Wednesday, July 23, 2008

10 Foods You Should Always Splurge On

We spend a lot of time talking about cheap food on this blog, and for good reason: oftentimes, it’s just as tasty as the pricey stuff – especially when it comes to everyday meals. See, most dishes can be prepared with inexpensive ingredients without a massive dip in quality, and family and friends will never be the wiser. Because, really? NOBODY knows you’re using generic butter to make an omelet, and only Thomas Keller could identify Brand X sugar in a batch of Christmas cookies.

Yet, there are some foods where it pays to go a little more upscale. Either their bargain-basement brands aren’t up to snuff, or a lesser-quality version would:

A) ruin a dish,
B) make someone sick, or
C) anger the four-headed demon god of culinary aptitude, Anthalice Batalicchio.

This isn’t to say that all low-priced items are terrible. I like Ragu Red Pepper and Onion Tomato Sauce, and as god is my witness, that will never change. But if you’ve ever bought generic pasta, and had to serve it as Capellini a la Clump, you know what I mean.

With that in mind, here are ten edibles on which you might want to splurge.

10) Coffee. The disparity between cheap, bulk, pre-ground joe and a pound of fresh beans from Dunkin Donuts is immeasurable. One is bitter, weak, and flavored with evil, while the other (for a few dollars more) will keep you awake, happy, and gastrointestinally balanced for hours. If my office replaced their bottom-dollar devil’s brew with … well, anything, I bet worker efficiency would increase tenfold.

9) Pickles. Given a choice between this at $1.50/lb:

And this at $1.69/lb,

which would you go with?

Pickles are the rare food for which a minor difference in price means a gigantic difference in quality, so there’s no excuse to skimp out. If possible, always buy fresh.

8) Premade pasta sauce and salad dressing. My kitchen’s hovered around 95°F for the last month, and that’s without turning an oven on. I am not whipping up a batch of tomato sauce anytime soon. It’s times like this I turn to Ragu or Prego to fulfill my pasta-dousing needs. Though they’re not exactly Rao’s or Newman’s Own, they’re way better than Francesco Rinaldi, which tastes like what would happen if tomatoes farted, exploded, and were able to jar their own remains. Blech. Same goes for $0.99 salad dressing. If I wanted pink goo with a corn syrup aftertaste, I’d have a McDonalds milkshake.

7) Lemon juice. No doubt about it, individual lemons cost more than bottled juice. Yet, I find the preservatives in the former give it a chemical flavor lacking in the untainted fruit. Whether it’s lemonade, lemon sauce, or Lemony Light Hummus, buying straight-up lemons will create a fresher, truer taste. Plus? Not only do you get the lemon zest for free, but they make great decorations until it’s time for a juicing.

6) Garlic. Like real lemon juice, fresh garlic has a pungency and power unrivaled by its packaged counterpart. Though jarred garlic might be cheaper and less time-consuming to prepare, you’ll have to use twice as much for flavor, which evens out the financial playing field a bit.

5) Pasta. This is one of the few pantry standards I won’t even consider buying generic. Too many broken lasagna noodles, mealy gnocchis, and mysteriously fused angel hair dishes have taught me a valuable lesson: in pasta’s case, $0.25 makes a huge difference. Fortunately, labels like Ronzoni and Barilla aren’t much pricier than store brands, and it’s a quantum leap in quality.

4) Beer. Oh, Williamsburgian hipsters may think a $2 can of Schlitz is the height of fashion, but there’s no denying a simple, indisputable fact: it tastes like carbonated cat urine. Booze is one of the increasingly scarce items where price almost always dictates quality, and it should be purchased accordingly (especially if you’re trying to impress someone). Not to say that a Bud-lover should ever be denied and/or held up for ridicule. It’s just … life is short, man. Don’t waste it on bad beer.

3) Chocolate. First off, lemme say there ain’t nothin’ wrong with a bag of Nestles. Those delectable little droplets have flavored Ma’s chocolate chip cookies for a generation, and I will not sully their name here. HOWEVER. (There’s always a however.) Consider the average candy bar, which might contain the following:

Milk Chocolate (Sugar, Cocoa Butter, Chocolate, Lactose, Skim Milk, Milkfat, Soy Lecithin, Artificial Flavor), Peanuts, Corn Syrup, Sugar, Milkfat, Skim Milk, Vegetable Oil (Partially Hydrogenated Soybean And/Or Palm Kernel Oil), Salt, Lactose, Egg Whites, Chocolate, Artificial Flavor.

If you’re going for a treat, why not make it an actual treat, instead of a bar-shaped amalgam of brown chemicals? Why not try a dark chocolate bar, which could have this instead:

Cocoa Liquor, Raw Cane Sugar, Cocoa Butter, Cocoa Powder

For two dollars more, you’re getting a sating, delicious, somewhat healthier chocolate experience, not some corporation’s overly-processed idea of what chocolate might taste like.

