Thanks in no small part to the guru of geeky gourmet Alton Brown, the home kitchen has seen a spectacular rebirth as a haven for science, innovation and gadgetry. And in lean times like these, learning your way around the kitchen can not only give you geek cred, but it can also help you reduce your grocery bills.
For the first installment of Chemistry in the Kitchen, I’d like to share my top five ingredients worth saving up for. Why? Because superior food comes from superior ingredients, even on a budget.
1) A good, hard, aged Italian cheese. Be it Parmesan or Romano, get something in a wedge and invest in a micro grater (which, incidentally, can also be used for #2). Grate it yourself and you get get miles out of it; it stays fresh a long time, and even though you might have to shell out $10 for one wedge — I get Peccorino Romano at Costco — the flavor is exponentially better than the crud they pass off as cheese in the green shaker. Your spaghetti will thank you.
Applications: pastas, salads and casseroles
2) Real lemons & limes. I have heard tell of a mysterious yellow bottle filled with citric acid that is occasionally unleashed on unwary fruit salads but I believe this is just a myth used to frighten little children. With real lemons and limes you actually get two products: juice and zest. So why would you use anything else? The juice finds its way into anything from Hollandaise to hummus and the zest can transform boring muffins and meat dishes. Buy in bulk to save and keep fresh in your fruit drawer.
Price: $1.99-$4.99 lb
Applications: baking, sauces, marinades, salad dressings, Mexican and Thai cuisine
3) Herbs and spices – Particularly basil, oregano, peppercorn, sea salt (which is a mineral and therefore not an herb or spice… but hey, it’s an edible rock), various curry blends, sage, cinnamon, nutmeg, and thyme. Either grow and dry your own—most of these love summer weather and can even be planted inside — or budget them out accordingly during subsequent trips to the grocery store. Herbs are essential for good homemade salad dressing, marinades, rubs and curries (which are a staple at our house). Plus, they make for some awesome experimentation. My personal favorite? Salish smoked salt, which makes for some mind-altering BBQ.
Price: varies (cinnamon=cheap, saffron=expensive)
4) A digital read thermometer. Okay, this is not an ingredient, I admit. But having a trusty thermometer is like giving you x-ray vision into your food. There’s no other waste of money as unforgivable as overcooked food! This way there’s no guessing, no worries about being undercooked and best of all no mutilating a perfectly happy, juicy steak.
Application: grilling, roasting and baking
5) Whole bean coffee. Hey, we all know that coffee is the reason we get up in the morning. But there is no excuse for spending money on a latte or even drip coffee, for that matter, when you can make a superior cup at home. The secret is the right beans and the right grind. Eight seconds in the grinder, then straight into the coffee press (with about 2-4 minutes of steeping time) makes a cup of coffee to rival the best of ’em. If whole beans are still way out of your range, I suggest Chock Full o’Nuts for a surprisingly tasty cup of pre-ground coffee (which also makes a rockin’ cup of iced coffee, too).
Price: ~ $5.99/lb for whole bean at Costco, about $4.40/lb for ground Chock Full o’Nuts
Applications: morning infusions, afternoon pick-me-ups and night caps