Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Does Using Cheaper Ingredients Mean Lower Quality Meals?

The other day, I was making a chicken meal in my crockpot.  As I pulled out the $2.39 bottle of white cooking wine, and the dried-instead-of-fresh basil, I started thinking about the cost of ingredients vs. the quality of food. 

I'm all about good food.  I have 2 shelves of cookbooks  - and I use them (or at least, I use them when I'm not utterly sleep deprived).  I love to cook, and I have no problem spending lots of time in the kitchen when I have the time to do so. 

But I do often cut corners on ingredients when I feel it's appropriate.  For instance, if wine was a key component of a sauce, I'll use decent wine.  If it's deglazing a pan of stuff that is then going to be cooked in the crockpot for 5 or 6 hours, the cooking wine will do.  Any qualities of the better wine would be lost in the sauce - literally.  

It's the same with things that offer similar flavor.  The particular recipe I was making called for adding kalamata olives to the recipe.  While they were a late addition, because they were being cooked in, a $3.29 jar of them had the same effect as $6 or so worth from the olive bar.  I could have done it cheaper but I sprang for the pitted kind, since I hate picking olive pits out of food.

Had the olives been part of an appetizer spread, I would have gone with the good stuff.  And having made the recipe with both jarred and olive bar-esque olives, I can honestly say there was no difference.

I usually try to make the recipe as called for the first time out.  That's my baseline.  I want to know exactly what it tastes like as called for.   After that, I start making modifications.  Little ones, at first.  Less salt, more oregano, olive oil instead of butter, that sort of thing.  Once I have the levels of ingredients to my liking, then I go further.  Skip this, add that instead.  And I always try a cheaper option 

Why am I so systematic about it?  Because I want to be sure that we're eating what tastes best.  And because cookbooks are the one exception I make to my 'no writing in books' rule.  I add notes to the pages of recipes I've made.  I love finding used cookbooks with notes in them.  And I always try the advice the notes give - someone took the time to tell their future selves, and those who come later how the recipe tastes best.  Of course, it's all subjective, and sometimes I don't love the advice given.  But often, it's the variation on the original recipe that is top notch.  

Someday, either when my daughter gives the cookbooks away after my death, or uses them for herself, someone is going to open them up and see my notes, assuming they just don't go to some trash bin.  I think that's kind of cool - that while 'The Best Recipe' has a great recipe for meatballs, I think I took it up a notch, to the really best recipe.  At least for me.  Everyone has different taste buds. 

So do cheaper ingredients make for lesser quality meals?  Sure, sometimes.  I do prefer fresh herbs, or ones we've dried ourselves (my husband is the herb-drying rock star in our home). But if there's a choice between $5 worth of dubiously fresh basil from the store or the dried, I'll often choose the dried and see if I like it.  It's always worth a try.  And since food budgets are one of the largest variable costs for most of us, it's worth it.

1 comment:

uncanny said...

I have my Grandma's cookbooks. Even the subtle checkmarks by the recipes she enjoyed make me smile... annotated cook books are a fantastic legacy.