Sometimes when you are up to your eyeballs in berry juice and the whir of the food dehydrator has been going on so long you are hearing noises that aren’t really there, you gotta wonder – is it worth it? Is it really worth it to, say, make your own jam when you could just buy a good jar for $6?
Well, let’s find out.
As you may remember, I talked last week about efficiently processing a lot of berries – 48 pounds, to be exact. With the right workstation set-up, and a little help from my daughter, I was able to go through that pile of berries in just a couple hours.
But that’s not the end – oh, no! Once I got all the berries topped and rinsed, I moved on to freezing and jamming.
The Tillamooks were marinated with sugar overnight before being processed into my first ever no-pectin jam.
I started with 16 pounds of berries, added 10 cups of sugar, reduced by half, water bath processed and ended up with 16 half-pint jars of yum. It was all quite simple. I like no pectin!
The Shuksans were transfered to a clean, lint-free towel to drain. Once dry they were moved to a parchment-lined sheetpan for freezing. Note the efficient set-up again for this step: the sheetpans are stacked and ready to go. I work left to right, left to right…keeping it moving all the time.
I froze my berries in a single layer so they would not stick together when packaged. Industry parlance for this is IQF, or individually quick frozen. You do need a fair amount of freezer space to pull this part off, I’ll admit. I had sheetpans stacked on top of chicken wings and steaks and squash puree out in my upright garage freezer.
Once the berries were frozen solid – a day or so does it – I transferred them into freezer bags. I save my expensive vacuum sealer bags for meat and seafood and just go with Ziploc Freezer Bags for fruits and veg. Seems to work fine. Once again, employing a helper is a good idea if you have one.
Because the berries need to move from freezer to bag and back to freezer before they can thaw (if they thaw and refreeze they’ll stick together in the bag, negating all that IQF work) I don’t assembly line this step. I go out to the freezer, bring back a single sheetpan of berries, fill up as many freezer bags as I can, return those bags to the freezer and pick up the next full sheetpan. Repeat, repeat, repeat.
And then it’s all done, and I have my year’s supply of strawberries, ready for smoothies or adding to yogurt or sucking on while still frozen. I know where they came from and I know how they were processed.
As a good householder, there’s just one final step: adding the 19, 1.5-pound bags of frozen berries to my freezer inventory chart so I can effectively keep track of what I have to work with.
So, probably two hours of topping, another hour of active work to make the jam and maybe another hour of filling freezer bags and miscellany. Was my bulk strawberry processing adventure worth it, financially?
According to Amazon’s grocery delivery service, this 2 pound bag of frozen kinda localish Oregon strawberries costs $8.19. That’s $4.10 a pound.
What do you think – is doing it yourself worth it, financially-speaking?
i do have to point something important out here. to all you folks new to DIY kitchencraft. erica's background in foodservice, and her years of DIYing at home add up to DRASTICALLY faster processing times than newcomers are likely to see. not to put anyone off! this stuff is worth it, no matter the equation! and the quality is not comparable to whatever you can buy.
i just want to say, if it takes you more like 3 or 4 hours to make 16 jars of jam, don't feel bad!!! practice really does pay off, years down the line. given some time to hone your skills, you too can process 50 pounds of berries in four hours.
well, maybe. we can't all be efficiency experts with a stack of half sheet pans and a deep freeze.
and to erica, i've done some of this money figuring before too. sometimes it's a happy thing, other times it makes me sad. thanks for running the numbers, i always find it interesting. and surely your jam is TWICE the jam that bonne maman is. though i adore their jars.
Dreaming of Jeanie says
You definitely give the rest of us something to strive for. Thank you so much!! If I had any extra money it would go in your tip jar. 🙂
oh, well done…definitely worth it anytime you can take wholesome up a notch while saving money. wish I had all those goodies waiting on my shelf and freezer!!
Erica/Northwest Edible Life says
Apron – well taken, cooking professionally for 10+ years gives one a bit of a streamlining advantage. Also my working space is well equipped. I have 8 sheetpans or something ungoddly from the catering days. It helps.
However, I think the key is more "consistently cooking, day in and day out" than some magic of professional cooking. I don't have notin' on gramma, ya know? So, yes, no one should be discouraged if their first batch of jam take 6 hours and the entire time they are paranoid they are about to kill someone at any time – that's how my first batch was. The intimidation of the pectin box recipe had me quaking in the knees.
Also, to be fair on the numbers, with the jam-making I was counting "active time," not the time I was simultaneously running the dishwasher and Facebooking. Otherwise, hell, it would never figure. Some of these householder processes have a long but easy peasy set up and strike time.
