Make the Bread, Buy the Butter // by Jennifer Reese

//published 2011//

This was another nonfiction read that had been on my radar for a while, and after thoroughly enjoying Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, I decided to try another not-exactly-cookbook. Make the Bread, Buy the Butter was entertaining and informative, and I ended up purchasing my own copy to add to my collection so that I can try out some of Reese’s recipes.

Reese introduces her book by saying that a while back, she lost her job. And even though her husband was still making good money and they weren’t going to be destitute or anything, her immediate thought was wondering how she could save money. Her thoughts went towards her grocery budget. So much money spent on food every month! Couldn’t she save a lot of money if she started making things from scratch instead of purchasing them ready-made? After all, now she had plenty of time on her hands!

But as she began her experiments, she realized that sometimes store-bought really is better – and cheaper – than homemade. And so this book was born, as she writes about her various attempts at home-making just about everything, telling her readers which things are worth the effort and which things aren’t.

Reese analyzes her results on quality, expense, and hassle. She summarizes her experiments with the recipe, and then says whether she thinks it’s worth making it, or if you should buy it. She also tells you how much hassle it’s going to be if you decide to try and make it yourself. For instance, when talking about bread she says that it’s fairly easy, but it’s also easy to get carried away –

For a while I felt I should bake all our bread – that it was spendthrift and lazy not to. I didn’t want my husband to buy bread, even when we ran out, and I got snippy when he did. But I also got snippy when he’d remind me that we were running out of bread – I felt like I was being nagged to put on my apron. I think everyone in my family is glad I’ve stopped wearing that particular hair shirt. Homemade bread is better but still: it’s just bread.

She goes on to say that bread is worth making it and lists the hassle level as “Can you stir? You can make this bread.”

Another great example was the comparison between hot dog and hamburger buns. She says she spontaneously tried a recipe for hot dog buns one day and even though they were “lopsided and lumpish” when they came out of the oven, they tasted delicious. Reese said that as she was eating them –

I found myself reflecting on how bad most hot dog buns are. How we take for granted their badness, how inured we are to their badness. How I always throw away what’s left after the last bite of hot dog because the bread has the texture of foam rubber.

And so, hot dog buns fell into the “make” category. But then –

Because hot dog buns were such a revelation, I assumed the same would be true of hamburger buns. This didn’t turn out to be so. In my experience, homemade hamburger buns are always too stiff and substantial, not fluffy enough. Here’s the issue: Unlike hot dogs, hamburgers are sloppy and effusive and you need a bun to work as both a sponge to soak up juices and a mitt to hold the hamburger itself. While I can bake a really outstanding mitt, it never quite doubles as a sponge. I have to hand it to Big Food: it has mastered the spongy bread.

I think that that’s one of the big reasons that I enjoyed this book – in many cases, Reese concluded that making something yourself actually wasn’t worth it, and instead of beating yourself up trying to find the perfect hamburger bun recipe, you should just embrace the fact that they aren’t that expensive to buy at the grocery.

In addition to experimenting with cooking, Reese looked at sourcing her food closer to home as well – her chapters about raising chickens, goats, turkeys, ducks, and a garden were all entertaining, honest, and useful. Her conclusion that raising your own chickens genuinely is not a money-saving proposition was completely genuine, especially when she said that she now keeps the chickens because she likes them, and the eggs are a bonus.

Throughout, Reese writes as though she’s sitting across the kitchen table from you, chatting about her life experiences. Her husband and children frequently flit through the stories as individuals who have to endure her experiments and are sometimes rather snarky about it.

I ended up with a long list of possibilities I wanted to try from this book, including making my own cream cheese and vanilla extract, hot dog buns and tortillas, whipped cream and graham crackers – and several more. This fall has been (as I may have mentioned) a bit insane, so I haven’t had time to try any of these yet, but I’m hopefully that I’ll get to some of them this winter. I’ve been making bread for us every week already (even before I read this book) and would love to find a few more homemade recipes that, once I knew what I was doing with them, wouldn’t be too much hassle to keep in the regular rotation.

All in all, I definitely recommend this one. It was easy to read and felt very accessible. Reese made me feel better about the fact that I don’t make everything from scratch even while she encouraged me to try making things from scratch that I’d never considered before. An unexpectedly fun and engaging read.