When you go shopping, you must steel yourself against the massive forces of psychological manipulation arrayed against you—all with the singular end of convincing you to buy stuff you don’t want or need and can’t afford to purchase or consume. Let this be your guide to the nine circles of consumer hell confronting the weary shopper.
Virtually all modern grocery stores are laid out in the same general design. What you need is on the perimeter—fruit & vegetables, meat, dairy & bread; everything else is hidden in the maze in the middle. Milk and bread are at opposite corners so you must traverse the maximum path through the minefield of impulse buys just to obtain your basics. Invariably you are shunted into the fresh section first.
- Store brands are as good as, and much cheaper than, name brands.
- You often get a store discount when you buy the house brand v. a national brand.
- Go ahead, lose your privacy and get “Club Cards” at the stores you use. What the hell.
- Don’t confuse store brands with ‘no-name’ or generic brands; these can be poor quality.
- Buy ingredients instead of finished products, and learn to cook simple things.
- Larger packages are usually more economical than smaller. Buy the largest you can afford, store, and use before it spoils. Sometimes it’s economical to buy a large size even if you do throw some of it out.
- Always look at the UNIT price. Unit price is the only way to compare prices, especially when item prices are intended to mislead.
- Unit pricing protect you against “container creep,” the practice of manufacturers to slowly reduce package size while maintaining price, giving the impression of constancy while the prices creep steadily upward.
- Container creep can take the form of deceptive packaging—bottles with deep hollows, selling you air. Don’t trust manufacturers who play this game, and don't reward them for their perfidy.
- Name brands on sale are often more expensive than store brand items at regular prices.
- Don’t buy stuff that’s displayed on the ends of the aisles. It’s there to lure you.
- Don’t buy non-food items at the grocery store.
- Plan ahead and buy on sale. Build a stockpile of basic ingredients.
- Always use a list; never make impulse purchases.
- Never shop hungry—everything looks good when you’re hungry. Go right after a meal and you’ll be a much wiser shopper.
- Buy ‘local’ whenever you can. ‘Local’ trumps ‘organic,’ et cetera.
The Walking Tour:
- Carrots: Can’t go wrong.
- Celery: Buy the bigger, less expensive bunches, not the hearts. The leafy parts are great for seasoning soups and sauces, and are good in salads too. Why people pay more for something with the most useful part removed is beyond me.
- Onions: Yellow, red, white, pearl and green are pretty much interchangeable except for aesthetics, though green onions will tend to scorch and blacken rather than caramelize as white or yellow onions do. Leeks are not so interchangeable. Vidalias are a sweeter and less pungent variety of onion. Chives can substitute for onions in small quantities in a pinch.
- Potatoes: Two basic kinds: boiling and baking. Within these types, colors make no difference. Boiling potatoes keep their form when boiled, but do not get flaky-mealy when baked. Baking potatoes turn to mush when boiled but get nice and flaky when baked. If you want to do something that is time consuming, labor intensive, incredibly messy, dangerous and nutritionally devastating, like make French fries or potato chips, use russet Burbank potatoes only. Soak them in ice water for 30 minutes after cutting, then dry them completely before frying.
- Lettuce: Nutritionally meaningless but fun to eat. The more color it has, the more nutrition. Otherwise, types are interchangeable. Try some endive, why don'cha?
Other fresh vegetables:
- Cabbage: Green, Red, Savoy, et cetera. Interchangeable except for aesthetics. Cooked red cabbage loses much color and can get pretty unappealing. Adding a little vinegar brings out a vivid red color; a pinch of baking soda will bring out a purplish color. It's like litmus paper you can eat!
- Greens: Kale, collards, mustard greens, turnip greens, et cetera. Generally interchangeable, though some are more pungent than others. Boiling and then changing the water will remove much of the most overpowering flavor. Ham, bacon or bacon fat will add good flavor, and serve with pepper sauce.
