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The Definition of a Win-Win

September 20, 2010

I cook from scratch for a lot of reasons.  Mostly, because I enjoy it.  I find popping open a jar of homemade dill pickles or snagging a homemade muffin on my way out the door to be pretty darn satisfying.  I also think home-cooked food tastes good – I never liked pickles or plain yogurt much until I started making them myself.  And the social and environmental impact of cooking at home with fresh, local, as-unprocessed-as-possible ingredients is becoming more and apparent.

But it never occurred to me that it was actually cheaper than buying ready-made.

Lots of smart people have talked (both in the blog and print-published worlds) about how cooking from scratch can be a fabulous money-saver.  But this is the Bay Area, folks, and ain’t nothin’ gonna be cheap around here.  I figured that people who save a lot of money using whole ingredients probably live in places where (a) there’s lots of room for a kitchen garden and (b) the cost of living is a little less astronomical.  Buying our groceries from local vendors we know at the farmer’s market is a lot of fun and (I think) an important statement about the kind of food production I want to support, but it isn’t always cheap.  We comparison shop, but mostly I don’t mind paying a little bit more to support small farms – and let’s face it: the produce is miles better than whatever they’re selling at Whole Foods.

But the other day I was procrastinating a little bit, and got curious about how much more it cost us to make and can our own tomato sauce with fresh tomatoes than to make our favorite recipe with the prescribed 28 oz. can of whole tomatoes.  Safeway’s brand of non-organic tomatoes are $2.19 for a 28-oz can; the least expensive organic brand is $3.55.  I paid $.89 per pound at the farmer’s market, (Admittedly, I kind of scored.  But with a little bit of keeping my eyes open, I’ve scored a couple of times this summer.) which works out to be about $1.55 for 28 ounces.  To say I was floored would be a serious understatement.  The difference between $2.19 and $1.55 isn’t that much, but when you consider just how many cans of tomatoes we buy in any given year, it definitely adds up.  And the difference between my $1.55 organic tomatoes and Safeway’s organics at $3.55 is really nothing to sneeze at.

The difference between store-bought yogurt and what we make at home was even more startling. The least expensive plain organic yogurt Safeway sells costs $8.98 for 64 ounces of yogurt (though it’s only sold in 27 oz. containers, which means you’re buying 3 disposable containers instead of one half-gallon jug).  Organic milk is $4.09 for a half gallon; since we use a little of our own yogurt as starter for the next batch, all we buy to make yogurt is milk.  That means that it’s more than twice as expensive to buy yogurt at the grocery store than it is to make it at home.  Some people might consider homemade yogurt production to be more effort than it’s worth, but honestly, it’s one of the easiest things we make around here.  Definitely easier than cookies, and most 12-year-olds can manage a pretty decent batch of chocolate chip.  We use Amanda’s recipe, and leave the yogurt to do its thing overnight – and in the morning, we have breakfast.

This week, we doubled the amount of yogurt we usually make, and test-drove our new ice cream maker. (At $5 and perfectly functional, hands down the most exciting thing I’ve ever found in a thrift store.)  We used Heidi’s recipe for frozen yogurt, which is turned out perfectly.  For just a fraction of what we would have paid at the yogurt shop down the street.

And I think I’ve got a new favorite dessert.

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