Saving Pennies or Dollars? Grinding Your Own Flour

saving pennies or dollarsSaving Pennies or Dollars is a new semi-regular series on The Simple Dollar, inspired by a great discussion on The Simple Dollar’s Facebook page concerning frugal tactics that might not really save that much money. I’m going to take some of the scenarios described by the readers there and try to break down the numbers to see if the savings is really worth the time invested.

Gretchen writes in: I have a grain grinder and I make my own whole wheat bread using freshly ground grains. The taste is so good but how does grinding grains compare to just buying whole wheat flour? Although I don’t think I could go back to store bought flour because the taste is so much better.

Honestly, this is something I’ve been thinking about doing. I would love to make bread using freshly ground grains in exactly the method you described, mixing grains the way I would like them. I’ve never really thought about it from a money-saving perspective, though, so I guess it’s time to run the numbers on that.

I can get a sack of whole wheat flour weighing five pounds for $1.50 to $3, depending on what I get. The brand I’m most happy with is King Arthur, which comes in at around $3 a bag, while the generic is at about $1.50 a bag. We’ll use the King Arthur kind for comparison’s sake here, because the purpose of doing this is to have higher quality flour.

A five pound bag of flour has about twenty cups of flour in it. My homemade bread recipe uses a little over three cups of flour, so I’d get enough flour for about six loaves of bread out of one bag. That gives me a cost-per-loaf for just the flour of $0.50.

A home grain grinder can cost around $20. It’s extremely similar to a home coffee grinder, actually, in that it takes larger grains and grinds them into a fine powder. Both devices even look fairly similar.

Now, let’s look at an example of wheat. You can get whole wheat berries dried for approximately $1.10 per pound. This was the best price I could find by asking around and searching websites – it was suggested by a person at a local food co-op.

In this case, to get five pounds of flour, you’d need five pounds of wheat berries, costing $5.50. You’d also need to pro-rate in a bit of the cost of the grinder (say, $0.05 if you use it a lot) and the energy cost (say, $0.02). This gives you a cost per loaf of about $0.93 for flour you grind yourself.

So, clearly, buying flour at the store is less expensive than grinding it yourself, at least in the quantities that you’d be able to do it at home. The large flour manufacturers work on an enormous scale and thus are able to buy the wheat at a much lower price than we’d be able to.

This isn’t to say that you won’t have access to less expensive grains. I can easily get access to dry corn for an extremely low price. I have farmer friends who would sell me a bushel of corn kernels for $7 or $8 – that’s 56 pounds of corn. If I’m interested in making corn meal at home, this would be an incredibly inexpensive way of doing it. If I had access directly to a wheat farmer, I could probably make a similar deal. (For some reason, I’m tempted to make homemade corn bread now.)

In other words, you probably can make flour at home cheaper than you can buy in the store if you have direct access to wholesale grain prices. The problem is that most of us don’t have this kind of access.

Regardless of the price, if you’re the type of person who deeply enjoys making things from scratch, this isn’t a terribly uneconomical thing to do. If you have the right sources, it can even be the less expensive option.

Either way, it’s inexpensive enough that I’m tempted to get a grain grinder and try to make a truly from-scratch loaf of bread.

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  1. Priswell says:

    I think the point here is, “I can get an exceptionally high quality of product here for an unbelievably low cost.”

  2. NMPatricia says:

    I think there are a couple of other things to think about. When you buy a grinder (or at least mine), I can grind other things with it. For example, I can make “Cream of Rice” cereal from brown rice and know that it is fresh and not particularly processed except for my grinding it and then cooking it. Also, I have bought corn and made my own polenta. According to Laurel’s Kitchen, corn will go rancid very quickly making any polenta one buys in the stores probably rancid. The polenta that I have ground was so good.

    I know that you answered the question in terms of comparing flour to flour, but the grinder is a good addition to people who want to do food in a healthy way and from scratch.

  3. Amanda says:

    I am Mormon and through my church can get 25 lbs of wheat (for food storage purposes) for $11.45. Then, it is clearly much cheaper to grind one’s own flour. As always, it really depends on the price.

  4. Gretchen says:

    Thanks for answering my question! I should say that I actually have a Nutrimill which I bought from Craig’s list for $150.00 so it was an investment but as mentioned above it can grind lots of things including beans into bean flour and other things. It is a high powered electric grinder which I would recommend if you are going to be doing a lot of home grinding. I have also heard that Wal-mart is now selling grain in some stores and it may be worth checking out to see how much that is.

  5. Gretchen says:

    (different Gretchen)

    I think you are missing a 0 on that grider price.

    Link?

