I always look for high quality products and use them when I can. I wanted to share a few that often cause people confusion when at the grocery store but if the right purchase is made can make a world of difference in your meal. And let me point out that starting your kids off with a healthy pallet will often help steer them towards future successes in the kitchen or when trying new dishes.
Olive oil can be tricky to purchase because the olive oil industry has become watered down, and I mean that quite literally. Look first for Extra Virgin cold pressed then country of origin-- and don’t depend on what is on the front of the label. Many manufacturers have gotten around revealing the real country of origin by bottling in Italy, hence the “Italian Olive Oil” or other misleading headline. Turn the bottle over and look for “product of” info (often abbreviated with IT for Italy or GR for Greece). You shouldn’t be able to tell the oil’s color IN the bottle-- that’s because the glass should be green or brown or the oil should be in a metal container. This is to keep light for filtering in and affecting the quality of the product. The oil should be kept in a cold dark location and used. If oil sits too long it can become rancid.
Vanilla is fascinating! Vanilla extract is a common ingredient in baking but using the fake stuff sure shows. Ever wonder why real vanilla costs so much? Epicurious helps break it down for us by explaining that vanilla bean is a seed pod of a specific climbing orchid (so technically a fruit) native to Mexico and has a very limited harvest window: “So why does a little vial of vanilla beans or a few ounces of pure extract often cost more than $10? A vanilla plant blossoms only one day a year, during a 12-to-16-hour window, and when that happens, it has to be pollinated by hand, Nielsen says. Miss that time frame, and the plant won’t produce any vanilla beans.” Imitation vanilla actually isn’t vanilla at all-- “It’s made from a chemical called guaiacol or from wood pulp (yes, really) and replicates vanillin, one of those 250 naturally occurring flavor compounds in true vanilla.” This is a situation where looking at the label and paying a little extra really does make a difference. If you want, Epicurious even has instructions on making your own vanilla which could be a cost effective way of using this delicious addition to so many popular recipes.
The website Spices 101 says it well when it comes to why we should choose our spices wisely, “Learning to source and purchase fresh, quality products is paramount when learning to cook well with spices. Would you make a fruit salad with moldy fruit? Spread rancid butter on fresh baked bread? Of course not. Likewise, you should aim to use the best spices and herbs possible, for reasons we will discuss below.” Good spices should smell. With ground spices, rub a tiny bit between your fingers and the oils should release a crisp fragrance, but if there’s no smell it means the oils have dried up. No oil, no smell; no smell, no flavor. The average shelf life of ground spice is about six month. We’re all guilty of pulling out that can of nutmeg you haven’t used in a year when cold weather rolls around but do yourself a favor and every six months clean out the spice drawer. If you want to get more life out of your purchase, I like this idea from Spices 101, buy whole and grind the spice yourself. Dried spices are concentrated flavors so if you are substituting fresh for dried (or vice versa) keep this rule of thumb in mind: one tablespoon of dried = three teaspoons for fresh. In other words, you need less dried than you would fresh. And I couldn’t have said it better than the folks at Frontier Coop, “In a nutshell, store your herbs and spices in clean, airtight containers, away from heat and light and handle them thoughtfully.” Sources:
I’d love to hear about your experiences in cooking. What are the must have quality ingredients in your kitchen?