Make vs. Buy: our fiscal guide to your fridge

Worth it? Photo from Big Red Kitchen.

Let us, for a moment, set aside the fact that if you’re a decent cook and you have decent ingredients, whatever you make at home WILL taste better than its packaged counterpart from the store. Similarly, ‘making it’ is usually a better fiscal decision than ‘buying it.’ But there’s still a gray area in the make vs. buy debate that needs to be addressed. The question needs to be asked: Is it really worth it to squeeze those 50 oranges for the Sunday brunch, or will Tropicana do? We visited supermarkets around Brooklyn to price-check a few kitchen staples. Then we explored making them ourselves and did some math. Here’s what we found.

We recognize that you may be able to find a lower price, use different ingredients or eek a bit more out of that jar or bottle than we did here. Recipes and prices vary, so treat this as a general guide.

Orange juice
Sadly, juice is expensive no matter how you squeeze it. Take Tropicana: A gallon of Tropicana (128 oz.) will set you back $6.99 at Wyckoff Food Bazaar while its half-gallon counterpart is a disproportionate $5. And for the fresh-squeezed stuff (undeniably superior), it takes six to eight oranges (size/juiciness dependent) to make an 8 oz. serving. At three oranges for $2, that’s upward of $4 per glass ($64/gallon!). Now you understand why some OJ costs more than cocktails in restaurants.
VERDICT: a resounding, but reluctant, BUY

Not worth it. Photo by Jill Harrison.

Pasta sauce
A 24 oz. jar of Newman’s Own, Ragu, or Barilla ranges from $2.99 to $3.19, but these usually don’t hold a candle to the home-made stuff, which is easy to make with a few basic ingredients.
You’ll need:
(prices from Wyckoff Food Bazaar) two 28 oz. cans of tomatoes ($3.78); one yellow onion ($0.99); a bag of fresh garlic ($1.50); olive oil ($2.99 and up); spices (basil, oregano, black pepper, whatever else is around) (negligible).
In a large pot over medium-high heat, saute the chopped onion with a few cloves of minced garlic in two tbsp of olive oil. As the garlic starts to brown, dump the canned crushed tomatoes in. Stir, turn the heat to low, add spices and let simmer for 1-2 hours. You’ll get a whopping half-gallon (64 oz.) of sauce, and you’ll need only a fraction of the garlic and olive oil, making the total closer to $5.50. Note: this method is ultra suitable for crockpots.
TOTAL COST: $9-$10; $5.50/64 oz. ($8/64 oz. for store-bought)
VERDICT: a resounding MAKE

Ice cream
Making ice cream is a labor of love and commitment, which we’ve never attempted A) because we don’t have an ice cream maker and B) because we understand it takes a really, really long time. According to Ice Cream Club, the sweet stuff is made from three main ingredients: heavy cream ($3.99/quart), whole milk ($1.39/liter), and sugar ($2.50/5 lb. bag). To make something beyond the ‘sweet cream’ flavor, you’ll probably need vanilla extract ($3.99 and up) and other ingredients, like cocoa powder, nuts or fruit. Plus, there’s the cost of the maker ($30-70 even in the low-budget range). Ok, we didn’t do all the math here, but since you can snag two pints of Häagen-Dazs or Ben and Jerry’s on sale at Food Bazaar for 2/ $5.00, leave homemade for the more financially stable.

Worth it. Photo from Healthy Delicious.

Making bread requires a lot of patience. There’s the mixing, the kneading, the proofing (letting the dough rise) and sometimes you just don’t have the time. Admittedly, buying a baguette can be cheap—$2 to $3 from Sahadi’s to Choice Market to… most grocery stores. But cheap only counts for so much—when it comes to a nice bread, there’s nothing like taking your own from a hot oven.
You’ll need:
(prices from Associated): bread flour ($2.79/5 lbs., but you can usually replace it with cheaper all-purpose.); yeast ($2.49/three packets); sugar ($1.19/1 lb.)
Recipe: Use this great recipe for a baguette from Epicurious.
TOTAL COST: $6-$7; $1.63/recipe.
VERDICT: MAKE (unless you’re in a hurry)

Plain yogurt
Making yogurt can produce mixed results, but as with anything, practice makes perfect. Mainly, it’s just kind of awesome to cause a bacterial fermentation in your apartment. Of course, to make yogurt, you have to start with yogurt, but that itself isn’t too expensive.
You’ll need
(prices from Pioneer Market): two 6 oz. organic yogurts ($1.38); one quart of 2% milk ($0.99); 4 oz. powdered milk ($1.99); honey: $2.99-$5.99.
Recipe: We love this Food Network recipe (yes, they actually know their stuff) for fresh yogurt.
TOTAL COST: $5.75. You use almost all the ingredients on this one, except for the honey.
VERDICT: MAKE (it’s just more interesting!). A store-bought quart (32 oz.) of yogurt runs anywhere from $2.99 to $6.99, so it’s a financial toss-up.

Worth it. Photo from Kitchen Thymes.

