Breakfast for a Week for $4: Hard-Boiled Eggs

Hard-boiled eggs are an excellent and inexpensive breakfast food, especially if you know the best way to cook them.

childrens-book-humpty-dumptyI think most people like hard-boiled eggs, but the problem is doing the hard-boiling.  If you undercook them, they have a gooey or runny center, which is bad if that’s not what you want.*  If you overcook them, then they get that ugly greenish gray color around the center and they may have an “off” odor and unpleasant taste.  You have to cook them just the right amount, not too little, not too much.  It’s not easy to do.  For one thing, there’s no way you can measure what’s going on, cooking-wise, inside the egg.  The exterior of the egg doesn’t change color as it cooks.  It doesn’t feel any different if you touch it.  You can’t poke a meat thermometer into it.  However, the one thing you can measure is time, which goes a long way towards solving the egg-cooking problem, if you can keep the cooking temperature constant.

Measuring the length of time your eggs have been cooking only helps you if the temperature of the water around them is the same every time.  However, this is difficult to achieve.  You put water in a cooking pot, bring it to a boil and add the eggs.  Adding the cold eggs to the water immediately lowers the water temperature.  But by how much?  That depends on the quantity of boiling water you have, how cold the eggs are, and how many eggs you put into the pot.  One egg will lower the temperature of the water just a little.  Several eggs will lower the temperature quite a bit.  The more the water’s temperature is lowered, the longer it takes to return to a boil and the longer it takes the eggs to cook.  Another factor is the amount of heat being produced by the stove.  Is it the same every time?  All things considered, there’s a lot of temperature inconsistency from one egg-boiling session to another.  That means you don’t know how much heat is being transferred to the eggs, so you have no idea how of precisely how long you need to cook them.  Perhaps if you were careful to use exactly the same amount of water, in the same cooking pot, and the same number of eggs, and the same setting on the stove every time, you might, by trial-and-error, eventually determine the correct cooking time.  The same problems arise if you put eggs in pot of cold water and bring them to a boil.  How cold was the water to begin with?  How many eggs?  How hot is the stove?  Again, inconsistency, unless you carefully measure all of these things and experiment carefully.

Thankfully, there’s a much easier method that yields much better results, every time.

To give credit where it’s due, I believe this method was developed be the cooking experts at Cook’s Illustrated magazine.  It’s genius.

Basically, you put a steamer basket in your pot, fill it with water up to (but not above) the level of the basket’s bottom and bring the water to a boil.  Then put your eggs, making sure they’re not cracked or broken, straight from the refrigerator, into the basket.  Cover the pot with a tight-fitting lid.  Turn the heat down to medium-low, sufficient to maintain a slow boil.  Allow the eggs to cook in the steam, covered, for 12 or 13 minutes.  The exact cooking time will vary a bit, depending on the size of your eggs and how cold your refrigerator is, but this method is far superior to anything that involves eggs submerged in boiling water.

You should keep the pot covered the entire cooking time, but you might peek once to make sure the water hasn’t boiled away.  If your lid fits tightly, this shouldn’t be a problem.  After the time has elapsed, carefully transfer the eggs to a bowl of cold water and ice and allow them to cool for 10 minutes.  Store in the refrigerator and use as needed.

The beauty of this method is that the cold eggs are not submerged in the water, so they don’t reduce the water temperature.  The water keeps boiling as you add the eggs to the basket.  Therefore, there’s plenty of steam, and the temperature of the steam stays constant, something very close to the temperature of boiling water.  By keeping the eggs out of the water, most of the variables are eliminated.  One great thing about this method is that it works equally well with just a couple eggs or as many as can fit in the basket under the lid.  I usually cook 10 eggs on Sunday and eat 2 each morning during the M-F workweek.  Given that eggs cost around $3 (or less) per dozen, $4 per week allows boiled eggs, maybe a piece of toast, and perhaps an avocado once in a while!  Avocado-Egg Toast!  Mmmmmm!

