Thursday, February 24, 2011

Baking Bread Saves Dough

How much does a loaf of homemade bread cost?

I'm just going to get right down to it; I'm going to compare the cost of a recent bread recipe I made with the loaf of bread I used to buy from Trader Joe's: Soft Whole Wheat for $2.49. All my calculations will round up since we're dealing with money, and the prices are taken from the shelves at Fred Meyer in February of 2011. No need to fear if math isn't your thing - I've done all the calculations. Breathe deeply, and continue.

This receipt from Trader Joe's is dated from 11.13.2010, and to note, even bread from the "natural grocer" contains some suspect ingredients, such as the ambiguous "dough conditioners." 

Let's take the ingredients from this recipe that yields 4 loaves.

3 cups warm water 
1½ Tbs active dry yeast
1½ Tbs salt 
3 cups unbleached white bread flour
3 cups whole wheat flour
½ cup rye flour 
1 Tbs vital wheat gluten 

I'll start with 3 cups of warm water from the tap; well, our landlord pays the water bill, so it's free. $0.00 for tap water. Even if you pay the water bill it costs less than a penny for tap water. 

For the flour I used this conversion tool and found that 1 pound of flour is roughly 4 cups. Therefore, a 5 pound bag has about 20 cups of flour. At $3.57 per 5 pound bag (the white and whole wheat were the same price) the cost is $0.18 per cup. For the 6 cups of flour this recipe calls for, total cost is $1.08. 

I measured this one out because I didn't trust what the online conversion tools were telling me - and it was a good thing I did! For this 4oz jar I measured out 10 tablespoons of yeast. Therefore, for 1½ Tablespoons active dry yeast the cost is $0.73 per Tablespoon, or $1.09 for this recipe. 

Using this conversion tool (I didn't want to measure out over a pound of salt!) I found that 26oz of salt is equal to about 49 Tablespoons. That is $0.02 per Tablespoon, or $0.04 for our recipe.

This 22oz bag of vital wheat gluten flour converted to Tablespoons is equal to nearly 80 Tablespoons. At $6.99 per bag that is $0.09 per Tablespoon. 

I forgot to take a picture of this in the store, but online from Bob's Red Mill you can buy a 6 pound bag of dark rye flour for $11.66. 6 pounds of rye flour converts to nearly 27 cups of flour. That's $0.43 per cup, so half a cup would be about $0.22

So, let's do the math (don't groan, I'm doing it for you):

Water                             $0.00
Flour                              $1.08
Yeast                               $1.09
Salt                                 $0.04
Vital Wheat Gluten        $0.09
Rye flour                       +$0.22
                                        $2.52 / 4 loaves = 
$0.63 per loaf!!!

Another question we could pose, then, is why does store-bough bread cost so much? (And $2.49 is very middle of the road - there are loaves out there for $.99 and some organic loaves as much as $4 or $5). 

With store-bought bread you also have to consider production, transportation, that lovely plastic bag it comes in, and the mark-up for profit. When you look at it from that point of view baking your own bread really is a radical act of environmentalism. When you bake it at home the only energy it uses is you mixing it and the oven to bake it. In contrast, consider the energy of a factory style bread making facility, the petroleum inputs for the transportation and the production of that plastic bag. 

Therefore, homemade bread should be carbon neutral, especially if the electricity or gas you purchase comes from renewable resources. 50% of the power Ross and I purchase comes from renewable energy sources through the Green Power Program from PSE

My conclusions: 

Cost: homemade bread < store-bought bread
Environmental Impact: homemade bread < store-bought bread
Taste: homemade bread > store-bought bread  

Ok, the last conclusion is anecdotal, but I'm never going back to buying bread. And after nearly two months of homemade bread I found Ross grumbling about some store-bought bread he was offered the other night. Just sayin' is all.

Update: A few comments from my ravid readers (I've always wanted to use that phrase since Rita Skeeter used it in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire) have asked "well what about this?" and "what about that?" I suppose there many more things to think about concerning the TRUE cost of bread. How much of my rent goes to pay for water? How much does the electricity cost to heat the oven? What about the environmental impact of transporting the different ingredients to the store? GOOD QUESTIONS.

And then I kept thinking them up - how much does it cost to get hot water out of the tap? What percentage of the cost of the yeast is for the jar? (Good tip from my cousin-in-law Blake; buy yeast in "bulk" and reuse the jar!) What's the environmental impact of the bags the flour comes in? What are the environmental implications of how the wheat was grown and harvested and milled? What farm(s) does the flour come from? How were the workers treated along the way? I could keep going...

Is it actually possible for me to figure out all these extra costs and impacts? It's just mind boggling. I will have to investigate further. And if you want to know the true cost and impacts of your bread - do some investigating yourself. And then comment and share what you have discovered, me myself and I would love to know.  

Until then - happy baking! 


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Dude, that's a lot of math. I'm really glad you did this; it's great to see just how much prices are inflated, and just how easy and how much healthier it is to cook at home.