Sunday, January 8, 2012

Make or Buy?

January 8, 2012
Hot dogs, with homemade buns
Dont Sleep on Boston Baked Beans
Steak fries
Brownies with Ben & Jerry's Chocolate Gorge
Pyramid Breweries Snow Camp Winter Warmer

Businesses face make or buy decisions every day. Should our software engineers design, build, and maintain a computer program needed to run the business, or should we pay a vendor to provide the solution to our problem? There are advantages and disadvantages to both approaches and it can be a difficult decision to make.

Home cooks regularly face the same decision. Should I invest the time and energy needed to prepare something from scratch or should I buy the same thing at the supermarket or take-out joint and pop it in the microwave oven? Preparing from scratch usually leads to better tasting and much healthier food but at the expense of time, time that we don't always have in abundance. Cost can  also be a factor: some things will cost less money to make yourself, others will cost more. For me, since I cook because I enjoy it, and mostly on the weekend, preparing food from scratch is really the whole point, though I do have my limits! I may elect to make some items on my menu from scratch but purchase others. I often come across recipes where I have to doubt that the time and effort are not justified by the expected result.

I recently listened to an interview of Jennifer Reese on NPR. Jennifer has explored this issue in a new book, Make the Bread, Buy the Butter. It contains over 120 recipes for items that you may, or may not, have considered making at home. For each there is not only a comparison of the cost of store-bought and home-made goods, but also a "hassle factor" evaluating how much trouble it is to make the item yourself. The book includes a handy table which recommends what you should buy (e.g. hamburger buns, hot dogs, burritos), things you should make (e.g. hot dog buns, dill pickles, yogurt) and things you can do either way (applesauce, mayonnaise, graham crackers). The article on the NPR web site  includes, in addition to the radio interview, three of her recipes: Marshmallows, Hot Dog Buns, and Worcestershire Sauce.

My menu this week has a mixture of homemade and store-bought items. I was intrigued to try making my own Hot Dog Buns so I printed a copy of Jennifer's recipe to try out.

However, the main course was not the hot dogs, rather it was the Boston Baked Beans. I make these at least once a year, usually in the winter. I love to eat baked beans and sometimes open a can to have for a weekend lunch. They're so hearty that I think of the beans as the main course for any meal where they are served. The hot dog or hamburger that is also provided is a side dish complementing the beans. 

I have tried several recipes for this classic American dish but I have yet to settle on one that is my favorite. Chef John from Food Wishes published his recipe recently so I gave it a try. I bought 1 lb of navy beans at Whole Foods; they're not available at our local Lucky Supermarket. I soaked them overnight, and then some, as I didn't start cooking until early afternoon. Since both the hot dog buns, fries, and brownies also required the oven I wanted to get the beans done early. The recipe did not provide specific times for baking the beans, just approximations. I cooked them for 2½ hours covered at 300° and then 1 hour uncovered at 350°. To keep them warm while the other items cooked I placed them on the stove on low. I should have watched them more closely as they dried out, but didn't burn, and the "sauce" was lost. They were good, but I think I will need to continue searching for that perfect baked bean recipe. Perhaps I should try some that are not from Boston. If you have a favorite I'd love to hear about it. 

Next: make the hot dog buns. I made the dough when the beans had been in the oven for two hours. The procedure couldn't be much simpler. You put all of the ingredients into the bowl of a stand mixer, mix them using the dough hook until a smooth dough results, let the dough rise until doubled, make buns, raise again, and bake.  The dough used a mixture of all purpose and whole wheat flour which was a promising start as I anticipated the extra flavor the whole wheat flour would provide. 

After mixing I found the dough  to be very wet and sticky, so wet that it would be almost impossible to work with. I mixed in an additional ¼ cup of flour. It was still sticky but improved. The extra mixing could led to the development of more gluten and thus tougher, chewier buns. I found myself wishing that the recipe provided more guidance on how long the dough should be kneaded and how wet it should be. Perhaps the initial wet, sticky dough was the expected result. 

