Saturday, October 22, 2011

Guest Post: When Acorn Cake Costs Too Much to Bake

Where we live, it's not only grocery prices that have gone up, but electricity costs as well. With time-of-use billing added to general rising costs, we are having to take a second look at many of our formerly-frugal make-it-yourself practices. It's ironic that this issue concerns families who try to cook naturally and economically more than it does those who come home and pop expensive frozen dinners in the microwave. Beans and grains take time to cook; home baking takes time and often needs a large oven, or a breadmaker (as well as electric grain grinders and mixers); home canning is also stoveintensive. If the oven costs even $5 to run for half an hour, that batch of homemade cookies or granola may end up costing more than a package from the store.

The large electric oven, obviously, is the biggest bad guy. (Gas stoves haven't been hit quite as badly.) So the toaster oven is our immediate substitute, whenever possible, and when we do use the large oven we load it up with several dishes to cook at the same time. But comparing cooking methods, except for those that are totally "free" like solar cooking, or eating food raw, can be really difficult. I've read that powering a slow cooker for eight hours is probably comparable to running the electric oven for half an hour--but nobody seems to be sure, especially when you figure in extra costs like having to cool the house down again in warm weather. Is it cost-effective these days to run the slow cooker overnight for a hot breakfast grain, or are you better off making a quick hot cereal on the burner in the morning? Cold cereal is often disparaged by frugal families, both for cost and nutrition; but if we're talking just finances and fuel, is it possible that we could end up paying more for food that has to be cooked? One excellent blog encourages the use of slow cookers for baked goods such as banana bread, freeing the cook to come back in a couple of hours rather than having to time something precisely. But is there actually an energy (and financial) saving in doing it this way, say, rather than having four loaves of banana bread baking for an hour in the big oven? Again, nobody seems to know exactly.

Microwaves have gotten a pretty good "green" rating when it comes to things like heating a cup of water for tea, but they've never become most people's primary cooking tool. I can bake an okay microwave cake in about ten minutes, which is obviously better than having to heat the big oven, but even my best efforts aren't going to produce results comparable to traditional baking methods.

What about stovetop methods? That seems to vary as well. If you have to boil a big pot of water for something, and keep it boiling, that's going to take more energy than cooking a pot of rice that can be covered and turned down way low for awhile. Does it make more sense for me to make a "skillet dinner" on the stovetop, or to put the same ingredients in a casserole in the toaster oven, or to put them in the slow cooker for awhile?

What about gas barbecues, used for meals besides hamburgers? Pressure cookers? Small electric appliances like griddles? Ancient and contemporary methods of retained-heat cooking? Alternative fuels? Carburetor cooking? It's enough to make my head spin, and until someone comes up with a definitive answer, like a precise chart of the most-to-least expensive ways to bake a potato (is there one?), I think all we can do is guess. And watch our electric bills like hawks, especially any time we plug in a new appliance.

Here are a few thoughts and possibilities from past and present:

1. We can learn from history, from other cultures and situations where fuel has been in short supply. The late Mary Leggewie of contributed a simple idea to one of the Tightwad Gazette books, that she learned from an East Indian neighbour: when cooking pasta, bring it to a boil, cover, and turn off the heat. Stir occasionally; the pasta should be done in about twenty minutes (check it). The book Cooking Under Pressure, by Lorna J. Sass, says that her mother brought their first pressure cooker back from India, where she saw it being used to cook curries and save fuel. In places such as Tibet where people eat a lot of soup and porridge (and have to deal with high altitudes), Thermos methods are often used. The book Living More
with Less (companion to The More-With-Less Cookbook) contains suggestions about fire less cooking methods such as holes dug in the ground, and interest in heat-retention cooking has gained popularity with international aid projects. Fireless cookers were also used and widely written about during and just after World War I, when there were severe fuel shortages.

