Let's face it: Cooking on a budget can be frustrating. That carton of beautifully packaged, artisanal crème fraîche calls to you in the dairy aisle, even if you're not sure what you'll use it for. And every once and a while a treat is to be expected, but what about the ingredients that are always worth it? Here are the five that matter most, at least in my kitchen:
A handful of ingredients seriously merit the splurge almost all of the time, even if the sticker price stings a bit at checkout. We're talking quality over quantity, ingredients where good really matters. Think of these as splurges built into the budget!
1. Cheese. Really, unbelievably good cheese can't be beat. Whether you're creating a cheese plate or topping a salad for dinner, having one superb choice in the fridge goes a long way. It doesn't have to be the most expensive in the store, just the better choice. Think of the difference between pre-crumbled, dry, packaged feta and the luxurious creaminess of sheep's milk feta. Is the first choice even cheese?
2. Meat. Maybe you're vegetarian or a superhuman unmoved by the phenomenal scent of freshly cooked bacon, and you can skip this one altogether. (Go you!) For the rest of us, think of meat as a special treat. Spend a bit extra on high quality thick-cut bacon and cured meats, but make up for it in frequency. Pick your poison here with whatever is most important to you, but I also find that chicken is an important one. Cooking vegetarian dishes more often to accommodate a budget for free-range, organic chicken pays off. The taste is markedly better, plus you're avoiding eating antibiotics.
3. Maple Syrup. Good maple syrup, heck even average maple syrup, is out of this world. Maybe it's because I treat it like liquid gold, or maybe because it's not as viscous as pancake syrup, but I find that a bottle kept in the fridge lasts ages.
4. Coffee. Did you guys know making coffee at home will save money? Of course you do — that's a no brainer. Don't be tempted to skimp on the quality of coffee though, as it often has the opposite effect. ("Gosh, this coffee is terrible. I'm going to stop at that $4 cup of coffee place before work!") Spring for a bag at your favorite coffee shop, and even at $15 a pop you'll still come out on top.
5. Eggs. What can I say? Good eggs taste more like...eggs? Bright, big yolks, meant tasty omelettes and downright creamy poached eggs. Farmer's market eggs are ideal, but even cage free from the grocer are a step in the right direction. Confession: Sometimes when I'm cooking a lot at the holidays, I skimp and buy whatever is on sale for pies, cakes, and general cooking.
What are the ingredients you won't skimp on in the kitchen?
(Photo by Flickr User Tax Credits/licensed under Creative Commons)