This particular make-or-buy comparison was brought to me by Kitchn reader Michael. He says:
My wife and I have two children and I'm always debating between convenience and healthy choices. We don't do the blue boxed macaroni because homemade is a much better choice, but I don't have time to make cheesecake for dessert. I wish I did but we often err for store bought.
Well, Michael, let's see how store-bought and homemade end up doing when we look at them side by side! I'm thinking we should do a three-way comparison this time: a frozen Sara Lee cheesecake, a freshly-baked cheesecake from The Cheesecake Factory, and Martha Stewart's recipe for homemade cheesecake. All costs were taken from Peapod Online Grocery unless otherwise noted.
• Sara Lee New York Style Cheesecake
PER SLICE (6): $1.42
• Original Cheesecake from The Cheesecake Factory
PER SLICE (8): $2.99
• Homemade Cheesecake
5 tablespoons unsalted butter: $1.09
12 graham crackers (estimating 1/2 box): $1.70
1/4 cup sugar: $0.06
1/4 teaspoon coarse salt: $0.01
2 1/2 pounds bar cream cheese: $7.50
1 1/2 cups sugar: $0.62
1 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest, plus 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice: $0.34
1/2 teaspoon coarse salt: $0.01
4 large eggs: $0.80
1 cup sour cream: $1.00
PER SLICE (12): $1.09
For sheer time-saving, the Sara Lee Cheesecake wins hands down. Pick one up the next time you do your grocery shopping, and it's ready after 30 seconds in the microwave. Easy peasy!
Unless you live next door to a Cheesecake Factory (or want to pay an extra $20 for shipping), one of their cakes means a trip to the nearest restaurant. On the other hand, these cheesecakes freeze just as easily as Sara Lee's and can be kept in the freezer for up to six months. You could theoretically stock up with several on one trip and freeze what you're not going to eat right away.
And now we come to making our own cheesecake. The graham cracker crust gets pulsed in a food processor, pressed into the pan, and baked for 12-15 minutes. Assembling the cheesecake filling is a straightforward mixing process and then you pour it into the pre-baked crust.
Cheesecakes need to be baked in a hot water bath so the cooking temperature stays even and the top doesn't crack; not that hard, but arguably something that makes cheesecake fussier than other desserts. Once your water bath is set up, the cheesecake bakes for nearly two hours (woah) and then needs to cool for about 20 minutes (another woah), and then refrigerated completely before eating (third woah).
All told, making a cheesecake involves about 20 minutes of active kitchen time, a few hours of hanging around the house while the cake is baking, and then the fortitude of spirit not to devour it until the next day. What this says to me is that cheesecake might not be that difficult on a technical level, but it's also definitely not a quick weeknight kind of treat.
But! If you're making this for just your family and not a special event, you could freeze individual slices and thaw them in the microwave, a la Sara Lee, when you want them. Provided you find some time on the weekend to make the cake, this is one way to have your homemade and your convenience, too.
TASTINESS AND HEALTHFULNESS
We've all had those Sara Lee cheesecakes. They appear at potlucks and large family gatherings, and I would personally give them a rating of "not terrible." They're no Cheesecake Factory cheesecake, but I'd eat a slice of this over many other packaged, store-bought desserts. Sara Lee also gets minus-points for using lots of stabilizers, starches, gums, and other such additives in their dessert.
Cheesecake Factory admittedly makes a mighty fine cheesecake. It's creamy and dense. Sweet but still distinctively tangy. A cheesecake worth going out of your way for, in this cheesecake lover's opinion. The Cheesecake Factory doesn't post nutrition information on their website, but states that "We pride ourselves on using only the freshest and finest ingredients available." It's safe to assume that their cheesecakes are probably more wholesome and contain fewer additives than Sara Lee's.
All this being said, some of the best cheesecake I've ever had has been homemade. It might not be the prettiest. There might be some cracks in the top and the crust might be a bit soggy. But it's good stuff. I think cheesecake is really best when it's fresh, and the only way to get this is to make it yourself. Plus you can make it with the bare minimum of ingredients and don't need to worry about additives in your delicious dessert.
MAKE OR BUY?
If you love cheesecake and regularly serve it for dessert, but lack the time to make it yourself, I think it's worth finding a source of good-quality prepared cheesecake. This might be a local bakery or the farmers market. It might even be the bake shop at your grocery store. Somewhere there is a compromise between the convenience of Sara Lee and the cost and quality of Cheesecake Factory.
Definitely try making your own at some point. The time required to make cheesecake might mean that this isn't a regular cooking ritual, but oh man, homemade cheesecake is good.
VERDICT: No clear winner here. Except for cheesecake. Cheesecake always wins.
What do you think?