NOVEMBER 2013 IN
RICK ASTER’S WORLD
Cooking takes time and skill, but it costs less than most people realize. When you cook food at home, you essentially pay just for the ingredients, and these cost a fraction of what you pay for prepared food.
Economically, it makes sense that you spend less when you do the work of cooking yourself. When you purchase prepared food, whether in a box in the supermarket or on a restaurant plate, you are paying for the cost of labor (and machinery) for preparing the food, along with additional packaging and distribution that single ingredients don’t need. These costs are most of the cost you pay for prepared food — higher than the cost of the food itself.
I remember discovering this by comparing the cost of chocolate chip cookies to the cost of chocolate chips. A pound of good chocolate chip cookies costs $4 to $8. Chocolate is the premium ingredient in chocolate chip cookies, so you might think it would be more expensive, but it isn’t. A pound of pure chocolate in the form of chocolate chips costs about $3. Instead of eating chocolate chip cookies, if you needed to save money, you could just eat the chocolate chips.
This comparison might seem to give a slight advantage to the ingredient as compared to the finished food, but the advantage is larger than this. The chocolate chip cookies you buy may be 5 to 10 percent chocolate. The primary ingredients are flour and sugar, and these are much less expensive. The $5 pound of cookies is made from about $1 in ingredients.
You can see the same effect in any kind of food. A bowl of oatmeal in a restaurant is $3, and for the same price, you can buy a two-pound bag of oats. A $2 can of soup contains about 10¢ of vegetables, noodles, and spices. It is not that the food factories are cheating you. To make a profit, they cannot spend much more than 20 percent of their selling price on the food ingredients. They have a great many other things to pay for.
The other costs involved in cooking at home barely add up to anything. You might spend $20 on spices, but that may get you through a year or two. The energy costs of cooking aren’t proper to count if you are cooking during the heating season, since the “waste heat” of cooking goes to warm up your house. In summer, you may spend $1 per meal for the range and oven and the air conditioning to compensate — still less than the energy cost of driving to a restaurant. A chef-quality pan may cost about the same as one or two restaurant entrees, but it lasts for ages. You can also buy a whole set of pans for that price, and those will work well enough for a couple of years.
There are two major categories of food ingredients that may cost more than finished food, and those are meat and cheese. Either may cost you around $10 a pound. The high cost of meat may explain why non-cooks think cooking is expensive. Meat is often the first thing a non-cook will try to cook, since meat doesn’t take any real cooking skill to prepare. But look at the meat in prepared food and you’ll see how food factories get around the cost of meat. A frozen meat lasagna may contain just five grams of meat, and not necessarily beef. To save the factory money, it might be beef mixed with pork, or cheaper still, horse meat mislabeled as beef and mixed with pork and texturized soy protein, with monosodium glutamate added to cover the weak flavor of the inferior ingredients. If you wanted to make the same thing yourself, you wouldn’t have to know much about cooking to do a better job of it.
And this tells you the real reason cooking is a new trend — not to save money, but to eat better. Half of the time people lose limping from one illness to the next could be avoided if people would put the same amount of time into lifestyle factors, particularly exercise and cooking. Looking at it that way, cooking doesn’t cost you much time in the long run.
If you want to get started with cooking, but aren’t particularly skilled, I suggest soup as a way to get started. To make the transition easier, you can purchase the broth at the grocery, then add vegetables, which you cut in small pieces on a cutting board. You can also add small pasta shapes if you want. To make your own broth, you need water, a spoonful of salt, a couple of spices, and perhaps a spoonful of olive oil. Simmer in a saucepan on the stove (that is, not quite boiling) for 10 to 30 minutes, whatever it takes to make the vegetables and noodles soft enough to eat. Once you can make soup, mashed potatoes are no harder. Peel potatoes (any kind), cut in large pieces, boil in a pot of water for at least 20 minutes until they are almost soft, then take them out of the water and put them in a bowl. You could serve them just like this, or for mashed potatoes, bash at them with a potato masher, a hand tool that you can buy for $5 or less. For a step up, try sweet potatoes. If you can cook potatoes, it is not much harder to cook things like pasta and oatmeal. By then, you’ll have the basic idea. It doesn’t take a high degree of skill to prepare better food than you can get in a restaurant or from a factory. You’ll eat better, and you’ll spend a lot less money.
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