up this is a good way to do it.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:01 AM on August 17, 2012

And on dried beans, consider: 1 pound of dried beans is about the same price as a 16-oz can of canned beans, but yields about three 16-oz cans' worth.

If the length of cooking is what's making you balk ("I just want to be able to open a can and dump it in rather than fussing about precooking them"), you could get a bag of dried beans and pre-soak and cook them all in one go, then split them up between 3 or 4 two-cup-size freezer containers and freeze them. I do this all the time, and use the frozen beans just like you would canned - I often don't even let them thaw when I use them, I just dump them into whatever pot of soup or stew or whatever I'm making. It takes about 10-15 extra minutes for whatever to come back to a boil while the beans thaw, but that's it.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:05 AM on August 17, 2012

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