When people jokingly refer to Whole Foods as “Whole Paycheck” to indicate the price points, I wonder if they conclude that all organic products and foods have to be expensive.
It is indeed more expensive to raise meat on a small homestead than to buy a rotisserie chicken at Costco. But so many pricey organic foods and value – add products are quickly and cheaply made at home. A frugal person can save thousands of dollars per year by combining ingredients for tasty or useful products. Put that cash to other purposes less easily accomplished. In addition, making products from scratch reduces trash and storage.
My husband and I live in a remote part of Alaska, a 20-minute flight from the nearest road, or a 3.5 hour snowmachine trip to the same community access point. We go five+ months at a time without resupply. So I make use of all the following homemade products to reduce purchases and transportation costs ($0.50 per lb), and trash that we would otherwise have to burn or haul back to a town dump. The savings are applied to products we cannot make, like tools.
a) FACIALS and HAIR TREATMENTS: Pay $100 vs. < $1. Honey and Beeswax I love feeling really clean, and have paid $90 – 110 for facials in the US (and $15 in India). But you know the ingredients and labor are highly marked up. Now, I give myself two facial/hair treatments a week, right before bathing: one with 2 tbs of bentonite clay (bought on-line) mixed into a slurry with water for a detoxifying face and hair mask, and another with 2 tbs of honey, diluted, as a moisturizer for face and hair. A pound of the clay has lasted me about 2 years (about $12) How is that for a substantial savings?
b) SHAMPOO and HAIR RINSE: $20 vs < $1. I make ours with a few drops of castile soap (vegan liquid soap. A $15 bottle has lasted me 3 years, bought on-line. Mix 1/2 and 1/2 vinegar/ water, and a sprinkling of herbs of choice, like rosemary or sage for brunettes, or lemon juice for blondes, or essential oils for scent. My husband and I particularly like to use essential oils of peppermint and tea tree or eucalyptus (all separate recipes). My hair feels squeaky clean and my scalp feels tingly. Very pleasant. Just don’t get it in your eyes. Note: this shampoo will not foam up.
c) CLEANING SUPPLIES: $60 vs <1 I use vinegar, baking soda, and salt for all cleaning (house and clothes), sometimes boosted with borax. No more space hogging, smelly cleaning supplies. For a grease cutter, I do buy Dawn detergent, which is recommended by fishermen in Alaska for cutting grease better than other brands. For some deep cleaning, like the stone surround of the woodstove, I use TSP.
FOOD & Drink
a) WINE and BEER WINE: 6 gallons/30 bottles for $450 vs $59 – 129 and BEER: 6 gallons/66 bottles for $330 vs $39 – 69
We make our own wines and beers. Most of the ingredients are sold at homebrew supply stores, including very regionally specific grape selections, such as New Zealand sauvignon blanc. We have fermented mead and wine from our bees’ honey, berries, and birch sap, but this is an “expensive” use of all the honey required when wine kits are available. Neither libation takes much time to make or age.
Beer takes longer to make because the wort (sort of a tea) is heated and the heat maintained for 2 hours, but less time to age (about 3 weeks). Wine is not heated so it takes about 30 minutes to combine ingredients and then takes 6 weeks to a year to age. Some special equipment is required, which can often be found, used, on Craig’s List, for less than $100 altogether. Cost savings? We ferment ours in 6 gallon carboys (glass jugs), which compute to 30 bottles of wine or 66 bottles of beer. A beer drinker can save 70-90% and a wine drinker can save 50 – 75%, presuming a $15 bottle of wine and a $5 bottle of micro-brewed beer. ($15/wine bottle x 30 = $450+. $5+/micro-brewed beer bottle x 66 = $330).
We pay $59 – 129 for kits of varietal grapes (Nebbiolo, Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc). These include concentrated varietal grape juice, yeast, stabilizers, clarifiers, and instructions. For enough to make 6 gallons of a Belgian-style tripel, the ingredients cost $39- $69, which I’ve seen priced at $13/one large bottle. A more generic beer style’s ingredients are cheaper.
b) CONDIMENTS: ? Versus $1-2 I don’t know why people clog their refrigerator and pantry shelves with sticky bottles of old salad dressings and other condiments for which ingredients are so cheap, accessible, and largely shelf-stable and result in many condiments that remain shelf-stable. Why pay a vendor to package and market combinations of ingredients you can so easily do yourself with pantry basics? Some products, like cream sauces and creamy dressings, have to be made right before use and are not shelf-stable.
Combinations of liquid and dry ingredients often improve over time as the flavors meld. Therefore, when motivated, I make up several batches with variations on a convenient, rainy afternoon:
1) Shelf-stable oil and vinegar-based salad dressings with dry herbs
2) Infused oils and vinegars (infused just means “soaking” desired ingredients, like garlic, hot peppers, rosemary, chives, or dry fruit). Some combinations benefit from heating the oil or vinegar to infuse the ingredients. This is almost always true when flavoring the liquid with dry, hot peppers to make a spicy sauce, like Sriracha, Tabasco, or Chinese dipping oil.
3) My barbeque sauce is simply 1/4 each of tomato paste, molasses, vinegar, and beer, simmered with spices. Quite easy to make!
