How to Spend Less Money on Your Favorite Ingredients

January  7, 2015

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.

Ingredient Hacks

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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. 

Nut Butter


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.

How to Make Buttermilk from Scratch


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.

How to Make Cake and Self-Rising Flour


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.

Infuse Your Own Liquers


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.

How to Make Breadcrumbs from Scratch


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.

How to Make Caramel


Stock Up
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.

Chicken Stock Without a Recipe How to Make Vegetable Stock Without a Recipe


Tomato Sauce
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. 

Tomato Sauce


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.

Make Your Own Nut Butter


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.

How to Make Simple Syrup


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.

Budget Meat Cuts

What are your favorite money-saving ingredient hacks? Tell us in the comments! 

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Roberta Barnhart
    Roberta Barnhart
  • ducksandbooks
  • Rebecca @ Bring Back Delicious
    Rebecca @ Bring Back Delicious
  • Kat
  • Chelsey Amer
    Chelsey Amer
A kitchen scientist and dog-lover. Someday I want to have you over for dinner.


Roberta B. April 20, 2015
I dunno if this counts as a hack, but next time you're craving egg drop soup, try this.

4 c. chicken broth (you can use bouillon - there's a brand of bouillon that sells onion, garlic, cilantro, and chipotle flavors, any or all of these would be awesome in this)
about 2 Tbsp corn starch (depending on how thick you like your soup)
1-2 eggs, beaten
about 1 c. frozen peas 'n' carrots or chinese veggies, optional

Mix your broth and cornstarch in a saucepan, bring to a boil, throw in the veggies if you're using them. Reduce to a simmer and cook till it's as thick as you want and the veggies are cooked. Remove from heat and slowly drizzle in the eggs while stirring (the slower you pour, the smaller the eggy strings will be). Let cool for a few minutes and devour!
You can season it with sesame oil if you have it.
ducksandbooks January 21, 2015
buying specialty items that you use a lot of (e.g. brown jasmine rice) in big bags at ethnic groceries stores is often cheaper than the little 1-2 lb bags or even the bulk bins at the health food store (my regular grocery doesn't carry "fancy" things like brown jasmine)

Also, buying the spices from the "ethnic" section of the regular grocery store instead of from the baking aisle. Yes, bulk bin spices may be cheaper, but they don't come in jars with labels, and other than the peppercorns I'm not sure how often they're changed out and I want my ginger to have a real kick to it!
Rebecca @. January 14, 2015
"Hack" isn't really the right word for this list. It seems to be the new word to tack onto any tip article. Hack your makeup routine! Save money by using less! Duh?

Maybe "ingredients worth making at home"? There are definitely some good tips here though!
Kat January 8, 2015
Cultured Homemade Butter. My friend at the bakery convinced me to try this. I always have extra heavy cream in the back of the fridge - it just never is totally used! So you take whatever you have left - let it sit covered at room temperature for a day or two (hang with me) and then whip it until it separates into the most flavorful butter and voila! buttermilk too - two butters with one stone. The cultures created in the cream from the 1-2 days is incredibly delicious.
Chelsey A. January 8, 2015
Ahh I love making my own sunflower seed butter (shameless link:'s game changing!
Margit V. January 7, 2015
Thinking ahead to Spring: in view of how expensive they are to buy, grow them yourself, either from seed or plant seedlings. You don't need a big garden to do that, even a few large pots can be home to an abundant herb garden. Just think--picking a generous bunch of basil while the water's boiling for pasta. Or a handful of thyme to stuff a chicken just before putting it in the oven to roast!
Mary L. January 7, 2015
here's a hack -- oftentimes, feta & bleu cheese crumbles are cheaper per pound at the salad bar than they are in the cheese section. stock up!
Kat January 8, 2015
OOO that's a good one - I always wonder how long its been out/rotated properly. I guess a bluer blue is only a good thing, right?!
Laura January 29, 2015
Baby spinach is also usually much cheaper per pound from the salad bar.
Mom 2. January 7, 2015
I buy almonds in bulk, and make my own almond butter, almond flour and marzipan. I also make my own candied ginger. MUCH cheaper, and easy!
Allison T. January 7, 2015
Awesome ideas! I especially love the buttermilk idea since I never seem to have it on hand when I need it!