If you love to cook and bake as much as I do, you realize the benefits on a well-stocked kitchen. And if you’re just getting starting on your culinary journey, you might be feeling overwhelmed by the wide range of ingredients available. Why are some ingredient brands so expensive, while others seem like such a great deal? Do pricier brands make any difference? I’m here to answer these questions.
So you want to make a quick and easy pasta recipe for dinner. Perhaps you come across my lemon garlic parmesan pasta and it sounds like exactly what you had in mind.
My recipe calls for only a few simple ingredients: pasta, garlic, lemon juice, parmesan cheese, extra virgin olive oil, salt and pepper. Ignoring the pasta, there are two sets of ingredients you could potentially use for this recipe. This is what I use:
- Freshly minced garlic cloves
- Freshly juiced lemons
- Freshly grated parmesan cheese
- A mid-range olive oil that’s been purchased in the past few months
- Freshly ground black pepper
Here is a different version of the ingredient list that’s sort of the same thing:
- Garlic powder
- Bottled lemon juice
- Pre-grated parmesan cheese from a green tube
- An old, cheap olive oil
- A container of ground black pepper you inherited from your mom 5 years ago
I’ve already told you which one I use. Am I just being snobby? Do the ingredients in this scenario make that much of a difference?
When it comes to recipes, especially simple ones with only a few whole ingredients, quality is everything. The two lists above will yield dramatically different recipe results. With the modern day demands for “5 ingredient recipes,” this is huge.
However, this doesn’t mean you need to splurge on every ingredient! There are plenty of ways places where I cut corners (more on that below). So, which ingredients matter when it comes to quality?
Ingredients That Are Worth The Splurge
Note: None of the brand recommendations in this article are sponsored, but I’ve included affiliate links when available, at no extra cost to you.
Whenever possible, I try to replicate the ingredients and tools I think my readers will use in recipes. I didn’t realize how much of a difference chocolate quality could make until I switched to cheaper grocery store brands.
I gotta say, out of every ingredient you’ll see listed here, chocolate is the one I feel most strongly about. It makes a huge difference! Flavor, mouthfeel, color… this is my big deal breaker. High quality chocolate is all I’m willing to use.
My favorite brand for every type of baking chocolate is Valrhona.
Sorry to be a snob, but I refuse to use any other cocoa powder in my chocolate peanut butter cake and chocolate espresso layer cake. Sometimes I get questions from readers asking why their cakes don’t have the same deep brown color that they see in my photos. This is why.
Their bittersweet chocolate is perfection.
More often than not, I purchase directly from Valrhona’s online store, though you can also find their products in gourmet shops like Sur la Table. You can also purchase their products from Amazon, but pay attention to the seller. Based on the reviews, you might wind up with a fake product.
My second top pick for chocolate is Guittard. Valrhona doesn’t offer unsweetened chocolate bars or discs, so I always have several Guittard Unsweetened Baking Bars stocked in my pantry. Their other products are excellent as well, including the bittersweet bars, white chocolate, and baking chips.
If you love to bake and use real vanilla, you may have noticed that the prices have skyrocketed in the past year or so. Sadly, this is because there’s a worldwide vanilla shortage.
While I’m still going to recommend my favorite brands, my main recommendation for now is simply that you use pure vanilla extract instead of imitation vanilla. It truly does make a difference. Sometimes you can buy a giant bottle of pure vanilla extract from Costco for a fraction of the cost that you’ll see at grocery stores.
My two favorite brands of vanilla extract and paste are Nielsen-Massey and Rodelle.
Rodelle’s Reserve Vanilla Extract is so incredible that I only break it out for super special occasions like a pricy scotch.
Many of my recipes also use vanilla beans, which you should never buy at the grocery store unless you need them last minute. They cost a fortune per bean vs purchasing them in bulk. I buy mine online from Vanilla Products USA.
Vanilla bean paste is another option if you don’t think you’ll use the beans often enough to buy in bulk.
As I’ve already noted, packaged, pre-grated parmesan is not even in the same category as real parmesan cheese. It’s full of fillers. If you can find it in the cheese section of your grocery store, nothing compares to Parmigiano-Reggiano. It’s nutty, salty, and ever so slightly sweet, with a wonderful texture that’s smooth while offering the slightest bit of crunch.