2) Fish. Two words: food poisoning. Seriously though, folks. Buying graying, plastic-packed fish from the nether regions of a Wal-Mart seafood case may be frugal, but it’s also a straight-up bad idea. For one, supermarkets often freeze and defrost fish before selling it, robbing the piscine beauties of some of their natural flavor. For another, certain mass-marketed species are in serious danger of extinction, thanks to increasing demand for more at lower prices. And lastly … have you seen the salmon at my Brooklyn Key Food? It’s not even pink. *shudder*

1) Cheese. Whether it’s grated, stinky, hard, creamy, chunky or spreadable, bottom-of-the-barrel cheese is almost never a good idea, especially if it’s being featured in a dish or served as a standalone food. (A few grated wisps of Jack on a taco won’t kill anyone, though.) There are distinct taste (natural vs. chemical) and textural (smooth vs. rubbery) differences between low and mid-quality frommages, many of which are perceptible to the most lactose-clueless of dairy novices. Even refrigerator-case cheddar has a hierarchy, where okay brands like Cracker Barrel have distinct advantages over 10-pound bags of preservative-caked orange plastic. So, the next time you’re in the market for a hunk of brie, pass up the $2/lb grade Z brand for a mid-range wheel. You’ll be happier, gooier person for it.

Readers, how about you? Are there any foods you pay more for, no matter what the discount?


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Michelle said...

I agree wholeheartedly! (except for jarred sauce, I say go Barilla).

Things I will not buy in a store/generic/mystery brand (yes I have a Key Food too!):

olive oil (often stale)
canned beans (too much mush)
yogurt (gelatinous)

The first two can be had frugally and tastily by buying Goya. The yogurt, any other brand on sale or Stonyfield if you're feeling flush.

cephyn said...

I personally have no problem with some generic pasta sauces. Some. Ragu is terrible. Prego is OK. Ralphs generic brand, I like. Albertson's generic I strongly dislike.

I don't disagree with you on the fish - but as for not-pink salmon, are they farm raised? Often, but not always, the pink is artificially added to farm raised salmon. So if you can determine why....

Andy said...

Great list. I definitely agree with using fresh garlic. Is jarred really cheaper? At least around me, fresh garlic is really cheap (I think around $.50 a head).

Daniel Koontz said...

I'd also add hard liquor to your list, particularly gin, scotch, bourbon, etc. *hic*

And an enormous, ENORMOUS amen on chocolate. Couldn't agree more.

Casual Kitchen

Cindy said...

I am SO with you on the coffee, chocolate and cheese. And I second Michelle's addendum of olive oil. Since I bake a lot, I would add spices to the list, and namely, vanilla extract.

Kelly said...

When I went on my budget last year, I had to stop buying my $9 bags of Newman's Own organic fair-trade coffee. I tried the store-brand can first - oh, it was foul. I think it actually turned gray when I added milk. So now I scour the ads for sales on better brands or I wait until I can make it to Trader Joe's. In a pinch, Folgers will work if I add a scoop of flavored coffee to the grounds.

Regarding garlic: one of the only things I've ever purchased from Williams-Sonoma was a contraption to easily slice and dice garlic. It was $18 and does exactly one thing, and I adore it. I use it close to once a week.

The other thing I cannot buy generic is canned diced tomatoes. Compared to my beloved Red Gold, the store brand tastes like I've shredded a tin can and used it as a pasta topper.

Jaime said...

I have SOLVED the cheap/good chocolate problem. Whole Foods house brand chocolate is *delicious* and cheap - $1.69 for a bar! I think it's even better than some of the pricier brands. Spread the word!

Chief Family Officer said...

I splurge on anchovies when I can find the good stuff and have room in my grocery budget. :)

Amy K. said...

On the salmon: I'm with cephyn on the farm-raised vs. wild caught. Some background.

Though I would expect the stuff at Key food to be dyed, so it's a moot point.

Kristen said...

I was going to say the same thing about the salmon...salmon's not supposed to be bright pink. Wild, undyed salmon will be a very different(and less flashy) shade of pink.

Jessica said...

Definitely chocolate, cheese and pickles (cheap pickles are GROSS). Also, milk. Such a huge taste difference between the organic stuff and the mass produced store brand. Plus, it lasts longer.

Anonymous said...

I agree with the pasta sauce and pasta. I will splurge on Rao's or make my own - nothing in between. I only use the Rao's when extremely short on time and tempted to get take out, so I justify the cost. I can get the large jar of marinara sauce on sale for $7.99 at my local grocery store (a steal). I feel the same about my pasta (Barilla or Ronzoni), cheese and beans. Debbie C

Anonymous said...

Agree with spending slightly more to buy reasonable quality coffee, hard liquor, cheese and chocolate. I'd add soda and bread to this list. The difference in cost between generic store brand soda and Pepsi/Coke/whatever is usually not great, but the taste certainly is. I don't eat much bread anymore,I guess the low carb thing had some impact after all, so the bread I do eat has to be worth it. Also mayonnaise, ...only Hellmann's will do.

