Nov 20, 2013

The Cost of DIY- is it "Worth it"?

Everywhere you look on the internet there tends to be an ongoing struggle between DIY and not.  I would guess that the pintrest DIY and Crafts category is one of the most often pinned, and on the other hand, you get sites like Pinterest you are Drunk. There are the raving fans of ideas such as the living plastic dinosaurs, versus the folks raging against The Elf on the Shelf (which was never a thing when I was little.  And if it was, there's a good chance that the elf would have gone wandering off and never found his way back through the mess that was my room...) Then there are the folks that get actively angry at people like Martha Stewart or Maria Kang for "shaming" people for what they don't do (or how Pinterest is a horrible thing that makes people feel bad about themselves).

If we ignore the category of talent and skill (which can often be a factor in these things), often it tends to boil down to time or money.  People have a limited amount of both, and use it in different ways.  But in general, there are people who spend time to save money, and there are those who will spend money to save time. When it comes to DIY, it's fairly obvious which group most of those people are in.  They are willing to spend extra time to save money on whatever it is that they are doing themselves.  And people will do anything themselves, if you look hard enough on the internet. Don't believe me?  Check out this video of a guy who built a functional Wall-E.  Just because someone has done it, or you could do it, doesn't mean that it's a good idea.

That's the problem with most DIY articles.  The person who has done it is excited about what they were able to do, and wanted to share it.  Hey, that's what I do all the time.  When there are pretty pictures, and people who talk about how easy something is, it's really easy to think "I could do that", thinking that whatever the project is, it will be easier and better than buying it.  The question is, is it really economically smart?  The cost of materials is not the only economic factor to consider when embarking on a project.  Time is money. The factors that I would recommend considering for the economy of any DIY project are as follows:
  1. Financial Outlay: This one is fairly obvious.  It is the cost of a purchased object, or the cost of all of the materials to make one.
  2. Time: What is your time worth? A tongue in cheek statistic says that Bill Gates earns more than $100 in the time it would take to bend over and pick up a $100 bill that he dropped, and there are those that argue that a stay at home mom's yearly salary would be over $100K a year if they were paid for the work that they do. If you were to take the amount of time that a project takes, and spend that time working to earn money instead, would the finished product be more or less expensive than buying it? Also, especially for those who like to multitask, is this something that requires constant attention, or does it just require time to work? (For more of an idea on this topic, this blog post delves in a little more)
  3. Quality: Sometimes you just can't beat homemade.  Whether it's clothing that provides a perfect fit, or cookies that come out "so much better" than what you can buy at the store, quality adds value.  For clothing, this could be what you make compared to a professional bespoke item.  For food items, look to restaurants or bakeries.  How much better is the finished product than the corresponding object that you could buy?
  4. Fun: This is a completely subjective standard. If time, money, and quality were no object, would you still do it? Personally, I like doing things.  I like making things.  I like constantly creating.  If I had unlimited time and unlimited money, I would still cook, bake, craft, build, and probably learn more materials intensive things.  But I would probably never clean.  I would have a roomba, house elves, maids, whatever it took so that I would not be required to clean.
From my constant perusal of Pinterest, I would say that most DIY projects tend to be mindful of the financial outlay, quality, and fun.  Most tend to ignore time, with the exception of recipes.  Recipes are often broken down into active prep time and total prep time. A turkey can take multiple hours to prepare, but the active prep time can be relatively low. Sugar cookies can be baked pretty quickly, but if you want to decorate them then it can take hours.

So let's calculate the "actual cost" for something that I will make often.  Socks. If I search online, hand knit socks are going for about $20-$40. I know, you can buy socks at Walmart for $1, but I want to compare something that would be reasonably close in quality.  Let's see if it's worth it to make them. As a note, I am doing the calculations as I write, so I actually don't know how this is going to turn out.

