9 Chef-Favorite Ingredients That Cost Almost Nothing
Here, chefs reveal the inexpensive, everyday ingredients that they love.
Even in the world's fanciest restaurants, life in the kitchen isn't all caviar and truffles. The highest-end chefs still have to weigh budgetary concerns against their own ambitions and imaginations. Here, chefs reveal the inexpensive, everyday ingredients that they love.
“It doesn’t get any better than onions,” says Austin chef and butcher Jesse Griffiths. “There are so many different varieties depending on the time of year: green, spring, bulb, keeping onions. Each is different. You can cook them forever, serve them raw, fry, grill, smoke or bake them, and they’re relatively cheap.”
“Shallots aren’t as pungent as garlic, and they don’t make you cry like onions do,” says Kelly Liken of Restaurant Kelly Liken in Vail, Colorado. “Their gentler flavor takes dishes to another level, even simple ones like vinaigrettes, sauces, soups. I prefer shallots to garlic at home. A roasted shallot is like candy. They dress up side dishes like brussels sprouts or potatoes. Pickled shallots, tossed with a peppery green like watercress or arugula, can spice up braised lamb or short ribs. You can pickle shallots so many ways—in citrus juice, red wine vinegar or apple cider vinegar.”
“Mint works easily with both sweet and savory,” says chef Jody Adams of Boston’s Rialto. “I grew up on the mint jelly that you serve with lamb, because I come from a very Waspy family. But everybody uses mint: It’s in Greek food, Thai food, Italian food. It’s great with fish. You can add it to a basil pesto or make a straight mint pesto with a few nuts, garlic, chiles and oil and skip the cheese. Or throw the whole torn leaves in a salad. I love to use herbs as a green, not just a seasoning. Particularly in the winter, they brighten things up.”
“Even if you’re going to get into the upper echelon of San Marzano canned tomatoes, they’re still not that expensive, and you can make such awesome stuff with it at home,” says Del Posto pastry chef and author Brooks Headley. “They’re not seasonal, either, so you can cook with them all year round. I love making pizza sauce, spaghetti pomodoro and pappa al pomodoro, the Tuscan bread stew. To me it tastes like liquefied pizza.”
"As a parent, as somebody cooking for my family at home, I’m always grabbing some chicken thighs at the supermarket,” says Portland sandwich genius Tommy Habetz. “They’re the cheapest part of the chicken, but they have the most flavor. And you can do anything with them. You could do stir-fried rice with chicken thighs, or marinate them the day before and grill them, or throw them in a simple salad. They’re easy and delicious.”
“I like culantro a lot,” says Brooklyn chef Carlo Mirarchi. “It’s similar to cilantro, but it has a much more intense flavor and a longer-stemmed leaf. We’ve been growing it in our garden at Roberta’s. It’s really cheap to buy at Latin markets. It brings a lot of interesting herbaceous flavors to whatever you use it with. I like to use it in a sauce I make with culantro and squid ink, and then serve it with squid and several kinds of seaweed.”
“You can use it in at least five or six forms,” says Miami chef Michelle Bernstein. “Every single way you cook it changes the texture and flavor. From paste to crunchy bits to confit, you can put garlic in everything, and it changes the nature of what you’re making.”
“Don’t be afraid of canned beans,” says chef Peter Dale of The National in Athens, Georgia. “They’re super-cheap, a great source of protein, and they’re ready when you are. Sometimes at home I’ll cook canned pinto beans with butternut squash, poblano peppers and cumin for a spicy chili, which makes a great side dish on a cold day, especially with that pork shoulder that you’ve made in the crock pot. I love chickpeas on a salad, or a black bean relish with corn and tomatoes makes a great summertime room-temperature side dish for a cookout.”
“They’re inexpensive, and you can make it any meal of the day,” says chef Daniel Orr of FARM Bloomington in Bloomington, Indiana. “If you make breakfast grits, you can let any leftovers set up, slice them into bricks and sauté them for lunch or dinner. I’ll even garnish Caesar salads with crispy grit croutons. Before I add any liquid, I toast my grits in oil and butter until they start to smell like popcorn. It adds this smoky, roasty, intense corn flavor.”