How to dress up everything from canned beans to cheap wine so that your budget buys feel like the finer things.
A budget-conscious shopper knows how to shop the bargains and still eat well. No, we’re not talking white pasta with a tablespoon of generic tomato sauce. An experienced shopper with an eye toward the bottom line can whip up impressive yet cost-conscious meals like Cacio e Pepe, Pork with Chunky Applesauce, and Pan-Seared Chuck Eye Steaks.
But turning cheap foods into a great meal takes a little practice and some smart stovetop strategies. After all, if you dread eating your low-cost staples so much you end up getting expensive takeout and letting the foods go bad, you’ve wasted your money entirely.
Here, 10 ways you can boost inexpensive ingredients from the grocery store and turn those bland vittles into something that’s special and delicious—and tastes a heck of a lot more expensive than it really is.
Watch: A Quick Guide to Freezing Fresh Herbs
1. Always Begin with Garlic
First things first, almost every dish you make should begin with garlic. Yes, you should use it that often. This powerful aromatic lends a rich depth of flavor that cannot be easily replicated. Think of it as a sturdy binding on a really thick book. Without it, the pages (or other ingredients) might all fall away from one another, leaving you with a mix of paper that’s probably readable but certainly not comprehensible. (Or a dish that’s definitely edible but not altogether cohesive, to keep this tortured analogy going.)
Saute fresh minced garlic in butter or oil to start virtually every savory dish, from pasta sauce to frittatas. Start cooking it early, and over low heat (garlic burns easily, so keep that pan low and slow), for the best flavor. Fresh garlic turns sweeter and more mellow the longer it cooks. It’s strong and sharp, and it grows more aggressive as it sits exposed to oxygen. That’s why you shouldn’t chop or mince garlic until right before you plan to use it, and you don’t want to add the fresh stuff to a dish at the last second else you’ll be scaring your family and friends away for a while.
2. Raid Your Spice Cabinet
Spices may not seem like a budget buy until you break it down to a per-use cost. One bottle of the most common spices falls between $2 and $5, but the typical bottle can sustain you through weeks of cooking, even if you’re using it almost daily.
Sure, saffron likely isn’t going to find its way into your cart, but cumin, coriander, fennel seeds, and others add incredible flavor in small amounts, often less than a teaspoon. We like Herbs de Provence sprinkled onto fish or root vegetables. Italian seasoning gives incredible body to canned tomato soup or a dipping sauce for bread. Even cinnamon can find new life in savory dishes, such as chili, vegetable hash, or glazed salmon.
If you want even more flavor from your spices, you can intensify the flavor of any spice you’re cooking with by blooming it in fat. Add dried or ground spices to butter or oil, and stir for a minutes or two before adding any liquids to the pan. If you’re starting a dish with garlic (see above) and onion, carrots, or other aromatics, add the spices to the fat in the pan when the vegetables are almost cooked. You’ll be amazed how that extra time in the hot oil or butter can boost basic dried herbs and spices.
3. Grow Your Own Herbs
Fresh herbs add incredible flavor to soups, slow-cooked meals, tagines, stews, salads, and more. Alas, their short shelf life and high price tag often mean budget shoppers leave them on the shelf.
If you have a windowsill, sunlight, a small planter, and water, you have the ingredients to your very own indoor herb garden. Seeds are just pennies per packet, and they grow quickly. Start your herb garden today so you have basil, rosemary, chives, cilantro, or any of your favorite fresh flavors right at your hand.
Also, make sure you use them at the right time for the best flavor impact. Hardy herbs like rosemary, thyme, sage, and oregano need to be added early in the process. This guarantees the herbs can break down and release maximum flavor into the dish.
Delicate herbs—think cilantro, chives, basil, and parsley—need to be added at the last minute for a burst of brightness and flavor. If they’re added too early, they could cook down and become bitter.
4. Marinate Cheap Meats
If you’re tempted by the cheap cuts in the butcher's cabinet (and you should be because they’re incredibly flavorful), be sure to pick up the ingredients for a marinade while you’re shopping. Marinades not only add flavor to what are often dense cuts of meat—chuck roast, pork shoulder, chuck eye steak, and chicken thighs, for example—but they also help break down the tougher pieces so they’re more tender when you do slice into them.
Lighter, delicate foods like fish and vegetables don’t need a long marinade. They can even disintegrate if they’re left in too long. Any marinade with citrus may make chicken and fish look discolored, but they’re OK to use for a short period of time. The bigger cuts of beef and pork, however, can likely stand up to an overnight or all-day marinade. For more detail on how long to marinate what, check out our Complete Guide to Marinating.
