Supper for a buck?

dinner for a buck

Recently someone asked me how much it cost us to make a loaf of no-knead bread. I had no idea, but was intrigued by the question, so I went home and did the math on the flour.

We buy our flour in bulk from fine company called Central Milling through the Los Angeles Bread Baker’s Club. A 50lb bag of general purpose flour costs $30.00. This works out less per pound than the cheap-0 flour at the supermarket. We actually go through so much flour that it works for us to buy in those quantities, but of course it is also possible to buy flour in bulk and split it with a friend or two.

A loaf of no-knead bread contains the following ingredients: 400 grams of flour, 300 grams of water,  1 1/2 teaspoons of sea salt and, depending on the recipe, either 1/4 teaspoon of active yeast or a bit of sourdough starter. I figured out the cost for the flour (bulk purchased from Central Milling) comes to 52 cents a loaf.

If I were a little more persistent, I could go on and figure out how many more pennies  the salt costs, and yeast or, alternatively, the small amount of extra flour needed for the sourdough starter. But how do you calculate starter costs, since it involves constant feeding over time? And what about energy costs to run the oven? Or the investment in the Dutch oven we use to bake the bread, amortized over time?  This way lies madness.

[Note: I have gone a little mad so I just figured out that there are 636 1/4 teaspoon measures in 1 pound of active dried yeast. 636 theoretical loaves. Problem is I don't know how exactly much we pay per pound of yeast.  We buy it in vacuum-packed 1 lb bags for about 4 or 5 dollars, I think. In any case, yeast costs are less than a penny a loaf.]

Suffice it to say our bread doesn’t cost much. 75 cents per loaf would be an overly generous estimation. And it’s crusty, chewy, beautiful and delicious. Here in LA, I would expect to pay $6.00 to $8.00 for a fresh loaf like this at an artisinal bakery. It’s even cheaper than crappy supermarket bread.

That same night–the night of the question and the math–we had a simple meal:  a loaf of this bread, a bowl of beans and a salad from the garden. It was really good and satisfying, and I realized, also very cheap.

Dried beans run about $1.50 a pound where we shop. One pound of dry beans makes about 6 cups of cooked beans. That’s a lot of food. I’m not going to try to do the math and add up the costs of the onion and herbs and olive oil I add to the beans. And I surely don’t have the patience to figure out the cost of the salad from our garden (do I have to figure in the mortgage?), but I do know that around this time of year I could forage a salad for free from the spring weeds.

But for the sake of a sensationalist headline, I’m ballparking our supper for two at about a dollar. It may have been more than a dollar when all the little things are added up–but I honestly think two dollars would be too much.

We had one thick slice of bread each, and roughly a cup of cooked beans per person–that’s 25 cents worth of beans for each of us. I’m just not figuring the cost of the salad because, 1) it was just a handful of leaves 2) I could forage it, and 3) plenty of the salad plants in our yard are volunteers anyway.

It sounds Spartan, but the beans were really good, silky and filling, and the salad had little flowers from our arugula and mustard plants. The bread sopped up the juice in the bottom of the bowl. It was enough. It was a good way to end the day–not too heavy, and easy to pull together. Cheap eating can be good eating.

I’m going to post about my most recent bean obsession soon –because as we all know, beans are the key to cheap eating– soon as I can remember to take pictures while I cook.

And believe me, I’m on Erik to do a bread-making video. It will come.

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16 Comments

  1. Love this post- esp after listening to an NPR story this morning about how important the time between school and bedtime is for a family/childs health. Parents were complaining about how hard it is to prepare healthy meals and how expensive healthy foods were. It was upsetting to hear, if they only realized healthy meals can be simple, tasty- and for only a buck if you’re lucky! Thanks for this post- a nice reminder!

    • I listened to the same NPR story this morning … and jeeze! One of the people noted that they can either feed a meal for $1 a box or get bananas for $1. I would’ve gone for the bananas on two points: it’s healthy and it’s not a one-meal stop. There seems to be a disconnect! 6 cups of beans for $1.50 is a multitude of meals.

  2. I’d have blown the dollar-wise budget on this beautiful, frugal meal with lots of freshly grated parmesan atop the beans, a homemade-in-the-bowl basil shallot vinaigrette, and a glass of Pinot Grigio. On the other hand, having saved significantly on my healthy dinner, perhaps I would have a few dollars available for cheese and wine. Best wishes!

    • I understand– We consider good Parmesean a staple, but it ain’t cheap! But, like you, I rationalize it and other luxuries by pointing to my cost savings in other areas.

    • For me, the thing about good Parmesan is that it doesn’t take much to add flavor. In the long run it’s probably cheaper than eating a block of Velveeta.

  3. Oh it looks divine. I grew up with a mother who knew how to cook beans deliciously and it has always been one of my favorite meals. Please share your recipe. And I, too, missed your Bean Friday posts. We also need the recipe/video for the no knead bread.

  4. I think it’s sad that our culture, in general, no longer values meals like this. Many Americans might even feel it is lacking somehow, or not healthy, because it’s only beans, bread and greens. Yet it’s healthier than 99 percent of fast food, restaurant or frozen meals which many people eat as staples of their diet. No, most Americans expect more from their dinner — and we have the health problems and obesity to prove it.

  5. Thank you all for your comments! I agree– eating cheap doesn’t have to be hard, or time consuming. It just takes planning, and maybe a bit of a change of mind-set.

    I will definitely post a bean how-to — I’ll document the next time I make beans, which should be within a few days.

    The soup is actually just beans in their cooking juice. I know there’s a fine line between that and soup, but that day I’d made a big pot of beans and offloaded most of them into glass jars. The liquid and the beans at the bottom of the cooking pot became our supper. I’ve become a big fan of this sort of accidental soup.

    And Erik swears the bread video is next.

  6. If I only knew if these weeds in my yard were edible, I would eat them! I like plain beans so much that I don’t even put salt in them. However, I get no takers on this, except for exbf who finally quit salting his beans. Do you put any kind of dressing on the salad? The reason I ask–the nutrients in greens are more accessible to the body if there is some sort of oil/fat with them. I don’t mind my greens without dressing, however. You have made me consider how cheaply I can eat well.

    • Ha! You caught us out. The salad isn’t dressed because we weren’t ready to eat, but had to take the photo while it was still light. Ah, the problems of the blogger! You can’t imagine how often we’ve eaten something and then said – “Oops! Should have photographed that!” So after the picture was taken I dumped the soup back in the pot. The salad was dressed later, when we sat down. But this is really what we ate that night.

      I’ve heard of other folks who like beans w/o salt. Some beans are just really, really good and probably don’t need it if cooked properly. Fresher beans, especially.

  7. this is too funny. we love bean soup and all of its variations.When i was growing up, we had many dinners straight out of the garden, big salads, or a cucumber and tomato, with a scoop of cottage cheese. Delicious and good for you doesnt have to be expensive.

  8. We eat lots of beans…mostly pintos, but we’re starting to branch out. Last night, in fact, we had some pints with a few pieces of bacon chopped up into the pot to simmer in. It was paired with some blue corn corn bread and it was delicious. We probably topped out above you $1 mark, but it was delicious and cheap, none-the-less. Love that this is such a hot topic! And, yes, Erik’s video is anxiously anticipated ;-)

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