For most of our married life, my husband and I haven’t bought any bread from the store. We’ll occasionally grab a loaf of something if it looks especially tasty, or if it’s on sale for a really good price, but in general, my husband bakes all our bread. He used a bread machine until it broke around five years ago, and ever since then, he’s done it the old-fashioned way: kneading the dough by hand.
Over the years, we’ve learned that home-baked bread is a great way to cut your grocery bill. Our homemade bread costs us about half as much per loaf as we’d pay at the store, and it’s tastier and healthier, as well. And the joy of biting into a slice of warm, fresh-baked bread is a pleasure that money can’t buy.
At first, I was worried that baking from scratch would take too much time or effort. But we’ve found that with just a little planning, it can easily become a part of our weekly routine. In fact, we’ve discovered that there are several different ways to fit baking into a tight schedule and turn fresh-baked bread from a once-in-a-while luxury to a regular habit.
Benefits of Baking Your Own Bread
The most obvious reason for baking your own bread is to save money – but that’s far from the only reason. Home-baked bread can also be much tastier, more nutritious, and easier to customize to your personal needs. On top of that, there’s the fun of baking. Mixing and kneading can be oddly relaxing, and there’s something very satisfying about slicing into a fresh-baked loaf you made with your own hands.
1. Lower Cost
A one-pound loaf of white bread costs about $1.30 at the grocery store, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Whole-wheat bread is a bit pricier, at around $2 a loaf. And if you favor fancy breads like seven-grain, sourdough, or cinnamon-raisin, you could pay as much as $4 a loaf.
Making your own bread can cut these costs dramatically. As an example, here’s a list of the ingredients for my husband’s basic whole-wheat bread recipe, along with the prices we pay for them:
- 3 1/2 cups whole-wheat flour: $0.78 ($2.99 for a five-pound bag)
- 1/2 cup wheat bran: $0.08 ($1.28 per pound from the bulk bins at our local health-food store)
- 1/4 cup honey: $0.41 ($11.99 for a five-pound jar at the warehouse store)
- 3 tablespoons unsalted butter: $0.19 ($1.99 per pound)
- 2 tablespoons wheat gluten: $0.26 ($5.46 per pound from the bulk bins)
- 4 teaspoons yeast: $0.19 ($4.59 per pound from the bulk bins)
- 1 teaspoon salt: less than $0.01
All told, the ingredients for the bread cost us $1.92 for a recipe that makes two loaves. We also use a little bit of energy running the oven for an hour, which adds an extra $0.12 or so to the price. Even with that cost, our homemade bread still costs around $1 a loaf – about half the price of whole-wheat bread from the store.
2. Better Taste
Perhaps you’re thinking that a dollar for a loaf of bread isn’t all that cheap. After all, at most big supermarkets, you can pick up a store-brand loaf of white bread for about that price. So, why should you go to the trouble of baking your own?
To understand why, picture a single slice of that one-dollar loaf from the store. Basically, it’s a flat, pale sliver with hardly any substance. If you pick it up in your hand, it feels like it weighs less than a single sheet of paper. If you squeeze your fingers together while you’re holding it, they’ll go straight through it.
A slice of our homemade whole-wheat bread is nothing like that fluffy, wimpy stuff. It’s a hearty, chewy bread that you can really sink your teeth into. It’s full of nutty, yeasty, whole-grain flavor, with a touch of sweetness from the honey. And unlike the store-bought stuff, it doesn’t fall apart under your knife if you try to spread some peanut butter on it.
Of course, it’s possible to buy bread at the store with more substance than those squishy, mass-produced loaves. But the good stuff costs a lot more – as much as four or five bucks a loaf – so you always have a trade-off between good taste and a good price. With home-baked bread, you get both. Plus, as a bonus, you get to enjoy it while it’s fresh and warm from the oven – a benefit no supermarket bread can ever provide.
3. More Nutrition
Those one-dollar loaves of white bread are pretty unimpressive when it comes to nutrition, as well. According to the nutrition calculator at SparkPeople, a single slice of store-bought white bread has about 65 calories, mostly from starch. It has 2.3 grams of protein and less than a gram of fiber. Commercial “wheat bread” is only slightly better, with 2.4 grams of protein and 1 gram of fiber.
By contrast, when I entered the ingredients for our homemade whole-wheat bread into the recipe calculator, I found that a single slice has 2.7 grams of protein and 2.2 grams of fiber. Starting my day with two slices of that keeps me going until lunchtime, where two slices of wussy white-bread toast would probably leave me hungry by midmorning.
Once again, not all store-bought breads are created equal. You can buy bread at the store that rivals our homemade bread for nutrition, but you’ll pay a lot more for it. By baking our own, we don’t have to compromise between nutrition and cost.
4. Custom Recipes
Although my husband’s regular whole-wheat bread has a pretty good amount of fiber, a few years back I went on a high-fiber kick and asked if he could make me one with loads of fiber. He obliged by taking his basic bread recipe and throwing in every high-fiber ingredient he could think of: whole oats, wheat bran, and even some finely ground flaxseeds. It was dense, dark, chewy, and very substantial.
