When it comes to holiday gifts, there's not much money can't buy...provided you have it in the first place. But if you're on a tight budget this season, a trip to the grocery store and a few hours in the kitchen can yield an impressive pile of presents for cheap. Homemade edible gifts aren't just easy on the wallet, though—they're heartwarming labors of love (or at least, that's what your friends and family will think). If you have the right recipes in hand, they'll also be far more unique and delicious than their store-bought counterparts. And if you're the least bit crafty, a spool of ribbon and a session of hand-decorating labels can transform even the most ho-hum of condiments, like mayo or barbecue sauce, into charming packages.
Read on for our favorite easy-to-make, easy-to-gift crowd-pleasers, from rich chocolate truffles to creamy caramel to briny, punchy olive tapenade. For a more substantial presentation, just whip up a handful of these recipes in big batches, portion them out into Ball jars and cellophane bags, toss them in a tissue-paper-lined wicker basket, and let the gifting commence.
It doesn't get much more budget-friendly than a recipe that calls for literally nothing beyond granulated sugar and a stint in the oven. Load up a baking dish with a few pounds of sugar, and let it toast at a low 300°F (150°C) for anywhere from two to five hours, stirring occasionally. The result is a richly caramel-flavored sugar with a subdued, more subtle sweetness. Your recipient can use it as a one-to-one substitute for plain sugar—it's key to our Perfect Swiss Meringue, but it'll play just as well in coffee or in their favorite batch of cookies.
Fresh Lemon Syrup
Stop chucking your lemon rinds and start saving them up for a big batch of this brightly tart-sweet syrup. We toss the used rinds with about half their weight in sugar for a deeply flavorful, colorful extract—no juice, added flavorings, or dyes required. The resulting syrup bottles beautifully and lasts in the fridge for up to three months. It can be used as a mixer in any cocktail where a hint of citrus would be welcome, or added to an addictive batch of whipped cream. Don't have any leftover rinds? The same principle, applied to freshly cut whole lemons, will yield an electrifying batch of lemonade (and it works wonders with limes as well).
Easy Caramel Sauce
It takes just 20 minutes and a remarkably short ingredient list to pull together a batch of this silky homemade caramel. A quick simmer of water, sugar, and salt will get you most of the way there, but a cup of cream, a dash of vanilla extract, and an empty vanilla pod give it a smooth texture and complex flavor. Stop when it reaches a pale, honey-colored hue for a simpler, more straightforward sweetness, or keep simmering until it's a toastier amber shade to coax out a pleasantly bitter edge. You'll want to jar the caramel promptly, as it will thicken and stiffen as it cools. Though your recipient should use it within a month, chances are it'll go a lot faster than that.
Cajeta Casera (Homemade Goat's Milk "Caramel")
For something a little more nuanced and, well, gooier than your standard caramel, we turn to this twist on dulce de leche. In place of boiled cow's milk, cajeta casera embraces the tangy-rich, faintly funky flavor of goat's milk. One benefit is that the unique cooking properties of goat's milk allow for a relatively quick stint on the stovetop. The result is a deeply concentrated, intensely flavored topping perfectly suited to drizzling over ice cream, spreading over cakes, adding to cookies, and binge-eating straight from the jar.
If you don't mind getting your hands a little
dirty slathered in chocolate, chocolate truffles are a surprisingly low-effort undertaking, with serious visual (and gustatory) appeal. The process is simple: Whip piping-hot heavy cream into a bowl of finely chopped dark chocolate, then whisk in some butter and, if you like, a splash of your favorite booze. When the mixture has firmed up in the fridge, just roll it into bite-size balls and coat them in powdered cocoa, ground nuts, or tempered chocolate. Our recipe makes a sizable batch, enough for at least a few small gift sets.
Cookies are the OG of DIY gifts, and we have more than enough options for all your needs. From chewy chocolate-dipped coconut macaroons to the best chocolate chip cookies that science (and an insane level of obsessive passion) can produce, you'll find dozens of recipes on our holiday cookie page to get you started.
