Let them eat bread

September 5, 2008

Giovanni has touched on an important factor: eschewing prepared food in favour of your own efforts.

In coming weeks, I will look at the economics of this in a few different domains, but for now, let’s stick to bread.

Bread is, biblically, the staff of life, lechem mateh; the Western diet depends on its support. At least one but often all the meals of my day rely on bread. And it turns out that there is a very considerable saving in money to be had if you bake your own damned staff of life.

I have blogged about this before. In fact one of those posts sparked this blog. I make all our bread, except at those times when we get caught short or really want something that can’t be done at home.

Considered purely at a cash level, there is no doubt that homemade bread is far cheaper. A 750g loaf costs almost $4 at the supermarket, while the 400g of flour required can be had for 64 cents. The extra oil, yeast and electricity are negligible. Our two-person household goes through a loaf in two days, so we could save $12 per week, or $624 per year. ($624 is not just a sum I’d be happy to find down the back of the sofa; in my usual spatter of lost coins, it wouldn’t even fit there).

Note that in my last vital.org.nz post, I said “ingredients cost less than $2”. That’s because I am scrupulously truthful when I give you these figures, and I’m afraid that I often buy organic stoneground flour. You don’t have to. The 64 cent figure is based on getting a 5kg bag of Weston for $7.99, which is less than half the price of hippy-meal.

Giovanni notes:

Bread [is] by far the thing that saves us the most moola. The problem there is that while the preparations are very simple, and great for involving the kids (esp. the little vege garden and pizza/bread), they are much harder to attend to if you work a 40 hour week out of the house.

That’s very true. I have two strategies for this.

First, on the weekends, I bake “no-knead” bread, from the famous recipe from the New York Times of a year or two ago. I find it a very forgiving technique, amenable to experimentation with different flours and with sourdough. It requires about five minutes at the start, another five to shape the loaf the next day, and a free 40 minutes or so to supervise the baking, although you could do other things in that time. The drawback is that you do need to get going the day before, especially with sourdough.

Second, I bought a cheap breadmaker, and that’s what I use during the week. I did this the frugal way: I thought about it; I established for myself that we would use it; I watched for prices in various ways; and eventually I pounced at a very good price. We paid $99 for our little Breville, and it is OK. Its product is certainly the equal of the $4 supermarket bread. So as long as it lasts into next year, it will more than pay for itself. I can get a loaf on in 6 minutes.

Now, if you save $3.50 in 6 minutes, that’s like making $60 per hour before tax, assuming your average rate is around 30%. That is totally worth it. If it took you twice as long it would still be well above minimum wage.

I think that if you can’t spare 6 minutes to make bread, it could be that there is something wrong with your life. I’m sure it’s not your fault, mind, but unless you are loving the remaining 23 hours and 54 minutes maybe you would benefit from changing it. (That was the provocative statement I am hoping will prokoke a firestorm of comments. This is the meta-level observation of same that I am hoping will deflect any intemperate expressions of disagreement).

This isn’t going to work out so well if you have big eaters or lots of small eaters in the house. But for the 2-4 person household one machine should do the business.

I’m sure I’m not alone in doing these calculations, because I note that the supermarket flour shelves have more big bags, and more breadmaker yeast and premix, and fewer 1.5kg bags.

If you can’t muster $99 for a breadmaker (less on Trademe!) or buy 5kg of flour at a time: this blog is unfortunately middle class. But I will vote to achieve a country where anyone who wants to squirrel away $99 can do so in a reasonable time. If I want you to eat cake, it is because cake is nice and everyone should have some. Thank you for not shooting me when the revolution comes.

BONUS HISTORY SEMI-FACTS: actually, Marie-Antoinette was supposed to have said that the peasants could eat brioche, which is arguably a sweet eggy yeast bread rather than cake. But Wikipedia says that Rousseau came up with the story about “a princess” 20 years before she was born. In my experience brioche go stale extremely quickly and are rarely nice except when experts make them and serve them to you straight away. Anyway, Kate Beaton did a great Marie-Antoinette comic yesterday. I would credit Morgue, but I’m afraid I was already onto Kate Beaton, so there.



  1. I bought a 2nd hand breadmaker at the start of the year for $20. It works great but I simply cannot make a loaf that is as nice as the Freyas Soy and Linseed that our family of 5 love (and is our biggest grocery extravagance). I use it frequently to make pizza dough and a reasonable foccacia though. I have athritis in my hands that makes kneading dough difficult and the breadmaker is wonderful for that.

