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Cooking on the cheap shouldn't mean minute rice and buttered pasta every night. With a little creativity and a little planning, you can make the most of a tight budget -- without sacrificing flavor or variety.
Today: This New Year, resolve to hack your way to a better, fancier ingredients -- without spending a penny.
Sometimes, using fancy pants ingredients is merited. Real, high-quality vanilla extract is leagues better than the imitation stuff (unless, of course, you're making funfetti cake). Whole nutmeg kicks powdered nutmeg's butt. Nice balsamic vinegar is just plain old better than the budget brand. Such is life's eternal struggle.
While there are some kitchen staples worth the splurge, there are plenty of ingredients that can be crafted with sheer ingenuity -- and a little elbow grease. Commit these hacks to memory, and resolve to make your kitchen a better, more budget-friendly place this New Year.
Buttermilk is one of those ingredients you never have when you actually need it. Next time the craving for pancakes and/or biscuits strikes, turn to this hack, and save your wallet and your car the hassle.
Cake and Self-Rising Flour
To me, these are both in the category of Things That You Never Really Want to Invest In. But when you need them, you really need them -- trust me, substituting regular ole' AP just doesn't cut it here. Thankfully, they're both easy to hack with the addition of cornstarch, baking powder, and salt. Just follow the conversion guide here, and then go make some angel food cake.
Hack Your Alcohol Cabinet
Buying booze can take a huge bite out of your budget; so shop smarter, not harder, and infuse your own. Combine your creations with simple mixers for drinks that taste like they cost $16 at a craft cocktail bar. Or, if you want something to sip neat, save your apple peels from the compost and put them to a more noble use: infusing your bourbon. The end result is so good on its own, you won't even need to buy a mixer. Ka-ching.
Breadrumbs + Croutons
You've probably heard that Panko breadcrumbs are the best breadcrumbs to use for breading and frying. This is true. But making your stale bread into breadcrumbs results in something that's almost as good, and has the added benefit of being free. If you have a bunch of bread lying around, turn it into croutons to add crunch and intrigue to all those dark, leafy salads you resolved to eat this year.
More: Not feeling salads right now? That's cool -- here are 5 more ways to use your homemade breadcrumbs.
Caramel: It's Just Hot Sugar
Don't buy a $12 bottle of fancy whiskey caramel sauce or one of those bags of perfect cubes for dipping apples -- make your own caramel, instead. All you need is sugar and maybe some butter and cream, and you're well on your way to some kickass ice cream sundaes, or swoon-worthy edible gifts.
Buying stock irritates me because I never seem to use it all up, so I'm always left with a half-empty carton lingering in the fridge and staring me down every time I reach for the orange juice, guilting me. Don't make the same mistake. Instead, make your own chicken and vegetable stock, using scraps you'd throw away anyway, and freeze the fruits of your labor. So you can make minestrone and chicken noodle whenever you please.
Instead of buying expensive canned stuff, make your own tomato sauce with just 3 ingredients. Use the money you saved to splurge on some nice Parmesan cheese, then go boil water for spaghetti. Or add eggs and yogurt for the ultimate cheap brunch: shakshuka.
Go (Strategically) Nuts
Nut butter is one of the most difficult things to throw into your shopping cart, because it's so darn expensive. And yet, what is life without some almond butter to stir into your yogurt? Solution: Make your own nut butter out of whatever's cheapest this week in the bulk aisle. You save money, you know exactly what you're eating, plus, you get to express your inner nut goddess. And then you're always ready to make the ultimate broke snack/brown bag lunch: PB&J.
A Simple Move for Better Cocktails
Buying bottled simple syrup might be the biggest rip off ever. If you have two minutes and sugar and water, you can make your own. Infuse it with whatever herbs or citrus are on their last legs, and shake up some fancy cocktails for yourself on a Tuesday night. Just cause.
Eat Steak, Save Money
Instead of filet mignon, ask your butcher for one of these less expensive cuts. When prepared right, they're just as juicy and delicious as the pricier cuts, and will definitely satisfy your caveman need steak now urges.
What are your favorite money-saving ingredient hacks? Tell us in the comments!