- If you have the space, grow a tomato plant and a bell pepper plant somewhere, and some herbs.
- Try every fruit and vegetable at least once.
- Enjoy produce in local season. It adds variety and helps make your year more meaningful.
Always stick with as local a product as you can, and enjoy things in season. What to keep on hand:
- Something fresh—anything
- A few lemons or limes
- A chunk of fresh gingerroot.
Take your chances. Buy whatever interests you, but buy only when you’re ready to use it promptly or freeze it immediately. By the time it’s at the supermarket, its clock has been ticking for quite a while. [Personal philosophy: Seafood production has traditionally been perceived as a fairly benign undertaking. However, it’s becoming clear that both ocean fishing and fish farming (which depends indirectly on ocean fishing) have devastating environmental and ecological consequences, which we only now understand.] Limit your consumption.
Questions of sanitation, antibiotic misuse, excessive energy consumption, health risks, cruelty and environmental impact make meat consumption a sketchy proposition. It’s a shame it tastes so fine. Limit consumption, and limit exposure to risks through the following:
- Buy only minimally processed meats, e.g. whole cuts.
- Avoid ground meats as much as possible—beef, pork and poultry. Sausage is one exception because of the additives that inhibit bacterial growth.
- Refrigerate meats promptly.
- Know your source. ‘Buy local’ especially applies to your meat.
- Save bones and meat scraps in the freezer. Once they’ve accumulated, make a batch of stock, which can be the basis for amazing soups and sauces or be frozen for later.
Dairy & Eggs:
- Always inspect eggs individually in carton before you leave the egg case to avoid purchasing broken eggs.
- ‘Large’ eggs are what recipes usually use; otherwise, ‘size doesn’t matter.'
- Nutritionally, shell color makes no difference.
- Skim milk is nutritionally equal to 2% or whole milk, except for the missing fat.
- Buy the carton with the latest fresh sale date.
- Cream: If you need to make whipped cream, buy whipping cream. Chill beaters and bowl in the freezer; above 45 deg. F., you’ll get butter instead. Table cream won’t whip.
- Sour cream: It’s not cream that went sour; it’s something else. In a pinch, you can substitute plain yogurt for sour cream and in most cases, it won’t make a difference.
- Cottage cheese: Large curd, small curd, whole milk, low fat, no fat. Take your pick. It can be substituted for ricotta cheese in recipes like lasagna, and is cheaper.
- Hard cheeses: Try. Them. All.
Learn to bake your own. Baking yeast bread is stupid easy and probably the biggest bang-for-the-buck you can get in a kitchen. Don’t let the mystique intimidate you; as in most cases, yeast are your friend. Quick breads are ever easier and (surprise!) quicker than yeast breads and help reduce novice baker anxiety. Store-brand baked goods are generally equal to or better than name brands, and are often baked on premises.
Beyond the basics
Stick with the general strategies above. The more basic the ingredients you have, the more flexibility you will have and the lower your overall food costs will be. Example: tomato sauce is less expensive than canned spaghetti sauce, and you can use it for more things. Or, to look at it another way, you can make spaghetti sauce from tomato sauce, but you can’t turn spaghetti sauce back into tomato sauce.
- Beans: For economy’s sake, you can’t beat dried beans. If you don’t mind investing a little more time by soaking beans ahead of time, you can have really cheap, good tasting food. Refresh the soaking water several times to reduce far—I mean ‘gassiness.’
- Canned beans are quick, but cost a little more, are often heavily salted and doped up—for some strange reason—with high-fructose corn syrup.
- Pasta: Backbone of any kitchen. All pastas are generally interchangeable, except for functionality and aesthetics. Cooking times vary based on size (thickness). Nutritionally, they are fairly weak but are filling and are a great base for sauces of all kinds. Stock up when they're on sale. (New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik recently noted that at any given moment, a billion people are eating a neutral starch with a spicy protein.)
