A Frugal Experiment: Does Making Tomato Sauce From Scratch Save Money?

red sauce 300x200 A Frugal Experiment: Does Making Tomato Sauce From Scratch Save Money?

We eat a lot of Italian-style food in our home — from lasagna and baked ziti to homemade pizza to ‘oh my gosh, it’s 5:30 and I haven’t started dinner so let’s just have plain pasta and sauce’.

For all these meals, I buy jarred sauce, because it just seems easier and quicker than making my own. (Or maybe it’s because I’m a little lazy?) But I’ve always wanted to try my hand at homemade sauce and finally decided that this week was the week!

So, on Monday morning, I sauteed up some onions, set my crock pot to high, and “cooked” the most deliciously fragrant red sauce all day long. I was curious to see whether it would (a) taste noticeably better than our beloved Barilla or Newman’s Own and (b) save me enough $ to make the time worthwhile. This $/time balance is always a question when it comes to frugality, so I was really eager to see how it would turn out.

Here’s what I learned:

The Taste Test

Did the sauce pass the test? YES! It was incredible. Amazing. So amazing that my 5 yo, who routinely complains that he doesn’t like tomato sauce, ate it enthusiastically.

Plus, I felt really good knowing exactly what was in my sauce, and that there were zero preservatives or artificial what-not’s. This sauce was just herbs, onions, and crushed tomatoes. Okay, okay, and a pinch of Osem’s MSG-free pareve chicken soup mix. (Which, by the way, I have friends or family bring over from Israel for me. All the soup mix I’ve found in the U.S. has MSG in it. Anyone have a source for the MSG-free kind this side of the Atlantic?)

The Cost Test

Was my slow cooker sauce cheaper than the jarred variety? Ummmm, maybe.

I made about 10 cups worth of sauce. We ate freely the first night and then I had enough left over to freeze four ziploc baggies worth of 2.5 cups each. This is about how much is in a glass jar of sauce. So, for the sake of simplicity, let’s say I made five jars worth of sauce.

IMG 4831 300x200 A Frugal Experiment: Does Making Tomato Sauce From Scratch Save Money?

To make the sauce, I used a gigantic can (was it 8 lbs?) of crushed tomatoes from Costco, which cost less than $3. I also used 2 large onions, which cost no more than $.50 since I buy my onions on sale. I used dried herbs and garlic powder, so my cost on those was seriously nominal, but for the sake of this comparison, let’s call is $.30 worth.

So, altogether, the ingredients for the homemade sauce cost me under $4 for what would be 5 jars of sauce. With a sale and coupon, I would probably be able to pay around $1.25 – $1.50 per jar, or $7ish for 5 jars. If I’m being generous, I’d say that this crock pot of sauce cost me half what the equivalent of store bought would be.

But that doesn’t take into account the cost of running my crock pot all day (I cooked this for about 7 hours on high). I initially assumed that it would be pennies, but a recent post on Cooking Manager about the surprisingly high cost of operating slow cookers caused me to dig a little deeper. A few quick Swagbuck searches and I’m more confused than ever. For every article that says it’s a money saver, there’s another that says it uses as many kilwatts/hour as the oven. I’m still not sure, but if I take the more conservative estimate, we’re probably talking about a couple of dollars in energy costs to make these 5 jars worth of sauce.

Which means, at the end of the day, that this delicious crock full of good-and-good for you red sauce may not have saved me very much at all over the store-bought alternative.

Even still, my conclusion is that frugal or not, homemade is worth it!

As long as it’s not costing me MORE money than buying jars of sauce, I’m going to stick to making my own. The taste difference alone is more than worth it. Plus, the added value of knowing exactly what’s in my sauce is truly priceless!

Are you a cook from scratch kinda chef? Have you done the calculations to determine whether scratch really saves over store-bought? Stay tuned for more frugal experiments (granola bars, bread, cookies, ricotta cheese) here at KOAB. And if you have some of your own, I’d love to hear about them!

P.S. If you want the recipe to enjoy this deliciousness yourself, I borrowed Jessica’s (aka Life as Mom’s.) Check it out here!

Comments

comments

Comments

  1. Plus, how can you put a money-value on how good the house smelled all day?

    PRICELESS!

