Budget baking tips: 9 ways to make cheap cakes

A roundup of our best budget baking tips to save money - ideal for avid bakers who have been impacted by the cost of living crisis...

Buns, bread rolls and baked goods with a mini shopping trolley
Budget baking is easy with our top tips and tricks...
(Image credit: Getty/Future)

From bulk buys to simple, easy recipes here are our top tips when it comes to budget baking and making cakes at a low cost.

Home baking can save you money during the cost of living crisis. With grocery prices rising frighteningly quickly – treats like cakes and biscuits can be one of the first things to go. According to figures by the British Retail Consortium, food inflation is at its highest rate since April 2012, and costs were hiked up by 4.3% in just one month in May.

While the basics like flour and sugar have been long considered relatively cheap ingredients, even they have been affected by recent events. Russia was the biggest producer of wheat in the world and Ukraine one of Europe’s largest, which, due to the war, has driven up the cost of flour (and, of course, bread and other baked goods as a result). Rising energy costs and supply chain disruption have seen a hike in the price of sugar and, as if that wasn’t enough, eggs are up by 44% for a different reason again – an outbreak of avian flu.

But whether it’s creating bake sale cakes or just knocking up some biscuits for your kids, it is still possible to save money on food like home bakes, with our savvy tips and hacks. “Baking can seem like a really expensive hobby, with lots of gadgets and equipment (especially now the cost of ingredients is so high), but there are many affordable ways to get baking and you really don't need much to get started,” says biscuit maker Emily Garland from Maid of Gingerbread. “The reward of having baked something yourself is really worth it.”

Budget baking tips

1. Weigh ingredients accurately

Baking is a science, it’s not a chuck-it-all-in-and-hope-for-the-best activity.  So making sure you weigh your ingredients accurately and following a good recipe to the letter will not just help you reduce waste on the stuff you put in the mixing bowl, it will help you make a perfect bake rather than one with a soggy bottom or a burnt top.

mother and daughter rolling out dough

Making sure you follow the recipe correctly will ensure no food waste

(Image credit: Getty)

2. Improvise on equipment

There’s really no need to fork out for spendy gadgets to perfect your bakes, you’ll have plenty of things knocking around the house that can be used to make baking easy. 

Don't have a rolling pin? Use a bottle of wine instead. Don't have a piping bag for decorating a cake? Use a sandwich bag and cut a hole in the corner. Don't have a whisk? Use two forks back to back. 

“You don't really need any fancy equipment to get a great finish on a cake or other bakes. You can use a bottle as a rolling pin if you're making biscuits or, most of the time, you can just roll the dough into small balls and press them down with a fork instead,” says Emily.  

The most versatile thing you can invest in, suggests Emily, is a roll of baking parchment. “You can use it to line tins and trays (to save using butter) as well as make your own piping bags – there are many tutorials online.”

3. Buy in bulk

Buying your dry ingredients, like flour, sugar, and dried fruits, in larger quantities is an easy way of saving money as they can be stored for months. A good example is Billington’s Caster Sugar which costs £3.20 per kilo at Sainsbury’s if you buy a 250g bag, whereas it is only £2.20 per kilo if you buy the full kilo.

Nuts are another one to watch out for. “Nuts can be prohibitively expensive, but make sure you check all the different World Food sections of the supermarket as you'll often find bigger, cheaper bags there,” suggests Emily. “Also, if your recipe calls for ground nuts and you own a blender, coffee grinder, or food processor, then always keep an eye out for whole or flaked versions in case they're cheaper, and grind them at home.”

And when it comes to flour, you don’t even need to buy different varieties, thanks to this handy hint from Emily. ”If you're going to be doing more than a couple of bakes this year, you don't need to buy a separate bag of self-raising flour. Instead, go for a big bag of cheap plain flour (as that's the most versatile option) then get a little pot of bicarb and baking powder and make your own self-raising whenever a recipe calls for it - just make sure you measure the powders accurately and sieve it really well before using.”

A slice of sponge cake with jam in the middle

Keep your bakes simple without any costly extra ingredients

(Image credit: Getty)

4. Keep your recipes simple

The trick to making sure you don't spend heaps of money on baking is to keep your recipes simple – if your recipe calls for matcha powder or goji berries, well, that’s going to drive the price of your bake right up. Choose classic recipes like Victoria sponge or a simple chocolate cake recipe that have basic ingredients you can use over and over again, and save your cupboards overflowing with random packets of things you’ve used once and will be chucked away past their sell-by date. 

“For simple sponge cake recipes, cheap margarine works just as well as butter - and it's even easier to use because you don't need to wait for it to soften before you can get baking,” says Emily, who also raves about oats. “Oats are a great way to make delicious bakes without forking out for expensive ingredients. Flapjacks are especially versatile and you can also add oats to the flour for things like crumble toppings to make it go a bit further. And while we're on the subject, tinned fruit works really well as a crumble filling. It's one of my go-to desserts.”

Also, check your cupboard before you shop and recipe-plan – whether it's half a bag of brown sugar or a pot of sugar strands lurking in the corner unloved,  you know what you've got in already and can work your bakes around them. “Do a cupboard audit before you go shopping for ingredients. If you think you have something that might work instead of one of the ingredients, just do a quick google to see if it's a good substitute,” says Emily.

