In a perfect world, we'd all buy our groceries at sunny outdoor farmer's markets and expensive natural food stores, full of brightly-colored, locally produced ingredients as far as the eye can sea.
But we don't live in a perfect world. Grocery budgets aren't unlimited, good ingredients aren't always easy to come by, and even if neither of those applied, at the end of the day, it doesn't make much of a difference for a lot of recipes.
There are a few everyday kitchen staples, though, that are well worth spending a few extra bucks on. These are all ingredients that you likely use with a good deal of regularity, and where there's often a major quality difference between a low-end store brand version and the really good stuff. Try the pricier ones that pack way better, more intense flavor, and you'll never go back.
Margarine and inexpensive butter work just fine for cooking and baking, when they're just in the recipe to provide a subtle extra richness. But when it plays a more integral role, like with toast or homemade waffles, you want something better.
Spend a dollar or two more on Kerrygold, Plugra, President, or whatever just-slightly-more-expensive butters are at your grocery store, spread some onto a biece of bread, and taste the difference for yourself. The salty, fatty flavor will be noticeably stronger than the cheaper versions, which makes for very satisfying improvements to breakfasts and snacks.
Extra Fancy Salt
This is one of the easiest, most effective cooking hacks that make any meal better. Salt goes on almost every single thing that anyone cooks, bakes, or prepares – you use it in recipes, and you keep extra on the table in case you need more. It's an indispensible staple in any kitchen.
But there are all kinds of varieties, and it's not all made equal. Basic table salt – the really granular kind that's in most every salt shaker in America – works fine for baking, since it distributes into dough very effectively. And if you're making anything like a sauce or soup, where the salt will dissolve, it doesn't matter what you use.
But for cooking and finishing food, the type you use makes a surprising difference. Flavor and texture both come into play: compared to standard table salt, higher quality crystals usually have a more complex and less metallic flavor, plus a larger and more crunchy texture.
It really does make a big difference in almost every dish you cook, especially when it comes to finishing your food after it's prepared. Spring for some extra nice flaky salt and sprinkle it generously on your next steak to see what we mean.
Finding this can be tough if you don't have an especially upscale supermarket or butcher in town. But if you do, save up a few bucks, buy yourself a dry-aged steak, and get ready to have your mind blown.
The dry-aging process, which usually takes around 20 days, accomplishes two things:
It intensifies the savory, beef-y flavor by allowing moisture to evaporate from the muscle. That leaves the remaining beef more concentrated, taste-wise.
It makes the cut much more tender, since natural enzymes in the beef start to break down the muscle's connective tissue.
A slight mold will also usually form during the aging process, which also helps speed up both of the above. Don't worry – it's not harmful, and gets trimmed off by the butcher before the steak is sold.
Because the aging reduces the steak's saleable weight, requires specialty dry-aging chambers, and takes several weeks start to finish, dry-aged beef is very pricey – you'll likely pay double, if not more, the price per pound of an unaged cut. So it's definitely not an everyday thing, unless you've got an especially thick wallet.
But every once in a while, it's worth the price and then some for an unbelievably rich, savory, and extra tender steak. And in addition to concentrating the existing goodness, the dry-aging process also lends a new depth of flavor – often described as "minerally" – that you just can't get with the standard stuff.
Your wallet might feel a little lighter once you're done, but your kitchen will have gotten a big step up in culinary capability. Hone your chef's knife, tie on an apron, and get cooking.