Guacamole goes well with everything from baby carrots to pita chips, has a nice kick to it and miraculously pleases both vegans and meat-eaters. With 12 oz. of store-bought guac at just under $4… for your next big party (be it dinner or a big game), try this concoction.
You’ll need
: (prices from Wyckoff Food Bazaar)four avocados ($6); red onion ($1.59); tomato ($0.99); lime ($0.15); spices (garlic powder, black pepper, and a tbsp of whatever hot sauce you have available) (negligible).
: Mash up the avocados in a large bowl. Dice a small red onion and a large gutted tomato, add to the mix. Add ¼ tsp garlic powder, ½ tsp black pepper, and a full dose of hot sauce of your choosing. Squeeze the lime over everything and mix together. Our concoction makes at least 36 oz. Per 12 oz., that’s a dollar less than the store-bought stuff.
TOTAL COST: $8-$9; $2.91/12 oz. ($4/12 oz. for store-bought)

Beer can be made with a ton of different flavors, but for the most part, it all has the same base: water, a starch source (such as malted barley), yeast and flavoring (like hops). On their own, barley costs $1-$2 per pound, hops around $3-$11, and yeast costs $1.50-$3.50 (prices found online). But if you don’t know anything about brewing beer, Brooklyn Brew Shop has a one-gallon (128 oz.) brew-it-yourself kit for $40 ($3.75/12 oz.) in a variety of flavors: blackberry red ale, IPA, Grapefruit Honey Ale and more. A six-pack at the bodega will run you around $6 for cheap beer (PBR) or $10-$12 for the more expensive varieties (Pacifico, Brooklyn Brewery).
VERDICT: BUY for now. Make… somewhere down the road, maybe with that ice cream.

17 Comment

  • This is a pretty sweet guide. Brewing beer is a lot of fun, but it takes lots of time and energy. If you don’t have a lot of space or a huge sink, and don’t like bleaching dozens of individual bottles, then brewing is not for you.

    Then again, there’s nothing like tasting that first batch you get right.

  • My DIY guacamole find: Trader Joe’s usually carries a “Guacamole Kit” in their produce section–it’s packed fresh with 2 avocados, 2 roma tomatoes, a small onion, plenty of cloves of garlic, a jalapeno, and a lime. And it’s an awesome deal at only $2.99….so easy!

  • I disagree with your beer choice.

    While it’s $40 for the kit, you don’t have to re-buy the kit each time. Let’s assume that you are older than 19 and actually care about beer in the slightest. Pretend your 6-packs are $11. I find that out here I can find them either for $2 per beer (so $12 per 6-pack) or $10 even for a 6-pack … so average it at $11. That’s for something like Brooklyn Brewery, Harpoon beers, Speakeasy, etc….blabla.

    Ok, that said, it’s $40 for the kit that makes 1 gallon of beer. It’s then only $15 for each additional gallon.

    A gallon of beer is between 10 and 11 bottles worth.

    So for $40 for the kit + $15 for another gallon = $55 for about 21 bottles of beer ($2.60 per beer).

    For $40 for the kit + $15 for another gallon + $15 for another gallon = $70 for about 32 bottles of beer ($2.18 per beer)

    Do it again … and you can spend $85 for about 42 bottles of beer ($2.02 per beer)

    And again … spend $100 for the kits and addition mixed-sets and you get about 53 bottles of beer ($1.88 per beer) You are now less than many 6-packs in the area.

    Lastly, spend $115 and get about 63 bottles of beer ($1.82) WHICH IS $10.95 PER SIX-PACK (less than my $11 on average for good beer)

    Just saying — it is cheaper if you drink a lot of beer. A lot of GOOD beer, that is. AND it keeps getting cheaper (Although on a less-steep slope for sure) for the next few gallons as well.

  • Re: Liz

    To me, saving 5 cents a 6 pack doesn’t seem worth having to drink all the crappy beer I would end up making.

    Plus, the would defeat the purpose of paying more than $1.25 for a tall boy.

  • seriously people, never buy guacamole unless you’re trying to eat it immediately on the subway. Homemade guac is so easy and a dozen times tastier than the stuff from the store that looks like Nickelodeon slime.

  • Have been meaning to make my own bread for a while now, but after seeing this cost breakdown I am really eager to get started!

    I’ve brewed my own beer a few times and let me tell you, it is definitely a lot of work. But as Liz mentioned, when you get that first batch that actually tastes good, its an amazing feeling. Especially when you get your friends to blind-taste test yours vs. a commercial (or craft) beer and they like yours better!

  • Yup, Tim is right that homemade guacamole tastes better in addition to being cheaper. The ingredients are fresher, you can tweak the flavors the way you like, all that good stuff.

  • Another homemade winner: CEREAL! Especially granola, which is usually (much) cheaper, healthier and tastier when made at home, to your own liking. There are a few stores around Brooklyn that sell bulk goods, and it is easy to get any desired amount of rolled oats (0.99/lb!), nuts, dried fruit, or anything else you like in your breakfast bowl. Simple recipes online, too. And, like guac, salsa is also typically better & more cost effective to make at home.

  • Re: Beer

    I feel like everyone’s a winner if you drink store bought beer while brewing your own. Which is what we were trying to say, but I guess it wasn’t conveyed very well.

  • and for Joe, here’s some extra advice on baguette making:

    TIP: Julia Child says to build a proofing box when making bread. Bethany Costello, pastry chef in Blaue Gans in Tribeca, tells us you can make your own proofing box in your oven. About 30 minutes before the bread is done rising in the bowl, turn on your oven to its lowest setting – should be around 150 degrees, and put a bowl on the bottom rack filled with water. Allow the oven to create humidity, and when the dough has doubled in size, beat it down and stretch it into a baguette shape. Put the baguette in the oven for 45 minutes to an hour until it has doubled in size. Take the baguette out, set your oven to 400 degrees and follow the rest of the instructions on the Epicurious recipe.

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  • Regarding bread–homemade baguettes take a certain amount of technique. If you’re not a baking pro, definitely check out no-knead bread:

    You end up with a beautiful artisanal loaf for very little work or money.

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  • I know this is late post, but the bread is even cheaper and tastier if you make your own sourdough starter. beats the $2.50 for four packs and you can make as much as you like!! I make a loaf bread for under $.30!!

  • I would like to know the cheapest price per gallon of olive oil

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