A Kitchen Full of Projects

As you walk through our kitchen, one thing you can’t help but notice is that there are usually a lot of food-related projects that are almost always ongoing.

In just a cursory glance at our kitchen right now, one would find a small batch of homemade peach cider in the process of fermenting, a batch of homemade kombucha that’s also in the middle of fermenting, a jar of homemade preserved lemons, a bunch of home-canned items in the pantry, a ton of little jars of various seasoning mixes in the pantry, several full meals made in advance in the freezer, and some homemade bread dough rising in a bowl. This isn’t an unusual state of affairs.

Why do this? Why not just buy these items at the store? Doesn’t it take a lot of time and energy?

There are several reasons why we spend time and energy on food related projects, actually.

First of all, the homemade version of anything is almost always substantially less expensive than the same item in the store, often enough to produce a pretty impressive savings per hour of effort. I can make $15 worth of kombucha (at the cost at which it’s sold in stores around here) for about $1 worth of tea and sugar. The cost of a loaf of bread from scratch is about a quarter of the cost of a similar quality loaf of bread at the store. Preserved lemons consist of a few lemons, some salt, and a jar left in the fridge for a while – literally a few pennies for an amazing condiment, compared to the dollars that a smaller jar of preserved lemons costs at the store. Homemade cider consists of chopping up and boiling fruit for a while, then letting it cool, adding yeast, and waiting – a dollar or so for what would cost quite a bit in the store. All of this stuff saves money compared to the cost of buying a comparable item at the store.

Second, most of these tasks boil down to mixing together a few ingredients and waiting, so the time commitment is minimal. I’ll often make a batch of bread dough while doing dishes, since most of it is dumping four ingredients in our stand mixer bowl and letting the kneading hook knead it, which happens while I’m loading the dishwasher. I then just sit that bowl out with a towel over it to rise, come back a while later, shape it into a loaf and put it in a loaf pan (takes about 30 second), come back a while later, and pop it in the oven. It’s not hard.

Preserved lemons? I cut up some lemons. I added some salt. I pushed them down in the jar and latched it. I put them in the fridge. Now I have preserved lemons for the next year, perfect for things like marinades and potato salads.

Cider? I cut up some fruit (usually just cutting up extras when I’m making a fruit salad or slicing apples for dinner or something), add enough water to cover the fruit pieces, and let them all sit in a slow cooker for eight hours until the fruit is complete mush. I strain off the solids, add a bit of additional sugar and some yeast, and let it sit for several days in a jar with an air lock while it ferments. When it’s done, I pour it into a bottle and stick it in the fridge until we want to drink it.

Extra meals in the freezer? I just make two or three or four simultaneous batches of the supper I’m making anyway, get them all to the point where they’re ready for final cooking, and freeze the extras. Two days before we’re going to use one of the extras, I move it to the bottom of the fridge. That’s literally it.

Most of these tasks take a minute or two, then you just leave things sit for a while, then take another minute or two. Some of the others are just done in parallel with other things I’m already doing. I usually just add those tasks to the list of things that ordinarily need to be done in the kitchen, like meal prep or doing dishes.

Third, the homemade version is often better in most regards than the store-bought version. For starters, I have far more control over the ingredients. If I want a stronger ginger flavor in my cider, I add more ginger. If I want more peach flavor, I use more peaches; if it’s overwhelming, I’ll add a bit of water to cut it down next time. If I want it less salty, I add less salt. Like garlic? Add more garlic to your seasoning mix. You get the idea.

The homemade version is usually healthier without sacrificing flavor, too, because you don’t really have to worry about something being “shelf stable” for a long period of time and you don’t have to include unhealthy ingredients if you don’t wish to do so. For example, I don’t care if my homemade canned pickles slightly discolor over time – they still taste the same – so I don’t have to add a bunch of funky ingredients to make them look appropriately “pickle green” on the shelf. I don’t have to add preservatives to my bread that I just made because it’ll likely be eaten in a day or two.

