I spend a ridiculous amount of money at the grocery store. This is partly because my husband and I almost never eat out (but we do eat a lot), and it’s partly because we buy an abundance of organic, high-quality food.
Over the last few years I’ve started trying new things in the kitchen, looking for ways to control our food costs. What I’ve discovered is that it’s actually very easy to make some of those high-dollar “specialty” foods at home – even the ones that people generally assume can only be bought at a store.
In some cases, the cost savings are significant, especially over time. This is because certain foods, such as kefir – a probiotic-packed drink – may have a “start-up” cost. However, as you continue making them, the ongoing expense is minimal.
If you’re thinking it’s not worth the hassle to spend time making products you can pick up at the store, you might be surprised. The majority of these items can be whipped up quickly and with little effort. Even those that require additional time to make usually just call for “sitting and waiting” time – you don’t have to be engaged in active preparation, so you can just let the food do its work.
Healthy Specialty Food Recipes on a Budget
Kefir is a fermented milk drink filled with probiotics, much like yogurt, that help keep your intestinal ecosystem healthy and strong. It’s also packed with good-for-you nutrients like protein (about 10 grams per serving) and calcium (about 20% of the recommended daily value per one-cup serving). Because of kefir’s slightly bubbly and tangy flavor, it tastes delicious in smoothies as a milk alternative.
Unfortunately, a 32-ounce bottle of plain kefir can set you back between $4 and $6 at a typical grocery store. If you drink eight ounces a day, that bottle is only going to last you four days.
Kefir itself is actually very easy to make. All you need is kefir grains, an empty container, and some milk. You can buy the grains – which actually aren’t grains at all – online for about $5 to $20. Or, if you’re lucky enough to know other people who make kefir, you can usually just ask for some grains when they’re ready to split their batch (see below). I happen to get my grains for free from my dad.
Kefir Grains: What You Should Know
A batch of kefir grains is a live colony of active cultures – the enzymes and bacteria that ferment milk into kefir. Once you buy live kefir grains, you can use the same batch indefinitely. Because the colony continues to grow, you can progressively make more and more kefir, or you can split your grains and give them to a friend.
It’s important to understand that no two colonies of kefir grains are exactly the same, which means it may take some experimentation to hit your “sweet spot.” That said, here’s some general information to help you get started:
- It typically takes between 12 and 24 hours for a batch of kefir to ferment – the time is based on the colony and air temperature, as colder temperatures slow down the fermenting process. The ideal temperature is between 68 and 85 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Kefir is ready when the milk has thickened and the kefir gives off a pleasant, “clean” smell. You might see slight separation of the whey from the milk at the bottom of your jar. This is when you should separate the kefir from the grains. If you allow it to continue to culture, the kefir will over-ferment, the whey and curds will separate completely, and the resulting kefir will be much more sour.
- There’s no standard kefir grains-to-milk ratio – it’s highly colony dependent, but generally speaking, every tablespoon of grains should make between 1 and 2.5 cups of kefir. Simply add between 1 and 2.5 cups of milk to your grains to make your desired amount of kefir.
- To keep your grains healthy, it’s a good idea to make kefir continuously, usually in small, daily batches. If you need a break, though, all you have to do is add fresh milk to your kefir grains and store them in the fridge for up to three weeks. The cold temperature almost completely stops the fermentation process. When you want to get started again, simply strain out the milk and add fresh milk back to the grains.
- Because the grains grow and multiply, you may need to increase the amount of kefir you make by adding more milk with every batch. If you don’t want to make more kefir, simply split your grains and get rid of the excess. If you’re making small batches of 1 to 2.5 cups of kefir, it’s probably time to split your grains once you have more than one or two tablespoons.
