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