    As for this being a middle class blog. We chose to live on a smaller income so I can stay home and look after the kids and so “frugal me” is a necessity. Many of the tips here are great no matter what your motivation for frugality.

  2. artandmylife: I harp on the class part of it because I live in fear of accidentally becoming a Muriel Newman-type person who blames poor people for being poor because it’s their own spendthrift fault, and I am aware that both new appliances and bulk food purchases require a little capital upfront before you can enjoy the saving.

  3. Stephen – I think it good that you are considering that when you post. I used to work in a seriously “disadvantaged” community and used to get very annoyed at all the white middle class ‘solutions’ to issues there that usually involved large amounts of $$$.

    My $20 breadmaker shows that you can find ways and means. Co-operative buying of bulk food is another way of avoiding that big outlay. I guess that takes motivation and organisation and TIME though (which maybe is middle class?)

    And any good ‘grainy’ bread recipes would be welcomed

  4. There’s another big advantage to making your own bread – it’s a lot healthier, which is actually the reason why we started doing it. I’m hypoglicaemic and years ago my GP back home instructed me to eat well cooked bread, and went into a spiel about the fact that bakers stopped baking bread, citing the fact that it had become harder and harder for them to find people willing to work that particular night shift. Baking it less is cheaper, but the sugars don’t break down and bread becomes a dessert – his words – except you still think it’s bread, and eat it in bread-like quantities.

    In NZ if anything it’s even worse, most sliced bread at the supermarket and those impossibly floppy baguettes that you can squeeze like pillows have barely seen the inside of the oven. Working on the assumption that looking after your health now saves you money later on, there’s some frugality to be found there too.

    A 5kg bag of high grade flour at Pak ‘n Save is $5.90; wholemeal a little more, we mix the two in a 2/3 1/3 ratio. For yeast you can’t beat Moore Wilsons, less than the three dollars for a one-kilo brick. You can add wheat germ and all sorts of healthy things if you’re so inclined of course.

    Not sure that cost of electricty is negligible – 45 minutes in the oven will probably take its toll on the bill – but we haven’t noticed a major spike in the bills.

  5. Meridian charges us about 18c per kWh. A typical oven element is rated at 2kW, but it doesn’t draw that all the time, because of the thermostat. So my guess is that is must cost less than 27c for 45 minutes of oven at high temperature. I assume the power used in getting up to temperature is compensated for by the periods when the thermostat turns the element off. That’s not negligible, as I claimed, but it certainly doesn’t keep home baking from being a good business proposition. I would think a bread maker would use even less; the motor is tiny and there is a far smaller volume to be heated.

    I know the price of electricity is contentious, but when you think what it does for us, it’s miraculously cheap. The mysterious Mausist made a comment with an amazing link to a book chapter that described the lives of preindustrial French peasants. In some areas people would only bake every two weeks, even though they ate bread every day, because the fuel for the oven was so precious.

  6. Yes, in the olden days bread used to be made to last because of how precious fuel was. I met a guy in the Hawkes Bay last summer who grew up in Italy and use to travel miles to Ferrara just so he could swap his wine for their famous bread, that lasts up to a month in a steady state of deliciousness. My mum has promised to teach me a similar recipe when I go next month, I’ll report back if it should turn out to be frugal-worthy.

    I’m sure you’re right on both counts, namely that the oven doesn’t consume much and the breadmaker even less, although it must be said that I cook 1200 grams of bread in the even during those 45 minutes – and it doubles as a heater in winter πŸ˜‰

  7. Right. That does it. In a week or two, we’ll do cholent, cassoulet, and the baker’s oven. We will also challenge Alan and Becky to a brisket duel.

  8. I feel inspired to go make bread this weekend!

    For the no-knead recipe (I don’t have a breadmaker) Do you use wholemeal or white flour, or some combination of both? What tastes best? Do you add seeds/kibble at all?

  9. Janet: I like 1.5 cups white, 0.75 wholemeal, 0.75 rye. I’ve never tried kibble or seeds in the dough, but I find caraway seeds on the crust are nice when I have rye flour in the dough. And when I dust the dough to stop it sticking I use rye flour for that too.

    A pure white loaf tastes like the white bread I remember as a kid, with a crunchy brown crust. I like the heavier tangier taste of a little rye in it though.

    Where he says to use a cotton towel, I have an old clean pillow case which is reserved for this function.

  10. Thanks – I’ll let you know how it went next week πŸ™‚

  11. The bread was great, but I’m not sure its going to help me save money, give how quickly the loaf got demolished πŸ™‚ Very easy to make though.

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