Why ingredients matter
I’ve recently been on a steak-buying kick (just taking one for the team – check out my badass mofo steak post), and I’ve discovered that not all meats of the same cut are created equal. Yes, I’m a relative newbie to the world of steak, but I figured that a ribeye is a ribeye is a ribeye. Right?
Okay, so I’ve been a huge advocate of sourcing my beef from “happy” cows for years. But I rarely ate it (beef – especially steak) myself. Now that I’ve been consuming it a bit more regularly, it’s become apparent to me that the $18.99/lb ribeye that I buy from one high-end local grocer is simply not as delicious as that which I buy from another high-end local grocer for the same price. Unfortunately, there is little way to guarantee pre-purchase that a particular cut of meat is going to be mind-blowingly delicious, but I’ve learned that there are ways to minimize the likelihood that said cut is going to suck. We’ll come back to this in a minute.
Of course, it’s not just about meat.
Flavor is where it’s at. Compare a perfectly ripe tomato to that which you’ll find adorning your fast food hamburger in January and I promise you that there is simply no comparison. Similarly, try a blind comparison of the stuff commonly referred to as Parmesan cheese (found in those goofy green cylinders) to freshly grated Parmesan found in a mass grocer’s cheese case. But, it doesn’t end there! Now, try comparing the latter cheese to the king of Parmesans – Parmigiano-Reggiano – I promise you that you will NEVER be able to touch the green cylinder again, and that you’ll only woefully be able to purchase the cheaper version…that is, if you must.
What makes one Parmesan different from the other? There are a whole host of factors, including the local bacteria, the environment in which the milk-producing cows are raised – including their feed, aging time, and probably a bazillion other factors that have yet to be identified. Cheesemakers outside of the five Italian provinces that can legally make a cheese and label it Parmigiano-Reggiano have tried in vain to replicate the stuff, with mixed results. Some produce decent Parmesans, but NONE – at least none that I have tried – produce anything that could possibly be mistaken for the King in a blind tasting.
So that’s Parmesan. As for tomatoes, for some reason most don’t do well when grown out of season. To make matters worse, many are picked prematurely.
Once a tomato is plucked from its vine, it ceases to ripen. Unripe tomatoes taste like cardboard. See where I’m going here?
There is one tomato that is readily available in the States year-round that tends to taste pretty damn good. That tomato is the campari. A hothouse grown campari doesn’t come close to comparing to a perfectly ripe in-season tomato of many of the heirloom varieties, but it’s a fabulous choice (and often the only acceptable option) when in-season heirlooms aren’t available.
I could go on and on, comparing various food items in such a manner, but I bet you’ve already gotten the gist. Plus, I have created a free download that identifies 15 essential ingredient upgrades that covers those I deem to be the most critical, which you can access here.
It’s all about quality
Superior flavor comes from high-quality, unadulterated foods. In many instances, high-quality may mean organic, non-GMO (but only if it’s as fresh as it’s conventional counterpart), but it’s not always going to be the case. Freshness and ripeness are critically important – it doesn’t matter how few chemical pesticides are used if the unripe tomato tastes like cardboard, or if the arugula is decomposing in its bulk bin.
You would undoubtedly be amazed by how many people I see purchasing produce without paying much attention to quality. It’s the only explanation I can come up with for why Whole Foods habitually stocks large quantities of rubbery asparagus in the early stages of decomposition. Folks, if it looks like shit, don’t buy it. Look at your produce and evaluate it for freshness! In the case of asparagus, the spears shouldn’t be able to bend nearly in half without snapping, and the “buds” (or whatever they’re called) shouldn’t look frayed, mushy, shiny or like their tippy tops got broken off while the lower buds show signs of “flowering”. But that’s the state of the majority of the asparagus I see at nearly every store I shop at about 90% of the time. Given my five years’ experience working retail grocery,
I promise you that the only reason stores stock the shit repeatedly is because their buyers purchase it. Don’t be that customer. If the asparagus looks like shit, buy broccoli instead.
Quality isn’t just limited to produce. Oils are a fabulous example of where people tend to get it wrong. “Vegetable” oil is crap (plus it’s not good for you). Coconut oil and extra virgin olive oil are seriously amazing (assuming that they come from a high-quality source) and are the only fats I buy other than lard (rare occasion) and butter. Also, oil that is sold in plastic is thought to be potentially problematic due to the presence of BPA – a potential endocrine-disrupting chemical – which is found in plastic bottles. Whether this matters to you or has an effect on flavor is another story, but as for me, my endocrine system is already taxed (see this post if you want some background), and I’d rather buy my olive oil in dark glass bottles. Plus, the dark bottle protects against light degrading the oil.
Speaking of extra virgin olive oil, it should taste like something – it’s not a flavorless oil! A healthy portion of the mass marketed variety doesn’t taste like much of anything. But before you throw up your hands in protest and proclaim that there is no way in hell you’re spending $25 or more on 3/4 of a liter of the stuff, know that I spend at most half of that unless I want to snag something extra special for a specific dish. Great olive oil doesn’t have to break the bank. Oh, and my (free) 15 Essential Ingredient Upgrades download happens to have some brands I recommend, in case you need help choosing an olive oil (or anything else on the list).