  6. Barb says:

    On Amazon the hand operated grain mills are more like $30 to $40 when you include cost of shipping – and most don’t have super-saver shipping. Of course you could share the cost with a friend, grain mills really lend themselves well to that kind of sharing.
    In larger cities try Whole Earth stores, in Denver they have in-house mills and grind grains to order. Pricing unknown.
    The issue you did not address is two-fold. First: flour additives and treatments are avoided completely when you grind your own. Second: the whole grain degrades rapidly from the time it is milled, and I have heard that even 24 hours means significant loss of vitamins. Commercial flour is treated because the oil in whole grain goes rancid once exposed to air, which occurs as it is milled. If you want to mill your own I strongly urge you to mill it only as you need it, and cook or refrigerate the flour immediately. This is a good part of the reason that home ground flour tastes so much better.
    Grinding flour is a VERY physical activity and you need a solid counter to attach the grinder to. If you have kids they can burn a lot of energy grinding! But be sure to plan for a counter that matches the gap in the clamp and then a non-slip pad of some kind to protect the counter (or bench). Often it is helpful to grind a first-run coarsely and then reset to fine and grind a second time to get the best results.
    For home ground grain you will have a greater need for a sifter to remove the large bits. But you now have the flexibility to grind coarse for cereal, fine for bread, and superfine for cakes.

  7. Kate says:

    This post brought The Long Winter by Laura Ingalls Wilder to my mind but, aside from that: seems to me that a storage issue (and the possibility of rodents) would arise with the whole grains if ground grains turns rancid so quickly.

  8. Jill says:

    I would agree with the above poster about the price of the grinder. We have a whispermill and bought it 10 years ago around $200. Now, they are a bit more. We also bought a Bosch mixer with a dough hook attachment to make the process easier. We also use this for other things, though (blender, mixer, etc.). So far both the mill and the mixer are holding up very well for 10 years of use and will hopefully last a lot longer. So, the start up costs to grinding your own wheat are such that #1: you’d better like making the bread because you’ll be doing it for a long time to make up for the cost #2: it does pay for itself over time. We just bought a 5 gal. bucket of wheat through a co-op with shipping that was $38. I think I could probably get it cheaper but I’m too lazy to find out right now. Two cups of wheat berries equals four cups of usable wheat. So a 5 gal. bucket can last a long time. The reason why we started is because it tastes good, I don’t mind doing it (but don’t do it all the time), it is healthier than store bought bread, and because wheat berries, if you keep pests out of it, (which we have never had a problem with) can last indefinitely (they have found grains in archeological sites that can be used); being a good source of food stuffs should the economy take a turn for the worst. I also know a friend who buys her wheat berries locally, has them ground locally and put into a big sack which she then puts in her chest freezer. That’s another way to do it.

  9. Susan says:

    Trent,

    This comment should not be posted; it is negative.
    Nevertheless I hope that you’ll read it. Your posts regarding ‘saving’ miss the point (flour grinding, WC flushing, turning off lights, unplugging appliances) or it seems so to me. It’s not just about the cost in dollars and cents. In my opinion it is important to consider intangibles: aesthetic concerns, health benefits, safety issues, for example. There is much more to take into account that the math.

  10. HW says:

    If you buy in bulk (as in 25-50 lbs), you can get wheat berries much more cheaply than that. Search for “wheat food storage” on the internet to find bulk suppliers. My local Sam’s Club has had 45-lb buckets of wheat for under $18. This is what I use to grind my whole wheat flour using an electric mill (nutrimill). Whole wheat flour should be kept in the refrigerator or freezer to retain nutrients and is more nutritious than the whole wheat flour you can buy.

  11. LIz says:

    I’ve thought about grinding my own wheat for bread, but right now my time is at a huge premium (new-ish job). However, I’m very jealous of the 5 pounds of King Arthur for $3. It’s more like 5.50 for 5 pounds where I live (although of course I pay it!)

  12. Becky says:

    @Susan, #9 – Of course other things are important, but that doesn’t make the math UNimportant. It’s a factor. It’s a different factor for each person.

    Some frugal actions are no fun but provide such big financial benefits that they’re worth it. Other frugal actions are no fun and provide such minor financial benefits that they are not worth it depending on someone’s financial situation. Other actions, ostensibly frugal, actually cost more but are so enjoyable for some people that they’re worth it (for them) anyway.

    Isn’t it useful to know which is which? That’s what this series is about.

  13. Julie says:

    I can’t eat wheat, but I’ve bought other grains from a co-op. Go to breadbeckers.com and click on CO-OP. They’re mainly in the southeast US, and their wheat starts around 50 cents/pound.

  14. Nate Poodel says:

    My sister has a very expensive grinder she uses to make rice flour. Rice flour is stupidly expensive considering rice can be bought for far less than $1 a pound. She has to use rice flour due to a family member with a Celiac Disease. BEST.INVESTMENT.EVER!

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