The Forty Dollar Burrito

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

A few weeks ago I started thinking about fajitas, and how I hadn’t made them in a long time, and how even though you can get pretty good fajitas in all kinds of restaurants, I really like mine more than anyone else’s and I should try to make them again. The problem with fajitas is that they have a lot of ingredients, so unless you make them for a whole bunch of people, you end up with way too much food and you also spend an arm and a leg getting everything.

Eventually I stopped thinking about fajitas, but then recently I started thinking about hot fudge sundaes. I’m not really sure where this came from. I almost went to the store on Friday at midnight when I finished working to get ice cream sundae supplies, but I was able to talk myself out of it. (The all-night Kroger has those automated checkout machines, so they’ve managed to eliminate the deterrent effect of the idea of facing a cashier at midnight buying ice cream, hot fudge, and a spray can of Reddi-Whip. Some people might consider that a benefit of technology but personally I think it’s probably not a good thing. Shame has its uses. )

So I hadn’t had fajitas and I hadn’t gotten a hot fudge sundae, and then I started thinking about some other kind of steak-related meal and I decided it was probably just time to make something that I don’t normally eat and see if I could get all of this out of my head.

A few years ago my father sent me a burrito recipe from the New York Times, and I ran across it recently and decided I should make it some time. After my bouts of thinking about fajitas and sour cream and hot fudge sundaes, now seemed like as good a time as any.

The recipe was created by a high school friend of the author’s son, and it called for some very specific ingredients. I debated whether to follow it to the letter, but decided that if I was going to make the recipe, I was going to make the recipe, and would get exactly what the recipe called for. Even if it involved buying a box of rice pilaf. Which turned out to have 570mg of sodium per serving.

(I may have said this before, but generally the first time I make a recipe I try to make it exactly as given, so if it doesn’t turn out, I know it was because of the recipe, not because of some weird thing I did to it.)

So I wrote down the list of ingredients and headed out to see what I could find.

I figured I would need a standard grocery store to get the name brands called for (e.g., Old El Paso taco sauce, Kraft cheese) but I thought I might get a better deal on skirt steak at the carniceria than at Kroger or Whole Foods.

I ended up doing a little tour of the local groceries, going to four stores, and bought something at the carniceria that may or may not have been skirt steak. I probably should have looked up what skirt steak is in espanol before heading out. Or maybe if I had ever bought skirt steak before it would have been easier.

I didn’t see anything that looked even close to skirt steak or hanger steak at King’s or Kroger, but they did have skirt steak at Whole Foods. So I got a pound of it there to go with the mystery beef from the carniceria.

Ultimately I did get everything called for in the list, and it set me back $38.48, plus another $6.77 for limes, avocado, tomatoes, sour cream, and tortilla chips (I decided I wanted to eat chips with guacamole and salsa while cooking), for a total of $45.25. Which makes for a pretty expensive burrito. And which is why you will hear people — especially single people — say that it’s cheaper to eat out than to cook at home.

The problem is that I had to get every single ingredient, I didn’t use anything I had — mostly because I don’t really have anything right now — and all of it (except for the bulk garlic powder, which I apparently bought so little of it didn’t register; it’s not on my receipt), were in large-size packages. So I was experiencing the fajita problem where you spend an arm and a leg and end up with vast quantities of food.

Which means that I’m going to get at least four meals out of this, plus leftovers in the freezer, and I’ll probably be able to make it three or four more times using the same ingredients I just bought.

And this is why cooking at home is cheaper than eating out. Even though it might not feel like it when you just spent $40+ to make a burrito.

(For the record, the burrito was really, really good. I’m on day two and looking forward to day three.)

In the midst of all the shopping and cooking, I decided that it might be a useful public service for me to do frugality makeover of the burrito recipe. Below is my chart of what the recipe called for, what I bought, how much I spent, whether or not it was necessary, and how much I will need to spend on it the next time I make this recipe.

chart of burrito costs

In terms of the next-time costs, the only big cash outlay will be the meat and the beer. I actually bought a single beer for $1.99 (not Dos Equis, but whatever seemed closest, not sure if it was actually close at all). Obviously the per-unit cost would have been cheaper if I bought a six-pack or twelve-pack, but the cash outlay would have been more. So how much that sets you back depends on whether or not you drink beer and would be spending money on that anyway. If you don’t drink beer at all and don’t want to go out and get any, I would try to substitute some other liquid — suggestions I saw online for beer substitutions were beef broth or malt vinegar. Or you could add more water, or use some of the taco sauce marinade that was left in the roasting pan after step one of the recipe.

