Spend vs. Skimp
As the noted economist and Nobel laureate Steely Dan once said, “Times are hard…you’re afraid to pay the fee.” While Mr. Dan was not necessarily talking about our current economic downturn, the sentiment remains true.
When it comes to buying food, though, there are times when it makes sense to cut some corners and there are times when you just have to bite the bullet and shell out for quality. The smart shopper, however, knows the difference. There are some no-brainers out there. Never buy cheap gourmet ingredients like prosciutto. These types of purchases don’t come often, and when they do you’re usually happy to lay out some cash.
But what about the staples that form the backbone of your kitchen? How can you get the best bang for your buck without overspending for something that won’t pay off? Check out the list below for our top three best investments for your shopping dollars and the three items you can nab from the bargain bin.
Worth the Upgrade:
1. Sea Salt
Of course you have your kosher salt (any serious home cook using iodized needs to just hang up the apron), but the performance you can get from a good sea salt is well worth it. You can pick up a perfectly good South American salt (I do Peruvian Pink from Whole Foods) for about $10/pound and a quarter will last you months as long as you use it only for finishing.
2. Olive Oil
I shouldn’t even need to tell you about this one. As with the salt, if you’re going to be finishing off your dish with one last kick-in-the-pants drizzle of olive oil, please make sure it’s a good one! Bonus hint — if you’re making a soup, hit each bowl with a dash of olive oil as it’s heading to the table to freshen up the flavor. One place you should definitely skimp when it comes flavored oils. While it may be tempting to pick up that sexy-looking bottle of rosemary, pepper or garlic infused oil, you’ll likely never use it quickly enough to prevent it from going bad. Infusing your own on your stovetop as you need it is the way to go, and you can even stick with your mid-grade “frying” olive oil if you prefer.
Look, you’re already going (relatively) cheap by doing a pasta dish rather than a New York Strip, but go the extra mile and get something good — and preferably something imported from Italy. It’s not that the cheap stuff tastes that bad, it’s just that the good stuff does a much better job of staying al dente and it possesses a texture that can’t be beat. When you’re talking about $2.79 instead of $1.29, I guarantee you’ll appreciate the buck-fifty investment. De Cecco is my everyday choice. They offer a ton of shapes and it cooks up perfectly.
Save the Cash:
A note…the first and best rule about bargain shopping is to find a supermarket with a quality line of generic products. I swear to God that Wegmans brand products are the same as the name brand in some instances, which isn’t surprising considering they’re likely made in the same facilities.
1. Breakfast Cereal
We all know that the sugar and marshmallow atrocity is both bad for you and bad for you wallet, but even the healthier options that come from General Mills, Post, etc. have you paying for the advertising. A store brand version of common types of cereals like raisin brand and corn flakes are perfectly fine, and a good store brand can even put out a competitive knock off of Peanut Butter Cap’n Crunch — for when you’re looking to indulge your inner fourth grader. This rule goes double for instant oatmeal.
This is the reason that the ethnic food area of your supermarket exists. There is no reason in the world to be buying your rice — even “specialty” rice like arborio, jasmine or basmati — in those stupid plastic containers. Head to the bulk aisle, or towards those 10-pound bags of Indian rice that go for practically nothing. Caveat: We’re just going to pretend Minute Rice doesn’t exist for the sake of this argument. That shit isn’t food.
3. Frozen Vegetables
What, are you afraid that the generic brand might not possess a fantastic texture and crisp hint of freshness? Then don’t buy frozen vegetables. The rest of us know that there are plenty of good frozen ingredients — spinach, peas and corn, in particular — that you can get cheaply and year-round without having to resort to mega-producers like Green Giant or Bird’s Eye. Go store brand, especially if you have a Trader Joe’s near you. Their frozen edamame is a steal. Just stay away from veggies you like extra firm, like broccoli…there’s no returning from mushville.
Anything to add? Give us your splurges and shortcuts in the comments, and help make your fellow ESers smarter shoppers.