  2. I’ve never had great success with making my own sauce.
    you used a big can of tomatoes, 2 onions (sauteed), and some dried herbs? really? that was it?

    I might have to hit my restaurant supply store for a can of tomatoes.

  3. I am partial to that particular recipe. ;) I don’t count energy costs, not sure why. Good thinking. But, taste holds a lot of sway with me. :)

    • And that taste… oh boy! You did good with this one. It was hard to imagine how so few ingredients could taste so good, but they do!!

    • Also one cost many of us Mom’s miss is the cost to wash the dishes and counter tops etc. Did you use a penny of dish soap are you putting more in your dish washer ? All of this adds to the cost those plastic ziplocs will you reuse them or are they just for this project?

  4. Better than Buillon is not a soup mix but it is the only broth/bouillon I’ve found that is MSG free. I find it at groceries all over – it’s in a little round jar next to the the Welch’s cubes.

    From what I understand, 24 hours of cooking in a slow cooker = 1 hour of cooking in the oven, going by kilowatt hours. Which makes sense because you are heating a much smaller space and the slow cooker is better insulated than the over.

    • Thanks, Milehimma. I’m afraid the Better than Buillon isn’t kosher, which rules it out for me (and prob a lot of my readers), but interesting to know that even the non-kosher brands have MSG. I guess I’ll keep “importing” from Israel!

      I’d always thought that about the slow cooker, too, but it seems that some information out there says it’s actually as energy-efficient (or inefficient) as your oven. I’m so confused!

      • I use my crockpot (or, I did before I broke it :)to solve the MSG chicken stock issue, too. My son can’t eat MSG.

        So after we have chicken, I throw the bones in the crockpot with whatever odds and ends of vegetables I have, fill with water, and cook on low overnight. Next morning strain, then freeze in ice cube trays or muffin tins. A muffin tin holds 1/2 a cup.

      • There actually is a kosher Better than Bouillon chicken flavor, but I typically only find it around Pesach time. I’m not sure whether it’s pareve though, if that’s a concern.

        Other pareve ideas would include Herbamare (sea salt and herbs) or Rapunzel’s vegan bouillon cubes with herbs.

        I really hate how many kosher companies use msg and trans fats in their products. Why can’t it food be kosher and healthy?!

  5. I did an experiment similiar only I made apple pie filling. http://easyfrugalliving.blogspot.com/2010/10/preserving-apples-freezing-apple-pie.html I didn’t use my crockpot, it was cooked on stove. I also wonder when I use my crockpot the real cost of elec. Like today, I’ve had chicken in crockpot for 6 hours.

    The only other way I see that the cost of your sauce could be trimmed was if you grew your own tomatoes. Then again, if it’s a dry year and the tomatoes need a lot of watering, do you really save money??? lol There are so many variables, I give up. My family and I love home grown/preserved/cooked food and I can control what goes into it. So even if it costs a little less, we feel it’s worth it.

    • @Lisa B — love that apple pie filling. I’ve got about 15 lbs of apples in my basement storage room just begging to be made into filling! I hear you on all the variables… plus, I just realized that I didn’t count the cost of gas to drive to the store to get the jarred sauce. Of course, then I’d have to divide that cost by however many items I bought. Oh well! I agree with you home cooked is worth it if I can make it work!

  6. I just did a quick calculation on my challah recipe. It’s something like $7.50 (I did estimate) to make 8 loaves (a 5 lb. bag of flour’s worth), based on prices where I am (a big city, so probably higher than elsewhere- but on the other hand, I walk to and from the grocery store, so no gas costs). That buys you about 2 loaves at the store. Mine are a little smaller, but still, even making larger loaves, that would still be 5 or 6 for the price of 2- definitely financially worthwhile, and so much fun, too.

    • Thanks for commenting, Maya — that comparison is helpful! Our challot in the store are $5-6 EACH. That’s what motivated us to start making our own. I agree that the loaves are so much better – and less expensive – when homemade.

  7. I’m going to try making the tomato sauce. We also go through A LOT of it. I’ll let you know how we like it.

  8. About crockpot power, if it helps we blew a fuse when we used our blech and crockpot apartment in Israel. We had the meter in our apartment and it used to fly when we used the crock pot.

