What a Famous Baker Will & Won't Buy Pre-Made

June  6, 2018

Even though I’m guilty of sometimes rolling my eyes at other people’s shopping baskets, I know that everyone has their own set of make-or-buy rules based on personal tastes, interests, priorities, and time. (See how I am trying not to be judgmental?!)

These are my (not always perfectly consistent) rules: If an item is relatively quick to make, and/or I know it to be vastly better (and tastier and purer) when homemade, then I make it myself. If a certain food takes time (like pickles or yogurt or sauerkraut or preserves) or know-how that I don’t have or am not interested in—and there are perfectly good-quality products available—I’m likely to buy it.

Here’s a sample of how these rules play out for me:

I buy jams, jellies, and preserves, but I don’t buy lemon curd.

There are stunning preserves from local producers that I like to support—and I don’t think I could do it better than they do. But lemon curd is quick and easy to make, and tastes way fresher when homemade. It helps that I have all the backyard lemons I’ll ever need, so that lemon curd can be produced on the spur of the moment, but lemons or limes are not hard to find, wherever you are.

I might buy caramel sauce or dulce de leche out of laziness, but I don’t buy chocolate sauce or chocolate syrup or hot chocolate mix.

All of these are easy to make, but caramel is more suited to the jar than chocolate. The age and processing of a shelf stable sauce hurt chocolate, but caramel is less vulnerable—arguably, the processing of cooked milk may even enhance caramel sauce. But even the most expensive chocolate sauce tastes slightly stale to me, and has a distinct flavor of cooked milk (think canned milk) in comparison with freshly made sauce. While that cooked milk flavor is an expected note in caramel and especially dulce de leche, it doesn't belong in chocolate sauce. And then (no surprise here), I’m fussy about the type of chocolate I use in my sauce to start with!

As for drinking chocolate or hot chocolate mix? I don’t need a packet of cocoa powder and/or ground chocolate, sugar, dry milk, and spices. I’d rather start with my favorite cocoa powder or chocolate, sweeten it to my taste, and add spices from my drawer.

I buy unsweetened yogurt, but I don’t buy sweetened or flavored yogurt.

Good, plain organic yogurt is easily available where I live. If I want toppings or flavors or sweetness, I add fresh fruit or premium preserves or what-have-you myself.

I buy all manner of specialty flours, but I never buy a brownie or pancake mix.

Brownies and pancakes from scratch don’t take longer to make than do a mix—and I keep mountains of superb chocolate and cocoa on hand, so shopping for it is rarely necessary. (link to one of my brownies?)

Ghee is tricky.

I usually make my own clarified butter, but a really good, butter-based ghee from grass-fed animals is handy to keep around. One advantage is that it lasts longer, because there are no residual milk solids in it.

I buy candied or crystallized ginger, but I make my own candied citrus peels.

Good candied ginger is available, but excellent candied citrus peels are hard to find (and quite expensive). And again, I live in Berkeley, where citrus is plentiful—from the backyard or produce market.

I buy shelled nuts (whole or the largest pieces possible) for baking, but I don’t buy chopped or toasted nuts.

Whole or large nuts stay fresh longer than packaged pieces. Freshly toasted nuts taste better than those have been toasted who-knows-when. As for nut flours, sometimes I make it, sometimes I buy it.

I might buy frozen fruit (particularly berries) for baking or cooking, but I don’t buy canned.

Frozen fruit is excellent and handy for muffins and pancakes or a quick, perky sauce that tastes fresh. Canned fruit doesn’t have much life (unless you canned it yourself—which I don’t).

For Savory Items...

I buy ketchup, harissa, and Sriracha, but I don’t buy salad dressing or salsa or guacamole.

It takes a few minutes to make any of these. Bottled dressing will never be made with olive oil as good as I want it to be, and herbs and garlic and other seasonings don’t age well or taste fresh or real enough to me. As for fresh salsa—I don’t mind a few minutes of chopping to produce something that is noticeably better than store-bought. And people do notice! Guacamole at my house is just mashed and seasoned avocados with a little lime juice…

And Now, Let's Get Baking

What are your rules for making versus buying? Let me know in the comments!

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Patricia Cross
    Patricia Cross
  • Karen
  • bailboy
  • maryaskew
  • Anke Tamer
    Anke Tamer
My career was sparked by a single bite of a chocolate truffle, made by my Paris landlady in 1972. I returned home to open this country’s first chocolate bakery and dessert shop, Cocolat, and I am often “blamed” for introducing chocolate truffles to America. Today I am the James Beard Foundation and IACP award-winning author of ten cookbooks, teach a chocolate dessert class on, and work with some of the world’s best chocolate companies. In 2018, I won the IACP Award for Best Food-Focused Column (this one!).


