Cooking from Scratch: What's Worth (And Not Worth) Making

Jennifer Reese, author of the book Make the Bread, Buy the Butter talks to us about making junk food at home, whether you should roast your own chicken, the one food you should always buy at the store and more

In 2008, journalist Jennifer Reese lost her job. Like many people faced with a sudden loss of income, she panicked, then started to think of ways to save money.

Wanting to cut back on her grocery budget, she decided to start making more food from scratch -- literally turning lemons into lemonade. And milk into yogurt. And pork belly into bacon. And flour into bagels. Reese challenged herself to make almost all of the foods she had previously bought at the supermarket to see whether each item was worth the cost, quality and hassle.

These kitchen experiments became Make the Bread, Buy the Butter, a funny, informative and practical book about “the sweet spot between making and buying,” as Reese puts it. While she is clearly up for a kitchen challenge (homemade hot dogs, anyone?), she’s also the first to admit that homemade isn’t always better, or worth the time. She talked to us about writing the book, what she learned and her most successful “make it” recipes from the project.

Tell us a bit about what inspired you to write the book.
A few years ago when I lost my job, I immediately started thinking about ways to save money. I started wondering if you could save money by baking all your bread, by raising chickens for eggs, by curing your own bacon. I had my doubts, but I really didn’t have any data and I became a bit obsessed with the question.

You open the book by writing about Uncrustables (the pre-made, frozen peanut butter and jelly sandwiches), which sets the reader up for some serious DIY food snobbery. But then you break down the cost of a homemade PB&J (51 cents each) versus the Uncrustables (63 cents each) and it becomes an issue of cost AND quality. Quality aside, do you think people should care about that small difference in price?
Worrying about saving 12 cents -- or even 25 cents -- on a little sandwich is probably not the best use of your time.

I loved your debate about roasted chicken. When people ask you whether they should make it or buy it, what do you tell them?
Some people really love the ritual and ceremony and symbolism of the home-roasted bird and by all means they should roast their chickens. But if you’re exhausted from work and have little kids, like I did, or if you are exhausted and don’t have little kids, or if for any reason at all you don’t want to deal with a raw chicken at the end of the day, well, don’t. It’s a roasted chicken, not a moral imperative. There are excellent rotisserie chickens at many supermarkets, they’re not expensive, and your dinner might be happier if you buy one.

In your chapter on junk food and candy, I thought it was interesting that you often said “make it” even though most of the recipes were deemed a huge hassle. Can you explain this?
Did I say that? I’m not sure I feel that way. I think you should buy French fries, onion rings, potato chips. The one junk food that’s an enormous hassle but absolutely worth making: donuts. Big mess, much labor and yet when you bite into a fresh donut, all crispy on the outside and warm and yeasty on the inside -- totally worth it.

What homemade foods did your family love the most?
Bagels. Just about every day my husband says, “When are you making bagels again?”

For people who are really pressed for time (and who isn’t?) which foods do you recommend making?
Anyone who routinely buys packaged hummus or guacamole should try making them from scratch. They’re ridiculously easy and both cheaper and more delicious than any store products I’ve found.

On the flip side, for people who are into food “projects,” what would you recommend making?
Making cheese is the ultimate project. It’s engrossing and rewarding and while it definitely takes time, you will be shocked at how simple it really is to make delicious cheese.

Of all of the recipes in the book, what is your number one pick for the food you should always make and the food you should always buy?
I know people are stubbornly loyal to canned frosting, but I don’t get it! They just need to taste the stuff next to a bowl of homemade buttercream which takes 10 minutes to make and tastes a hundred times better. I’m totally mystified by canned frosting.

As for something you should always buy: potato chips. They’re not hard to make, but the potato chip companies have it down. You can’t beat Lay’s at this game.

I was surprised to read that you actually raised and killed animals. (The story about your goat Peppermint is hilarious.) Had you done anything like this before the book?
I actually did all of the slaughter before I decided to write a book. But I think your question is, did I grow up slaughtering animals? I didn’t. I grew up in San Francisco with a sister, a Siamese cat and a pet guinea pig.

The average person will never raise or kill animals – what do you want them to take away from these chapters?
We still have chickens and goats and they’re great pets and productive to boot. But we don’t raise animals for meat anymore. At one point, I felt this pressure to “see where my food comes from” and so we killed a rooster, and later a couple of turkeys. There’s an argument that if you’re going to eat meat you should face the bloody reality of slaughter, at least once. I faced the bloody reality. It changed nothing and taught me nothing except that I’ll happily pay a butcher to do it for me. Meat processing is like snaking your own toilet, and doing it yourself doesn’t make you a better person. Maybe the opposite.

What is the biggest thing you learned from writing the book?
Pretty much everything we eat, from bread to peanut butter to bacon, is very easy to make. There’s a lot of unnecessary mystique around food production and figuring out how to do it myself was empowering. At the same time, I managed to dispel some of the mystique around being a do-it-yourself goddess. We raise chickens, we buy potato chips and where I was once a little tortured when I went to the supermarket, I’m now completely at peace.

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