- Canned vegetables: Most canned vegetables are pretty icky compared to fresh or even frozen ones. However, keep an assortment on hand because they help make great vegetable soup quickly. Use the vegetables and the liquid they are packed in. ‘V-8’ or canned tomato juice will also make a great quick soup.
- Canned whole tomatoes are just that. Crushed tomatoes are just that, also. Tomato sauce is cooked-down tomatoes, and tomato paste is further cooked-down tomato sauce. Adding water to tomato paste will return it to tomato sauce.
- Spices and seasonings: Learn what spices you like and use. Buy the store brand, in a small quantity (Even better, buy at an ethnic grocery store). Experiment. Get a pepper grinder and whole peppercorns instead of ground pepper. Start with a basic set of about a dozen spices, but buy them individually; don’t purchase a ready-assembled set.
- Cinnamon, ginger and cloves are the ‘sweet’ spices; Garlic, oregano and basil for ‘italian;’ cumin and chili powder for ‘mexican,’ and add on from there as needed.
- Granular garlic and fresh (bulb) garlic each contribute a different effect, so have both on hand.
- Get a bottle of pepper sauce and a bottle of Worcestershire sauce. Learn to love them. And Sriracha—Oh my Goodness.
- Vinegars are generally interchangeable except when flavored, as with herbs or fruit.
- Lemon or lime juice can often be used in place of vinegar in many applications.
- Balsamic vinegar is useful for its rich flavor in addition to its tartness.
- Baking soda and baking powder are not interchangeable. However, baking soda can be made into a substitute for baking powder in a pinch. Baking powder and baking soda are used in making quick breads—biscuits, muffins, et cetera, and in some cookies and cakes. Most other baked goods rely on yeast for their rising and are more somewhat more time-consuming.
- Oils and shortenings, et cetera: Olive oil and butter are the lifeblood of a good kitchen.
- Use butter wherever shortening is called for. It will scorch and smoke at a lower temperature, so watch it carefully. If a recipe specifically says not to use butter, use it anyway.
- Olive oil can be your only ingredient oil; the mild flavor rarely stands out even when used to make things like cake mixes.
- Experiment with mixing olive oil and butter in recipes; the oil will reduce the scorching tendency somewhat. (It’s the milk solids in butter that scorch and get smelly; you can get rid of them by clarifying the butter. Melt it slowly over gently heat, let the foam subside and the solids settle. Pour off the clear portion into a container. This is known as ghee or clarified butter; save the foam and milk solids to put in your next baking project.)
- Save bacon grease in a small can. It is wonderful for lots of things from chili to greens to biscuits, and adds a rich, smoky, salty flavor.
- Sugars: White sugar and brown sugars are somewhat interchangeable. Brown sugar has some molasses added back into it, has a slightly higher moisture content and a slightly richer flavor.
- Honey is interchangeable with sugar, with some adjustments. Honey is twice as sweet, measure for measure, so use less; it adds some liquid, so adjust the recipe accordingly; it scorches more easily, so lower the cooking temperature slightly; and honey is hygroscopic, meaning it absorbs moisture from the air. This means that baked things that are supposed to be moist will stay fresh longer, or go stale faster if they are supposed to be crispy. Always buy local honey, and try varieties made from different types of blossoms. (Note: How the hell can there be local Orange Blossom honey—in Virginia?)
- Flour: Buy a 5 lb bag of flour and put it in an airtight container. Otherwise, you’ll grow a crop of weevils—little bugs that live in flour and grain. Keep whole grain flour in an airtight container in the refrigerator so it won't go rancid (oxidize).
- Rice: Most kinds of rice are generally interchangeable. Brown and regular rice take about 25-35 minutes to cook; converted rice takes less time, and instant rice takes the least time—about 5 minutes—but also contributes the least flavor and character.
- Wild rice is not a rice, but the seeds of an aquatic grass. Pricey, but a nice addition in small quantities to grain mixes for its nutty flavor and chewy texture.