5. Make a Flavorful Sauce
As the colloquialism goes, the secret’s in the sauce. You can turn myriad cheap pantry staples like whole grains, pasta, rice, and beans into an incredible side dish or dinner with a show-stopping sauce.
Start with sauce-making components you have on hand. A pan sauce is made from the fond (the caramelized bits of goodness on the bottom of a pan after you’ve cooked meat). You simply deglaze the pan with a liquid like wine, beer, stock, or juice, and scrape loose the bits with a wooden spoon. As the sauce cooks down, you can add herbs and spices for more flavor, and let it thicken with a quick simmer. Pour that over your grains or beans, or add it into a stew or soup for more depth of flavor.
You can also turn to jarred sauces for a flavor boost, too. While these sauces may sometimes be out of your budget, you can rationalize spending a bit more on them when everything else on the plate is so inexpensive. Look for jarred sauces like curry, pesto, Romesco sauce, and enchilada sauces. With inexpensive chicken or pork and a side of grains, a little sauce goes a long way for big flavor.
6. Utilize a High-impact Ingredient
In the “a little goes a long way” vein, you can look for ingredients that add major flavor in small quantities. You don’t need a lot of these, which means a jar, bottle, or wedge will last you through many meal-planning rounds. But if you keep them on hand and use them the right way, you can turn simple into astonishing. These foods include:
- Bacon: A sprinkle of bacon on a potato soup adds a rich smokiness you can’t get from much else. The same can be said for prosciutto and pancetta.
- Capers: Mince capers with onions or shallots and mix into a homemade vinaigrette.
- Roasted red peppers: The incredibly smoky flavor of these jarred peppers can be whirred into a sauce, chopped for a chili stir-in, or blended into mayonnaise for a simple spread or dip.
- Bold cheeses like blue, cheddar, or Parm: These cheeses may have as much impact on your nose as they do your wallet. That is to say, you can’t miss them. But their flavors are often so strong, especially compared to many pre-shredded and packaged cheeses, that you can really stretch your supply (and your dollar). For example, Parmesan cheese elevates humble strands of spaghetti to an ultraluxe pasta dish, and when you’ve grated as much cheese as you can from the wedge, toss the rind into your penny-pinching vegetable soup for even more flavor.
- Flavored oil like chile oil or toasted sesame oil: Swirl these high-impact oils into soups, or use them to make a quick pesto sauce with leftover herbs.
7. Use Fat Wisely
The measure of a good fat is how quickly it can boost a dish in small increments. Butter has better flavor than margarine, cream is a better thickener than skim milk, full-fat cheese is tastier than sad, part-skim shredded stuff, and so on.
If you use these fats wisely, you’ll experience a wide range of flavor benefits, and because you only need a little bit, you can stretch your grocery dollar more. For example, a tablespoon of cream stirred into canned tomato soup adds depth and richness you won’t find straight out of the tin. Toss gnocchi or grains with browned butter instead of plain melted butter for a rich, nutty flavor. You can even toast oats in butter before cooking in water for a texture and flavor you won’t get with the instant stuff.
8. Brown Meats First
There’s a lot of magic happens when raw meats hit a searing hot pan. The outside of the meat develops a crust, and the pan builds fond (that delicious stuff you’ll use for a pan sauce—see #5). Browning on meat equals flavor, and it’s all for free.
You can brown meats in a hot skillet even if you plan to finish them elsewhere. So, as an example, you can brown off a chuck roast or pork shoulder before adding it to a slow cooker or Instant Pot. You can sear all sides before braising or roasting the meat in an oven, too. You can even brown slices of ham before adding it to beans for the long cooking process.
9. Use Stock in Place of Water
Take this trick from restaurants: Use stock or broth in almost any place you’d use water. That includes boiling pasta or grains, simmering beans, or thinning a soup. While vegetable, beef, and chicken stocks and broths tend to be fairly mild in terms of flavor, they’re much more flavorful—and impart that flavor into foods better—than plain water. Sure, water is cheaper, but a 32-ounce carton of stock is rarely more than $2 or $3. You won’t use a lot (use half water and half stock for pasta and grains), and you’ll reap major flavor benefits.
10. Warm Store-bought Breads and Pastries
We all dream of buying a beautiful fresh baguette from the corner bistro every day, walking home, slicing into it, and breathing a sigh of relief at the joy such a simple food brings. In reality, of course, we’re more likely picking up an end-of-day loaf of bread that is probably a bit too hard, but it’s a dollar off, so we’ll make some magic.
You can replicate a bit of the fresh baked wonder by popping your loaf into a warm oven and reheating it for 5 to 10 minutes. The bread will be a little extra toasty, and you’ll get the straight-from the-oven satisfaction.