4) I make a different dip each week, such as onion, artichoke, spinach, lemon aioli by combining mayonnaise, cream cheese, plain yogurt and the vegetables/herbs in desired proportions. These are great not only for appetizers, but also for slathering on sandwiches, tucking into omelets and dolloping on top of meat or fish.
5) Pestos are also very easy to make, and basil is not the only suitable green. Simply grind up in a food processor your greens of choice (I have used horseradish and radish and mustard leaves for a tangy pesto) olive oil, and your nuts of choice (any kind will do), and I always add garlic. Look for recipes to adjust proportions. Sometimes lemon juice is a good addition.
6) Mayonnaise is easy to make, too, but not as shelf-stable as a store-bought jar. The ingredients are some variation on one cup oil, one egg, juice of 1 /2 to 1 lemon, and a teaspoon of mustard. This is combined SLOWLY in a blender.
Note: Pestos are not shelf stable because they use fresh, uncooked greens. Keep refrigerated and eat within a day or two. The color will fade.
1) Dry rubs for meats. Personally, I do not make these in advance. I just mix and match at the time of preparation.
2) Instead of buying boxes of cake mix and Bisquick, prepare labeled bags of the dry ingredients for baking pancakes, cookies, muffins, cakes, tortillas, biscuits etc. Since I am not a morning person, I rely on this habit for tasty breakfasts.
3) Bread that is getting dry is easy to make into croutons. Cut into small cubes and fry in oil with any herbs, like garlic. For french toast, soak slices of dry bread in a blend of raw egg and some kind of milk for 2 hours before cooking. Then pat something crunchy, like panko bread crumbs or perhaps dry cereal crumbs on top of each side. Fry. We like to use a mix of canned coconut milk and sweetened condensed milk. For appetizers, we often drizzle and fry dry bread in olive oil and then top it with marinated vegetables (stored from the prior summer’s harvest) and/ or cheese.
c) BREAD and PIZZA: I did not start out as a great bread baker. If you are intimidated, then make breads that you do not expect to rise much, like pizza dough, tortillas, and naan. They are more forgiving. Over time, though, I improved, and make a variety of breads by “feel” rather than recipes every week now. A $5 loaf of bread can be made for about 50 cents. Homemade focaccia is far better than any I ever bought in a store.
f) FRESH PRODUCE: Hundreds of dollars versus <$1
We cannot garden outside in Alaska’s winter, but inside, I sprout three jars of beans and seeds on a window sill and grow low light/low temperature varieties of herbs, lettuces and cresses starting in late February. We generate enough for fresh herbs and small salads by April 1. People in warmer climates have it easier in winter months. The price savings are amazing, not to mention the quality. For example, a 6-ounce single portion of sprouts at a supermarket may cost $5. By contrast, I bought a two-year supply of sproutable beans and seeds online for $18.
Other produce, (65 varieties) I grow from seed, starting indoors, usually in March/April. A package of dozens to hundreds of seeds costs $1-4. Note: seeds age out after a few years. Store in a cool, dry, shaded location.
Perennials are the most important plants to invest in for ongoing savings and less work. For $1 worth of seeds, I now enjoy carefree plants that grow year after year. Here in Alaska, these include chives, mint, and horseradish. Sorrel is a new favorite – a salad green with a citrusy taste. For $5 each, raspberry canes, asparagus, rhubarb, and strawberry plants produce for years. Added bonus: perennial plants like these are almost always the easiest plants to grow and maintain. More expensive are fruit bushes and trees, and they take longer to deliver, but an early expenditure in these will pay dividends for decades. There is no scurvy here: we enjoy six types of berries preserved for year-round enjoyment. Note: for many fruiting trees/bushes, you need two different varietals for cross-pollination in order to get any fruit.
For people who are not gardeners but want to get started growing food, an easy thing to do is to plop in a shallow dish of water, or a pot of soil any store-bought plants that are already sprouting (like potatoes and garlic) or that have a root end (like celery or carrots or turnips). Garlic is the easiest. Plant the bulbs individually below 1/2 of soil. They will shoot up scapes (leaves) that are tasty snipped on top of anything. The root side of many onions with another inch or so of the vegetable, will send up several “scallions”. Change the water every day. Celery root will grow, slowly. Carrot tops will grow greens (which are tasty in dips and salads) but not another root.
There are several advantages to making these products at home:
a) Buying the ingredients in bulk and mixing as needed means not having to store a shelf of boxed and canned products that you will not consume for a year.
b) There is less packaging to dispose of.
c) The financial savings are considerable.
d) You can personalize the ingredients: more or less salt, spice, etc.
In conclusion, I can imagine some readers saying, “I don’t have time to make stuff from scratch.” Okay. Try something that requires no effort. Use vinegar to wash windows and clean the sink and stovetop. Pour honey on your face. Drop garlic cloves in a bottle of olive oil. If you like the results, enjoy the space and money you freed up from prior purchases that accomplished same things. Put that money toward something that you cannot do so easily yourself.
May some of these ideas enhance your quality of life and thicken your wallet, too, whether living in an urban / suburban environment or planning ahead for a remote home.