Make It or Buy It?

April 19, 2012

by Margaret Cabaniss

This may come as a surprise, but we’re a bit fond of food around here. We like eating it, we like making it, we like talking about making it, we like thinking about eating it… Yeah. Big fans.

And with that love comes a passion for cooking and a general spirit of DIY in the kitchen that can sometimes border on the obsessive. It all starts out innocently enough — baking your own bread, maybe, or making your own granola — but it can be a slippery slope from there to feeling a compulsive need to make all your food from scratch, using only local ingredients, and slaving in the kitchen for hours on end to serve your (somewhat bewildered) family an exclusively home-cooked meal, which they’d better enjoy if they know what’s good for them.

There comes a point when you inevitably ask yourself: Is it worth the trouble? Or are there some corners that it’s ok to cut?

To Jennifer Reese, the blogger behind The Tipsy Baker and the author of Make the Bread, Buy the Butter, the answer to those questions is “yes” and “yes.” After losing a job, Reese set out on a project to economize in the kitchen by doing more cooking at home — even buying and raising some chickens, bees, and goats so her family could be more self-sufficient.

But what she discovered was that not everything she made herself was necessarily less expensive, better tasting, or worth her time and energy. A perfect example is there in her title: Homemade bread is cheap, easy, and delicious — a better value than store-bought in pretty much every way. Homemade butter, on the other hand, can be good, but not necessarily any better than what you can buy in the store; and as it will also most likely be more expensive to make yourself, in her estimation it’s not really worth the effort.

The book goes on like this, covering everything from cured meats (do it yourself) to hamburger buns (buy in the store) to condiments and spreads (do both). Throughout, Reese has great recipes for what works — complete with cost breakdowns and a relative “hassle scale” — as well as hilarious stories behind what doesn’t. (If nothing else, read it for the goat-related schadenfreude.) I breezed through the whole thing in one night.

What I appreciated most about the book is that it gave me permission to cut myself some slack. We talk a lot about slow living over here, but as Zoe is quick to point out, “slow” is a relative term. The trick is finding the best pace — for you and your family — and staying connected to what’s important. Sometimes that means cooking an old family recipe from scratch, passing on traditions and shared experiences from one generation to another. Other times it means letting the little things go, and remembering that the time spent together over the table is more important than whether the biscuits on it are made from scratch.

It can be a hard balance to strike sometimes, and it will look different for every person. Much as I love her book, Reese and I don’t necessarily see eye to eye on, say, the relative merits of canning versus home-cured meats (she has no interest in canning, so she doesn’t bother; I love canning, but for now I’m happy to let the butcher fill my bacon needs). But that’s specific to me and my interests: Some things I’ll cook because I enjoy the process, like with my canning experiments; other things I’ll cook because it’s healthy and economical for me to do it, like chicken stock; and still others I’m happy to leave to the professionals (I could spend a full day trying to make my own authentic butter croissants, but when there’s a great French bakery one neighborhood over, why would I bother?). Different lifestyles, different priorities.

Whatever your interests or priorities are, definitely pick the book up and see what recipes you should give a try — and which ones you are allowed to shelve for good. I’m curious: What are your “must make” food items, and which are you just as happy to buy from the store?

Images: Margaret Cabaniss

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Margaret Cabaniss 1 Margaret Cabaniss April 19, 2012 at 9:47 am

Had to add: The Wall Street Journal ran an article just yesterday from the author of The Homemade Pantry titled “Five Reasons Why We Should Make Our Own Food.” I think most readers here will already be on board with her premise — but I thought it was funny that her cookbook includes recipes for two items specifically called out by Reese as not worth the effort to make: butter and pop tarts. In the latter case, it’s not so much that Reese would say these are better from the store — they are undoubtedly tastier and healthier at home — but that it’s a lot of work, and maybe you’d be better off making some easy muffins instead? I’m not a big toaster pastry girl, so I think I can just go without them altogether.

Anyway, it’s just another example of the “same principle, different priorities” thing. Either way, I’m definitely interested in checking out Chernila’s cookbook for more homemade recipes, and then I can make the call for myself which ones I’m ready to try.