  1. Financial Outlay: 1 skein of yarn.  I already own knitting needles, scissors, and a yarn needle. If I had to buy all the initial equipment, I would include that into cost.  But as I tend to use it often, the cost becomes negligible. When I knit, I like to use good yarn.  If I'm going to be feeling it for hours, I want it to feel nice, and especially if I'm going to be wearing the finished product, I need to like the feel of it. So as an average, let's estimate $20 for a skein of good sock yarn.
  2. Time: Here is where the time component comes in.  Knitting takes time. So depending on the thickness of the yarn, the size of the needles, the size of the socks, and the complexity of the pattern, the pair can take anywhere from two hours, to a ridiculously long time. It is a little hard for me to estimate the amount of time, as I am the sort that will keep knitting in my purse, and pull it out on the bus, in a waiting room, at the bar, or wherever I am.  So, for the sake of argument, let us just say that it takes 10 hours to knit a pair of socks. At minimum wage, $7.25 an hour would make the cost $72.50.  However, I would usually be knitting while doing other things (chit chatting, watching TV, riding the bus, etc.), so I'm going to discount that by 30%, which still makes it $50.75.

    So the cost of this pair of socks is over $70! Holy Cow! I don't know about you, but I would never buy $70 socks.  So based solely on cost, it makes way more sense to just buy them (and, if you're now comparing them to $1 socks from Walmart, the difference is even more striking).  However, let's move on to 3 and 4.
  3. Quality: If I make a pair of socks for myself, they are going to fit perfectly.  Why? Check out my post here.  These socks will be made specifically for my feet, and conform perfectly to any abnormalities about them.  I am going to choose a yarn that I love (and pay more for it), and the perfect pattern.  Would this be worth an extra $30 to me if I was buying a pair of handmade socks in a store?  No, probably not.  Would the fact that I made them with my own two hands mean more to a person I made the socks for (if I wasn't making them for myself)? I think so (but still, probably not $30 worth). There is a quality that permeates an object made with love.  Not to get all sappy here, but there is an intangible quality that makes Mom's or Grandma's cookies better than that of any bakery.
  4. Fun: As I've said, I like making things.  And, I like doing things like knitting, crocheting, beading, baking, and an inordinately long list.  I'm the type of person who needs to always be doing something with my hands. It's not something I am doing to save money, it's a hobby.  I like the act of making things, and I like the finished product.  So instead of spending extra money on going to movies or collecting stamps, I'm doing something that leads to a useful item when I'm done.
Economically, making my own socks is a bad idea.  But this is not something I'm doing to save money.  If I was going to embark on a DIY project so that I wouldn't have to pay for it (not because I actively wanted to do it), calculating time, quality, and financial outlay would help to demonstrate exactly how much I'm actually saving  by doing it myself.

In an attempt to help make any of the tutorials that I make more helpful, I will try to utilize my own rubric. That way, you can make up your own mind as to whether or not it's actually "worth it". 

Nov 15, 2013

Squash-ing Misconceptions

A bit of a caveat: In the act of coming down off of Halloween, and building up to Thanksgiving, I admit I've been running into a certain level of writer's block on what to post. I have several projects in progress, but nothing at any level of completion. I feel obligated to use the season to be topical, and nothing was really working for me.

I think the role of marketing, distilled down to one sentence (other than buy this!), is: “Make hard things look easy, and make easy things look hard.” One of the reasons that I tend to try to do just about everything once is so that I can judge for myself. Croissants, for example, are exactly as much work as one would expect – a fair amount. Pie crusts, however, with a little bit of science knowledge, are really easy. Sometimes the improved quality that results from making something from scratch far outweighs the time sink, like most of the candy I've made. On the other hand, sometimes the experience can be summed up as a a check box of "Ok, I've done it. Let's not do that again.”

Which leads us to soup.

In a completely unscientific judgment, I would say that after cereal, chips, and pasta, soup tends to take up the most aisle space for a specific food item in the supermarket. Sometimes it gets its own aisle, which for a food is basically winning. And honestly, soup can often be super easy and super cheap to make. It can take time, sure. But there's also a big difference between something that requires a great deal of effort or constant attention, and something that just needs a while to cook.

