commodorified: a capital m, in fancy type, on a coloured background (Default)
commodorified ([personal profile] commodorified) wrote2011-12-14 01:06 am

Thoughts on Bulk Food

Since it was either that or Freezers, and Freezers is, really, a subset of Bulk, at least the way we do it. For now I'll talk mostly about bulk that can be kept at room temperature.

We buy a lot of stuff in bulk; it's one of the ways we keep food costs lower and food quality higher than we otherwise could. Over the course of many years and a lot of mistakes I've developed some criteria for deciding what should and what should not be bought in bulk, and some ideas about how to make bulk buying as painless as possible.

By bulk buying, by the way, I don't mean "buying from the bulk bins", which is almost always a good deal IF you are able to get the same quality of product out of a bulk bin and don't need to worry about cross-contamination or have a way to manage it.

By bulk buying I mean "deliberately buying enough of a given thing that you will not have to buy it again for one or more shopping trips". And yes, you can do bulk buying if you live alone: indeed, you sort of have to, as an amazing number of things are only available, or only available at a tolerable price, in sizes intended for a family of four. If you live alone, Bulk Buying may mean "getting the regular sized bag of rice", but the basic principles still apply.

1) Don't short this week's food to buy something in bulk. If the only way you can buy the 40 kg bag of rice that's such a good deal is by getting fewer vegetables and less milk... that's a bad deal. It is difficult to manage a balanced diet by bulk purchasing alone, and it is very very difficult to manage an appealing and decently varied diet by bulk purchasing alone. If money is tight, setting aside 5-10 percent of your grocery budget every week to put towards building up a nice cushion of bulk-bought foods is going to work out much better.

2) Don't buy what you can't store safely and conveniently. If a bunch of your big bag of flour goes off, or attracts pests, or gets spilt all over the floor, you have not saved money. If the enormous club pack of lightbulbs won't stay on the closet shelf and keeps trying to land on your head, well, eventually it will and they will break.

We have had a couple of outbreaks of meal moths in our kitchen, and once we had mice. We learned fast.

Good storage:

i) Repurposed bulk food containers. Restaurants will often be delighted to let you have some of the white plastic 5-50 gallon jugs that they get food delivered in, if you ask. Scrub them out with dish soap, let them air dry open. If there is any remaining smell of the original foodstuff, put a 1/4 cup of baking soda in the bottom, pour in 4 cups of very hot water, slap the lid on and leave it overnight. The next day your tub should be ready for your new food.

ii) Repurposed jars. Most of our bean stash lives in pasta-sauce jars and similar. The baking-soda trick works here as well - I love pickle jars, but not so much pickle-flavoured tapioca.

iii) Ziploc bags. Not as sturdy as the others, and not free, but more flexible: you can put your purchase in lots of small bags or few large ones, you can split a purchase with someone else, you can freeze stuff in them, you can use them to organise, say, several kinds of rice within one large plastic container. Keeps out bugs but not mice.

iv) Purchased storage, if you can afford it and you're in a hurry. Ziploc, Rubbermaid, Tupperware, or, if you're truly flush at the moment, lovely matched canisters in ceramic or glass. I have a rice jar I inherited from my Gran. I love it to death.

v) For semi-perishables: apples, onions, potatoes, etc do well a) hung up not touching the floor b) in CLOTH bags which c) let air circulate and d) if possible, keep light out (the mesh bags onions come in are okay in a pinch, but your onions won't last quite as long as they would in cloth, and potatoes go green exposed to light). Rotate them regularly, though, so you don't end up with one forgotten spud down at the bottom of the bag going moldy and tainting the rest: just reach in and stir them around some.

Bad storage:

i) Don't repurpose non-food containers to store food in. Even if you've cleaned them out absolutely perfectly, you can't be sure what's leaching out of the plastic. It's not worth it. If you're buying new stuff, make sure that it's marked as food safe if food is going to touch it.

Short form: Plastic that "smells like plastic"? Is not food-safe.

ii) The plastic bags bulk food comes home in: no matter how careful you are, they rip, and your food spills and makes messes and attracts pests.

iii) The outdoors, or areas that are not climate-controlled: I am always tempted to store food in our back extension. And we always end up regretting it when we do. Pop cans explode in winter and shower you with shrapnel - seriously, and also OUCH. Canned food thaws and refreezes and goes mushy. Onions get absolutely disgusting if they freeze and then thaw. And so forth.

If you have a chance to get a really amazing deal on more of something than you can store, see if you can split the purchase with another person or family.