This illustrates one of the best perks of baking your own bread: you can make it however you want. This is especially handy if you’re on a special diet, such as vegan, low-carb, or gluten-free. Special food needs make it hard to find bread in the stores that you can actually eat – and even if you find some, you’ll probably have to pay through the nose for it. A quick search online turns up prices for gluten-free breads ranging from $6 to $10 per loaf.
By baking your own, you can make breads that fit your special needs at a much more reasonable cost. The bloggers at No Gluten, No Problem found that their homemade gluten-free breads and other baked goods were cheaper than store-bought versions by anywhere from 30% to 60%.
As nice as all these perks are, the main reason my husband prefers to make all our bread by hand is that he honestly enjoys it. There’s something about the process of kneading the dough with his own hands that he finds really satisfying. It’s kind of like the fun you used to have playing with modeling clay as a kid – except instead of making little balls that are going to get squished up and put away, you’re making actual food that you’ll get to enjoy later. You can have fun and accomplish something useful at the same time.
But even if playing with dough isn’t your idea of fun, baking your own bread can still provide a lot of enjoyment. It’s very satisfying to pull a golden-topped loaf of bread out of the oven and know that you made it yourself, with your own hands. And having the whole house fill up with the warm, yeasty smell of baking bread is a pleasure everyone who lives with you can share.
Ways to Bake Bread on a Schedule
At this point, some of you are probably thinking, “All this sounds great, but where am I supposed to find the time?” If you look up bread recipes in a traditional cookbook like “Joy of Cooking,” you’ll see that they involve several steps – mixing, kneading, rising, and so on – before you even get the bread into the oven. For most people, going through all those steps every time you need a loaf of bread just isn’t practical.
Fortunately, you don’t have to do it this way. There are several alternative methods that make it possible to bake a healthy homemade loaf with just a few minutes of work – so you can enjoy cheap, tasty homemade bread even on a busy schedule.
1. Baking in Batches
There’s no doubt that baking bread the old-fashioned way is a lengthy process. You have to mix up the dough, knead it, let it rise, punch it down and knead it a second time, then finally put it in the pans and bake it. From start to finish, it takes over three hours.
Keep in mind, though, that most of this isn’t hands-on time. Once you’ve mixed up and kneaded the dough, you can set it aside to rise on its own; you don’t have to sit there and babysit it. Even while it’s baking, you can leave the room and do other things, as long as you’re around to take the bread out of the oven when the timer goes off. All in all, baking a loaf of bread only requires about 25 minutes of active work.
You can cut down this time even more by making several loaves of bread at once and freezing the ones you can’t use right away. This works best if you have a separate freezer to store all those extra loaves, but even the freezer section in your fridge can hold one extra loaf. This way, you only have to find the time to bake once or twice a month. With less than half an hour of work, you can keep yourself stocked up on homemade bread all month long.
One downside of baking bread in batches is that you only get to enjoy one loaf while it’s fresh out of the oven. However, bread keeps pretty well in the freezer as long as you wrap it up snugly to keep it from drying out. A homemade loaf that’s been frozen and thawed certainly tastes closer to fresh bread than a mass-produced loaf from the store that’s been pumped full of preservatives.
If your main reason for baking is to have fresh-baked bread every time, you can make one loaf at a time, but cut down on the work by mixing up the dough in a stand mixer or food processor. This cuts out all the work of kneading by hand, so it only takes about five minutes of hands-on time to prepare a loaf of bread. However, you’ll still have to wait several hours for each loaf of bread, instead of being able to pull a ready-made loaf out of the freezer.
2. Bread Machines
If making bread by hand even once a month is still too much work for you, a bread machine can make the job even easier. With this kitchen tool, making fresh bread is as easy as putting all the ingredients into a pan and pushing a few buttons. The machine takes care of kneading the dough, letting it rise, and baking it, so you don’t need to tend to the dough throughout the day.
Better still, most bread machines have timers, so you can set them to have your bread ready whenever you want it. You can load up the machine before you go to bed at night and have a warm, fresh-baked loaf ready for breakfast in the morning. Plus, most machines also have a “dough” setting that you can use to prepare pizza dough or cinnamon rolls that you then bake in the oven.
Making a loaf of bread in a machine takes only a few minutes of work to measure all the ingredients into the pan. As for the cost, it’s actually a tiny bit cheaper than baking bread by hand, because a bread machine uses less energy than an oven. According to SustainWeb, it takes around 0.36 kilowatt-hours (kWh) of energy to bake one loaf of white bread in a machine. Baking the same loaf in an oven uses around 1.5 kWh.
