A good olive oil can make a huge difference in a meal, but it can also be very expensive. The key is to consider your cooking application. If you are using olive oil to cook meat, fish, or vegetables, use the cheaper stuff. However, use the good stuff for drizzling on top when serving or when you are making vinaigrettes. Extra-virgin olive oil shouldn't be subjected to high heat and delivers it's distinctive flavor best when used for finishing or for dressings. If most of your olive oil use is through nonheat methods, it's worth it to spend extra on really good extra-virgin olive oil.
When it comes to meat and poultry — and even fish — you can save money by choosing cheaper cuts and stocking up when the supermarket has sales. For example, boneless, skinless chicken breasts are typically a pricey cut of chicken, but using thighs is a lot cheaper — and thighs actually taste better because they have a little bit of fat on them. Another economical choice is a whole bird because you can use almost every single part of it in a few different meals.
If you are marinating meat, poultry or fish then you can get away with cheaper cuts. If you are using meat in a stew, soup or casserole, then cheaper cuts are the way to go. However, if you are cooking your meat, poultry or seafood quite simply with just a little salt and pepper, then you will want to use a higher quality — and more expensive — cut or part because the focal point of the dish is going to be it's characteristic flavor (not the added flavor of heavy sauces or marinades).
The cost of organic produce can quickly add up, but you don't need to always buy organic. It is good to buy organic fruits and vegetables where you are eating the peel or the entire thing, like apples or lettuce. Produce with peels or skin that you remove like bananas, you can buy conventional. Speaking of produce, to keep costs down, stay clear of those precut fruits and veggies, you can do it yourself for a way lower cost. (Avoid the dirty dozen of produce.)
Cheese, no matter where it comes from can be fairly expensive, but domestic is usually cheaper. Most of the cheeses in the United States are comparable with imported cheeses, from say France, but if you must have your $20 a pound French Brie, then only buy it when pairing it with wine or when making a really good Brie sandwich. You only want to use the expensive stuff when you are not doing much else with it, except eating it as is. You can get away with the domestic cheese when making grilled cheese or using it on a burger or sandwich that will have extra garnishes like mayonnaise or cold cuts. Another tip: Take advantage of the locally-grown cheeses in your area — they should be less pricey because you aren't paying for the shipping and handling costs.
Cheap wines that taste cheap are hardly worth even a small investment, but you don't need to buy the most expensive bottle. Talk to your local sommelier or wine expert about wines that offer great taste at a great value. Even if you are cooking with wine, like making a red wine sauce, use a mid-range wine to ensure your dish has a great flavor. Another good idea is to use boxed wine when throwing a party - it is more budget-friendly than serving bottles.
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