Spend vs. Skimp

frozen vegetables

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.

3. Pasta

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.

2.  Rice

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.

(Photo: stevendepolo)

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  • Summer September 1, 2009  

    I find that if I only buy cereal when it goes on sale, I can get name brands for less than generic brands. I can’t speak for Wegman’s, but I can assure you that every knock-off Cinnamon Toast Crunch or Frosted Mini-Wheats we’ve tried have NOT been as good as the original.

    I save by buying dried beans (so easy to cook in the crock-pot) and by skipping the jars of pasta sauce in favor of making my own. I’ve also done extensive research to discover which $3 wines are worth drinking. (Tisdale chardonnay is a current favorite. You’re welcome.) I save on coffee by buying Latin American brands of espresso, like Cafe Goya or Cafe Pilon. Crazy cheap, but strong and good.

    I splurge a little by always buying Silk soymilk rather than store brands or whatever’s on sale. That’s the only brand that will froth up worth a damn… my coffee is worth it, and it’s a lot cheaper than going to Starbucks.

  • belmontmedina September 1, 2009  

    I’m pretty sure NY Mag did a taste test with spaghetti and found that the Trader Joe’s brand was the best. Not that NY Mag is a bastion of food knowledge, but I take it for what it’s worth. And that stuff is crazy cheap.

  • Amy September 1, 2009  

    I do a lot of splurge/shortcut thinking when planning what to can and freeze.

    Tomatoes –
    No to straight up canned or juice. These are way too inexpensive in the supermarket.
    Yes to salsa (my gods, I have the mother of all canned salsa recipes), freezing diced tomatoes in 2-cup increments at the end of the season, and pasta sauce. Though pasta sauce is a tossup. Store bought is good and fairly cheap, but it’s also easy to can your own.

    Corn – freeze as much as possible. Store bought is okay in a pinch, but corn is one vegetable that is WAY better home-preserved.

    Green beans – Excellent when frozen store bought. Not much better home frozen. Pass.

    Zucchini – Grate in a food processor and freeze in recipe-sized increments. Great way to use up zucchini.

    Fruit – homemade jam is the ONLY way to go. Freezer jam is super easy. I always freeze bags and bags of whole strawberries and blueberries from local growers. Store bought isn’t bad, but why bother when you can have excellent frozen fruit?

    And, yeah, Silk is the only soymilk I’ll buy.

    Guess what? You can save the cash on extra virgin olive oil. The brand Aldi’s carries is excellent: very green, fresh, and olivey. As good as super-expensive brands I’ve had. And it’s like $3.99 a bottle.

  • Maids September 1, 2009  

    Question about sea salt – I definitely like the taste better, but I am concerned about getting necessary iodine in my diet and regular table salt is infused with iodine. I heard iodine deficiency leads to goiters — Thoughts???

  • Nee Nee September 1, 2009  

    Meat – splurge. I refuse to buy meat at chain stores or bulk stores. Although it costs a more at the local butcher, their cuts are clean and I never worry about bone shavings, gristle, or e. coli.

    Bacon – splurge. My market carries some applewood smoked stuff that is fabulous. The strips remain substantial after frying to a crisp, unlike cheap bacon which has ‘smoke flavoring’ and are only slightly thicker than paper.

    Bulk dried beans are the only way to go. I can control the sodium content and freeze my leftovers. No more 1/2 cans that get lost in the fridge.

    Cous cous – always cheaper in the bulk aisle than the Near East box. As a matter of fact, most whole grains are cheaper in bulk.

    Spend/splurge decisions are easier in the summer with the garden. My market was selling pesto for $32/lb. I feel rich with my own pot of basil in the back yard.

  • gansie September 1, 2009  

    @maids re: iodine in salt. i read a great article in cooking light and their suggestion was to cook with whatever “gourmet” salt (i’m a kosher over sea girl) and then at the table use the iodine stuff. that way when you want to add some extra, you’ll use that instead.

  • Vanessa September 2, 2009  

    This is one of the best posts I have seen!! Fabulous!

    I use the extra long spaghetti at Trader Joe’s when I find them, and pasta di Gragnano (Italy, the best available) pasta bought at Costco (Garofalo brand, really, really good pasta, $6.95 for 6 2-lb bags- a steal!). I guess this is in between a splurge and a steal!

    For everything else, you have outlined my splurges and saves: I splurge in sea salt (which should already have the iodine!), olive oil (of course!) and also meat and fish (frozen fish? Yuk!). I always buy Trader Joe’s cereals- the only ones I have found without high fructose corn syrup, and for really cheap!

  • Krista September 2, 2009  

    Excellent post. Having lived in Asia for a good chunk of my life I am pretty picky about rice. I think you really need to have jasmine, basmati and a short-grain variety around the house at a minimum. But the Asian store is absolutely the place to buy the stash without getting ripped off..

    Splurge on a good quality rice cooker that can cook multiple types of rice to perfection.

  • Alex September 2, 2009  

    re: olive oil, gotta clarify – not worth the splurge if you’re going to fry or make dough with it, only if you’re going to use it without cooking. My huge can of bargain olive oil works great for pizza and eggplant parm, not so well for salad dressing.

    Maids- yes, be concerned about iodine, and use table salt for table seasoning, sea salt for cooking/baking. The reason they put the iodine there is that it was a cheap, simple public-health fix to a really common problem.

    @ Amy, didn’t quite understand your rec re: tomatoes? I use canned crushed tomatoes for pasta and pizza sauce, and it’s WAY cheaper and much better than store-bought (plus you can get all fancy/extra-garlicky). I find bottled salsa to sometimes be a better deal than making fresh though, esp because it’s hard to find good tomatoes most of the year here in the far NE.

  • Tia September 3, 2009  

    Just thought I would add that strawberries, eggs and wild caught fish also provide natural iodine.

  • Alex September 4, 2009  

    yeah, more generally, a lot of seafood, foods grown seaside or in otherwise iodine-rich soils, and dairy (and eggs) contain iodine, but in variable amounts. But for lactards (sorry Maids), salt is probably the easiest consistent source.

    Fun fact – dairy contains iodine because farmers wash their equipment in solutions containing iodine (and also feed them iodine-fortified feed.)

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