The DIY food guide: Which foods are tastier and cheaper made at home and which should we buy?

One cook decided to settle the question for good - with surprising results.
  • @gillian_orr

During tough economic times we are often advised to adopt a do-it-yourself attitude. Whether it's our clothes, beauty treatments or entertainment, the golden rule is: don't pay for something that you can make or do yourself. But it is during mealtimes that most of us really look to penny-pinch. Eating out becomes the ultimate no-no and we are even advised to reduce shopping bills by making more of our own food.

This was at the forefront of Jennifer Reese's mind when she lost her job as the book critic for Entertainment Weekly in 2008. But after vowing to start making pantry staples from scratch herself, the San Franciscan mother of two quickly wondered if doing her best Martha Stewart impression in the kitchen was really going to save her cash.

"I thought that I'd have lots of time to do all these things I've always wanted to do, like bake bread, make my own jam and get some chickens and I could save all this money by doing it," explains Reese (pictured right). "Then I began to wonder whether I would actually save money by doing any of those things or whether it was a self-indulgent hobby of someone who was actually very comfortable. So I started pricing everything out and studying the cost benefit analysis of all those different domestic activities."

The result is her new book, Make the Bread, Buy the Butter, a helpful guide to which homemade goods really work and which you should just buy at the shops, as well as what makes the most financial sense. It is also a witty and entertaining account of her various experiments, with both triumphs and disasters recounted.

She began with some of the more simple kitchen staples such as jam, yoghurt and bagels, weighing everything to figure out exactly how much each ingredient cost and meticulously working out the cost of the electricity and water used for each dish. Before long she had graduated onto more exotic produce, such as prosciutto, camembert cheese and vermouth, but her biggest challenge was when she decided to take in some animals, including goats, chickens and bees, with a view to getting milk, eggs and honey.

"The day we brought home an adult goat she yelled non-stopped really loudly like an elephant," recalls Reese. "The only way to keep her quiet was to hold her collar and pet her and talk to her. I ended up spending the night out in the goat shed so she wouldn't disturb the neighbours. It was awful." A baby goat the family bought ended up living in the house for a month because they can't be on their own. "Now she wants to come in the house all the time; she thinks she's a pet."

It hasn't been an entirely cost-effective exercise either, despite getting a decent range of produce from their menagerie. "In my view it's more expensive to do it this way than buy them at the store," warns Reese.

But the animals were not the only trying part of Reese's experiments and she encountered her fair share of culinary calamities as well. "I was trying to make a batch of camembert and I left it uncovered on the counter for a few hours and I guess a fly got in there and laid eggs," sighs Reese. "When I looked at it a few weeks later, in the basement, it was crawling with maggots." However, don't let that put you off making your own cheese: it was one of Reese's biggest surprises. "I was truly shocked at how easy it was to make cheese. I thought that it would just end up being this funny story but it was better than stuff I'd bought."

While Reese's journey wasn't a total victory in favour of making everything yourself, she was surprised at just how simple it was to create a lot of the goods. She was equally impressed with just how much cheaper it was to cook at home. What it will cost you, though, is time. "Anyone can do this, it's very easy," Reese insists. "But it depends on whether or not you want to spend the time doing it. A lot of us have jobs and other demands. I think we feel like we're a lot more helpless than we actually are but you can do any of these things if you want to. There's no mystique to it."

Make the Bread, Buy the Butter by Jennifer Reese (Free Press £15)

Buy or make? Jennifer's verdict

Vanilla extract - MAKE

This is shockingly cheap to make; you will feel terrible about all those times you've bought one of those tiny bottles. You have to let it sit for four to six months but you save so much money. You can make a gallon if you want to and it will last for ever. It also takes about five minutes.

Butter/Peanut butter - BOTH

Don't make butter because it costs way more to make than to buy. The cost of the cream to make it will cost you more than buying the butter. Home-made peanut butter, however, is absolutely delicious and costs a lot less than commercial peanut butter. It is also really easy, you just need a food processor.

Bagels - MAKE

They are easy to make and taste superior to anything you could buy. They are also much cheaper. Not all breads are massively easy to make yourself but these are an absolute winner. Things like baking will generally make sense financially. You save a lot of money by doing those homely kitchen tasks that your grandmother did.

Yoghurt - MAKE

I've made a ton of yoghurt as it costs less and tastes better than the shop-bought stuff. The only thing is my kids are sometimes funny about eating it out of the jars I put them in; they like the little plastic containers.

Crisps - BUY

Don't bother making your own potato chips because you will never get them as good as the store-bought ones. To make them you thinly slice the potatoes and deep-fry them, but you can never recreate them. Give it a miss.

Sausage - BUY

I really didn't enjoy stuffing sausages into casings. The whole process is really long, tedious and disgusting. In this case, I would be happy to pay someone to do it for me. Hot dogs, similarly, were a complete disaster.

Jam - BOTH

My view on jam is if you have some really good free fruit, whether in your garden or someone else's, then you should absolutely make it. Don't buy fruit from the supermarket, though, as it will end up costing more.