Home Cooking Costs Project

I read the book Make the Bread, Buy the Butter: What You Should and Shouldn’t Cook from Scratch a few months ago and it got me thinking about the cost of cooking at home. I recommend the book (and/or her blog) for the personal stories and recipes as much as for her advice about what to make at home. The stories are funny and the recipes have been consistently good. But everyone is different in how much they value their time and enjoy cooking; and the book is targeted toward people who consider cooking a hobby and are willing to do in their free time.

I enjoy cooking and have lots of free time, so her advice is pretty good for me. If she says you should buy it, you should buy it. I thought that I had found one exception: Rice pudding. I figured that she just didn’t try (or want to recommend) using a pressure cooker. My rice pudding was pretty good, especially warm, but Kosy Shack was better, especially the next day. And tapioca is better anyway.

Each recipe in the book has a cost to make and the price to buy. I double-checked her prices for the first few recipes that I made and they were pretty close. A direct comparison is difficult in many cases because the store-bought item and homemade item are too different (hot-dog buns are a prime example).

As I got more curious about how much different foods cost to make, I started to wonder which of the things I eat are the best value and how home cooking compares to dining out in terms of cost. I also wanted to consider the nutritional value of the foods and to include (like the book did) the energy costs involved. I started tracking this in a spreadsheet, but it was too much hassle to keep track of which foods I’d entered already and to do all the conversions between different amounts of foods. So I started looking for software that would help.

Nine years ago I created a FoodDiary program because I was curious about how nutritious my diet was. Was I getting all the vitamins and minerals that I needed? What about all the amino acids? This was about the time that I was giving up beef and pork and I was worried about missing some proteins (I wasn’t). I considered re-writing that program to track food costs but I was turned off by the idea of revisiting the old wxWindows (a C++ graphics library) code. Instead I downloaded the trial version of the popular Living Cookbook software. Their software is pretty nice, and it allows you to track food costs and will figure the cost of a recipe. It has some pretty severe limitations though:

  • You had to enter a food price for a particular quantity (their choice) of the food
  • When you updated a food, the program had to update all the recipes that contained that food. This process took 15-30 seconds for common foods.
  • A recipe couldn’t contain another recipe.
  • When entering a recipe you have to enter each ingredient twice: once for the description and once for the nutrition data.
  • There is no way to “score” a food. You can look at the amount of each nutrient, but there is no way to consider it as a whole. This was the main focus of my FoodDiary software.

So I finally decided to write a new program to do exactly what I wanted. I probably come to this conclusion a bit too easily and often. I think it’s because it is so easy to underestimate how hard the program will be to write. I had the same problem when I was getting paid to program: I’d take my best guess, double it, and often be way under.

Bialetti Moka

For Christmas I asked for and received a Bialetti Moka Coffee Pot. Check out the wikipedia page for a complete description.

It is a great little device which makes 3 shots of espresso on the stove top. It takes about three tablespoons of grounds and you fill the base with water. After about 2 minutes on the stove, the water boils and the steam pressure forces the water up through the grounds, up a stem and into the top of the pot. It takes about 20 seconds for all the water to run through the coffee once it boils. Then you just pour out your three shots of espresso.

Pressure Cooker

I inherited a pressure cooker (among other things) from my Grandmother. I have been wanting a pressure cooker, but have always been a little scared of them. When I was considering buying one, there were a couple features that really appealed to me. The first was the cooking speed and the second was the higher pressure cooking things more completely. Living in Denver, I have had a lot of trouble cooking beans till they are soft like a canned bean.

The pressure cooker that I inherited is an older model “Magic Seal” that has a rocking 15 PSI weight and a safety gasket. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the rubber seal (not pictured) was still in good shape and that you can still get parts for this model online.

I have tried a lot of different foods and have had mostly good results. Beans come out soft and creamy. Tough cuts of meat can be cooked quickly. Chicken becomes shreadable in 20 minutes. If you haven’t used a pressure cooker before, it is similar to making something in a crockpot except that hours worth of slow cooking are replaced with 30 minutes of pressure cooking.

My favorite foods to pressure cook are pinto beans, steel cut oats and Dutch vegetable whip. The last is a recipe that was included in the instruction manual:

3 c. diced potatoes
1 c. diced carrots
1 tart apple, peeled and sliced
1/2 onion, sliced
1 c. water
1 tsp. salt
1/8 tsp. pepper
2 tbsp. butter
1 tsp. chopped parsley

Place all vegetables in a pan (except parsley) with water and cook until vegetables are done. Mash, add butter and whip until fluffy. Garnish with parsley. If you have a pressure cooker, cook 3 minutes at 15 pounds of pressure. Cool cooker at once.


I was a little disappointed with cooking brown rice. I had hoped to save time, but by the time the cooker comes up to pressure and then slowly comes back down to normal pressure, the time savings isn’t much at all. Same with steel-cut oats. It takes longer (about 45 minutes total) in the pressure cooker instead of ~15 minutes on the stove top. Of course the oats are so much softer and creamier after pressure cooking, so it is worth the extra time. Anything that can be cooked with the “fast release” method (running the cooker under cold water to quickly drop the pressure) is significantly faster. But all the grains and beans are “slow release” (meaning you just wait for the pressure to drop on its own).

Something that I hadn’t really considered is how much less energy it takes to cook some foods. Once the pressure cooker comes up to pressure it takes a very low setting to keep it going. And since the cooking time is already much shorter you use quite a bit less power. I don’t really have a good feel for how much gas it takes to cook compared to a water heater or furnace, so I don’t know how much this really matters.

Tomato Conserva

I made some “tomato conserva” today. I started with 3 lb of tomatoes and ended up with 6 oz of a thick tomato paste. The flavor is incredible though. It is like tomato essence. I got the idea from here:

I’ve also been processing the basil harvest. So far I have spent two hours picking basil leaves off the plants and I probably have another hour to go. I am drying most of it, but I have frozen one batch.