Third, the more frequently I do things in the kitchen, the easier it becomes to do pretty much anything in the kitchen. I’m no longer intimidated by anything I might do in the kitchen, and part of that is the result of simply doing lots of things in the kitchen.

The first time I made a loaf of bread on my own, it seemed like a ton of work and I made a huge mess. The next time was almost as bad. The time after that? Pretty bad, too. But by the time I got to loaf 100, it was easy – I can do it quickly with minimal mess. I often make bread while I’m waiting for water to boil for tea or something like that, with all cleanup handled except for the dough hook and the bowl before the water boils. Not only that, I’m way more confident about things like making pizza dough or making breadsticks or making rolls.

This is pretty much true with the first time I made anything in my kitchen. The first time I made a seasoning mix, I had stuff all over the place. I eventually learned a few simple tricks for making it easy and now there’s not even a speck left behind. The first time I made homemade beer, our kitchen looked like a war zone. Now I can have the fermenter put away and the kitchen spotless in minutes.

Things just get easier the more you do them, and eventually the savings and the higher quality makes the process of trying to make something at home seem like a better deal than buying it at the store because the time and energy investment gets so small. It just takes practice.

Finally, I let it become a hobby. At first, I really pressed into the kitchen because the idea that I could save a lot of money through home food preparation was so prevalent in the things I was reading at the time, but as time went on, I actually grew to appreciate it.

For me, the turning point was the first time I prepared a really really good meal, one that felt like it was at least as good as what I would have had at a restaurant and paid several times as much for it. I wanted to recapture that feeling as often as possible. It became a goal for me.

As I got better and better at it, through sheer practice, I began to turn out good meals faster and faster, and I began to desire to experiment a little. I could buy some craft beer… but maybe I could just make it, and make a raspberry chocolate stout that focuses on the dark chocolate flavor. I could buy some preserved lemons for this salad… but maybe I could just make them and add just a bit of heat by putting a pepper in there. This seasoning is good, but it could use a bit more garlic… maybe I could just make a batch of seasoning just as I like it.

The end result of all of this is a kitchen full of projects, a surprisingly small food bill for the relative quality of our diet, and a surprisingly little amount of time spent in the kitchen that isn’t purely fun.

How can you get started down this path? You can do it by making simple meals and food items that you like on your own from basic ingredients. Do you like coffee? Figure out how to make your own cold brew – you need almost no equipment to make good coffee. Do you like scrambled eggs? Make scrambled eggs frequently. Look at these tasks not only as a food preparation task, but as a way to build skills so that every time you do this in the future is easier.

After you start feeling more confident in the kitchen, start making more and more things. You can move from buying burritos at Taco Bell to making a simple burrito at home with canned beans to making grilled burritos at home with beans you cooked yourself, sour cream, cheese, a bit of guacamole, and a bit of oil in a skillet. Follow recipes, figure out what seasonings you like for your regular meals, then make seasoning mixes that match exactly the flavors you want.

Just keep trying stuff. It’ll seem hard at first, with a lot of work and some likelihood of messing it up. That’s okay. Once you build the needed skills, everything gets easier and the realm of possibility gets wider. You’re making better/healthier/tastier things and you’re making them faster with less cleanup. You’ll also find that an awful lot of food tasks involve simply starting something and leaving it for a long time while you go off and do other things, so it doesn’t eat up nearly the time you imagine that it does.

The best thing you can do is get out there and try. Try making a meal. Don’t grumble about it being hard or how big the cleanup is. The thing is, each time you do it, it gets easier and the cleanup gets easier and the result gets better. The challenge is to keep going back until it becomes the easy, tasty, healthy, cheap, and obvious choice most of the time. Before you know it, you’ll have a kitchen full of projects, too.

Good luck.

Trent Hamm

Founder & Columnist

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 and still writes a daily column on personal finance. He’s the author of three books published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press, has contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and his financial advice has been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.