Compare this to the cost of getting a breakfast sandwich at a fast-food place.  That could easily be $16 per week.  Cooking your own eggs means $12 per week saved.  $12 × 50 weeks per year = $600 per year.  If you’re not putting 10% (or more) or your income into your retirement savings accounts, here’s something that can move you toward that goal.  (Your savings might be even more if you eliminate the temptation to buy more than just a sandwich at the fast-food place.  Make your own tea or coffee and you’ll save more.

* I like soft-boiled eggs just fine, but I like them only if they’re served hot.  The steam-cooking method also works for soft-boiled eggs.  If you want soft-boiled eggs, reduce the cooking time to about 7 minutes for very soft or 9 minutes for medium-soft.

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Let’s be Honest

starbucks_receiptYou need to be careful when you calculate how much you will save by changing some small habit.  I’ve heard or read statements like, “Coffee at the Starbucks costs $2.70.  So make your own and you’ll save $1,000 per year”.

How did that $1,000 get calculated?  It looks like they took $2.70 per day and multiplied by the number of days in a year, $2.70 × 365 is $985, and then rounded to $1,000.

What’s wrong with that savings of “$1,000”?

  1. Can you produce coffee at home for free?  If not, then your daily savings aren’t going to be equal to the cost of the coffee you buy away from home.  Coffee made at home costs something.  Your savings will be the cost of the away-from-home coffee minus the cost of made-at-home coffee.  Let’s say $1.00 is the cost of the made-at-home coffee.  If so, then your savings are $2.70 – $1.00 = $1.70.  You savings will equal the cost of away-from-home coffee only if you give up coffee completely.
  2. Do you really buy away-from-home coffee every day of the year?  If you only buy one cup of coffee on days you work, and you don’t work every day of the year, then you probably don’t buy coffee more than 250 times per year.  (That’s 5 days a week × 50 weeks per year.)  Of course, if you buy coffee twice a day, …
  3. Does the coffee at Starbucks really cost $2.70?  If you order something less expensive, you’re annual savings aren’t going to be less.  (On the other hand, yes, if your coffee costs more than $2.70 per day, then you can save more.)

Don’t get me wrong!  I still think that you can save a significant amount of money by avoiding convenience and doing as much DIY as possible, but it’s also important to do our calculations honestly and make sure our expectations are in line with reality.

There are some who say that they give up the away-from-home coffee, but they don’t see the savings.  Problem is, there are so many other expenses.  Some come irregularly or change from one month to the next.  It’s personal finance chaos!  The made-at-home coffee savings signal gets drowned out among all the financial noise from all the other expenditures.  This, however, doesn’t mean that there are no savings.  There are.  It’s the accounting that is the problem here.  If you’re actually spending $1.00 per day instead of $2.70, then you need to take control of that money and ensure you don’t spend it on something else.  Take that daily savings of $1.70 and literally put a dollar and a few quarters in a jar every day.  Or move $8.50 from out of checking and into your savings account each week.  Whenever you’re developing new habits to save money, you need to really save that money.  Be careful not to let it just sit around telling you to spend it on something else!

Now that we’ve taken care of that …

Olive the Truth About Saving Money

Avoid convenience.  Save a lot of money.  That’s all of the truth about saving money.  Here’s an example.

olivesLast week I opened the refrigerator to find olives … in single-serving packs.  I don’t know why anyone would buy such a thing, let alone my own wife.  Maybe, (I hope) they were on sale.

Even on sale, it’s a very dumb purchase.  $2.99 for 4.8 ounces of olives is about 62¢ per ounce.  At the normal price of $3.69, it’s over 76¢ per ounce.

Compare that to a can of olives.  $1.87 for 6.0 ounces = 31¢ per ounce.  (The can contains liquid, but the 6.0 ounces is the weight of the olives.)

You want the convenience of having a little pack of olives every day?

Get some food storage containers.  Purchased in quantity, they’re about $1 each.

Open the can of olives, distribute its 6.0 ounces of olives into 5 food storage containers so that each container holds 1.2 ounces of olives.   You’ve now got 5 DIY packs of olives-to-go at a cost of about 39¢ each (including 1¢ for the cost of the food storage container, assuming you can re-use it about 100 times).

