Friday, 16 March 2012

Frugal Friday (16th March)

How fast the weeks are flying by! It feels as if we've only just left Christmas behind, and here we are nearly at Easter. Here in England it is Mothers' Day on Sunday this week (I believe it is not for another week yet after that, before it is celebrated in America?). As a family, we don't make a big fuss of Mothers' Day. Poor Papa Bear was bereaved of his lovely mam, on Mothers' Day many years ago. So it is a day that for him is both poignant and sad, with many precious but also some painful memories. For this reason we tend to regard it more as a day for celebrating our closeness as a family (we are closer than you could ever possibly know), rather than just for mams, and it is a time when although we want to be happy, we also want to remember a very dear and beloved mother who is not able to be with us now. That being said, Papa Bear always insists that we do a few nice and special things, and he always wants to spoil me (even though I am not his mam, but his wife, so it isn't him, that should be making a fuss of me. He always does though, because he's that sort of a husband. Aren't I a lucky Mama Bear?). Little Bear and I have been busy the last few days sorting out some special things for our menu this coming weekend, and when Papa Bear overheard us discussing what we might want to eat on Sunday for our evening meal, he said that I must choose something really delicious for my special day! You can see what we decided on in the side bar under our menu for the week. We also had to work out what to have tomorrow, becuase it is St. Patrick's Day, which we also celebrate. And we had a long conversation about ... cake! We could not decide which cake to make. Little Bear asked me to give her some suggestions, so I did. I listed all the different delicious options I could think of ... chocolate orange, apple caramel, coffee walnut, sticky toffee, malteser, lemon poppyseed ... and then raspberry mallow! That last was one that I invented on the spot, just for fun, but wouldn't you know it, THAT was the one that Little Bear picked! Fortunately, we have been able to find a real raspberry mallow cake recipe online, so we will have a try at making that tomorrow (and I shall share the results!). Fancy Little Bear choosing the only cake I didn't know how to make! I can't tell you how relieved I was when I saw how simple the recipe looked - and very cheap too! Little Bear asked me if she thought it was always worth making your own cakes, as in her experience as a student, it isn't always (they have a very subsidised canteen at their college). Well, when she asked me that, of course, it got me thinking.

Is is always cheaper, to make your own food?I did a little research on 3 of the most popular home-made items, and here is what I have found.

1. Bread.
Personally, with a family of 4, 2 of whom have huge appetites, I started this research strongly thinking it isn't cheaper to make our own bread. We seem to get through the loaves so quickly, I couldn't see how it could be cheaper. This is partly because I use a breadmaker, however. Using the ingredients I usually buy to make bread in our breadmaker, I did a rough costing to compare home-baked with bought, and this is how they compare:-
We normally get through about 4 loaves of bought bread, and perhaps 6 of home-baked. This is because the home-baked loaves are smaller than the bought ones, and because they are not ready-sliced, the slices cut thicker, so you get fewer anyways. I usually buy flour at £1.45 a bag (this is strong bread flour, for which in our supermarkets, you can't get a "value" version - the "value" all-purpose flour is less than 50p, but you can't use this to bake bread with). This usually gives me 3 loaves. I get a pack of 8 sachets of dried yeast for 60p, and this will last for approximately 12 loaves, so that's 5p a loaf. I also have to use oil, sugar, salt and dried milk in the recipes that come with the breadmaker, and I roughly estimate the cost of these items to be about 5p per loaf. However, recently I've been using buttermilk instead - which makes the loaves much more expensive as I use a whole carton per loaf - at 52p. So my cheapest home-baked loaf will be 54p, and my most expensive, approximately £1.05. Now the loaves I buy ready-sliced, are usually 2 for £2, so I get £4 worth of ready-sliced loaves to last a week, and if we have home-baked and I bake 6, that's 6 x 54p, which is £3.24. Which is cheaper - but that doesn't take into account the cost of baking the home-baked loaves in the breadmaker. According to Which?, a reliable UK consumer website, it costs on average just 5p per loaf to use a bread maker. Which adds another 30p to my home-baked bread costs, bringing the total to £3.74. It's still cheaper - but not much! I'm not convinced it is worth the trouble. Given that I also usually add some mixed seed to our loaves, and frequently nowadays use buttermilk instead of water and dried milk powder, I'm not sure we're really saving any money making bread this way. Especially since although I personally prefer the taste of home-baked bread to bought, I'm afraid Papa Bear still isn't totally sold on it. He really prefers his "plastic" white-sliced bread (and keeps sneaking loaves of it home with him!). I keep saying it must be my cooking - but he disagrees! He was brought up eating a lot of "junk" food and he says it is just what he is use to and no criticism of my cooking. So we compromise, and sometimes we have bought bread, other times, we have home-baked. That way everyone's happy - and it isn't breaking the bank, either! I remain unconvinced on this one, but I'm not going to give up baking my own bread. Maybe one day Papa Bear will be a convert too!

2. Soup.
Canned soup can cost anywhere between 24p per can for the very cheapest "value" range, to over £4 for the more luxury varieties. You can of course make soup very cheaply at home, using root vegetables, water, stock and perhaps some pulses (dried pulses are cheaper per unit to buy than canned, but they do need to be simmered for at least 1 hour on the stove top. I think they are still a little cheaper than buying them canned, since you can cook a large pot all at once, for the same price as a smaller pot, and then freeze them in batches to use later). But will they taste as good as some of the more exciting, fancy, ready-made soups?

