There is a lot of advice floating out there on how to save money on your grocery bill. Coupon sites abound and it seems like every time you turn on the TV, someone is doing a story on how to pay $10 for $100 worth of groceries. But what you don’t see much of is how to make sure you don’t waste what you’ve bought. No matter how good a deal you got, it’s still waste of money if you have to throw it out before you’ve used it up.
Because so much of what we buy is fresh and perishable, I try to go through the fridge a couple of times a week to assess what needs to be used up soonest and then I plan the next few meals around that. My second-favorite technique for minimizing waste is to use as much of the leftovers as possible to make something else. I don’t always succeed but I hate throwing usable food out as much as I hate standing over the toilet bowl flushing away dollar bills one by one.
Muffins are often a good answer and in our family, they solve two problems at once. They provide a quick and easy vehicle for using up small bits of leftovers and they create a tasty, portable, pre-portioned, whole-grain breakfast food for my husband who, in defiance of all common sense, dislikes most traditional breakfast food. And the best thing is that you don’t need a million different recipes for all the different kinds of muffins your personal leftovers/pantry staples might make. Muffins are very forgiving and if you follow a basic muffin formula, you can adjust it as you need to make a tasty muffin out of almost anything. In other words, you can become the MacGyver of Muffins. Monkeying around with a recipe for baked goods takes a bit of courage and a leap of faith but it’s really much easier than you might think.
Full disclosure: I first encountered the muffin formula in the late 90’s in Amy Dacyczyn’s book “The Tightwad Gazette” so I’m giving her full credit here as the source for this concept. A true tightwad, Amy actually encouraged subscribers to her newsletter to share subscriptions with friends, copy and distribute her newsletter, or get it for free at the library so hopefully she wouldn’t be upset that I’m sharing her idea, from which our family has derived so much benefit, with the rest of the internets at large.
The Basic Muffin Formula
- 2 cups grain
- 1 tbsp baking powder
- 1/2 tsp salt (optional)
- 1 cup milk or other liquid
- 1 egg or egg substitute
- Up to 1/3 cup fat or substitute
- Up to 1/2 cup sweetener
- Up to 1 cup muffin additions
- spices to complement your additions
Mix dry, add wet, add additions. Your batter should be sort of lumpy, not too runny. I’d describe it as spoonable short of pourable. Bake at 400 degrees for about 18 minutes. Makes about one dozen.
It’s really that easy. And if your additions aren’t too heavy, you can bake it all together in a loaf pan as a quick bread. The formula is super-versatile. What hangs folks up is what exactly do you use for grains, fat, sweetener, and additions? Where is the actual recipe?
The point of the formula is to use up what you’ve got on-hand. For example, last night I served my picky little four year old some canned crushed pineapple with his dinner because I know he likes pineapple and I had some in the pantry already. He ate two tiny bites and left the rest so I was stuck with about one cup of crushed pineapple after dinner. Nobody else was ever going to eat it plain like that so I whipped up some tropical muffins with it. I used two cups of whole wheat flour, which I always have in the pantry, non-fat milk, 1/4 cup honey, the pineapple, and some shredded coconut leftover from when I made coconut cupcakes for supper club two weeks ago. Took all of ten minutes to mix them up with a fork and get them in the oven. I cleaned up the dinner dishes while they were in the oven. No wasted pineapple, I used up the last of the bag of coconut, and made breakfast for my husband for the next nine days. Yes, nine days, not twelve — because there was no way my kids were walking by hot muffins without snagging one and Hubby and I split one for dessert.
To get you started, some possibles for all the variable ingredients:
Grains: flour, cornmeal, leftover cooked oatmeal, whole wheat flour, rolled oats, buckwheat flour, spelt, rolled oats that you turn into flour by pulsing in your food processor, rice flour, leftover mashed potatoes, leftover rice, etc. If you use a leftover cooked grain like oatmeal or rice, you might have to adjust your liquid down a bit. Feel free to combine the different kinds of grains together. I like using 1.5 cups whole wheat flour and .5 cup of regular rolled oats. This makes a nice texture but I get great results using 2 cups of whole wheat flour, too.
Liquids: Milk, juice, buttermilk, yogurt, non-fat yogurt, etc. If you use full-fat yogurt, you can adjust the amount of fat down a bit or eliminate it altogether. This is a great way to use up the last bit of yogurt in a container or 1/3 of a glass of juice that’s left in the fridge. Buttermilk and yogurt both make very tender muffins so they are my favorite things to use. I sometimes have to thin the batter a bit with milk when I use yogurt so I just eyeball it until the batter looks like the right consistency.
Egg or egg substitute: Use a vegan egg replacement, egg beaters, or one heaping tablespoon of soy flour + 2 tablespoons water.
Fat: canola oil, melted butter, bacon fat, or swap out the fat for 1/2 cup applesauce. One note – if you use an egg substitute, you really need a little bit of oil. It’s hard to get good results with a completely fat-free muffin.
Sweetener: honey, splenda, sugar, brown sugar, raw sugar, cane juice (adjust liquid down), molasses, maple syrup, karo syrup, etc.
Additions: You can go crazy here. Chop leftover apple and add it to your muffins with brown sugar and cinnamon for apple cinnamon muffins. Mashed banana goes well with many other additions: chocolate chips, dried cherries, raisins, coconut, pineapple, etc. Make a savory muffin with crumbled bacon and cheddar cheese. Make corn muffins with leftover sweet corn, cornmeal, and diced jalapeno. Use up some of that zucchini that won’t stop growing by shredding it and use the juice in place of some of the milk. Leftover applesauce makes the base for a great apple muffin. Strawberries, blueberries, and raspberries all make great fruit muffins. Make a chocolate muffin by adding some cocoa powder and chocolate chips.
If you’re nervous or unsure about your batter, taste it before you spoon it into the muffin tin. If it needs something, add it. You can always throw in a little vanilla or an extra couple of tablespoons of sugar if it doesn’t taste right to you. As long as you’ve got the basic ingredients in there, it will become an edible muffin. And like a lot of baked goods, these muffins freeze very nicely. Let them cool, then put them on a baking sheet and put them in the freezer. Once they’re totally frozen, pop them in a zip-top bag, suck out the air, and put them back in the freezer. Flash-freezing them like that keeps them from sticking together in the bag. When you need one, take it out and either let it thaw on its own or pop it in the microwave for ~1 minute. Happy Baking.