3) Be cautious of buying "exotic" things, or very inflexible things (things that can only be used in a limited number of dishes, prepared or semi-prepared things) in bulk. Are you absolutely SURE that you want to eat five gallons of garlic stuffed olives in the next 18 months? Given that you only decided last week that you really like jasmine rice, or Earl Grey tea, do you want to use it and no other kind of rice or tea for the next three months?

Equally, buy a quantity you will go through while it's genuinely GOOD, not just "still safe to use". The savings on 4 months' worth of coffee over 2 months' worth just doesn't make up for drinking stale-tasting coffee for six weeks.

4) Be cautious of things that require additional steps to preserve them: those olives have to go in the fridge as soon as you break the seal on the jar.

You can get a lot of stewed tomatoes at a pretty good price if you can them yourself, but a) buying a canning setup plus jars is a lot of upfront cost: are you sure you're going to do preserving every year? and b) do you have a friend or relation who cans, or at least have you got a good book out of the library and read it very carefully before investing in the tomatoes? "Putting up" food isn't terribly hard, but it does require some skill, and the penalty for messing up ranges from being out the cost of the food AND the jars and having to clean up a nasty mess, because your food fermented and broke them, to making yourself and others really really ill.

My personal feeling is, only do your own preserving if you enjoy doing it; as with knitting or sewing for yourself, it doesn't honestly save you that much money, and if you paid yourself for your work it wouldn't save you any. If you do like it, it's great; even better if you have friends who like it too.

5) Take your calculator shopping. Some things just don't get all that much cheaper in bulk, and some things are already so incredibly reasonably priced that the cost and trouble of getting set up for massive bulk storage isn't worth it: all-purpose flour. Dried legumes. Noodles or pasta.

Exception: if you can get a higher quality at the same price by buying in bulk. We get Rancho Gordo beans and distributing the shipping over a big order is worthwhile. Buying cheddar in a 5 lb block lets us have really good extra-old white for the price of supermarket own-brand medium cooking cheddar. Etc. This is what Costco is especially good for.

Also, petfood has some special problems: your pet can't exactly tell you the food has gone off, but if it does you may end up with a vaguely poorly, hard-to-diagnose animal who isn't eating well, or even who is being made ill by their food. Also, pets are notoriously kind of volatile about what they will eat: I have returned an awful lot of now 9.5 kg bags to our vet or fed it to the neighbourhood ferals because Mr and Ms FussyPants, who were wolfing The New Food down happily when I was bringing it home in pricey little 500 g sachets have suddenly decided that I am feeding them dirt topped with chopped slug.

6) Remember to factor in transport. [personal profile] random and I have hauled home some truly ridiculously huge boxes and bags by public transit, but I can't do that anymore. OTOH, one cab from the store, or one delivery charge, every three months, can be pretty reasonable, as can getting a friend to drive you and paying them off in shares.

7) Do your bulk shopping when you have as much time, help, and energy as possible, and when you get it all home do the necessary splitting, repacking, labelling and storing right then. Talking of labels, pop into Staples/Office Depot and get a lot of those ones that come off fairly easily; then label everything. If you have to open it to see what it is, you are less likely to use it. Also, you really want to write the purchase date on things.

8) If there are instructions, save them. Nothing fancy: cutting off the relevant part of the box and chucking them all into a shoebox or a drawer will do fine. But do save them; different cereals and rices, for example, have very different cooking times and water/solids ratios, and you will need this information. And if you get serious about bulk buying, chances are you will, at some point, have a lot of jars/bags/canisters of food that look almost, but not quite alike. This is where being able to cross-match the labels and the instructions will save you from accidentally making, as I nearly did once, vegetable-oatmeal soup. You wouldn't think that steel cut oats and pot (as opposed to pearl) barley could look so alike...
beable: (Default)

[personal profile] beable 2011-12-14 11:27 pm (UTC)(link)

I am now vaguely tempted by the idea of vegetable-oatmeal soup.

ursula: (Default)

[personal profile] ursula 2011-12-15 12:05 am (UTC)(link)
I had an oatmeal-bacon-vegetable stew once-- it was somebody's re-creation of a medieval recipe for pottage. It was pretty good.
ursamajor: the Swedish Chef, juggling (bork bork bork!)

[personal profile] ursamajor 2011-12-16 04:38 am (UTC)(link)
See, to me, that just sounds like putting savories in your oatmeal instead of sweets, and I already do that with lugaw (rice porridge), so it makes sense to me! Though I guess I would prefer it to be a thicker-textured soup, closer to a porridge than a broth with oats and veg floating around.
libitina: snake across an open book (Default)

[personal profile] libitina 2011-12-23 04:40 pm (UTC)(link)
I had a recipe similar to this one in a soup cookbook I love. That recipe called for steel cut oats, and it was only good fresh because it separated awkwardly. This thread is making me think I should try it again with rolled oats.