I recently made my first attempt at baking macarons, the Parisian delicacy that’s hard to come by in the U.S. and notorious for being finicky to make. As I waited for the crispy cookie shells to bake in the oven, I took in the almond flour scent and imagined a blissful life running a macaron production line, spending my time surrounded by the pastel morsels, and feeding them to happy family and friends and customers.
Once I admitted this was probably not actually an ideal career path (so much standing on my feet!), I did stop to wonder if it would be possible–if I could perfect the technique–to make macarons and sell them around town on occasion as a fun side hobby.
It used to be that if you had a fabulous method for for vanilla cupcakes or macarons or peanut butter cookies, and your friends or neighbors wanted to get their hands on a dozen, you had two options to bake and sell: 1) get a commercial kitchen license or rent out a commercial kitchen in order to comply with health code regulations, or 2) do it illegally under the table from home (metaphorically speaking).
Fortunately for people like me and anyone else interested in dabbling in the baking business without renting a restaurant kitchen, Cottage Food laws have spread across the country in the past few years. Currently pending in states like California and South Carolina, and already in place in states from Oregon to Maine, these laws are a departure from the regulation of all things edible, allowing home bakers to bake from home and sell their goods to the public under certain circumstances.
Though the laws vary by state, they usually set the following conditions:
1) Paperwork. Although the general idea is to keep state regulators out of your business, some states may require an inspections process of your home kitchen in order to get started up. You may also have to pay a home bakery registration fee.
2) What you can sell. In most cases, only baked goods considered “non-hazardous”–things like cookies and cakes that aren’t likely to harbor food-borne illnesses–are allowed by the laws.
3) Where you can sell. In stricter states, you may only be able to sell your home-baked goods directly out of your home. Other states with more lenient laws allow home bakers to sell at public venues like local farmer’s markets.
4) Labeling. As a form of consumer protection, most laws require labeling on home-baked products specifying that they were made in a home kitchen not regulated by the state’s department of agriculture. Some states also require a list of any allergens (peanuts, wheat, etc.) contained in the item. Others require a list of ingredients by weight, similar to standard food labeling for commercial food.
5) Profit limits. Many Cottage Food laws limit the total amount of sales a home baker can do in a year–typically somewhere in the low thousands. Anything over the limit and you’ll need to set up a commercial kitchen like other larger-scale operations.
Though the laws have been met with much rejoicing by bakers hoping to boost their economic situation, they aren’t without controversy: food safety groups and consumer protection advocates are up in arms in many states, worried that home baking will put consumers at risk. They do have a point. If you wanted, you could whip up your cupcakes in a dirty kitchen with sick children in the house, use improper food handling precautions, and then wrap those up in a pretty box and pass them off to an unsuspecting customer. Don’t do that.
To get your own home bakery operation started, find more information about your state’s laws below.
UPDATE: A more recent post about cottage food laws can be viewed here.