Patricia C. June 26, 2018
I ditto everything Alice says. I will make preserves if I have an abundance of something in my garden. Found yellow cherries on a walk near a county park. That summer I put up 8 or so jars of jam from the cherries and they were fabulous. There has never been a crop since. She probably wasn’t comprehensive and I’ll bet she makes her own pesto v
Karen June 19, 2018
I never buy pesto. It has an off-taste that just doesn’t compare with fresh. I also make my own jam, but there are some good brands at the market. I am a snob about chicken salad. Store bought is all mayonnaise. And I never buy pre-cut veggies. It takes 30 seconds to chop an onion!
bailboy June 18, 2018
Funny that this popped up on FB today. I was in the supermarket buying eggs and saw that they now sell packages of hard boiled eggs. How hard is it to boil an egg? It really left me shaking my head that people buy hard boiled eggs.
Anke T. June 19, 2018
Totally agree. The only excuse for that would be living in a dorm that won’t let you have even a hot plate. 😉
maryaskew June 16, 2018
I make my own harissa using the recipe in the _Jerusalem- cookbook.The process smells great and it keeps well in the refrigerator.
Jeanie N. December 13, 2018
Have you tried the recipe in Modern Israeli Cooking?
Anke T. June 15, 2018
I agree with most of these. I live in Turkey, and the local jams are basically thick syrup with whole strawberries or large pieces of apricots in it - lovely over ice cream, but a pain in the neck when you try to eat them on bread, so I make my own, German-style. On the other hand, I’d never dream of making my own (plain) yoghurt here because the store-bought ones are excellent. I, too, find pancake and brownie mixes silly - if I buy something with unpronounceable stuff in it, the least it should do is actually save time and effort, no? I buy quite a lot of frozen veggies, especially the labor-intensive stuff like peas and spinach. I’d never buy salad dressing - same reason, the oil - but I’d never make my own pasta (at most a big stuffed shape, like ravioli, where the filling matters, but never plain tagliatelle or so. Too much effort and not enough difference to the store bought fresh varieties).
Christine S. June 14, 2018
Wow! I sorta feel like a famous baker since I do many of these things! I do make my own jams and chutneys using seasonal fruit. Also make my own granolas; so easy and much more economical than store bought. The Mad 11 granola with olive oil is outstanding.
Patricia C. June 26, 2018
I make my own granola too — with olive oil and maple syrup. Great umami. All the others have too much sugar.
HalfPint June 7, 2018
I haven't bought salad dressing in over 10 years. There was a great bottled dressing from Kraft back in 2000 but they stopped making it apparently. So that was the only dressing that I would willingly buy. There are certain food products that I know I can never make 'better' than the commercial version. No shame in buying when it's that good.
Naomi H. June 7, 2018
Homemade strawberry freezer jam. No store bought ever compared. My mom's is the best 😊
Ttrockwood June 7, 2018
I want a link to the darned sandwich cookies in the clickbait for this article! Such a mean tease they are not anywhere here to find.
hungrybruno June 6, 2018
I usually make bread because it's infinitely cheaper and often tastier to make it myself, and I make sauerkraut and kimchi because I enjoy the (stinky!) process, but even though I know how to make yogurt and it's so easy, I still mostly buy it. I used to make all our jams and preserves but my kids eat them faster than I can crank them out so when I do make them I tend to save most of them to give as gifts!

(I think you meant to include a link to a brownie, looks like a note-to-self got through instead.)
lumpynose June 6, 2018
My big rant for store bought is pasta. Pasta is nothing more than boiled dough (sounds alluring, eh?), and I believe that when you add a sauce to it, even a mild tasting one, that its flavor is obscured. Home made pasta may have a nicer texture, but for all of the work it requires I just can't see that as a significant advantage. If you were to serve it with just butter, salt, and pepper then you could taste the difference but who does that? I don't understand the enthusiasm for home made pasta other than it's trendy.
Smaug June 6, 2018
And bread is nothing more than seared dough, etc. Mostly handmade pasta is more a matter of texture than taste, although the egg can shine through in simple presentations- such as the one you mention, not that uncommon a way to go. It's not much work at all- making the dough is maybe five minutes, and another 5-10 min with the pasta machine later. One great advantage of homemade pasta is that you can add flavors- for instance, I make one for Stroganoff containing sherry, paprika and olive oil. Also it cooks really fast- particularly if you like to skip the boiling and cook your pasta in the sauce. Whether the difference in texture matters to you is a matter of taste, but commercial dried pasta is pretty rugged stuff, generally made of semolina pasta and brutally handled by factory machinery- fine for some presentations, such as with ragus and similar heavy sauces, not so good with others.
Smaug June 6, 2018
Or semolina flour or something like that.
Bob Q. June 7, 2018 vindicated! I frequently 'cook' my pasta in my sauces, particularlt raviolli and tortalini which tend to burst and/or take on water in the boiling process. Iv been looed at strangely for doing tis by quite a few fellow home chefs. Thanks for letting me know I am not alone!
Alaina P. June 7, 2018
There’s a big difference between dry pasta and fresh pasta and they’re traditionally used with different kinds of sauces. Store-bought fresh pasta cannot in any way compare to homemade fresh pasta.
bluepoppy June 6, 2018
I never buy salad dressing, pesto, tomato sauce. I make yogurt as I am trying to reduce plastic use. I don’t have a lemon tree but I do make preserved lemons. We’re not big jam or preserve eaters but I do make fig jam when we can beat the birds to the ripe ones. Would like to make kimchi.