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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