We’ve tasted thousands of products over the years. In some instances, we’ve determined that the flavor or texture of a pricy product really is superior to that of budget options. But we also love a bargain and have made a few great cost-saving discoveries as well. Finally, for some foods, we think you’re better off focusing on packaging instead of price.
Splurge on Top Quality
In several tastings, we've found that more expensive products really are significantly higher in quality. Because they're so concentrated in flavor, you might find that you actually use less and the difference in supermarket prices isn't as significant as it first seemed.
Parmigiano-Reggiano and Pecorino Romano
Parmigiano-Reggiano (upwards of $20 per pound) is made in Italy with raw milk from cows that have grazed on flavorful wild grasses. Aged for at least 12 months, it’s also firm and craggy. Parmesan (about $11 per pound) is generally made in America with pasteurized milk and aged for at least 10 months, so it’s milder and softer. The assertive flavor and crystalline crunch of Parmigiano-Reggiano means that a little goes a long way. Real Pecorino Romano is also considerably sharper, more flavorful, and firmer than domestic Romano.
Orange Juice, Grapefruit Juice, and Lemonade
To ensure year-round availability, many manufacturers store their juices in tanks for months and then add synthesized flavor or aroma compounds before bottling. Natalie’s, the manufacturer of our favorite orange juice, grapefruit juice, and lemonade, juices its citrus within 24 hours of shipping. The juices and lemonade taste superfresh, practically like homemade. The bottles cost about $2 more on average than others on the shelf, but their flavor is significantly better.
Instead of buying pancake syrup (which is really just dolled-up corn syrup), we splurge for real maple syrup. Beyond that, which type of real maple syrup you buy doesn’t matter. Because few producers have the resources for national distribution, most sell their syrup to large packagers that blend and sell the syrups under a brand name. We typically buy the least expensive bottle of real maple syrup available.
Save Big Bucks
Sometimes there's very little difference between the flavor or texture of a pricier pick and a less expensive item. Both are very satisfying conclusions—and opportunities for you to save a little money at the store.
Imitation vanilla contains vanillin (the main flavor compound in vanilla beans) that’s synthesized in a lab from sources such as clove oil, wood pulp, or petroleum instead of harvested from vanilla orchids. We’ve found that it’s hard to differentiate between imitation vanilla and pure vanilla extract—and we frequently prefer the strong, straightforward flavor of imitation vanilla. Our favorite, Baker’s Imitation Vanilla Flavor, costs $0.12 an ounce, compared with $3.25 an ounce for the real stuff.
You could easily spend $20 to $30 for a bottle of balsamic vinegar—but you don’t need to. Because those vinegars are so thick, they result in sticky, gloppy vinaigrettes. We’ve found that supermarket options costing $3 or $4 per bottle are actually better suited for everyday cooking. They have a similar consistency to other basic vinegars, so they whisk easily into vinaigrettes or soups.
Instant Aged Balsamic Vinegar
If you’re interested in a syrupy balsamic vinegar with the complexity of expensive versions aged for 12 years or longer, we have a work-around. Although you need to buy a bottle of port, any inexpensive bottle will work fine, and it will last for years if stored in a cool, dark place.
⅓ cup balsamic vinegar
1 tablespoon sugar
1 tablespoon port
Combine vinegar, sugar, and port in shallow pan and cook over low heat (mixture should be barely simmering) until mixture is reduced to half its original volume. Let cool completely and use immediately.
Buy by Packaging
For a few core ingredients, we've found that the packaging makes a huge difference in the kitchen. When a product is convenient and easy to use, cooking is more enjoyable.
Heads of garlic generally cost just $0.25 an ounce, but many cooks dread peeling and preparing the cloves. We found two convenience products that taste almost indistinguishable from fresh garlic. Whole prepeeled garlic cloves such as Spice World Fresh Peeled Organic Garlic ($0.77 per ounce) are the most versatile; they can be sliced, minced, or smashed. If you primarily use minced garlic, consider Dorot Gardens Crushed Garlic ($1.07 per ounce). Each frozen cube is equal to a minced clove, so there’s no need to mince or measure by hand.
Any differences in the flavor of packaged tomato pastes can easily be corrected with a pinch of salt or sugar. The biggest consideration is whether to buy cans or tubes. Canned paste generally costs less than $0.20 per ounce, but the paste goes bad quickly once opened, so any leftovers must be frozen in small portions. Tubes of tomato paste cost about $0.71 per ounce, but they can be refrigerated for several months after opening and the paste doled out as needed.
Chicken and Beef Broth
Liquid broths are easy to use—you simply unscrew the cap and pour—but the cartons are bulky, and leftovers must be quickly used or frozen. Broth concentrates, which reconstitute quickly in water, come in small jars and keep indefinitely in the refrigerator. They’re also cheaper. Our favorite chicken broth concentrate, Better Than Bouillon Chicken Base, costs $0.02 per ounce reconstituted, while Swanson Chicken Stock, our favorite liquid broth, costs $0.13 per ounce. We also recommend Better Than Bouillon Roasted Beef Base. Look for those specific products because they are considerably better than most other concentrates.