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2 Alissa Lively April 19, 2012 at 3:27 pm

A friend of mine posted her recipe for homemade pop tarts a while ago and I almost died. Brown sugar cinnamon pop tarts every day would have been my best life ever.

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3 Zoe Saint-Paul April 19, 2012 at 10:25 am

I’m curious about the butter thing… I once made it by accident and now it seems quite simple to do: Over whip good quality cream until the liquid separates, dump it, add salt, whip it a bit more… Voila! Granted, that’s a whipped butter, and isn’t quite the same as fantastic block butter, but I’ve never viewed it as particularly hard if you’ve got a great source for whole fat cream. I may be missing something, though.

Thanks for highlighting this book — it’s definitely the approach I personally take so it’s now on my list!

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Margaret Cabaniss 4 Margaret Cabaniss April 19, 2012 at 10:30 am

Oh, you’re absolutely right that butter is just that easy to make. Reese’s objection wasn’t about the effort, but the fact that buying good, fresh cream to make the butter will very likely cost you more than buying the butter from the store — and when she did a blind taste test of her homemade version next to the store-bought variety, she couldn’t tell the difference. To her, that was enough to strike it from her “make” list. If you have extra cream on hand, though, or access to a lot of affordable, fresh dairy, making your own butter could make more sense.

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5 Zoe Saint-Paul April 19, 2012 at 11:01 am

Ah, well that makes sense because yes, it would be about the same cost or more when you factor in the cream… unless you’ve got your own cream source or an Amish farm down the road.

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6 Ellen April 19, 2012 at 12:37 pm

It never dawned on me to make butter, but this got me thinking. However, the local dairy that delivers our milk also delivers our butter. They charge $4.50 for a pint of their heavy cream, which, according to my Google research, will yield about 6.5 oz of butter. Meanwhile, the fresh butter from the dairy is $3.59 for 16-oz container. So it’s a no brainer.

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Margaret Cabaniss 7 Margaret Cabaniss April 19, 2012 at 1:47 pm

Interesting, Ellen! I liked that Reese had these breakdowns in her book as well, though obviously it will vary some depending on where you live and what’s available to you.

8 Cecilia Madden April 19, 2012 at 12:00 pm

I’m definitely going to check this out. And Zoe I though the same thing about the butter. I think I’ll stick to making it as a special occassion thing.

One thing I like to make vs. buy is dessert. It’s definitely cheaper to make a whole cake than to buy a slice on a whim at the bakery/cafe/coffee shop/any place that’s tempting me with their slices of cake :) It also helps me be more deliberate about my dessert choices if I force myself to make them myself. Otherwise I would spend way too much money and get way too fat!

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Margaret Cabaniss 9 Margaret Cabaniss April 19, 2012 at 3:30 pm

I like to make my own desserts too, Cecilia — the problem is, it’s still easier for me to whip up a batch of cream scones than whole wheat bread. ;)

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10 Liz @ Frugally Blonde April 19, 2012 at 1:11 pm

This is a great topic – this lady stole my book idea! ;-) It’s so true that each person has to figure out what items are most practical for her to make from scratch and which are not.

I have tried making tons of items from scratch, but only some of them are worth making again to save money. Some of the keepers have been hamburger and hot dog buns (I disagree with author), crackers, granola bars, oatmeal packets, tortillas, popsicles, and almost any bread, cake, or cookie. Some that have been fun but that I would probably not do on a regular basis are ice cream, poptarts (I agree here), hot pockets, tomato sauce, doughnuts, and potato chips. Still on my list to try: homemade yogurt and canning!

Since I’m a couponer, I often decide what to make from scratch based on what’s on sale. If I get a good deal on crackers, for instance, then I’ll use my time to make granola bars or something else that week. But if I can’t get crackers on sale for a while, I might make my own.

I do want to read this book now!

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Margaret Cabaniss 11 Margaret Cabaniss April 19, 2012 at 2:04 pm

You raise another good point, Liz, about whether you’re cooking from scratch to save money, to eat more naturally, etc. Sometimes those goals are in conflict, so you have to choose among competing goods — which will change the list of foods you’ll end up making.