- Jellies are filtered fruit juice jelled with sugar and pectin (a fruit enzyme that is responsible for their texture). Jams are fruits and fruit juice jelled with pectin. Preserves are whole fruits preserved with a sugar solution. Jellies have the least fruit and the most sugar; preserves have the most fruit and the least sugar.
- Syrup: Life is too short. Buy 100% Vermont Grade B maple syrup, at least until you have kids.
- Canned milk: Two things on the shelf: Evaporated milk and sweetened condensed milk. Evaporated milk is plain old milk with half of its water taken out. Add an equal volume of water to it, and voila! You have some really icky tasting stuff that’s kind of like milk. That’s why it’s mostly used for cooking instead of drinking. Keep some on hand to make cream soups and chowders. Add it just a couple of minutes before serving, and try not to boil it.
- Sweetened condensed milk is that syrupy stuff (a.k.a 'dulce de leche') that’s mostly used as an ingredient, for example in caramels. Unless you have specific plans to make something with it, there’s no need to have it on hand.
- The big secret of the baking world is that no one bakes cakes from scratch anymore because mixes are just plain better and way easier. Buy a couple of boxes on sale and keep them on hand. And don’t bother looking for a store brand, because the stores know not to mess with the big three national brands: Pillsbury, Duncan Hines and Betty Crocker. [Note: There is no Betty Crocker, but there was a Duncan Hines. There’s a whole history of the American 20th Century in those brands and their products.]
- Fruit juices: With loads of sugar and minimal nutritional value, they are nutritionally equivalent to soft drinks. With the exception of cranberry juice for medicinal purposes, they are generally a bad buy, except where used as an ingredient or a substitute for other sweeteners.
- Cereal: Whatever you buy, check the unit price. Note that as the price goes lower, sugar content increases. As the price goes higher, marketing content increases.
- Snack food: All other things being equal, buy from one of the great regional (Pennsylvania) companies.
- Seasoning packets and salad dressing mixes: Often pricey but look for sales. It’s okay to cheat once in a while, but realize that you’re paying a premium for a lot of salt, some fillers like maltodextrin, and a tiny amount of spices.
- Prepared and pre-packaged foods: Canned main courses, frozen entrees, canned soups, microwave meals, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. Avoid these whenever possible. They are outrageously overpriced and never, ever taste as good as they look on the packaging. This is because, in part, they are designed by focus groups to meet average tastes. Furthermore, they are conceptualized by food engineers who make ten times as much as the food technicians who oversee the factories where they are actually made by people making minimum wage from ingredients harvested by migrant laborers making a pittance. All the money goes into the concept and packaging, and none into the execution. See point #2 above—learn how to make simple things.
Invest in a copy of “The Joy of Cooking.” Read it from cover to cover, and then go buy any two other cookbooks you’ll actually use. Remember that you’ll be reading them laid out on the counter with slop all over your hands, so choose ones that are designed to lie flat and be used in a real kitchen. “Moosewood” is a great one to have on hand, if for no other reason than the charmingly offbeat approach to cooking.
Everyone always says to spend lots of money on a set of good knives. They’re right. But you’ll only need about three, plus a peeler.
Never EVER use abrasive cleaners—steel wool, scouring powder, et cetera. Once you start using them, you have to use them forever because they destroy the surface. Think about it—what do you do to prepare a surface so paint will stick to it forever? You scour it with steel wool. Do you really want to prepare your pans the same way for food?
Cast iron? Maybe, at least for a griddle or frypan. Season well per manufacturer’s instructions to obtain a non-stick surface, then only ever wipe clean or rinse with plain hot water. Never wash with soap or detergent, as this destroys the seasoning of the surface and you’ll need to start from scratch.
Whatever the size, set up your kitchen with your tools close at hand. It will make cooking simpler, faster and more likely to happen.
Clean up and put things away as you go. It's a good habit to get into and will make life much simpler.
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