2. Another change-of-habit idea that I remember reading about, probably in one of the More-With-Less books, is cooking less often, reheating more often. (Again, this seems to hit stay-at-home families the worst, since if the adults are all out working and the kids are eating at school, it's less of a problem.) This is similar to the idea of big-batch cooking and baking; if you can keep the cooked food refrigerated or frozen, you can save fuel, time, money, and cleanup by just having to heat it through again. One source of inspiration in this area might be the traditions of groups who don't cook on Sabbaths or other holidays; there are Jewish specialties, for example, that were created to be served at room temperature. If times get really tough, we might have to designate one day as a cooking day, one as a heat-and-eat day. Or go back to the days of a cooked midday meal and a simple cold (or quickly heated) supper.

3. Like it or not, we may have to change certain things we like to eat, or that are most economical in a long-cooking form. An example would be hot cereal in a whole-grain vs. large-flake vs. "quick" form. Another might be the use of canned beans. We will need to pay special attention to tricks that decrease cooking time, such as pre-soaking dried beans. I've read that pre-soaking and then freezing beans decreases the cooking time even more, but I haven't tried that. I do cook two cups of dried beans at a time in the pressure cooker, and then freeze them.

4. We may have to consider eating more foods that just don't require cooking at all, that can be eaten straight from the can, the package, or in their fresh form; or that can be prepared by combining them with hot water. Muesli, anyone?

5. While we may resent having to change food and cooking habits that have become second nature to us, especially when those habits have made us feel accomplished, food savvy, and even self-righteous, there's a point where we have to do the math and admit defeat. We have been privileged in the past century, in North America, to be able to cook as extensively as we have in our own kitchens. In times past, low-income families were often not able to afford enough cooking fuel to run their own ovens or cook large cuts of meat; that's how bakeries and the Victorian idea of "bake-houses" came into being. (People took their Sunday dinners to a central place to be baked; that's what the Cratchits were doing in A Christmas Carol.) In a time of change, we are just going to have to adjust and make the best of it; we have to do our best to feed our families as economically and nutritiously as possible.

What are your thoughts?

Mama Squirrel is a longtime homeschooler who likes to bake her own treats but gets bummed out by the realities of rising energy costs. She blogs at Dewey’s Treehouse.


Diane said...

I think this is all great stuff to think about. Being mindful of our energy use is definitely a good thing.

That said, it doesn't cost anywhere near $5 to run an oven for half an hour. Maybe $0.50 for an hour, if that. A slow cooker is pennies per hour of use, depending on local electric rates.

The ideas for conserving energy while cooking are great, though. My dad always used the heat then let sit method for cooking pasta when I was growing up, and it definitely works! It just takes a little longer, but usually you're doing other things at the same time, so it doesn't really matter anyway.

And we "bake" our potatoes in the microwave because its fast and easy. :)

Anonymous said...

Where I live is right outside the smoky mountains and there is a motel
at Mt. Leconte that does not have any electric and they do overnight stays.

I often look at what they are doing to get ideas for our family of 9 because the electric does get to be a bit much at times.

Making your own is still the way to go, that way you know what is in what you are making.

I blog at glossymoney
we are a couple in our 60's so we remember when things were different and we have raised children in this recession and in the 80's as well.

Mama Squirrel said...


Part of the cost discrepancy may be simply where we live (Ontario); energy costs have risen a great deal here. But even so it's very confusing. An interactive government site that's supposed to show us how much typical uses cost us (for example, baking a pan of brownies or a roast chicken) quotes somewhere between thirty and fifty cents as well. However, there's an almost hundred percent markup on this because of extra charges. Looking at the actual bill, it seems that it's costing even more. Perhaps the website is a bit too optimistic.

I'm glad that some of you live where electricity is still reasonable!

Pounds4Pennies said...

We try not too cook too much during the summer months. My husband will cook on the weekend out side on his pit. We will freeze the cooked meat and have cold chicken salad and other cold meals.

During the winter I think it is better to cook, bake and use the crock pot. I leave the oven open to allow the heat to fill the room. And the same with the dishwasher. At least our heater will not cut on. Saving on heating costs through out the house.