Bread machines range in cost from around $50 to $300. If you buy one and use it to make all your bread, you can save anywhere from $1 to $5 per loaf of bread, depending on what kind you make. If you go through about a loaf per week, your new bread machine could pay for itself in as little as three months – or it could take nearly six years. On top of that, you’ll have to find space in your kitchen to store a new device that’s about the size of a small trash can.
When you buy a bread machine, it will come with a sample book of bread recipes designed for use with that particular machine. If you want to branch out beyond these basics, you can buy cookbooks devoted specifically to bread machine recipes, or find them online at cooking sites like Taste of Home or AllRecipes. As you get used to your bread machine and how it works, you can figure out how to adapt standard bread recipes to work in the machine, adjusting the amounts of flour and liquid as needed.
3. Slow Cooker Breads
If you don’t want to make room in your kitchen for one more gadget, you might be able to bake your own bread with a gadget you already own. By adapting your bread recipes a bit, you can make bread in a slow cooker. Most slow cookers can reach about 200°F on their high setting, which just happens to be the right internal temperature for a loaf of bread. It’s not as fast as baking bread in the oven, but as long as you heat the dough long enough, it will bake all the way through.
Unlike a bread machine, a slow cooker can’t do the mixing and kneading for you. However, once you’ve done that part of the job by hand, you can set your dough in the cooker and bake it right away. Because it takes so long to bake, you don’t even need to let it rise first. A large, oval slow cooker can hold a regular bread pan tucked inside; with round cookers, you can bake the bread directly in the crock, lining it with parchment to keep the dough from sticking.
According to Kitchn, it takes an average of two hours on high to bake a loaf of bread this way. However, baking times can range from one to three hours, so you’ll need to experiment a bit to see what works for your particular model. The best way to tell when your bread is done is to check its internal temperature, which should be between 190°F and 200°F. A finished loaf should be firm on top and slightly browned on the bottom.
The Kitchn article warns that bread baked in a slow cooker isn’t exactly the same as oven-baked bread. The loaves come out a little flatter than normal, and they don’t develop a firm, chewy crust. If you happen to prefer bread with a softer crust, this is a good thing. However, if you like it a little crisper, you can give the loaf a quick zap under the broiler of your oven.
Baking bread in the slow cooker only requires about seven minutes of hands-on work per loaf. Like using a bread machine, slow-cooking your bread saves energy, which makes each loaf a few cents cheaper than one baked the traditional way. This makes slow-cooker bread a great choice for summertime, when you don’t want to heat up your kitchen by running the oven.
According to Kitchn, you can adapt just about any bread recipe to prepare it this way. Just get the dough ready, shape it into a loaf, and let the slow cooker do the rest. If you want recipes that are specifically designed and tested for slow-cooker baking, Prevention offers half a dozen that should give you good results.
4. No-Knead Breads
There’s one more way of baking your own bread that requires no special equipment at all – and almost no work. It’s called a no-knead bread. With this method, popularized in the 2008 cookbook “Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day,” you mix up a large batch of moist dough and store it in the refrigerator for a couple of weeks. Whenever you want fresh bread, all you have to do is pull off a section of dough, shape it into a loaf, give it about 40 minutes to rise, and then bake it. It takes about 15 minutes to mix the dough and only a minute or two to shape it. So, on average, each loaf takes only five minutes to make.
This no-knead method has several advantages over other methods:
- No Special Equipment. You don’t need a bread machine or even a slow cooker. All you need is an oven, a refrigerator, a big bowl to store your dough, and a pan to bake it in.
- Less Work. There’s no need to spend 10 minutes kneading the dough every time you bake. You also don’t have to cover your loaves of dough or set them aside in a draft-free place to rise. Just form a loaf, let it rest, and put it in the oven.
- Hard to Mess Up. With regular bread recipes, you’re supposed to keep an eye on your dough and take care not to let it rise too much. With the moist dough used in the no-knead method, extra rising time won’t do any harm.
- Ready When You Are. Because you mix up the dough ahead of time, you can make a fresh loaf of bread whenever you feel like it. A small loaf can be ready in as little as an hour.
You can find a sample bread recipe using this method on the Artisan Bread in Five website. It’s a basic white bread with a chewy texture and a flavor that grows closer to sourdough the longer you’ve had the dough. The site also has a couple of other free recipes you can make with this method, such as a gluten-free dough and a sweet brioche dough.
If you like the idea of baking your own bread, but you’re not sure you can spare the time, remember that it doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing situation. You can bake exactly as often as you want. For example, you could whip up a loaf of homemade bread once in a while for a special occasion, such as Thanksgiving dinner. Or you could just bake bread when you happen to have plenty of free time and buy it when you’re on a tighter schedule.
Be warned, though: Fresh-baked bread can be addictive. Once you get into the habit of baking, you’re likely to find that you’re no longer satisfied with store-bought bread. Even when your schedule is busy, you may find yourself trying to squeeze in time for baking because you’re hooked on that homemade flavor. And with every loaf you bake, you’ll be saving money at the same time.
Do you bake your own bread? If not, would you be willing to try it?