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The best "bang" for your buck

It sounds like a lot of CHers only use the best when they cook--Valrhona, Plugra, Callebaut, artisanal cheeses, small farm produced eggs/meats, etc. but for a lot of us, it's cost prohibitive to buy the best of everything all the time. What items do you think are worth splurging on and using the best of all the time? Do you have a great balsamic vinegar where everything pales in comparison, love the plugra and can't buy anything else, love local dairy eggs, can't live without Noka chocolate;-), favorite truffle/oil...? Is there anything you'd advise others to spend their money on because it makes a big difference?

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  1. Have you read this?

    http://www.chowhound.com/topics/352789

    I can't live without my Vermont cultured butter. I sometimes skip bread and butter in restaurants because I find the butter inferior!

    3 Replies
    1. re: hrhboo

      Yes, I'd never heard of Noka before but can't get over that people pay that (hence the winky face after my suggestion). Where do you get your butter? I'd love to find some locally made butter.

      1. re: chowser

        Oh! Silly me, I thought that YOU couldn't live without Noka. I actually felt a little bad for you for a sec :)

        I buy the butter at my local gourmet shop, I live in LA (Venice Beach). You can usually find it at good grocery stores like Whole Foods and in cheese stores. I do love Plugra for cooking/baking, but for spreading I prefer the cultured butter.

      2. re: hrhboo

        I agree with the cultured butter suggestion. I think the best is Beurre be Barrat (sp?) which is a French cultured butter but hard to find. The Vermont Butter and Cheese stuff is what you'll normally find on my table as well. Some Whole Foods, but not all, sell the French stuff.

      3. free-range organic eggs. the smell of commercially-raised eggs induces gagging in me instantly.

        for a lot of things, like cheese, which can be very expensive, i'll just buy small amounts to savor.

        i think most of us would agree premium ingredients are worth the splurge, indeed do make a difference.

        nestles ain't no valrhona.

        2 Replies
        1. re: hotoynoodle

          I can tell fresh eggs from store bought eggs but I can't taste the difference between store bought free range organic, which I do buy, and the others.

          1. re: hotoynoodle

            my overall fave is also valhrona (although i tend to deviate when I find a great new chocolate I've never tried before) however recently i bought a bunch of lindt bars for really cheap and that's what i'll be eating the next week or so.

            in general I usually can't skimp on chocolate or green tea so if i can't get the good stuff i usually hve to do without.

            http://www.chowhound.com/topics/355243

          2. One reason I'm asking is that I think I'm a proficient baker but I use regular grocery store items that I've found work best like Guittard chips, King Arthur flour, basic organic butter. I'm wondering if my baking would be substantially better if I used Plugra, Valrhona, fresh eggs, etc. I must have used nearly 10 pounds of butter between Thanksgiving and Christmas and similar for eggs and chocolate. It would have been very expensive to use the best for all that but would it be worth it, if people seem to love what I make with the plain old ingredients.

            2 Replies
            1. re: chowser

              chowser,
              I bake professionally, and I can't tell a significant difference with Plugra butter over a high quality local or Land-O-lakes butter. I tend to use Guittard or Ghirardelli chocolate, Nielson Massey vanilla, Amish eggs, and KA flours. I can taste the very slight difference when they are separate, but the difference when assembled in a wedding cake or other pastry is almost imperceptible.

              My costs do go up significantly when I use the top shelf ingredients, and the customers don't see a equal benefit. I have used those artisan ingredients when asked to by certain clients.

              1. re: Kelli2006

                I have a sneaking suspicion that unsalted LOL would stand with the best butters out there in a blind taste test. Just sayin'.

            2. Depending on where you live, Farmers Markets produce (fruits, vegetables, honey, sometimes fowl, eggs, cheeses), organic whenever possible, makes a HUGE difference when compared to industrial farming produce, and it is often cheaper.