One of the more popular soups I make at home is yellow split pea soup. I often make this using the water that I've boiled a ham in, or if we've leftover ham or bacon that needs using up. If we haven't had a ham recently I can still make this soup, using a jar of frankfurters to give it that nice smoky ham taste. I usually use half a bag of split peas, which cost a mere 35p at our local supermarket. I start by soaking the dried peas overnight, although this isn't strictly necessary as they are not pulses. Then I sautee a couple of chopped onions, some chopped swede, potato, carrot and celery, perhaps some turnip if I have it. I'll add the soaked peas, some stock (either the water I've kept back from boiling a ham, as above, or just stock from a cube) and a pinch of nutmeg or mace. Then I simmer this down for about 45 minutes. That's all. About 5 minutes before the end of cooking, I snip the frankfurters into pieces directly into the soup, which by now is nicely thickened. This is always a popular meal at our home, especially when served with warm bread! The cost of this dish? Well the veggies probably add another pound or so to the whole dish, and the frankfurters, 50p per jar. So the entire pan of soup is easily less than £2.

Now I compared this very frugal dish to a bought one. In Asda supermarket (the English version of Walmart), you can get a can of pea and ham soup for 46p. This would probably serve (at a push) Little Bear and I, though for a main meal I expect we'd want a can each, and the menfolk would definitely need a can to themselves each if not 3 cans between the 2 of them or even 2 each. So, say 5 x 46p, which is £2.30. Not bad, though more expensive than my home-made soup, even taking into account the cost of electricity while it was simmering on the stovetop for 45 minutes. BUT ... look at the ingredients of the bought soup!

Water , Marrowfat Peas (9%) , Garden Peas (3.6%) , Green Pea Flour , Smoked Ham with Added Water (2%)[Pork (71%), Water, Salt, Lactose (from Milk), Milk Proteins, Stabilisers (Triphosphates , Disodium Diphosphate), Preservative (Sodium Nitrite), Antioxidant (Sodium Ascorbate)] , Modified Maize Starch , Salt , Potato Starch , Rapeseed Oil , Flavouring , Yeast Extract , Sugar , Lactose (from Milk) , Onion Powder , Natural Smoke Flavouring , Ground Turmeric , Natural Flavouring .

I think I know which soup I'd rather be eating for my tea! Of course, our franfurters probably contain easily this many ingredients, but if I use leftover ham there'll be very little other than that and the split peas, vegetables and seasonings in my home-made soup. Plus it will all be much fresher, than canned soup which has a use-by date of months, if not years into the future.

3. Pies.
I like to make a whole batch of pies all at one time, and then freeze them in individual foil pie plates, so that whenever someone fancies one for a snack or meal, they can just take one out of the freezer and bake it in the oven direct from frozen. This is what I call a "home-made ready meal". I'll often use leftovers to make pies - perhaps turkey or chicken, after a roast, maybe mince, or mixed vegetables if there are lots left over. Cheese and onion is another popular choice, or cheese and potato. I usually make my own pastry, though it is not anywhere near as good as my mam's wonderful melt-in-the-mouth shortcrust, despite her giving me many a master-class! She says I just have to keep trying. So I will! If I make 6 pies (1 each for Little Bear and myself, and 2 for the menfolk) that usually involves me using a pound of all-purpose flour, about 8 oz shortening (I often use half shortening, half butter), and some water. All in all that's probably less than £1 worth of ingredients. If I'm making cheese and potato pies, I'll use perhaps 1 1/2 potatoes per pie (depends on size), at a cost of about 50p, 2 onions (perhaps 20p), 8 oz mature cheddar cheese (about £3) and a couple eggs (about 50p). I normally par-bake the pastry shells for 8 minutes or so, just to crisp them so that the filling doesn't make the pastry go soggy. So in total those 6 pies probably cost me £5.20, or (rounding it up a bit) at most, £1 per pie.

In Asda (not the supermarket we usually go to) you can buy a "value" style cheese and onion pasty (a crescent-shaped pie made of flaky pastry) for 35p which is considerably less than my home-baked pies. And in fact reading the list of ingredients, apart from some modified maize starch there is not much else in these cheaply manufactured pies, than in my home-baked ones. So on this occasion I'd have to say that no, it definitely isn't cheaper to make your own.

In general, home-made food tastes better than bought, ready-made food. It is more versatile too, sinse you can alter the ingredients to suit your family's tastes, and your pocket, and also the season - using in-season, locally sourced ingredients is much more economical than using out-of-season ones that are imported. However, this needs to be balanced against the cost of fuel used to cook the home-made food, and, if you live a distance from the places where the ingredients are available, the cost of getting them home, too. But since it is possible to batch cook large quantities of home-made foodstuffs, especially if you are lucky enough to have a garden and grow your own supplies, this dramatically cuts the cost per unit of the home-made equivalents, when compared with ready-made versions. If you have the time (and I'd say almost everyone does, if you can schedule in a half day a week, or even an evening, to do some prepping for the week ahead) then I think it is nearly always more frugal to make your own, than to buy it ready-made. And of course, there is one very special factor that can't be overlooked, when comparing the value of home-made with ready-made.

Home-made food has a special added ingredient, you see, that ready-made doesn't. One that you can't buy. And what is that special ingredient?

Love, of course! And there's no price you can put on that - for us there's no competition. Home-made might not always be cheaper to buy, but it is always more precious in our hearts!