If you make your own stock, it will take some time. This is reason number x why I love my crock pot. I can throw in bones, cover with water, and let the crock pot leech all the lovely collagen out of the bones while I'm at work. Which really, is the difference between broth and stock. Stock is thick and rich, and permeated with gelatin. Broth, if we're being completely honest, is just "chicken water". When I get home, voila! Chicken stock that I can later freeze in ice cube trays and use for various purposes. Of course, I am not going to judge you for buying stock. Depending on the soup you make, it may make no difference whatsoever. And if a can or box of chicken stock is the deciding point between ordering a pizza or making soup? Buy the stock.

Despite my obsessive experimentation with zucchini earlier this year, I don't tend to cook with squash all that often. It's just not something that tends to fit into my repertoire. But that was one of the positives of having a CSA this year. It forced me to cook with ingredients that I wouldn't normally use, and try things that I wouldn't normally eat. So I looked around this weekend, and noticed that I still had a bunch of squash left over from the CSA. Conveniently, they're squash, and could be called "nature's canned goods". They will last a really long time, if they haven't been cut open.

I preheated the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit, and grabbed whatever squash that I had. I think there were two delicata, one kabocha, a sugar pumpkin that I had not actually carved for Halloween, and a butternut squash (as I said, I had a BUNCH of squash). So I grabbed a roasting pan, sliced the smaller squash in half, the medium sized ones into quarters, and the pumpkin into chunks large enough to fit into pans without being unwieldy. I tossed the seeds (although toasted pumpkin seeds are both easy to make and super tasty), threw the pieces into two pans (as there was way too much for just one), sprinkled a little brown sugar over the top, threw in a couple cloves of garlic, and stuck them in the oven for somewhere around an hour while I did other things around the house. Does it sound like this was done somewhat haphazardly with little attention to detail? Good. Because that's exactly what it was. Periodically, I would check the progress, by sticking a fork in the various pieces. When everything was nice and soft, I took the pans out of the oven and let them cool on top of the stove for a bit.

Once they are were cool enough to handle, I took my ice cream scoop and each piece of squash, and just scooped it out of the skin. I figured that it would be a whole lot easier to do it this way than to carefully peel each one (which it was!). I put the meat of the squash into a large saucepan, and added some chicken stock. At this point I used my immersion blender, but you could also use a potato masher or even a wooden spoon to mix it up, and break down clumps. A little bit of salt and pumpkin pie spice (I thought the combination of cinnamon, nutmeg and ginger worked rather well), and a little heat from the stove, and I had a large pot of creamy, homemade squash soup. It's not rocket science, and honestly, not even that much food science. But it was easy, tasty, and (before adding the spices) could be used for many different types of soup. Curried soup? Sure. Want to add cream or even sour cream to thicken it up a bit? Why not? It may be a bit slow, but it is easy.

Also, when was the last time a can of soup made your entire house smell amazing? I'm guessing never. Roast some squash for a while and you'll be able to skip the air freshener.

Nov 5, 2013

Cocktail Taste Test: Taking a Ride on the 20th Century

Being election day, and therefore illegal to sell alcohol while polling stations are open, I felt a little cheeky, and decided to share that which you may not currently procure.  Over the past few years I've developed a taste for well crafted classic cocktails, in part thanks to bartenders at Drink, Island Creek Oyster Bar, Eastern Standard, and Citizen's Public House.