Jennywenny said...

Thankfully my favourite trader joes low fat marinara sauce is absolutely excellent and cheap!!

Leigh said...

Miss K, I will second your emotion, especially regarding cheese and pickles. Good Maude, a quality pickle is worth the extra scratch.

Now, Kris, I need you to avert your eyes for a moment. Whenever I visit my folks in NC, I pick up a couple jars of Duke's mayo to hold me till the next time. I don't even use that much, I just need it in case of a mayo emergency. It's the best, and unless you make your own, I don't want to hear any arguments.

Bread is my other must splurge. Too many of the low-end/store brands (and some of the spendier ones too) contain of high fructose corn syrup. I refuse! Plus, I like the texture of bread without a ton of preservatives. Eli's (of Zabar's fame)Health Bread is my budget-busting guilty pleasure.

Kris said...

Leigh and Anon - Man, I totally forgot bread. Whenever I can, I try to get the upscale stuff. Admittedly, Arnold's Stone Ground is a go-to, but I'd hit the farmer's market for organic loaves everyday if I could.

Cephyn, Kristen, and Amy K - I had no idea about the salmon. Good call, all of ye.

Andy - I did a per-ounce comparison with the lowest-priced jarred garlic I could find on Peapod, and the pre-chopped came in a little cheaper, even after the olive oil/pungency thing is factored in. On the other hand, maybe I'm just paying too much for the fresh stuff. :)

Michelle and Cindy - I'm with you guys, though I DID find that Whole Foods olive oil is comparatively inexpensive and holds up well in all applications (sauteeing, dipping, bathing, etc). (Okay, maybe not bathing.)

You guys, these are great comments! I'm learning tons. Thank you!

Anonymous said...

For coffee, splurge the little bit more and go for a fresh roasted fair trade, huge difference for the farmers, not a big jump from most other coffees.
Same for chocolate, although a bit bigger jump in many cases.
As for the salmon, except in extremely rare cases (as in you fished it yourself) any Atlantic salmon is farm raised, and often fed with pink dyed food to give it that colour. Same goes for a lot of the trout you see, mostly farm raised with dyed food. Pacific salmon you can get wild, although it is farmed sometimes as well.

Jo said...

I absolutely agree about cheese and chocolate. I'd add fresh tomatoes to the list - they can be expensive at farmer's markets, but they have so much more flavor and character than anything you find at the grocery store, there's almost no comparison.

sarayve said...

i agree on olive oil and milk. even though milk prices are through the roof, you can really taste the difference and it lasts longer.

i really dont agree with jarred sauce though. whether you make it yourself or use the jarred stuff, you still have to warm it up to serve on pasta. i always use that time to add whatever i want, so buying the cheap stuff allows me a blank canvas almost to spice things up.

jiffypop said...

SO happy to have stumbled on this site! Mind if I jump in to the pasta sauce fray? I don't like jarred sauces. Yeah - it's genetic. BUT, if i get a can of oregano, basil, and garlic-seasoned tomatoes, splosh in a wee bit of red wine, and more herbs, and let it simmer a bit [mashing up the tomatoes as we go], it's pretty darn close to a homemade - and i'm happier!

Anonymous said...

I never skimp on red meat - which I rarely eat, so it's not a budget-buster for me. A good quality FRESH cut of sirloin/tenderloin is always worth the price. Especially if it's pan-roasted in the Colicchio method with lots of butter and fresh rosemary. Man, I'm hungry.

Betsy said...

Fresh herbs and spices! Even the dried herbs can be "fresher" at times than others. Find a place that sells them in bulk; they will be fresher and cheaper there most likely. Ditto on chocolate, bread, alcohol, fish,.... I also splurge on good flour since I make a lot of my own bread (King Arthur as opposed to store brands).

Debbie said...

I agree with the comment(s) about herbs and spices. I tried store brand a few times and it was always a flop. Now I get them fresh at the open air market. So much better! They aren't even more expensive, it's just something I need to remember to do outside my regular shopping trip.

wosnes said...

I wouldn't do jarred sauce. If I don't have homemade, I saute some garlic and/or onions and add some tomato sauce, puree or crushed tomatoes and let simmer a few minutes while I make a salad or pasta cooks. Add some fresh herbs towards the end. It's a great quick substitute for the real thing. Actually, it's a quick version of my homemade sauce.

Angie J. said...

I know this post is pretty old, but I must take issue with your comment re: Williamsburg. I've lived there for a year, and I've never seen such a high concentration of awesome beer selections! Sure, there are still a couple of hipsters who drink PBR "ironically." But all but the absolute diviest bars or shadiest corner markets will stock at least a couple kinds of Brooklyn, and probably even some Sixpoint, Sierra Nevada, Bluepoint, etc. Just sayin'. :)

Aside from that, great post! I've learned some of these lessons the hard way, especially when it comes to cheese...