Cheese will stay fresh for quite some time if properly stored, so it’s a worthy investment that will seriously elevate the flavor of any recipe.
For best results, avoid purchasing pre-grated or pre-crumbled cheese.
Here are a few of my favorite cheeses, in no particular order:
- Parmigiano-Reggiano: No particular brand, but the real stuff is imported from Italy, and it has a textured appearance and firm rind.
- Blue Cheese: Societe Roquefort is hands down my favorite.
- Goat Cheese: Look for logs of chèvre. I’m partial to Vermont Creamery when I see it, but most brands I’ve tried are good.
- Feta: I’m not married to any brand, but I only purchase blocks of feta cheese sold in a brine. Something midrange in price is fine; you don’t need the most expensive option for recipes. Save those for cheese platters.
- Gruyere/Swiss: I’m a big fan of Emmi USA cheeses.
- Cheddar: I love Kerrygold, and I always keep an eye out for Wisconsin Cheese brands, since they’re consistently great quality. Cabot is another brand I trust for recipes.
Finally, I have to mention Jasper Hill Farm. They sell a wide range of styles, so there wasn’t one category to place them in. You can’t go wrong if you see their products for sale; everything I’ve tried is delicious. While it’s not appropriate for recipes, their Harbison cheese is one of my all time favorites.
If your grocery store has a large cheese section and you’re unsure about what to buy, see if the store has someone who can assist you.
Note: the oils shown above are from my article on the smoke point of oils. I’m not specifically recommending any brand that’s not listed and linked in this post.
Oils are slightly less straightforward. I don’t think you need to use anything fancy for cooking, since a lot of the flavor is lost during the cooking process. For sautéing, searing, pan-frying, roasting, etc., I think generic brands are often fine (just make sure they’re using 100% of the oil they claim to be and avoid fillers). Smell and taste periodically to make sure they haven’t gone rancid.
California Olive Ranch is my favorite everyday extra virgin olive oil, since it’s available in most grocery stores near me (but there are cheaper brands that are perfectly fine. Colavita is another good choice). I’ve used numerous brands of grapeseed oil, which is my top choice when I need a more neutral-flavored high heat oil, and they’re all fine.
When it comes to using oils for seasoning recipes, I highly recommend splurging on something a bit more mid-range or high end. Zingerman’s is a great online shop for both oils and vinegars. They do some serious research before selecting brands to sell.
The only other brand recommendation I have here is Kadoya Sesame Oil, for those of you who love Asian cuisine as much as I do. I’ve tried a ton of brands, and none compare to this one.
When To Splurge on Oils
- Any time a recipe calls for finishing with a specific oil, when no more heat is being applied. (example: a simple pasta)
- Vinaigrettes and salads, especially salads with only a few ingredients (example: Caprese or Nicoise salad)
- Infused oils where various spices or herbs have been added (typically for dipping bread)
When to Save on Oils
- Roasting vegetables
- Any other high heat cooking techniques: searing, frying, sautéing, etc.
Much of what I just explained about oils also applies to vinegar. You don’t always need to go for higher quality vinegars, especially if you’re using them in a recipe that applies heat.
However, for things like salads, vinaigrettes, and drizzling over vegetables, you can’t beat a good vinegar. Italian Aceto Balsamico Traditionale has a rich, sweet and acidic flavor and syrupy texture similar to balsamic reductions and glazes, but without the added sugar you’ll see in glazes, and without the overly astringent flavor you get from reducing inexpensive balsamic vinegar.
One of my favorite treats is drizzling some good balsamic into half an avocado, and eating it with a spoon. It’s also amazing for finishing risotto. Again, check out Zingerman’s for some solid choices.
Recommended Book: Zingerman’s Guide To Good Eating
If you want to read more on this subject, one of the first books about food to make a huge impression on me was Zingerman’s Guide To Good Eating. The section on olive oil especially opened my eyes to the wide variety of types and flavors. It was through this book that I discovered their shop.
In addition to having some amazing recipes, the author goes into great detail about how to choose great quality basics that can transform your cooking: oils, vinegars, chocolate, vanilla, bread, cheeses, cured meats and seasonings.