I've discovered a few things in my quest for tasty cocktails.
  1. Vodka, being completely flavorless when it's at it's best, adds nothing but alcohol to a drink.
  2. If you ask a skilled bartender what their favorite cocktail is, there is a very good chance that they will say a sazarac (in my experience, it's probably close to 80%).
  3. Always, always, always be nice to bartenders. And get to know them if you find someone who is really good. This goes beyond the normal "be nice to staff, especially those who handle your food, to avoid having foreign fluids in it".  A good bartender, (if they like you), will get to know your palate after a while, can recommend things that you've never heard of, make up drinks on the spot that you'll love, will sometimes save you a seat at the bar on a busy night (if they find you entertaining), and will sometimes provide you with an extra drink of something nice after you've paid the bill.
  4. If you get a list of classic cocktails that you tend to drink, you may find yourself being "that guy" if you go to a different bar.  Recently, after ordering 2 cocktails for which I had to give the waitress the recipe for the bartender, the friend I was with "dared me to order something off the menu". In my defense, both cocktails I ordered were classics, both dating to before 1940!
The picture at the top was from a gin tasting I did at my house.  For the longest time I didn't like gin.  I found it sharp, and reeking of pine trees (yes, I know it's juniper, but I've smelled an awful lot more pine than juniper in my life).  Which is why I was surprised the first time I had a 20th Century, so named for the Twentieth Century Limited train line, that ran between New York and Chicago. It is light, floral, with a touch of lemon. Not a drink that I would expect to find gin in.  And yet, there it was.  This was when I found out how much gins can vary.  

So this is how the tasting worked.  There were five different gins, from three different brands.  We tasted each of the gins straight (about a quarter shot), and then mixed a 20th Century (don't worry, you'll get the recipe at the end), to compare how well they worked for that cocktail. By the end, each person only had the alcohol for about 2.5 drinks total, so we were all able to coherently discuss the results.  So before getting into the specifics of the gins, here is the cocktail that we used, as it is one of my favorites.

20th Century Cocktail

2 ounces Gin
1 ounce Lillet Blanc
1 ounce Light Creme de Cacao
1 ounce Lemon Juice

Combine all ingredients in a shaker with ice.  Shake, and serve in a cocktail glass with a lemon twist.
The Results of the Tasting

Citadelle Gin

This is what I consider the standard for cocktail gins.  It's pretty subtle, not overly dry, and plays well with others.  It doesn't have much in the way of strong flavors, which would make it not the best choice for a martini; but is versatile enough to work in any gin cocktail.  Hendrick's is another in the same category, although Hendrick's has a bit more juniper to it.

Barr Hill

Barr Hill comes from Caledonia spirits, in northern Vermont.  They started as beekeepers, and moved into making mead, and then distilling spirits, all with their honey. The honey doesn't make the gin sweet, but it does seem to add a lot of floral notes.  It's complex, and has a really nice flavor to it.  The only way that I would even consider drinking a martini is with this gin.

The downside is that it doesn't really play well with others. Being so well constructed on its own, if you have a cocktail that has more than three ingredients, the flavors just start competing, as opposed to working together.  So the 20th Century just tasted muddled.

St. George Dry Rye Gin

If you have never tasted rye whiskey, it will be hard to describe the flavor exactly.  This is a gin that is made with a lot of juniper, but is also cooked down with rye, to help balance it out.  Just with a rye bread, there are flavors of pepper and caraway.  On it's own we felt it was a little overpowering, so unless you really like drinking rye straight, this isn't a beverage to drink straight or as a martini.

The surprise in it, however, was that it seemed to relax back into the mixed drink, and wasn't overpowering, going against all of our guesses.

St. George Botanivore Gin

A light, floral, complex gin, it really hit the middle between Citadelle and Barr Hill.  Based on the descriptor from the company said that it "earned its name because it's loaded with botanical ingredients. We distilled 19 different botanicals to compose this spirit (no small feat!) and the resulting gin is beautifully balanced and vibrant".  That had me a little scared to begin with, because that sentance screams "overworked" to me.  But it really isn't.  If you want something that is a little more complex than Citadelle, but is easier to find than Barr Hill, this is a good option for a multi-purpose gin.

St. George Terroire Gin

If you like your gin to taste like you've just eaten your Christmas tree, this one has the proper juniper levels for you. I would never be able to drink this one straight, but it is still a big step up from something like Tangueray or Bombay Saphire (my opinion). I was expecting this to be bad across the board, but was actually pleasantly surprised when it came to the cocktail.  It created a bit of a sharp bite, but the juniper in it actually played nicely with the spices in the Lillet.