The problem with comparing householder numbers to industrial numbers is that, if you really account for everything and pay yourself any kind of decent wage, you quickly realize it only ever makes *financial* sense to buy 99 cents chalupas and occasionally take out Pho in Styrofoam containers. But then your intestines turn into a congealed mass of cheezewiz, or so I'd imagine.
So yeah, at the end of the day, doing the math is an excellent way to "justify" why we do this, assuming the numbers work out in your favor, but it's just an exercise. Sometimes you can find that jam for $1.59 at Cost Plus, and then the financial impact of the labor looks a lot different.
But for those of us who are gonna do it anyway, a little "what would this cost at the YuppieHippie market" imagination game is good for the ego. 😉
Erica/Northwest Edible Life says
Dreaming of Jeanie – Your consistent and very flattering comments are tip enough. Really. 🙂 Thanks for being a reader!
I really appreciate this breakdown. Given my recently busy schedule I've been wondering if food prep was really "worth it" (from a money standpoint, certainly not quality), and it's good to see this breakdown. Also, those strawberries look great!
Laura H says
No doubt it is worth it if you have some sort of help and a family to feed. For the singleton, other than a hobby, I'm not sure!
When I was a desperately un-employed single person, in 2008, making everything from scratch and gleaning my veggies (think grape leaves and dandelions – produce was way out of my price-range at that point) dropped my grocery bill down to about $8 a week.
It’s worth it.
For newbies, just remember not to time yourself the first time out… that is your "learning and practicing" experience… You have to find out what works and doesn't work for you and go from there to find an efficient way to do it to fit your style and needs!
The 2nd time, it will go a lot faster and smoother – really 🙂
Just Nick says
I've done this math on my homebrewing a few times. Depending on the recipe and how I source my ingredients (local homebrew store, Internet, homegrown hops, etc.) a batch will cost me between $30 and $45 bucks. I'll get about 48 bottles out of that, so somewhere between $0.63 and $0.94 per bottle.
A top shelf beer at the supermarket can get close to $2.00 for a bottle…decent stuff at Costco perhaps half that much. So I’m “making” something just over a dollar a bottle by brewing my own. It takes about six hours of diligent work plus cleanup and cool down time to make a batch…so perhaps $8 per hour if I look at it as a wage.
But as a few folks have pointed out, it isn’t just about cheaper beer – a sixer of Bud would come out way cheaper than anything I can brew. It is about the fact that I love the craft and am thrilled every time I can serve someone a beer and say “yeah, I made this…”
I do wish someone like you would open up a little local-products factory so those of us who are slower could just BUY your stuff.
Well, not your stuff, I'm not local to you. But someone in my town to do it for us, I mean. Because right now I don't have time and I do have money. I would trade.
Erica/Northwest Edible Life says
Rosa – ah the time/money tradeoff – when informed, independent people can come together with minimal interference to decide how they want to make that particular swap, everyone wins, don't you think?
My state just implemented a cottage industry law that will allow very small scale producers of non-high-risk foods to work out of their home making jams, etc. for local distribution. So maybe it's on its way to you, too!
You forgot to include the entertainment & education factors that DIYing provide! Making jam and frozen fruit with your daughter is educational & fun for everyone… what would it normally cost if you outsourced those?!
A tip for the newbie doing this stuff – this is NOT bare feet or flips flops kind of work. Put on your tennis shoes and get a squishy restaurant-style anti-fatigue mat.
@Erika – we actually have great small-producer laws for most things, I can buy pickles & jam & stuff like that, no problem.
The problem is the mid-level stuff like frozen berries – they must not be as lucrative as handcrafted jelly, because nobody sells them!
I find that you don't need to freeze berries solid to get them to not stick to each other. Since I have limited freezer space, I put mine in for about an hour doing one pan at a time. It ends being just a little quick thing I do while getting other stuff done around the house. It also suits my ADD personality.
Ah, but I never pay more than $3.50 for Bonne Maman jam, and something like $6.99 (or was it $7.99?) on sale for the same 2-lb bag of berries. Therefore, even if I processed as quickly as you (an obviously flawed assumption), my "take-home" would be more like $9.55/hr (or $13.11 for the higher berry price). Factor in that I have to pay the babysitter if I want to get much of anything done these days and it's just not worth it.
Obviously that's not all there is to be said, as I'm sure your jam really is better, and we've not factored in the social, environmental, etc. costs of cheap supermarket food. Just another example of how economic factors considered alone generally deter me from putting more effort into home production. Sigh.
However, my husband did take the kids raspberry picking yesterday and I used the cookie-sheet method to freeze most of them, so I got something out of this post after all!