We are faced with so many choices in the grocery store. Will it be spaghetti or macaroni? Bok choy or broccoli? Yogurt with a billion bacteria or a trillion?
These often agonizing choices are highly personal — and 99 per cent of the time I’m all about economizing and doing more with less-fancy, less-expensive ingredients.
But for nine particular ingredients, when you have a choice between a discount or mass-market version and a costlier one, I’m voting for the latter. In each case, the better quality makes a big difference to the final flavour of a dish, and the additional cost really is worth it.
For these nine, I always buy the best I can afford. Here’s why:
Parmesan: Buy a wedge of it and grate it as required. Not only is its taste light years better than the pre-grated dry stuff, but it’s also much more intense, so you need less of it. And as an extra perk you get the rind of the cheese, a concentrated bomb of umami richness that I drop into a pot of simmering soup for an extraordinary flavour boost. A wedge of parm can last up to 12 months in the fridge, but it’s so good you’ll use it up long before then.
Steaks and roasts: It’s easy to make good-quality roasts and steaks taste good — particularly whole chickens, pork chops and beef steaks. In fact, I rarely add more than salt and pepper and let the quality meat speak for itself. To find great meats, seek out an independent butcher who sources her own meats.
Vanilla: There is pure (sometimes called real) vanilla extract, and there is artificial — it’s easy to tell, just read the label. There is usually a significant price gap between the two. But you can always taste difference. Real vanilla is nuanced and nutty, fragrant without being brassy. Artificial vanilla tastes, well, fake.
Balsamic vinegar: You certainly don’t need to spend $100 a bottle (although you can find it at that price point), but do opt for a balsamic that’s closer to $10 a bottle than $2 a bottle. The $2 bottle isn’t balsamic at all, just a mix of vinegar, sugar and colour. The $10 bottle contains at least some grape must (the base of authentic balsamic), and is aged, making it more rich and syrupy, and all the more heavenly simply drizzled over soft cheese or grilled vegetables.
Canned tuna: I blame the low-fat craze of the 1980s and ’90s for the dry, chewy travesty that is tuna packed in water. Oil-packed tuna is much more flavourful (fat transmits flavour to your taste buds) and the oil gives the fish a luxurious mouthfeel. It’s the only one worthy of a sandwich, salad or casserole.
Chocolate: From chocolate chips for cookies to the bar you nibble on after dinner, and whether you prefer dark or milk, paying a bit more is always worth it. The more expensive the chocolate, the more cocoa and cocoa butter it contains, and the fewer emulsifiers, sweeteners and fillers. Skip the waxy, too-sweet stuff in favour of the intensity and richness of quality chocolate.
Bacon: Have you ever fried a pan of bacon only to find the pan filled with water? Cheap bacon is pumped with brine to speed up production and bulk up the rashers. Good bacon, the kind foodie dreams are made of, is dry-cured, usually thickly cut and doesn’t leak fluid in the pan. Look for it at good butchers and farmers’ markets.
Extra-virgin olive oil: You’ve been hearing this for years, so I’m here to reaffirm it — good extra-virgin is worth it. Producers often dilute quality extra-virgin with inferior oils; that weakens its flavours and health benefits. Think of it like wine and look for an olive oil that matches what you’d pay for a Saturday night bottle (in my world, that’s about $15 — and oil lasts much longer than the wine!). Remember that the best extra-virgin olive oil should be used only in raw dishes (salads) or at the end of cooking a dish (drizzle it over fresh pizza or soup). Don’t waste it on a sauté.
Ice cream: Better-quality ice cream is made with more cream than milk and has very little air whipped into it. This means it lingers for a few extra delicious seconds on your tongue, and (if you’re like me) you end up eating less of it in one sitting!