Let me start by saying that I am not a professional baker. But one of my favorite things to do is go through cookbooks and try to learn new things. New techniques, new recipes, different ingredients, etc.
There are a few things in my kitchen that I make on my own for a fraction of the price at the grocery store, and a much larger quantity. Usually, this requires a bit of money up front to get things done — instead of making a batch of chocolate cookies, I could just buy one cookie, but when I do the math, I could have 30 cookies for the same price. Why buy it when I could guarantee not only what is in what I’m eating, but also (usually) get much more for a lower price? I’ve gone through and broken down the three things I make at home most frequently, listed from easiest to most difficult.
1. Vanilla Extract
I have the worst sweet tooth, and I bake. A lot. My favorite ingredient to bake with is vanilla extract, but when you live in a rural area, or even in a large city, good vanilla is expensive.
I’m talking $35 for an 8 oz. bottle of good vanilla extract in the stores. I am currently working on 25 ounces of vanilla extract for about $70 worth of materials. That boils down to $4.275 per ounce bought at the store vs. $2.80 an ounce made at home. That’s a 64% discount. If you add in the cost of a mason jar, which you may or may not have, that’s $3 an ounce. I’ve used a small funnel to put my finished vanilla into a clean beer growler, a beer bottle with a cork, and currently a sriracha stout bottle (so when I cook something it appears that I’m adding sriracha to my chocolate chip cookies).
Best way to do it? Buy straight vanilla beans in bulk and inexpensive vodka. Wondering what all vanilla extract is? Vanilla vodka. You can do it with rum, but vodka is flavorless, so it will leave your recipes a much purer vanilla taste. I purchase my vanilla on eBay (With ebates!) from the seller “Vanillaproducts.” They have over 27,000 sales, and I swear by them. I have also purchased from my local grocery store, Mariano’s, but I know that isn’t an option for most. My current batch is working with 25 Tahitian Grade B Vanilla beans. Just the beans cost $59.99. The other $10? New Amsterdam vodka. Why that brand? It’s solid, it’s consistent, and it’s frequently on sale at Target for $6-8 for 25 oz.
When you get your vanilla pods, process the beans and the pods and put the mixture right into your container. I recommend using a mason jar. If you don’t need 25 ounces of vanilla to start with, go for eight ounces — you’ll only want six to eight beans. If you haven’t seen how to slice and scrape a vanilla bean, there are a million YouTube videos on it. Smaller mason jar and fewer vanilla beans — still amazingly delicious and fiscally worth it.
Scrape out all the beans from the pods and put them into the jar/container. Toss in the pod and go on to the next pod. Finish it off by pouring in your vodka. Make sure to leave about 25% of the jar empty, as you will be shaking the jar and want some space for the beans and pods to move around. That’s it. Slice, scrape, pour, shake. You can leave the beans in as long as you want. My current batch has been sitting for eight months. Not only is this an amazing thing for your own kitchen, you can get some bottles with corks on Amazon and gift homemade vanilla to family and friends for Christmas. If you don’t want to put the pods into the extract, you can put the pods straight into a mason jar with sugar to make some vanilla sugar. Same idea — just let it sit for a while and shake it regularly, and you’ve got some tasty sugar for your cookies and coffee.
2. Hot Fudge
One of my favorite things to eat off a spoon is fudge straight from the jar. I will admit, this one isn’t always less expensive than buying it from the store, but this recipe is incredible. It is Christina Tosi’s recipe from the Momofuku cookbook. Not only is it delicious, but you can customize it to your liking. Darker fudge? Milkier fudge, Hershey’s Cocoa Powder? Valharona Cocoa? Your choice, through and through. Due to its customization, I will use Target Prices for the product I make compared Sander’s 10oz hot fudge, my favorite from childhood. (The recipe for the fudge can be found here.)
For the above average ingredients, corn syrup, Ghirardelli cocoa powder, and chocolate, you’ll get about 4 batches in total if you go and buy all of the ingredients. In total, this makes about $4.75 per batch. Compared to the $4.29 for Sander’s hot fudge, it may not be much, but homemade, customized fudge that is incredible on everything is worth it.
Now, this isn’t exactly for the faint of heart, and it did take me quite a few attempts to get the hang of them. But if you love macaroons and want to experiment with flavors, I highly recommend you try making them at home.
In a bakery, I’ve seen macarons go from $1.50 a piece to $3.50 a piece, depending on where you are, the flavor, etc. After learning how to make them myself, I rarely buy them unless it’s a really unique flavor. (I have no idea how bakers make strawberry lemongrass macarons and have no interest in learning.)
If you itemize everything you would need to buy, assuming you have nothing in your kitchen, to make macarons, the total would seem a bit much. The prices below are not per batch, but the cost of just buying the product outright without accounting for the amount you’d use. (All prices obtained from Target’s website/most recent experience.)
- Red Mill Almond Flour: $9.50
- Granulated Sugar: $2
- Eggs: $2
- Powdered Sugar: $1.5
- Cream of Tartar: (Optional) $3.50
For everything you would need, you would need to spend $18.50. I’ve found that one package of Red Mill Almond flour yields three full batches, and in order to make a fourth batch, you would need to purchase another bag of almond flour, so let’s just go with three full batches. You’ll have extra of everything else.
For me, each full batch yields about 48 shells, so 24 cookies. (Assuming one cup flour/powdered sugar and three eggs per batch. Recipes vary.) Assuming that about 25% of those cookies are damaged or broken — which will probably happen — you’ll have 18 complete cookies. Take all the costs, divide it by total of shells, and you’re at less than $.40 a cookie. If you add in the complete cost of a jar of raspberry jam ($6 — my favorite macaron filling), you’ll still be less than $.50 a cookie.
(For what it’s worth, macaroons are rather difficult to make. It took me about four tries to get it right, and it will all depend on your kitchen, but if you really like macarons, I think it’s 100% worth it.)
These are the three things that I have made over and over that I keep in my fridge/in my back pocket for parties. I’ve made hundreds of macarons (probably at least a thousand), I’ve got about a gallon of vanilla (half still brewing, half available for baking), and have a mason jar of homemade fudge in my fridge pretty consistently. The homemade vanilla is the one I am proudest of because it’s easy as pie, makes me smell like vanilla for a week after cutting and scraping the beans out of the pods, and works with the most things. I can add it to cookies, put it in ice cream, bake it into a pie or frosting. The vanilla will never go bad, always smells amazing, and while it is a bit of money up front (at least for the 25 oz. batch), it’s completely worth it. I go through about eight ounces of vanilla in a year and will need to give some vanilla to family members this holiday if I want to rationalize making another batch soon.
What are some commonly store-bought things you make at home instead? Be sure to let us know in the comments!
Taryn Goodge is a Chicago resident who likes photography, comedy, terrible license plates, and any type of math with a dollar sign in front. She is currently studying for the CPA exams and hopes that the effects of sleep deprivation aren’t permanent. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter.
Image via Unsplash