Monday, May 18, 2009

Money Monday: May 18, 2009

For most of us, food is the biggest expense after housing and possibly transportation if you’ve got one of those big old car payments. With budgets getting tighter and tighter, more and more of us are looking at the old grocery bill with eager scalpel in hand, looking for places to nip and tuck our way to financial glory.

The biggest help I’ve found in reducing my grocery bill has been to look at everything I buy and ask myself what it really is. We pay a hefty price for the convenience of having someone else do things for us, a price that is not always worth the premium; and we have become so accustomed to essentially being spoon-fed finished products that we don’t even realize there is an alternative.

Take tortillas. An eight-count package of burrito-sized tortillas runs $3.65, or 46 cents per tortilla. With each Denizen slamming down two or three tortillas in a sitting, we can run through two of those packages a day without even getting a meal out of it.

So: What is a tortilla? Flour, salt, shortening and water. That’s it. Add some shaping and some heat, and you’re on your way.

When I make a batch of tortillas from scratch, it takes two cups of flour ($0.14), a quarter cup of shortening ($0.25), a dash of salt (less than a penny) and 3/4 cup of warm water. That makes about a dozen large tortillas, for $0.40…around three cents each, plus some time.

Potato chips: Potatoes, salt, and either an oven rack or a couple inches of hot oil. A pound of potatoes is around forty cents, a bag of potato chips is $5 for a 16 ounce bag. Oh, but you want the “special” flavors…check out the specialty salts, both in the ‘seasoning’ aisle and around the popcorn. A jar of BBQ-flavored salt designed for popcorn runs about a buck, and will season at least six batches of home-fried potato chips. Just about any potato chip flavoring you can imagine is also made in a “sprinkle on your popcorn” form.

Add a sharp knife to a whole pork loin, and you’ve got boneless pork chops. I pay about two bucks a pound for the whole loin, versus $4.99 and up for a pound of boneless pork chops.

When you’re in the supermarket about to buy The Usual, take a second to really think about what you’re paying for, and how big a deal it would really be to make it from scratch.

A boxed chicken-flavored rice dish for $2.40, with three servings? How about 1.5 cups of rice ($0.60) plus three chicken bouillon cubes (~ $0.30)? (Dissolve the cubes in a little hot water, stir it into your water and make the rice as usual.)

It’s just a matter of stopping to actually think about what, precisely, you’re paying for…and then making a call about whether or not it’s worth the premium you’re paying for it. I’ll be frank, a lot of times when I add in the freshness and “custom flavor blending” I get when I make my own Spanish rice or refried beans, the crack-a-can convenience just isn’t worth the 100% or more price increase.

And now, because too many people have said, “But isn’t making tortillas really hard? Don’t you need special equipment and some junk?”…here’s how to make a batch of about twelve 9” tortillas.

2 cups flour
Dash of salt
1/4 cup shortening
3/4 cup warm water

Cut the shortening into the flour until thoroughly blended. A pastry blender is awesome for this, but a fork or two knives works just as well. Add the water and knead until you’ve got a smooth, elastic ball – you can do this with the dough hook on your stand mixer, or by hand. You want the gluten to really break down so that you’ve got a dough with a lot of stretch to it.

Set it aside, cover with a clean cloth (because a dirty one would be gross) (seriously, why do they always specify a “clean” cloth? Would anybody out there actually say, “Eh, this garage towel will do!” and put some greasy gross towel over their food?!) and let it rest about fifteen-twenty minutes.

Take a non-stick frying pan big enough to accommodate your desired tortilla and heat it up over medium-high heat. You don’t need to add anything to the pan. Dust your working surface with a little flour (and be prepared to do this again and again and again), take a small handful of the dough and roll it into a ball.

Using the flour as needed to keep it from sticking to your board, roll it out to the size and thickness you want. We like them kind of thin around here, but a little thicker is better if you’re doing soft tacos.

You can either roll them all out and then start cooking, or you can cook as you go. In either case, you’ll want to flip it over halfway through cooking – only about one to two minutes on each side. These are super-easy (and lots of fun) to flip without the aid of a spatula. Great for making you feel awfully clever, and if you miss, no big deal – they don’t coat your kitchen in raw dough if they fall out of the pan half-cooked.

Repeat until you’re out of dough.

Wrap around your favorite fixin’s and enjoy…for a lot less than the store-bought version.


eclair said...

Thanks for the tortilla recipe. I've seen them made with a press-thingy but hadn't thought of using the rolling pin! Silly, I make naan bread this way all the time!

We looked at our bills and realized we spent crazy amounts on handwash and shower gel. In a family of five we were getting through tonnes of the stuff. We switched to soap, plain old fashioned bars of soap, and saved a huge hunk of the bigmonthlyshoppingbill.

Sadly, our attempts to save money on snacks by making our own muffins and cookies have backfired. We don't come out ahead as the homemade ones are so delicious (and the smell is so tempting) we eat four times as many!

Anonymous said...

Good hints. When I was a young bride I refused to buy Hamburger Helper-type boxes, because it cost so much more than buying your own macaroni or whatever. Good for you!

Mizzle said...

Thanks for the recipe!

Would this work with butter (or margarine) instead of shortening? I can't buy shortening around here...

PipneyJane said...

Thanks for the recipe. I'm assuming you use plain/all purpose flour, yes?

In response to Eclair - you're freezer is your friend in that situation. When I had a full sized oven, I used to make double batches of muffins and freeze them once they'd cooled (just shoved them into a plastic bag and into the freezer). Then I'd take them out one-by-one to go into our lunches.

Another thought on the same theme is that I have multiple muffin-sized containers. DH respects those and won't raid them, since he knows they're for lunch. Anything left in the cake tin, however, is fair game.

- Pam

Steph B said...

Once again, all sorts of good ideas. Really, the more I read your blog, the more I want to start a commune with you and bake in a solar oven and spin my own yarn and all that cool stuff that you do. How do you do it all, anyway? I spent yesterday morning organizing my yarn stash (which is truly anemic compared to most knitters) and thought I'd done something big. Maybe I need more caffeine?

Mother of Chaos said...

Huh...interesting question about using butter or margarine...I did a quick surf and found some recipes that do use butter, and they sound YUMMY. It would bring the cost-per up a bit, but would still be less than buying off the shelf.

You could also use vegetable oil, if that is available. Or lard, which is the original fat used...which you can make yourself if you save up your bacon drippings.

Anonymous said...

How much for 8 tortillas? Holy Carp - California IS expensive. Around here, we discovered that if we went to the Mexican food aisle, the Mexican branded tortillas (made in the next county over in an inspected plant) cost about 40% of the "American" brand when you buy the big stack. And since I am so not handy with dough, to my eternal disgust ....

Lyssa said...

My mom always made ours when I was a much cheaper. She used vegetable oil instead of shortening, so that's what I do.

A trick of hers to speed up the assembly line was to use two pans to cook them in- once one side is done, flip it into the next pan and start toasting the first side of the next one.

Kaviare said...

All American pastry recipes mention this cutting of the butter/shortening, or a pastry blender. All my Aussie or British ones simply tell you to rub the butter/shortening in until it looks like bread crumbs.

Do you know what the difference is? I don't know what a pastry blender even looks like!

cari said...

Just made whole wheat tortillas for the first time. I can't believe I've been buying them all these years. Thanks for the recipe!