Compare that to the pre-packaged olives which cost or 92¢ per serving.  (Regular price.)

DIY and save yourself $1.82.

Remember, $1.82 saved is $1.82 earned.  Considering how much time it takes to open a can and parcel out the contents, this is a DIY job that pays over $50 per hour.

Cutting the Cheese

cut_the_cheese“You don’t mind if I cut the cheese?”, I asked my colleagues eating lunch with me at our workplace cafeteria.  As I said it, I held up the table knife I keep at my desk and the block of cheese I was eating that week (and probably the next week too).  It was a good cheddar I got at Costo.  As in most everything, it pays to avoid convenience and do the work yourself.  In this case, I was cutting the cheese to have with the crackers and salami I was having for lunch that day.  Just like the way I pay myself to carry a box of snacks to work (instead of paying the man that stocks the vending machine), just like I pay myself to bring my own iced tea to work, I can also pay myself to not only bring the cheese to work, but to also to cut it into slices.

Almost-Free Iced Coffee

iced_coffeeAt a church meeting I recently attended, someone made a pot of coffee.  When the pot was empty, another pot was made.  After the meeting was over, the coffee pot was still about 1/3 full.  No one wanted another cup.  I don’t normally drink the stuff.  (What kind of person, I wonder, would take beans from some plant, roast them until they’re nearly burnt, grind them into powder, pour boiling water onto that powder, then drink that water?)   I had my own water-bottle, filled with iced tea, which I had finished.  Before someone could dump the unwanted coffee down the drain, which was about to happen, I quickly rinsed my water-bottle and poured the coffee into it.  As soon as I got the coffee home, I put it in another container and refrigerated it.  I wanted to minimize the risk of the water-bottle I use for iced tea being ruined by the coffee taste, so I washed it as soon as it was empty.  The next day I had all the iced coffee I wanted, for nothing more than the cost of some ice and milk.

The moral of the story is that if you look around you can always find things that people are getting rid of that can be of benefit to you if you do the work of obtaining them and re-purposing them.  Get in the habit and you can get lots of things for free.

Re-Use Pepper Grinder

pepper_grinderIt’s damn annoying that some of the “disposable” pepper grinders (the kind made by spice manufacturers and sold at grocery stores) can’t be easily opened so they can be refilled and re-used when they are empty.  I recently found myself with an empty disposable pepper grinder at the same time that I couldn’t locate my salt grinder.  I thought I could wash it and fill it with sea salt, but … the grinder top is designed to be very difficult to remove.

Here’s the trick:  Put the empty grinder container in a cup full of very hot water.  Near boiling is good.  A cup of water microwaved for a few minutes works fine.  Soak the plastic top in this very hot water for several minutes.  This makes the plastic just a bit more flexible, which should allow you to pull the plastic top off the glass jar.  Just hold the glass jar in one hand and the plastic top in the other and pull them straight apart.  Make sure everything is clean and completely dry and then you can re-fill it.  To put the top back on, after you’ve refilled it with peppercorns or sea salt or whatever, just put the jar on the counter and press the top firmly onto it.

Making Pots and Pans Last Longer

creusetIf you want your pots and pans to last longer, avoid taking pots and pans that are cold (i.e., room temperature) and putting them directly over a stove that is cranked up to full heat.  It’s best to put a pan over very low heat for a while before turning up the heat to medium or high.  I usually let a pan get warm on low heat for about a minute before turning up the heat.  If possible, put water or oil in the pan before putting it on the heat.  Of course, you generally want the pan to be at cooking temperature before you put the food in, though it depends what you’re cooking.

The key is to avoid sudden and extreme temperature changes.  When a pan is heated too quickly, the part of it that is directly over the heat source will get hot and expand while the rest of the pan is still cold.  This uneven expansion causes coatings (such as enamel or non-stick surfaces) to begin to detach.  Sudden temperature changes can cause stress fractures in any metal object, including pots and pans.  Even cast iron pans can be damaged by sudden temperature changes.  Be gentle with your pots and pans.  Give them time to get warm before you turn up the heat.