  9. I sometimes make yogurt from scratch. This is very, very easy and makes yogurt free from all those additives that come in the inexpensive yogurt at the store. I haven’t done a cost analysis but here are some numbers:
    Store bought: the cheapest I can buy at regular price is $1.59 for 24 oz (at Aldi)
    Homemade: 1/2 gal milk + 1/4c store bought yogurt (or leftover homemade) makes between 1.5 and 1.75 qts yogurt. You can also save the whey to sub for buttermilk in recipes.

    • Thanks Rivka. I’ve researched making my own, but haven’t taken the plunge yet. Sounds like I’ve got a new frugal experiment for myself :) Do you sweeten yours w/ honey or fruit? I understand that taste takes some getting used to if you’re accustomed to store-bought.

      • We sweeten with fruit or some vanilla extract – basically the kids add what they like, but I like it plain or with granola on top. The taste and consistency change with the amount of time that you let it “cook.”

      • We sweeten with honey, or homemade freezer jam, or sugar and vanilla. If you sweeten it, and use whole milk, it’s way better than store bought. With a good start (you can carry over starts a few times, but then you need to buy a fresh one), and keeping the temp. between 110 and 120 F for 8 hours, you can consistently get a good thick yogurt. You could drain it, but we don’t. Also, I’ve read that if you’re using skim milk, you can add 1/4 cup dry milk powder to each quart, before culturing, to thicken it. Now that we’ve been doing our own for a while, I don’t even like the store bought any more. It tastes so starchy. I just make mine in wide mouth mason jars with plastic lids, submerged to the necks in a pan of hot water, with a probe thermometer. I can make four quarts in my stockpot, or seven in my boiling water bath. $1.68/gallon for milk, plus 1 rounded Tbsp. of start per quart = about $.43/quart for yogurt. Very cheap and easy, and so good!

        • We make our own yogurt! I bought a dairy crockpot just for this purpose. Now I’m so reluctant to buy from the store….I use the Crockpot Lady’s recipe and it is so ridiculously easy….and I even bought a special bag from Amazon to thicken it and that’s it! I have my own yogurt/cream cheese/sour cream substitute whenever I want it!!
          (it also helps that we buy the marked-down Horizon Organic milk – when the store marks it down from the reg price to about $2 just before the sell-by date…the milk is totally fine and it’s organic and the recipe calls for half-a-gallon so it’s a win/win/win all around!!)

  10. It looks delicious, and thank you for the calculations.

    I am a semi-homemade cook. It all depends on my mood and the time available.

    I would like to invite you to the Fantastic Frugal Fridays blog party . It is a great place to link up your frugal posts of all kinds, and connect with new frugal friends.

  11. B”H
    Here’s a really easy, cheap and quick sauce recipe. I use the hunt plain sauce. Put some olive oil in a frying pan, microplane a two cloves of garlic, as soon as it’s brown pour in the sauce (2 15 oz cans if you use the huge one add more garlic), lower the flame to low, and add the spices of your choice, I like fresh basil leaves, or oregano and of course salt and pepper, or hot pepper if it’s not for the kids. Cook for 15/20 minutes This sauce keeps in the fridge for a week.

  12. Suggestion — instead of crock pot, how about use a pressure cooker for the tomato sauce? It’s much quicker.

    I actually make my own pasta though I have to say it’s probably not much of a money-saver.

    But I never tried to figure out before.

    One batch takes 2 c flour and 3 eggs. Assuming 16 c of flour in a 5 lb bag at, say, 2.60 that’s .32 total for the flour. Assuming 1.97 for a dozen eggs (I really only have a dim recollection of what I pay for eggs), that’s .06/egg bringing the total cost to .50.

    If you buy full-price pasta at more than $1/box, that’s a pretty good savings.

    Questionable whether it’s worth the time effort — it takes 15 minutes to mix it up and crank it out plus another 5 to wash the stuff. However, it cooks in 3 to 5 minutes and tastes WAY better than the dried stuff.

    I guess we’ll keep doing it when we have time.

    We also use a *ton* of tomato sauce in our house. I haven’t thought of making it for a long time, but it sounds like it’s certainly worth trying.