Everything else is either relatively cheap (peppers, jalapenos) or something you probably already have in your pantry (onions, garlic, vegetable oil) or completely optional (cilantro, cheese). So it’s not really a crazy expensive recipe, it just seemed like it because I didn’t have anything here and because I wanted to follow it exactly as given.

In terms of the recipe itself, the first thing I have to say is that this recipe is GIANT. It says six to eight servings, and maybe if you’re feeding boys between the ages of 15 and 25 it is, but for people who are not boys between the ages of 15 and 25, I think you could cut the recipe in half and still get almost six to eight servings out of it.

In terms of ingredients, the first thing to get rid of is the Near East Spanish rice pilaf. (I really almost didn’t buy that but held firm to the I Will Make This Recipe to the Letter pledge. And then it turned out I bought Original not Spanish so that defeated the whole purpose of that. Oh well…)

The second is the Wick Fowler’s 2-Alarm Chili Kit.

Both of those are convenience products with crazy high sodium levels. You can do the same thing for a fraction of the cost with basic ingredients — a five pound bag of Uncle Ben’s Converted Rice (which is the same kind of rice as in the Near East package) is about $6, and you’ll be eating rice for the rest of the year. Skip the Near East.

The Wick Fowler chili kit is nothing more than pre-measured spices, which would possibly be useful if you had no spices and/or this was the only thing you ever made (and were ever going to make) and you didn’t have access to bulk spices. Otherwise just buy some cumin, paprika, red pepper, and ground chillies and figure it out yourself. I already have all of that on my shelf so the $2.69 I spent on that was totally unnecessary.

I think the skirt steak will be cheaper at the carniceria, so next time I’ll write “arrachera de res” on my shopping list and not rely on my nonexistent Spanish skills to try to communicate what I want to the nice man behind the counter. Most of the meat at the carniceria was $3 to $5 per pound; it was $7.99 per pound at Whole Foods which doesn’t seem unreasonable — usually every time I’m thinking about buying meat I get sticker shock and change my mind when I actually add up how much it’s going to cost. But for this one, by the time I got to the meat, I’d spent so much on everything else it didn’t really seem to matter.

So I don’t know if this exercise is useful but basically I just wanted to say that following recipes as they’re written can be expensive, but there are usually things you can do to drastically bring down the cost, and if you freeze leftovers and work from the freezer, the costs will come down even more, even for a relatively expensive recipe.

I am planning on making this again — as I said, it was really good — and I’ll put up the revised recipe, with costs, after I do that.

5 Responses to “The Forty Dollar Burrito”

  1. Amy in Maine Says:

    I enjoyed this post. I’m always trying to balance trying out recipes with not blowing the whole food budget on one or two meals. Thanks for laying this out so scientifically.

  2. Sarah Says:

    I saw the title of this post and thought you had eaten out.

    I was completely surprised that this was a burrito you made at home that cost $40!

    That said, if the serving size for it yields as much as you say, then I guess it’s not too bad (I guess). Would definitely be interested in trying it though, so I look forward to the recipe posting!

    Glad it was as good as the hype, otherwise that would have just sucked!

  3. lessisenough Says:

    I will definitely do a follow-up averaging the cost over the number of meals I get out of it, and also the cost the next time I make it.

    And yes, it’s good that it turned out to be good! That would have been a drag — though in that case, I probably would have fixed some other burrito filling, chicken or whatever, and eaten with the sour cream and salsa and everything else i got and it would have been fine.

  4. Melodie Says:

    I thought I was the only one who is so compulsive about making a recipe exactly to the letter the first time and for exactly the same reason:)

    I struggle with the same problem of spending alot on ingredients for a specific recipe. With something like the burrito I would probably like it enough to eat it for days in a row. Sometimes it just calls for being extra creative with using up remaining ingredients in other dishes. In any case you’re right, once you get past the initial sticker shock or usually ends up being more cost effective than you thought.

  5. Cheap chick Says:

    Home made food is almost always cheaper – unless you don’t have any of the ingredients in your cupboard. Thanks for sharing – I particularly liked the idea of breaking it down to save money the next time round. Thankfully they were tasty!

    It seems a good family size/friend gathering size type of meal – maybe have them bring the beer?

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