After the dough rose I turned it out onto a well floured counter as it was still sticky. However, after coating it well with flour, I found it was easy to work with. I used my bench scraper to divide the dough as well as I could into 12 pieces The recipe calls for 10 but it's much easier to divide something into twelfths than it is to divide it into tenths. I shaped them as best I could and set them on the top of the stove (warmed by the heat from the oven) to rise. Dividing and shaping were the most problematic parts of the procedure for me. I ended up with buns of various sizes and shapes, not quite what we're used to from a lifetime of uniform store bought buns. They did taste good and had more texture and flavor than store-bought. We had Ball Park Brand Bun Size Franks which I cooked outdoors on the gas grill. The all important bun-to-dog ratio worked out OK with the buns I selected which were among the larger ones in the batch. The rest were put in the freezer to have on another day.

I served French Fries, frozen ones that I reheated in the oven. Deep frying is a topic for another day.

I found a recipe for flourless brownies on the Whole Foods web site. I was thinking they would be rich and extra chocolatey but I should have been thinking they would be healthy and gluten free considering the source or the recipe. They have one very odd ingredient, for brownies: a can of black beans, They were very easy to make. The beans were drained and rinsed and then added to the bowl of a food processor along with the other ingredients. (I ignored the "gluten-free" specifications for some of the other ingredients, just using what we had on hand. Does vanilla extract really come in a gluten-free form?) A few seconds of processing provided a smooth batter to which some chopped walnuts and chocolate chips were added before baking. The brownies, served with a little ice cream, turned out to be very good. If you think about it you can taste the beans but unless someone told you they were there you probably wouldn't taste them. The brownies were certainly superior and much more chocolatey than anything you would make from a box and they took no more effort.

So for this menu, make or buy? I am not tempted to make hot dogs, so buy. Baked beans as the main course of a meal have to be made. The buns: I don't know. They were good but I'm not convinced they were worth it, especially given the difficulty I had  dividing and shaping the dough. I am tempted to look up the original King Arthur's recipe they are based on to see if it provides more detail. Finally, the brownies: there is no question these should be made from scratch and this recipe is something I would use again. The whipped cream served as part of dessert came from a can, I can't remember the last time I made my own. I've tried making my own ice cream on several occasions but I've never been happy with the results.



  1. Homemade whipped cream is so easy and so much better. Mom always put the metal bowl and mixing blades into the frig to chill. Then just pour the heavy cream into the chilled bowl when you're ready, add some granulated sugar (to taste) and beat it until it's stiff. Easy as pie! Or brownie! Or whatever!

  2. P. S. Love the glass, BoilerMaker buddy!

  3. I have used a black bean powder in brownies, though for shelf life reasons rather than gluten free. They came out well. How hard was it to work with as canned beans?

    Hot dogs are a pain to make. Sausages in general are fun to do and not that difficult. There is an attachment for the kitchenaid that goes with the grinder (which I know is around there somewhere!).

  4. I usually use only a small amount of whipped cream at a time. I put some on my hot chocolate when I have it for breakfast or serve it with dessert, like with the brownies. In either case I'm using only a small amount and elect the convenience of having the can always available in the refrigerator. I should make it more often, though, for Sunday dinner desserts.

  5. I had Team DeFrees in mind when I picked out this glass. :-)

  6. I don't recall seeing black bean powder in the store, but then I've never looked. Is it fairly common or only available for commercial producers? How many applications are there for it?

    The canned beans were easy to work with in this recipe. Open the can, drain and rinse the beans, put them in the food processor with the other ingredients, push the button.

    We have the grinder attachment for the Kitchen Aid but I don't think we have the extruder for making sausages. I made a fennel orange breakfast sausage recently which turned out well. I got sausage ground pork from Whole Foods. It wasn't put into a casing but fried like a burger.

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    1. The black bean powder would be harder to find. Bob's Red Mill has it but finding a place that stocks it would be the challenge.