'Make the Bread, Buy the Butter'

Homemade bagels are cheaper than store-bought ones. Jam and butter, just buy at the store.

Tess Vigeland: And now a little something for all you marvelous cooks who spent the day in the kitchen. Shortly after the economy imploded, Jennifer Reese decided to cook everything she and her family ate from scratch and compare the cost to what she could buy at a supermarket. I visited her home near San Francisco back in 2009 to get a first-hand look and taste. The result of her experiment is a new book called "Make The Bread, Buy the Butter: What You Should and Shouldn't Cook From Scratch." Jennifer, good to have you back.

Jennifer Reese: It's great to be here.

Vigeland: So I visited your home up there in San Francisco a couple years ago, and you had basically converted it into a headquarters for your cooking everything from scratch experiment. Let's listen to a clip from that day:

Reese: I thought everything everyone did in a factory was going to be cheaper. And it was sort of this fake economy around being crunchy and homespun, but it actually turns out to be almost true that you can save money by doing things at home.

Vigeland: Almost true. So, has that held up as you have put together this cookbook?

Reese: Yes, it has. You can save so much money by cooking at home. Not across the board, not everything, but many many items of food you can save money by doing it yourself.

Vigeland: Well, of course, the title of the book is "Make the Bread, Buy the Butter," and we talked at that time why that was that the cost-benefit analysis was in favor of going in and buying that pat of butter. Was there anything as you went through this experiment that surprised you?

Reese: Yeah. There were a lot of really weird foods that you wouldn't expect to be cheaper to buy that were. Like I thought, "If I had the energy, I would always make my own lemonade and that would be really frugal." But in fact, it costs about twice as much to make lemonade from real lemons, as it does to go to the store.

Vigeland: Really? Even here in California where citrus is a bargain?

Reese: Yeah. I mean, if you have a lemon tree, it's probably cheaper. But if you have to buy your lemons... And it also takes a while to squeeze them. And then silly things like candied ginger. I was really into candying my ginger.

Vigeland: Right.

Reese: And it cost more to do it yourself. Just slightly more, but more. So I would never do it again.

Vigeland: You even went so far as to price out making your own prosciutto. Now, I don't know that I would go that far as to go find some raw pork and season it for myself. But...

Reese: Yeah. And the prosciutto is a funny example because I did do it and it did work and it was the most horrifying thing when it came out of its curing. It was like covered with mold. And in the end, I threw most of it away. So...

Vigeland: So you'll be buying that from now on?

Reese: Yes, by the slice. Without the mold.

Vigeland: Well, part of the reason I came up to visit you a couple of years ago was because there had been a spate of new stories about people raising chickens in their own backyards. And I had real questions about the financial wisdom of making those kinds of moves. What is your conclusion at this point?

Reese: I think that if you have the infrastructure, if you have a coop and you have a proper fence that no dogs can see through, it's not that expensive to keep chickens day-to-day. If you have to put in the infrastructure -- which most of do -- it can be outrageously expensive in the end. I had to build a fence for my chickens -- and that was a $3,000 fence and so I don't think you will necessarily save money if you get chickens.

Vigeland: And beyond the chickens...

Reese: I have goats now.

Vigeland: You have goats now?

Reese: I have three goats.

Vigeland: Wow!

Reese: That was another thing that I probably gotten $25 worth of milk out of them and one of the goats costs $100.

Vigeland: Whoa.

Reese: I don't regret it. But the truth is is the ways that you can save money are buying your spices in bulk and grinding them at home, making your muffins instead of going to Starbucks. It's simple things, not the more glamorous things, like getting chickens -- if you think getting chickens is glamorous.

Vigeland: Which sounds like you would argue it is not.

Reese: It sort of is, but it's sort of not.

Vigeland: So this book is really about making it so that people don't have to make this dollar calculation. But at a certain point I suppose you've probably found that it's not all about dollars anyway.

Reese: No, no. You learn how to make something and you realize how much better it is than what you buy. And so even if it costs a little more -- which it usually doesn't -- you'll end up making it, because the quality of what you eat, and therefore the quality of your life, is enhanced by doing it.

Vigeland: Right.

Reese: In terms of the morality, one of the reasons we do have chickens now is that it makes my skin crawl to buy supermarket eggs.

Vigeland: And that is because of the conditions that you worry about the chickens being in?

Reese: Yeah, it's not all about costs.

Vigeland: Well, today of course is one of the biggest cooking days of the year. So what about the economics of Thanksgiving dinner? What would have been best made today and what should we have bought?

Reese: All right, well first of all, do not raise your own turkeys. That is not fun to slaughter your own turkeys, which I did once and won't do again. I would definitely make your pie crust, I would definitely make the pumpkin pie. But I did a test between pumpkin from a pumpkin and pumpkin from a can, and I am all for the can. Stuffing, you know, homemade stuffing is better. But I do have a sentimental attachment to Pepperidge Farm's because that's what I grew up with.

Vigeland: And would you make your own beajoulais nouveau?

Reese: No. My basement isn't big enough.

Vigeland: Jennifer Reese is the author of "Make the Bread, Buy the Butter." She is also known as the Tipsy Baker. Thanks so much and good luck with the book.

Reese: Thanks Tess.


We have a link to our original visit with Jennifer  and you can read an excerpt from her book (PDF).

About the author

Tess Vigeland is the host of Marketplace Money, where she takes a deep dive into why we do what we do with our money.

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