How to Make Kefir
- 1 to 2.5 cups of milk of your choice
- 1 to 2 tablespoons of kefir grains
- Glass jar
- Fine mesh strainer
- Coffee filter
- Large rubber band
Once you have your grains, making kefir is easy:
- Place the grains in the bottom of a container – I use a 64-ounce clear glass carafe with a lid. A clear container is helpful so you can see the fermenting process. Plastic containers are usually fine, but glass is preferred because it’s less likely to be damaged or to taint the kefir.
- Pour milk on top – the exact ratio of grains to milk is very colony-dependent, and something you can adjust over time, but you should generally add about two and a half cups of milk to every one to two tablespoons of kefir grains. The type of milk you use is completely up to you, but it’s a good idea to stick with one, as it takes the grains a few fermenting cycles to adjust to anything new. Personally, I use skim milk, but there’s no reason you can’t use 1%, 2%, whole, or even goat’s milk.
- Cover the container with a coffee filter and secure it with a rubber band. It’s important that the container be allowed to “breathe” by using a coffee filter or a cheesecloth to help the fermenting process. The filter or cheesecloth is only needed to keep flies or other bugs out.
- Let the carafe sit out on the counter for 12 to 24 hours. You’re looking for evidence that the milk is fermenting – it should thicken, and curds should begin to form. Once you see a separation of the clear whey and the milk at the bottom of your container, your kefir is ready to strain.
- Remove the coffee filter from your container and use a spoon to stir the kefir well, mixing it completely.
- Place a fine mesh strainer over a bowl and pour the kefir through the strainer. You can shake the strainer or stir it occasionally to help speed the process. When you’re done, leave your kefir grains in the strainer.
- Place the kefir grains back into a clean glass carafe and add more milk to continue the fermenting process. If you don’t plan on making a batch for a while, cover the grains with milk, put a lid on your container, and store it in the fridge to slow the fermenting process.
- Take the kefir you just produced from the bowl and either pour it into a separate container to store in your fridge, or consume it immediately.
Once your grains have sufficiently grown, you can easily make a half-gallon of kefir with every batch for nothing more than the cost of a half-gallon of milk – making about 64-ounces of kefir costs roughly $2, at least four times cheaper than a pre-produced bottle from the grocery store.
Hummus is one of my favorite dips and spreads. A small-ish container of pre-made hummus from the grocery store, however, can cost between $3 and $5. All hummus really is, though, is garbanzo beans (chickpeas), tahini (sesame seed paste), lemon juice, olive oil, and spices – usually garlic and salt. The chickpeas and tahini, in particular, are what make hummus so good for you – they pack in the protein, fiber, and folate, making the dip a filling and healthy snack.
This homemade hummus recipe produces between 25 and 30 ounces of dip. If you can produce 28 ounces of hummus at home for about $6, you’re spending about half as much as you would to purchase a similar amount from a store.
How to Make Hummus
- Two 15.5-ounce cans of garbanzo beans
- Juice from two lemons
- Two tablespoons of olive oil
- 1/3 cup of tahini
- Spices, to taste (garlic, salt, cayenne pepper, and paprika are all good options)
- Two bowls
- Food processor
- Drain the garbanzo bean juice into a bowl, place the beans in a separate bowl, and rinse them. Add water to the beans to allow them to soak and set them aside.
- Add the tahini and lemon juice to a food processor and blend well, adding a bit of the garbanzo juice – about 1/3 of it – to the mix to create a frothy consistency.
- Add garlic, salt, and other spices (paprika’s a good one) to taste, blending again. How much you add is very dependent on your taste, but I like lots of flavor, so I typically start with one tablespoon of garlic powder (or if you use fresh garlic, I’ve added up to eight cloves in a batch of hummus), a half-tablespoon of salt, and one teaspoon of all other spices. I then make adjustments based on how the hummus tastes.
- Pour the water off the soaking garbanzo beans. Then, as your mixture is blending, slowly add the beans to it, occasionally pouring in the remaining garbanzo juice if it’s getting too thick.
- When you’ve added all the garbanzo beans, continue to blend, adding the olive oil.
