DIY or Buy? Urban Homesteaders Weigh the Costs

Whenever a friend starts developing an interest in urban homesteading—canning, pickling, and otherwise preserving foods at home—I always dread the inevitable moment when I'll puncture her Little House on the Prairie dreams. It's all good as long as we're talking about how great our home-pickled green beans taste in Bloody Marys. Then comes the deflatable moment.

"And I'll save so much money!" my starry-eyed friend declares. Um, probably not.

"Sometimes you do and sometimes you don't," says DIY goddess Karen Solomon, author of Jam It, Pickle It, Cure It, and Can It, Bottle It, Smoke It. "When you make your own food, you can absolutely save money. Or you can be making jerky out of grass-fed beef, and spend much more than buying something at the grocery store."

"Some things can be made cheaply at home and some things can't," agrees Jennifer Reese, author of the new book Make the Bread, Buy the Butter: What You Should and Shouldn't Cook from Scratch, which details her years of homesteading in the San Francisco Bay Area. With a combined experience that encompasses just about every type of DIY food project imaginable (growing, curing, canning, smoking, cheese-making, even animal slaughter), these are the foodstuffs Reese and Solomon advise producing at home—and those they don't. If you must take on the most difficult kitchen projects, they both say, do it for fun and for flavor, not to save money or time.

MAKE

• Baked goods: Reese grew sick of supplying her family with all the bread they go through in a week; Solomon admits to buying bread, too. But muffins, scones, brownies: Bake, don't buy. Reese's recipe for maple nut scones prices out at 18 cents an ounce; a comparable Starbucks scone is 39 cents an ounce.

• Chicken stock: "Tastes so much better if you make it," says Solomon, while Reese decries the messiness of the process but reluctantly makes her own, at a cost of 25 cents a cup versus 75 cents for store-bought. Besides, nobody wants to waste perfectly good chicken carcasses.

• Vanilla extract: "A vanilla bean or two, a little bit of booze, and a jar," says Solomon. Reese agrees, buying beans in bulk online and making her own for 58 cents an ounce; McCormick's costs $4.42.

• Hot dog buns: At 17 cents a bun, cheaper than store-bought (37 cents to 55 cents per bun) and "so much better homemade," says Reese.

• Mayonnaise: "It's just an egg, a squeeze of lemon, and some oil," says Solomon. Reese agrees, provided you have the time to mess with it. Her homemade mayo prices out at $1.51 a batch versus a jar of mayo for $1.75.

• Cucumber pickles: "In the height of summer Kirby cukes are at the farmers' market for 50 cents a pound; that's enough for a couple of pints of pickles," says Solomon, comparing her cheap-and-delicious ones to inferior jarred specimens at $1.25 and up. Reese agrees, pricing her homemade pickles at $2 a quart. A jar from Vlasic is almost $6.

BUY

• Chicken and eggs: "We love our chickens but they're pets," says Reese, who's spent so much on her hens (including a $3,000 fence to protect the birds from dogs) that at one point she was paying $2.12 per egg. That's a horrifying $25.44 a dozen, when even the best farmers' market eggs don't usually top $9. Reese also says she didn't see much of a difference in her eggs and other farmers' market eggs. "Not worth it, except we do love the chickens," sums up Reese, who slaughtered just one chicken, an adventure detailed in her book. The meat of the pastured Arlene was $2 per pound, quite the bargain when compared with organic birds costing $4.79 per pound. "Alas, our backyard chicken was bony and sinewy with stringy, chocolate-colored flesh," writes Reese.

• Hamburger buns: They're not like hot dog buns, Reese explains. Hamburgers ooze juice, and the buns are rather hard to make. Buy 'em.

• Honey: "Interesting in terms of it being a science experiment, but ridiculous in terms of cost," says Reese, who spent about $1,200 on her bee setup that yielded three gallons of honey, or $1.56 per ounce. Even the fancy organic honey I buy costs 80 cents an ounce. And, as Reese points out, "How much honey can you eat, really?" She still has gallons stored in gigantic Mason jars in the house, and "the honey was just decent."

• Goat milk: In the book, Reese estimates she spent $1,600 on her goats. "Goats are wonderful, but if it's just their milk you're after, buy it," she writes. "We're never going to get enough milk out of them to make it worth it."

• Potato chips: Cheaper if homemade—40 cents an ounce versus 60 cents for Lay's—but "you don't get as good results at home as the chip companies do," Reese warns.

• Miso: "I have a recipe in one of my books for the yellow miso, but that is a lot of hours of boiling and straining and then you have to wait for months," says Solomon. "Even for me, that's not really worth it."

DEBATABLE

• Jam: There is no way your homemade jam with organic fruit is going to be cheaper than Smucker's. It will taste better. It will be fun to make. But it will not be cheap. "If you have free fruit, by all means make jam," says Reese, while Solomon advises looking out for bumper garden crops, friendly neighbors with overflowing fruit trees, and bargains at farmers' markets. She makes her own.

• Lemonade: Homemade tastes so much better. But unless you have a lemon tree in your yard, it costs two to four times as much to make lemonade as to buy it, according to Reese.

• Yogurt: Reese makes her own and finds it tastes good and prices well compared to good store-bought, about $1.75 a quart compared with about $4. Solomon dislikes making yogurt and says it needs a lot of babysitting and turns out kind of thin. "And if you strain it, it turns into a tiny amount of yogurt," she says.

• Ketchup: Solomon likes the taste of her homemade. "I made a bunch of different ketchups and had a party to taste them," says Reese. "And no one liked any of the homemade ketchups. People like the taste of Heinz and anything else is just confusing. And it's cheap. Buy ketchup."

• Bacon: Buy the cheapest pork belly you can find and your homemade bacon costs $3.50 a pound, even without taking into account hours of smoking and the amount of space a slab of belly takes up in the refrigerator. In contrast, cheap supermarket bacon is about $5 a pound. Nonetheless, Solomon still makes her own bacon regularly, using the best meat she can afford and smoking it in her backyard grill. "Expensive and worth it," she says.

• Butter: So easy and fun to make at home! But if you make it with store-bought cream for $3.39 a pint, you will end up with an amount of butter you could buy for $1.75, writes Reese. In addition, Solomon says, homemade butter has variable water content, so you can't really trust it for baking.

• Pizza: "I love making pizza, but the best crust requires 24 hours' advance notice, and for $15 I can get an amazing pizza," says Solomon. Reese says the cost of homemade pizza is about half of one from a delivery joint and tastes wonderful. Still, she makes it only "sometimes."

Image source: Flickr member Martin de Witte under Creative Commons