5. Use your freezer

You might be surprised to learn you can freeze your bakes to help them last longer and provide another treat for another time. “Just avoid storing them in the freezer for too long as they are quite susceptible to freezer burn,” says freezing expert Kate Hall from The Full Freezer. “If you’re concerned about this, then you may wish to wrap your bakes individually in cling film or heavy-duty foil but, if you know you'll be eating them fairly soon, just pop them on a lined tray to freeze individually, before moving them to a freezer bag. Just be sure to squeeze out as much air as possible before sealing.”

Kate suggests portioning up to help with defrosting. “If you’re freezing baps, bagels or rolls, you may wish to cut them in half before freezing as this helps them to defrost much faster when you want them. Also, be sure to slice up cakes so that you can just thaw out what you need.”

And when it comes to thawing, there are ways to do it for the freshest tasting outcomes. “To eat your frozen baked goods, it's best to thaw in short bursts on low in the microwave, or in the oven. You can defrost at room temperature, but it's best to keep your bakes wrapped as they can turn stale very quickly if left uncovered. If this happens, consider using them as breadcrumbs, in a sweet or savoury dish, rather than letting them go to waste,” says Kate.

You can freeze elements of your bakes if you have leftovers too, so that buttercream left in the bottom of your piping bag will save time on your next baking session. It’s a good idea to label everything – otherwise you might mistake your buttercream for, say, white sauce, which wouldn’t be the best of news for your resulting lasagne… 

6. Go for supermarket own brands

They are just as good quality for the most part (and are often produced in the same places as the big name brands), and will always save you pounds. A 500g bag of McDougalls plain flour is £1.15 in Sainsbury’s, while an own-brand bag is just 40p – almost two-thirds cheaper. 

Make sure you compare prices, though, and don’t assume as there are exceptions to every rule – we discovered that a 500g bag of sultanas from Grower’s Harvest at Tesco is just 99p, while their own brand is nearly double at £1.80.  

a table filled with flour, eggs, butter and other ingredients

Some ingredients can be swapped around in baking, such as sugar being swapped for other types, or butter being subbed with margarine

(Image credit: Getty)

7. Mix and match

“Dried fruit and nuts are easily swapped for different types,” says Emily. “If it's a forgiving recipe you can often mix different types of syrup, honey, or sugar together – this can be a really handy way of using up the last bit of things you might have at the back of the cupboard. 

And sometimes a nod to vegan baking – even if you’re not a plant-based diet devotee – can save you cash. “If you're making meringues or royal icing, tins of chickpeas can be found really cheaply in most supermarkets and the drained water (called aquafaba) works just as well as egg white in these types of bakes. Plus you then have a whole tin of chickpeas to cook something with!”

8. Use up your fresh ingredients

“Baking can be a fantastic way to use up leftovers. In lockdown, we all saw how old bananas can be transformed into delicious banana bread, but if you have any fruit that's past its best it can almost certainly be used in a cake: just discard any pieces that are totally past it, then chop the rest into cubes and fold into a simple sponge cake mixture for a flavoured cake, or put it in a pan on low heat with a spoon of sugar and use it in a crumble,” says Emily. “Carrots and other root vegetables make amazing cake ingredients – courgette and beetroot cake in particular.”

And then there’s the classic bread and butter pudding. “One of my favourite desserts, it's the perfect way to transform stale bread into a stunning bake. You can also use any stale pastries and/or leftover dried fruit and nuts.”

Emily also suggests making use of your local community – one of the positives that came out of the pandemic. “Lots of neighborhoods still have active WhatsApp groups from lockdown, so make use of that if you're in one. It's always worth doing a shout-out to see if someone nearby has some eggs that need using up, for example –  turning up with a freshly baked cake afterward is a sure-fire way to keep your neighbors happy! There are also some great apps and websites these days focused on lowering food waste. Keep an eye out for bakeries and greengrocers getting rid of excess food, then use some of the tips above to turn them into amazing bakes.”

A mum and four kids with a table selling cakes

Share the cost of ingredients by getting friends over to bake for a street sale or school fair

(Image credit: Getty)

9. Join forces for bake sales

If you’re baking for a community event like a bake sale, street party, or school fair, why not make the actual production of goods a communal event? Volunteer your kitchen (if you’re feeling brave) and invite people over, with everyone bringing something on the list of ingredients to cut down on costs, and make in bigger quantities, which will also save cash. 

Just remember to tell people to bring their rubber gloves and be willing to get stuck into the big clean-up.

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Lara Kilner
Food Writer

Lara Kilner is a writer and editor with two decades of experience in national newspapers, magazines, and websites. She writes about food, lifestyle, travel, health and wellness, and entertainment, and regularly interviews celebrities and people with interesting life stories and experiences. Her foodie content has included interviews with Jamie Oliver, Rick Stein, Queer Eye’s food expert Antoni Porowski, the Hairy Bikers, Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall, Raymond Blanc, Andi Oliver, Paul Hollywood, Prue Leith, and Nadiya Hussain.