- When the hummus reaches the desired texture, turn off the blender and give it a taste. Add additional spices and oil for flavor, as needed.
3. Herb- and Spice-Infused Oils
Whether you mix up your own salad dressing with garlic-infused oil, or you use an oregano- and thyme-infused oil as a dipping sauce for bread or pizza, there are countless options that can take your cooking to the next level. Unfortunately, buying infused oils is expensive. For instance, at the Grapevine Olive Oil Company, a 12.5-ounce bottle costs almost $18.
Luckily, you can make small batches of infused oil at home – and it only takes about five minutes. Typically you want to consume these small batches immediately, but if you’d like to make extra to store, you can seal the excess in a container and keep it in your refrigerator for a couple of weeks.
How to Make Herb- and Spice-Infused Oils
- Olive oil or grapeseed oil
- Preferred spices (oregano, thyme, or garlic, for example)
- Mortar and pestle
- Clean jar
- Select your spices. I usually use dried, just because I have them on-hand, but fresh herbs and spices lend a stronger flavor. My favorites are oregano, thyme, and cayenne pepper for a little extra kick.
- If using fresh herbs, wash and dry them completely. Grind up the herbs or spices with a mortar and pestle to help release the flavor.
- Place the herbs or spices in a pan and cover them with oil. Extra virgin olive oil offers great flavor, but you could try other options, such as grapeseed oil.
- Stirring constantly, turn the stove to medium heat – you want the oil to bubble slightly, without popping.
- After heating and stirring for about five minutes, remove the oil from the heat and pour it into a glass bottle through a coffee filter to catch the spices. If you used dried spices or you plan to use the oil immediately, leave the spices in the glass bottle without filtering them out – they can add some nice extra flavor. That said, fresh herbs and spices add moisture, which reduces the amount of time it takes for oil to go bad. If you plan to store your oil after making it, go ahead and strain your spices out.
- Once the oil has cooled, it’s ready to use.
Making infused oils in smaller batches is generally a good idea to help prevent it from going rancid. If you have extra, store it in a cool, dry place, or even in your refrigerator for up to a few weeks.
4. Flavored Nut Butters
Nutella doesn’t have a corner on the market for flavored nut butters. In fact, flavored peanut butter and almond butter is quite the trend in healthy-eating circles – but store-bought varieties aren’t cheap. For instance, a 16-ounce jar of Justin’s Maple Almond Butter costs $12. By comparison, at Nuts.com you can pick up a pound of raw almonds for $8, or a pound of roasted peanuts for $4 – the raw materials are a lot cheaper than the pre-made finished product.
As long as you have nuts on hand, you can easily whip up a flavored nut butter using nothing more than a high-quality blender. I like making salted honey walnut butter using the following steps:
How to Make Homemade Nut Butter
- 2 cups of shelled nuts (I use walnuts for this recipe)
- 1 teaspoon of sea salt
- 2 tablespoons of honey
- Blender or food processor
- Place about two cups of shelled walnuts into a blender.
- Add one teaspoon of sea salt and two tablespoons of honey.
- Blend the walnuts on high, stopping every 30 seconds or so to scrape the sides of the blender jar to keep the nut butter from feeding into the blades.
- Once you’ve reached the desired consistency, transfer the nut butter into a container. Use it immediately or store it in the fridge.
I’ve also made a spicy chocolate almond butter this way, simply adding more honey, plus cocoa powder and a dash of cayenne pepper to the almonds before blending.
While it’s nice to save money on specialty foods by cooking at home, that’s not the main reason I continue doing it. I do it because it gives me the flexibility to experiment while connecting with the foods I eat. When you prepare your own foods, you’re forced to slow down and build a relationship with what you’re consuming. This can help lead to better choices, greater portion control, and a focus on real, high-quality nutrition that can sustain a healthy lifestyle.
Are there any specialty foods that you make at home?