Frugal Baking, Tasty Results

I love to bake. For me, there’s nothing more comforting than the scent of home-made bread, fresh cookies or a chocolate cake filling my home, and nothing more satisfying than lifting a perfect, made-from-scratch treat out of my oven. However, when you’re on a spaghetti-and-ground-beef-for-date-night budget, baking can get expensive. Because I’m unwilling to give up my treats, I’ve found a few ways to lessen the financial impact and still enjoy my baked goods.

Tip 1: Stock Up When Things are On Sale (Or You Have a Coupon)

Ok, I admit this is probably a “no duh” for all the frugalistas reading this, but my Solemn Oath of Completeness requires me to include it.

Tip 2: Store Properly

Baking staples such as flour and sugar can easily last years, but only if you store them correctly. You probably already know that if left exposed to the air, brown sugar is going to clump up and turn into moon rocks. Therefore, you, like the kitchen god or goddess you are, keep brown sugar in an air-tight plastic or glass container.

You might not know, however, that all flours can attract pests, while whole grain flours (which contain the healthy fats present in wheat and other grains), can turn rancid. Nothing ruins a baking project quite like stinky flour, and bugs in your food can send you (or your kids) to the ER.

To prevent these unpleasant scenarios, seal whole grain flours in plastic baggies and store them in your freezer. Store other flours in air-tight containers away from light and heat. It’s also a good idea to store white sugar in sealed containers. Though that kind of sugar won’t clump, you do want to keep moisture out of it, lest it turn into a sugar swamp.

Tip 3: Know When It’s Ok to Skimp

If you’re anything like me, you’ve spent some time (ok, I admit it, a LOT of time) watching Food Network, the Cooking Channel, or PBS cooking programs. You’ve probably heard someone in Chef’s whites haughtily declare “a cook is only as good as his ingredients.”

For the most part, the pros are right. Good-quality ingredients do matter. However, there are times you can get away with using less-expensive items without turning your cookies into a Charles Dickens novel on a pan.

Whenever an ingredient is a backup flavor rather than the primary one, you can usually get away with substituting lower-cost ingredients. For example, my favorite chocolate cake tastes just as good with dollar-store margarine and imitation vanilla flavoring as it does with butter and high-end vanilla extract. However, I wouldn’t use dollar store cocoa powder in brownies or imitation vanilla in a baked vanilla custard.

Tip 4: Use (Good!) Light Recipes, Even if You’re Not a “Light” Type of Baker

I started looking into “light” recipes because I’d been enjoying my baking a little too much, and my backside showed it. I was very surprised to find that some good-quality light recipes were as easy on my wallet as they were on my waistline.

For example, my favorite light chocolate chip cookie recipe (from my “The Best Light Recipe” cookbook) calls for only a half stick of butter and a half cup of chocolate chips. A standard recipe calls for two sticks and more than a cup of chips. Using the light recipe meant I didn’t have to buy those items so often.

Be careful, though, and choose your light recipes wisely. Stay away from frugal recipes that call for “weird” ingredients. I’ve seen low-calorie brownie recipes that call for plumb baby food or even baked beans! I much prefer more subtle tricks, like adding a quarter teaspoon of coffee powder to a brownie or cake batter in order to boost chocolate flavor.

Tip 5: Don’t Waste Oven Heat

Ingredients aren’t the only expense you’ll run into when baking. There’s also what running the oven does to your power bill. Electric ovens take a long time to heat up, and there’s no reason to waste a preheat cycle on just one recipe. Once you’ve pulled your cakes or cookies out of the oven, you can use the heat to make something else, like homemade granola, cereal, or even another recipe.