              1. I used to be on a tight budget, even with TJ's and several farmer's markets the cost of splurging was prohibitive. My budget these days is a lot different and I do splurge here and there. Do my favorite dishes turn out better? Yes, but not drastically. If I am baking/cooking for a large group high end ingredients would bust my budget and I don't think most people would notice the difference. If it is for a small group of my favorite Chowish friends then the splurge is worth it. IMHO, pricey ingredients are not essential to great product--well chosen recipes that are thoughtfully executed are essential to producing a good dish. I wouldn't let the media pressure of using all boutique or organic products force you out of your budgetary comfort zone. If you do splurge I recommend investing in non persihable ingredients. I bought Truffle Salt last year and it is still great. It hurt me when I bought it but everytime I use it I am thankful I did.

                1. I have so often been disappointed buying locally grown organic fruits and vegetables (at much higher prices). Mealy peaches this past summer come to mind, boring tomatoes. I live near Salt Lake City, and could be a lot more aggresive about finding the good stuff, but when the regular grocery is better and cheaper..

                  1. I do not think splurge is the right word. I buy land o lake butter, bakers and nestles chocolate, but stay away from low end chicken and beef. My local grocer carries Bell and Evans chix and great beef. Another has its own aging fridge.

                    Other than that I buy good quality and no one evers complains, quite the opposite.

                    1. I use Callebaut or El Rey chocolate in general baking but I'll use Valrhona when baking for the immediate family, particularly in something like a mousse. I can't get El Rey locally now but when I could that was the best bang for the buck ever. I paid about $6/lb. and the taste was amazing.

                      1. Easy: the best bang for your buck is from your local farmers market. It doesn't matter if you purchase items that are organic or conventionally grown/raised, you won't find items that are as fresh as what you will find there. Get in the habit of going year-round and you won't be disappointed. I used to only go during the summer months for the tomatoes, summer squash, etc., but now go weekly for all of my produce and eggs. The selection and prices can't be beat.

                        1 Reply
                        1. re: rosielucchesini

                          I totally agree. Most high end imported stuff is a waste of money -- even if better than best quality American mass market stuff, not that much better, since all you're doing is buying is Euopean/Asian mass market stuff that has flown long distances to get here. Yes, I prefer Plugra to Land O'Lakes, but if I were on a tight budget, please..... On the other had, the local farmers' market has both the absolutely best quality and good prices.

                        2. I love farmers markets, too, but it's easier for some parts of the country. We only have them in the heat of the humid summer here and they're hard to get to for me, timewise, but I go when I can. When I lived in California, I went regularly twice a week.

                          It was helpful to see your responses. It's not that I'm on a tight budget as much as I was wondering if it was worth spending the money on the "best". When you come right down to it, I rarely cook for chowhounds but I'd use the best if people can tell, but if I'm baking for people who can't, I'll stick with the basics.

                          1. i buy organic butter b/c fat traps toxins more than anything else.

                            i buy good quality organic olive oil, but usually from spain, which is slightly cheaper and different than the italian.

                            local eggs and milk, i really notice a difference now even from the non-local organic eggs.

                            BREAD. I spend $2.50/week on organic ciabatta from whole foods, which i eat toasted. i can't eat pre-packaged soft breads.

                            fruit - this needs to be from whole foods or a local producer b/c otherwise it's mushy, tastless, and/or never ripens.

                            fish. there is no point in buying fish that's not great. in fact if you don't have a good source, it's better to buy frozen.

                            pomi or bionaturae organic strained tomatoes.

                            risotto rice from this producer that is sold in a small burlap bag at specialty stores. it really makes a difference which rice you use for risotto.

                            otherwise i get vegetables often from the cheaper local supermarket, especially things like green onions, parsley, cilantro, cauliflower, eggplant.

                            1. I try to do everything ORGANIC as possible, especially meats and dairy products. Don't want to pump up on hormones.

                              When I cook Italian, I have to have the best ingredients: best olive oil, best canned tomatoes, best dried pasta

                              Everything else is just trivial...