And yes, I disagree with Reese about some of her “make/don’t make” items, too — but she was definitely right about the yogurt. I’ve been making it nonstop for the last couple of weeks and am amazed at how easy (and tasty) it is. I even strain mine to make a Greek-style yogurt, then save the whey to use in bagels and homemade bread — which makes me inordinately pleased with myself. ;)

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12 Alissa Lively April 19, 2012 at 3:34 pm

I am with Cecilia on the DIY dessert. Every time I buy dessert that is not ice cream (unless it is at a great restaurant) I feel so disappointed.

Also, thanks for the heads up on this book. I think I am still in the midst of my own what to make vs buy experiment so it will be nice to have things summed up so tidily and move from there!

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Ann Waterman 13 Ann Waterman April 19, 2012 at 10:50 pm

Pad Thai. I’ve made it at home a couple of time, but find it easier to get it at a restaurant — there are so many ingredients and I have a difficult time managing all those noodles no matter how big my pan is!

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14 Lisa April 20, 2012 at 9:52 am

Soup stock and beans. Both just look so time consuming and I wonder if they’re even worth the effort when ready-made options are so available.

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Margaret Cabaniss 15 Margaret Cabaniss April 20, 2012 at 12:01 pm

I hear you — stock isn’t my favorite thing in the world to make (maybe because there’s no immediate payoff?), and I don’t make beans as often as I should. In both cases I feel like it’s worth it, though, because you can control just what exactly goes in them, how much you season them, etc. And even though they take time, the cooking is almost completely unattended, so you can be doing other stuff in the meantime. Like baking cookies. Heh.

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16 EML April 20, 2012 at 3:18 pm

A slow cooker comes in really handy to make soups stock and beans. You just throw everything in the slow cooker and forget about it for the rest of the day.

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17 Lisa April 21, 2012 at 12:02 pm

Hmm… I may have to rethink!

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18 EML April 20, 2012 at 3:17 pm

I really want to read this book!

I make a lot of things from scratch not so much to save money as to control what is inside the food. However, there are times when I am in “survival” mode and it is worth the money to buy things I would normally make.

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19 SarahD April 21, 2012 at 12:22 am

Pancake mix. This is embarrassing, because I DO make pad Thai from scratch without breaking a sweat, but if I had to make my own pancake mix, I just don’t think I’d make pancakes. Even my brother has tried to convert me, but my point to him is, I make so many other things from scratch that at some point you reach the straw that’s going to break your culinary back, and for me it’s pancake mix. Perhaps someday I’ll move past my mental block.

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Margaret Cabaniss 20 Margaret Cabaniss April 21, 2012 at 3:25 pm

Ha! I know the feeling. And those Bisquick pancakes are just so dang fluffy… Alton Brown has a recipe for “instant” pancake mix, which you make up in advance and then use as you need it — but even then, each batch still requires separating eggs, melting butter, whisking in two stages, etc. Sometimes it just all seems too much before coffee.

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21 Zoe Saint-Paul April 21, 2012 at 4:11 pm

That’s funny, because pancakes are the one thing I *always* make from scratch. The recipes I have are super easy and quick — and so much better than any mix I’ve had. SarahD, I’ll have to post my favorite recipes soon so you can try and them and hopefully get past that mental block. If you can make pad thai from scratch you can definitely make pancakes!

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22 Sarah D May 5, 2012 at 12:03 pm

Maybe I should have been more clear — it’s not a lack of good recipes that keeps me from making pancakes from scratch. It’s more what Margaret describes: there are a limited number of steps that I can tolerate when preparing breakfast for my kids, often pre-coffee, and having to fiddle with eggs AND milk AND the dry mix, and then cook them, just puts it into the realm of “stressful hassle” for me. I don’t like most pancake mixes, but I found one I love (Krusteaz Whole wheat and honey) that is a just-add-water mix, and until I get better at breakfast in general, that’s what I’m going to stick with.

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Ann Waterman 23 Ann Waterman April 21, 2012 at 6:04 pm

Sarah, do you have a favorite pad Thai recipe? And how do you finagle all those noodles?

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24 Sarah D May 5, 2012 at 11:55 am

My favorite pad Thai recipe comes from a book DH bought for me from Costco called Thai and Asian. I don’t know if it is available anywhere else… If you remind me, I can try to get it to you later. As for the noodles, we have an electric wok which is quite large enough to handle the noodles, if it’s a content management issue you’re having.

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