  13. Another note about commercial tomato sauce — have you noticed that most of it contains corn syrup or some kind of sweetener? Yuck. Definitely worth doing without that stuff.

    tdr

  14. 4daughters says:

    I’m with Chani. When we lived in the US, jarred marinera sauce was out of our budget unless it was on an incredible sale and then we splurged. We only bought Hunt’s tomato sauce . It isn’t as fancy and but the kids loved it.

  15. I make my own red sauce. It’s a savings for me because of waste—we never eat a whole jar of purchased sauce, so it gets stuck in the fridge and spoils. I freeze my sauce in just the right amount that we will eat in one meal plus one lunch portion.

  16. I think I might try this. Thanks for the honest comparision.

  17. last summer, we went to a ‘favorite farm stand’ and bought a bushel of Roma tomatoes for cheap. We also got a half-peck of prune plums. The tomatoes ‘went for a ride in the crockpot’ and became sauce that was immediately frozen. (we’ve used that up) Crocked the plums and made ‘plum sauce’ for the freezer. Nice for chicken and “Chinese” meals.

  18. I basically use the same process as you did, but I make mine on the stove and let it simmer about 1 1/2 hours. I make too much to fit in my crockpot.
    Here’s a source for chicken soup base without MSG: http://www.penzeys.com/cgi-bin/penzeys/p-penzeyssoupbase.html

  19. You might try the frontier brand vegetarian chicken broth powder. It tastes quite good and is kosher. It’s available at our local co-op and it’s also on Amazon or directly from their site.

    http://www.frontiercoop.com/products.php?ct=dfmsb&cn=Chicken+Flavored+Broth+Powder

  20. Thanks for the review and cost comparison. You have inspired me to try my hand at this, too. I always buy the jarred sauce, and my daughter hates “the green stuff” in it. She might actually eat the homemade version. Thanks for the inspiration!

  21. UGH! I thought running the crockpot was cheap!! I wonder if it would use less energy to simmer on the stove top for 30 minutes or so. hmm….

  22. You don’t need to run the slow cooker! The only tomato sauces that really need to stew for hours are ragu’s, because the meat needs to pick up the flavor.

    Here is my Sicilian-American, Jewish-by-conversion Mama’s recipe:
    (If she says the sauce doesn’t need to cook for hours and hours, I trust her over all others!)

    heat 1-2 Tbs olive oil in a sauce pan with 3 cloves of minced garlic.
    add one 28-oz can of crushed tomatoes and half a can of water
    season with salt, pepper, dried oregano and basil, and let it cook (on the stove!) on medium heat for about 20 minutes. If you want a thicker marinara, add a small $1 can of tomato sauce (I think it’s a 6 oz can?).
    OR, for a ragu, cook it an extra 30 minutes with Morningstar Soy crumbles added with the tomato–they take on the consistency and flavor of ground beef in the red sauce, but the bonus is that you can still add grated cheese when you serve the sauce/gravy with pasta (because really, what is pasta without cheese?! blasphemy!)

    • Oooh, that looks fabulous! Thanks so much for sharing! :-) I totally agree with you on the grated parm, btw. It’s nothing without it!

  23. I know that your original post was a long time ago, and you may have found Kosher chicken soup mix since then. I don’t really know what that is, but since some of the comments recommended chicken base, I have another idea for you.
    I have a book called Miserly Meals, by Jonni McCoy. In there she has a recipe for Broth powder that she uses in place of chicken broth or bullion.
    I contains nutritional yeast, as well as bunch of spices- garlic powder, Italian seasoning, tarragon, paprika, etc..
    Anyway, I thought this may be another alternative for you. Thanks for the post on the red sauce I will be making it today.

  24. Batsheva Browd says:

    Hi Mara,
    I’m new to your site and really enjoying all the different aspects of it, Thank you!
    If you wanted to find out the cost of running your crock pot AND other appliances i would reccomend a Kill-a-Watt. they are not so expensive for your very basic ones and it will tell you how many killowats that item is using. then you simply check on your bill how much you are paying per KW keeping in mind the supply charge and the delivery portion. I found this helpful to figure out how much our air conditioning costs us to run per hour in the summer.

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