Support a more compassionate existence for all life
If you don’t care about the welfare of others, couldn’t care less about the environment, and don’t give a fuck about the suffering of animals, just skip this section. For those of you who don’t fall into this category, however, take note that your food choices collectively have a massive effect on all three of these issues. Farm workers who don’t face constant pesticide exposure fare better health-wise than those who do (by the way, that’s a massive understatement – check out these third party reports for more information). Translation: buying organic strawberries means that you are supporting organic strawberry farming; supporting organic strawberry farming means that more farm workers will be required to produce said organic strawberries; assuming that the demand for ALL strawberries is held constant, more people working at organic strawberry farms means that fewer workers will be getting doused with pesticides at the non-organic strawberry farms. Econ 101.
Anyone who has driven through rural America and encountered a massive pig farm operation has undoubtedly closed the car windows and held her breath for as long as humanly possible. The toxins from industrial animal agriculture are a massive problem for both our environment and those who are exposed to it repeatedly. Here’s an outside link to a few facts about hog farming that will make your skin crawl (check out its references for more information). I’m not going to delve into the whole environmental catastrophe of some forms of agriculture, and I’m not trying to convince anyone to go vegan. In fact, I’m going to remind you that I have a badass mofo steak recipe right here – it would behoove you to try it!
Nevertheless, animals are sentient beings that experience fear, pain, and the simple desire to live. In the old days, they were raised in pastures and led decent enough lives in non-overcrowded environments before eventually ending up on our dinner plates. Today, most meat-producing animals are crammed into terribly cramped quarters, live under truly horrific conditions, are pumped full of drugs to keep them from getting deathly ill (a necessity, given how cramped their quarters are and how they are in constant contact with feces), and never see the light of day until they are prodded under extreme duress into the trucks that will lead them to slaughter. That’s not all – there is far more that these creatures undergo before they make it onto our dinner plates. Chickens are now bred to produce disproportionately more breast meat, which interferes with their ability to stand, and their beaks are chopped off (ouch!) so that they don’t peck each other’s eyes out or kill each other. Just think about it – you’d be cranky too if you had to live your entire life smashed up against your neighbors as if you were at a never ending rock concert (sans music and strobe lights). Dairy cows are fed hormones to enable them to produce stupid quantities of milk while their males calves sent off to the veal industry to live their short lives in tiny crates without mommy. I could go on and on and on and on and on! You get the drift, though. Right?
Pasture-raised and finished meat contains more healthy fats and fewer unhealthy fats than meat raised on grains and soy. The animals are less stressed than animals raised in buildings that often house tens of thousands of their comrades, and some even claim that the stress chemicals an animal produces affect its flavor. I’ve heard this more in hunter circles, but it’s an interesting concept to ponder.
Pasture-raised animals’ poop fertilizes the soil and isn’t dumped into what becomes a toxic cesspool – literally – of tens of thousands of animals’ excrement contained in a geographically tiny area. Gross.
So, what’s my point? The animal products you choose affect the lives of sentient animals who are not deserving of the above-mentioned circumstances. These choices also affect everyone’s environment and quite possibly our health, considering the antibiotics and hormones they are fed and that we assimilate either directly or indirectly, and considering the healthy vs unhealthy fats that are the result of the feed they eat.
What’s a conscientious (or disgusted) person to do? Pasture-raised and finished is your best bet. Organic is better than non-organic if that’s the only difference, but I’d choose non-organic, pasture-raised and finished anything over an organic critter that was raised in a building and fed grains its whole life. Why? Because I care about animals (it’s the recovering vegan in me), the environment, my health, AND FLAVOR. I think the stuff tastes awesome. Okay, so I know I probably sound like a broken record here, but you can check out my 15 Essential Ingredient Upgrades for a little bit more on the whole meat thing. Oh, and to revisit the whole ribeye vs ribeye thing I brought up earlier – the ribeye I bought that ended up tasting better was coincidentally pasture-finished and antibiotic-free for 300 days, whereas the other one was not. Hmmm…
From Good to Great
So, let’s get real. You can make decent tasting food with mediocre ingredients. But, if you are reading this I’d venture to guess that you aren’t going to be satisfied making “decent tasting food.” And, why should you be?! Upgrading your ingredients doesn’t mean changing the way you cook; it means to become a snob about quality! And, the difference in the finished product won’t go unnoticed. Sure, your guests may not be able to place their fingers on why your food is so awesome, but they will undoubtedly note that there is something uniquely delish about it. It’s the subtle things like NOT using ultra pasteurized heavy cream (yup, it’s one of my biggest secrets!) that makes your French silk pie taste far better than your neighbor’s. Few would be able to ascertain the origin of the subtle difference, but I promise that in a blind tasting, yours will win. Hands down.
Upgrading your ingredients is the key to turning out fantastic tasting dishes. You can’t make an outstanding dish from mediocre ingredients. Period. Click to tweet.
Upgrade Your Ingredients!
Okay, so I know I must really sound like a broken record here, but I’m going to implore you one last time to get your 100% free guide: 15 Essential Ingredient Upgrades that Will Elevate Your Cooking. Done.
Now, I’d love to hear from you – what ingredient upgrades do you feel are essential, despite a possible increase in cost? Or, do you have any money-saving secret ingredient upgrades you’d like to share? I’d love to hear from you (and so would my ingredient-savvy readers)! Thanks for sharing!