It’s often said with certainty cooking at home is cheaper than eating at restaurants, and while this is mostly true, it’s not always true; getting into a good routine of grocery shopping requires a lot of attention to detail and if one doesn’t track their purchases closely, the savings from cooking at home aren’t really apparent.
That said, most dishes can be prepared regularly and more economically at home. One can make, for example, a week’s worth of stir fry dishes for the price of a dinner for two at a mid-price Chinese restaurant. But some foods don’t really make fiscal sense to make at home; if attempted, they will drive up your week’s food bill for scant returns.
I’ve written out for this post five foods that should have you reaching for the cell phone or car keys rather than the frying pan. While some of these dishes can be made as an event, for fun, what we’re discussing here is cost, amount of food, and ability to tie ingredients into other dishes. Here goes:
One uniting trait of foods that are best ordered out is a need for specialty ingredients in large quantities. A pizza requires a bag, or a block, of mozzarella cheese, and if that cheese isn’t on hand in the fridge, it needs to be purchased and then used entirely. Likewise, if you’re using a green pepper, you’ll likely need the entire green pepper. And who has pepperoni in their crisper? When the dough, vegetables, sauce (homemade or canned), cheese, etc. is totaled up, the cost going to be nearly twice that of simply ordering a pizza, and you keep none of the ingredients for later meals. For the expense, you get one or two pies which will likely disappear in one evening (pizza being one of those foods that are devoured rather than eaten), and then you’ve no ingredients for the rest of the week.
As much as I love this Vietnamese noodle soup, it’s far better just to go to one of those now-ubiquitous Southeast Asian restaurants than to attempt this one at home- that is, unless you’ve recently butchered a cow. Take a look at the recipe. Pho requires marrow, bones, flank, offal- the list goes on. Just the broth alone takes 3-24 hours, so with planning and tracking down the ingredients, this could take up the better part of a weekend to prepare. However, unlike pizza, you could probably prepare quite a lot of broth in one go, and dine on Pho and Pho-influenced dishes for a week- but when a bowl of the stuff at a restaurant is 6-10 bucks, why not just let them do the work?
Making sushi at home with friends can be a lot of fun- as much as, say, having a fondue party- but when we talk about cost-effective foods for the work-week, sushi probably isn’t on our lips. Fresh fish- truly fresh fish- is difficult to find in the city that I live, and often the options are frozen, which is a big no-no in making sushi (have you tried it??). It’s not a bad idea generally to have some sticky rice in some Tupperware in your pantry, and a sushi roller can be a fun tool to keep in the kitchen, but when it comes to the fish problem, the only solution is to either find a local distributor (where do the restaurants buy their fish?) or take a huge leap of faith and trust the quality of your big box chain grocery. Either way, you’re in for a lot of money spent on fish, and at most, reasonably, two meals.
4. Tortilla Chips
The most striking thing about tortilla chips is that for the price of one taco at most Mexican restaurants, they are free and unlimited. Still, that didn’t stop me years ago when I tried making a bunch of chips at home for a taco night we were having. The key ingredient in tortilla chips is not tortillas but oil. Lots of oil. For those of us without a deep-fryer at home, loads of hot oil in a pot is required. Then, you dip the cut corn tortillas down into the oil until cooked, and remove with a slotted spoon or tongs. Now, if you’re anywhere near as accident prone as me, you will burn yourself, which should alone make the prospect of homemade chips less attractive. Furthermore, all of that oil that you used gets dirty and it can’t be reused for anything else. On top of all that, unless you know the secrets of pressing and drying the chips (which I don’t), they don’t keep as well as even, for example, Tostidos do: no chip clip in the world will save you. For your money, you get a snack that isn’t a meal, and a side dish that will get soggy if not choked down in two days’ time.
5. Eggs Benedict
Most of these other foods sin by asking for ingredients that are either entirely used by one meal or can’t be used by much else. Eggs Benedict is different: it requires simple ingredients like eggs, butter, cornbread, ham, lime, cayenne, etc. One can buy these items in fair quantity and use them in different configurations throughout the week. Further, they aren’t terribly expensive. But Eggs Benedict goes wrong in being a rather wasteful meal for as few as two people to eat. I used to order E.B. quite often for brunch at Helen’s in Richmond, VA, but after trying to make it at home on one occasion, I stopped eating it all together. Did you know that most hollandaise recipes call for a cup of butter? A cup! While this is an appropriate amount of butter for, say, making a cake, a cup divided among two people at a homemade brunch is dismally unhealthy and a waste of dairy. Besides that, the butter and the egg yolk will separate after a while, even if refrigerated, so after using all of that butter, you’d better eat it!