Homemade Milk Duds
This recipe gets a tad messy, but the chewy, chocolaty, caramel-laden results are well worth it. Each caramel is hand-dipped in chocolate, for delicately thin shells with far greater complexity than those of the yellow-boxed originals.
Spiced and Candied Nuts
Seasoning nuts is a time-honored way of dressing up profoundly simple ingredients with fairly minimal effort. If you've made our lemon syrup and have some to spare, try using it in a batch of crispy citrus-candied pistachios. For something a bit less labor-intensive, though, we have a few easy combos to spice up the holiday season. Ground ginger and cayenne pepper add a savory kick to our Mexican Spiced Chocolate Pecans, bound in a light, crispy egg white coating. That same treatment gives our Smoky Candied Almonds their delicate shell, spiced with smoked paprika, cayenne, and punchy Old Bay. If you'd rather avoid the sweetness of candied nuts, our savory, briny, and herbal Olive-Rosemary Spiced Cashews should hit the spot.
Tapenade, as most of us know it, is an olive-heavy purée, typically spiked with garlic, anchovies, and fresh herbs. But traditional tapenade, created by a chef in Marseille back in 1880, takes its name from the Provençal word for capers, tapeno, and it's flavored accordingly. With equal parts olives, capers, and fish (in our case, anchovies and tuna), it's briny and intense, and it gets further flavor from fresh herbs, Dijon mustard, and a splash of cognac. It's not for everyone—which is why we have a recipe for the more commonplace variety as well—but it's the kind of gift that's guaranteed to please and surprise more adventurous palates.
Sure, most people already have a jar of mayo sitting in their fridge, but true mayonnaise connoisseurs will appreciate the substantial flavor improvements you can get from homemade. The traditional method, which calls for hand-whisking a slow drizzle of oil into a mixture of egg and mustard, takes some serious elbow grease and has a tendency to go awry. But if you have a hand blender, the process couldn't be easier—simply combine your ingredients in a jar and blend. Two minutes later, you'll have a rich, creamy, complex bowl of mayo. If that doesn't sound quite exciting enough to gift, stir in some sriracha or garlic for added punch.
Homemade Garam Masala
The key to a truly nuanced, full-flavored spice blend is toasting fresh whole spices before grinding them—a step that most likely won't have gone into your average store-bought blend. With an aromatic mix of green cardamom pods, coriander seed, cumin, black peppercorns, cloves, fennel, cinnamon, anise, and nutmeg, garam masala is a bold, bright mix that can be used for a wide variety of curries, braises, and other Indian preparations...or just a soothing round of aromatherapy.
Great Barbecue Sauce
Some traditional varieties of barbecue sauce can be pretty time-consuming to prepare. But these three variations take just minutes to complete. All start with a base of ketchup and Worcestershire sauce, but they quickly diverge from there. Our Coffee-Ginger Barbecue Sauce is smoky and rich thanks to a touch of paprika, a little dark chocolate, and a drizzle of molasses; it's great for pairing with pork shoulder or brisket. For something more acidic and hot, give our Buffalo Barbecue Sauce a shot—with Frank's RedHot and butter, it's the perfect vinegary topping for wings, smoked chicken, or pulled pork. Funk-lovers will revel in this Korean Kimchi Barbecue Sauce, packed with the intense, tangy heat of kimchi and gochujang (Korean chili paste). We love it on grilled chicken, pork, and shellfish.
Fans of Cheez-Its will get a kick out of these homemade crackers, which deliver the same buttery, cheesy, utterly addictive crunch of the snacktime classic, but elevated with higher-quality ingredients and some TLC. To replicate the Cheez-It look, you can slice them with a fluted pastry wheel and use a skewer to add the signature center dimple. Alternatively, just grab a cookie cutter and go to town, stamping them out in any shape you'd like.
Whether it's an Easy Italian-American Red Sauce or The Best Slow-Cooked Bolognese, a homemade pasta sauce is virtually guaranteed to taste better than whatever you'll find in a supermarket jar. No matter which recipe you choose, though, take the time to properly can it, or be sure to tell the recipient to use the sauce within a week or so. We doubt they'll have much trouble following through.