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Julia Nikolaus is a content strategist for an LA-based company. She enjoys working with food and drink brands along with pet clients. In her free time, Julia likes to bake new recipes, take dance classes, and spend time outdoors.
Gourmet foods may seem out of reach financially. But any foodie will gladly tell you that sometimes, it’s worth biting the bullet to put a special gourmet ingredient in your grocery cart.
For this piece, we’re going to talk primarily about organic gourmet ingredients. The quality of organic ingredients meets the criteria for classification as “gourmet.” This has nothing to do with “snob appeal” and everything to do with the impact of quality food on your health and well-being. Today, “gourmet” encompasses genuinely organic ingredients.
So, let’s put on our grocery thinking caps to get a handle on gourmet (and organic) ingredients that may give you momentary sticker shock but which are worth purchasing.
The word “gourmet” is not as concerned with specific individual ingredients as it is with the ingredients’ quality. Added to that ingredient-specific quality is the touch of the culinary professional preparing the ingredient as part of a dish. The chef’s food knowledge and preparation techniques build on ingredient quality, starting with the intelligent use of select ingredients.
A gourmet ingredient is either of the highest quality or so rare or difficult to source that it’s costly. In this article, we’ll look at several such ingredients and explain why they’re worth the prices they command. We’ll also cover less costly alternatives that are of the same or similar quality to the ideal ingredients.
The organic designation goes a lot deeper than the sometimes “greenwashing” or “fauxganic” labels now ubiquitous in grocery store aisles. The organic bandwagon, once the province of the health-conscious, is now heaving as the message of organic goodness spreads.
To be deemed “organic,” US producers must adhere to a rigorous 5-step process prescribed by the USDA. To maintain this certification, USDA guidelines must be followed to the letter. Organic food, which is “non-certified” but is still considered organic, is usually sold at the farm gate and at farmer’s markets or through a food box service delivered straight to the consumer.
So, now that we’ve defined our terms, let’s meet some gourmet and organic ingredients that look expensive but are worth it.
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1. Parmigiano Reggiano
That cheese shaker on the shelf at the grocery store can stay right where it is. The label says it all: “Parmesan Cheese .” And if it’s produced in the USA, you’ll most likely find hormones in it. In order to be dubbed authentic, Parmigiano Reggiano must be produced free of potassium sorbate, cheese cultures, and cellulose (all found in shelf parmesan cheese, among other things). In Emilia-Romagna, where Parmigiano Reggiano is produced, it’s illegal to put anything in this cheese except milk, salt, and rennet. What’s more, once that milk has left the cow, it must take no more than 20 hours before it’s transformed into cheese. You can also take into account that Italy is part of the European Union, where the use of hormones in agriculture is banned.
As with most gourmet items, Parmigiano Reggiano isn’t exactly cheap. Grana Padano, aged 9 months like Reggiano but with a less intense flavor profile and much less expensive, is one alternative. Another is pecorino, made from sheep’s cheese and popular for Roman pasta dishes. Go ahead and try these more affordable alternatives, but whatever you do, leave that cheese shaker on the shelf.
2. Coconut Oil
Coconut oil, like organic food, has gone from a nutritional outlier to the status of a kitchen superstar and staple. From food to skin and hair care, organic coconut oil has made millions of fans. An anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, and antifungal, putting coconut oil on your culinary roster can even help you lose weight! The benefits of this oil easily outweigh cost considerations.
But keep your eyes peeled when purchasing this gourmet ingredient. Look for a reputable source that brings you a credible product. Many producers sell coconut oil, but clean production and quality control are especially important. Coconut oil has become a food sensation, which means that the market is home to many pretenders. Choose wisely and (preferably) organically.
This rich, orange-colored spice is a legendary addition to dishes from around the world. Delicately scented and flavored, saffron is also the most expensive spice in existence, costing between $500 and $5,000 a pound. This explains why it’s sold in those tiny little pouches!
But saffron is awash with health benefits due to its high concentration of antioxidant compounds, many in the carotenoid family (which provokes the color orange, as it does with carrots). The powerful antioxidant action of saffron may protect the brain from stress, providing an anti-aging effect. Harvested from the stamen of the crocus sativus, saffron is produced organically. Try it in a seafood paella or read more about how it’s used in cooking.
4. Grass Fed Beef
We eat a lot of beef in our society. The average US adult puts away a lifetime total of 55 pounds of beef alone. But we all know that red meat, when consumed in large quantities, is a health risk. But organic beef reduces those risks, largely due to the diet of organically-raised cows, which consists partially of natural grass. Grass-fed beef is less fatty overall and contains heart-beneficial Omega-3 fatty acids, derived from the grass the cows eat.
That is not to say that reducing your beef intake shouldn’t be on the table. Pay a little more ($1.50 – $2.00 a pound more) for grass-fed beef and eat beef less often. This balance reframes beef as a “special” food for special occasions and something much less likely to result in serious health problems later in life due to over-consumption.
5. Vanilla Extract
Did you know that vanilla is the most volatile commodity in agriculture? Prices for this beloved baking ingredient surge and dip more spectacularly than any other food product. For several years now, Madagascar (where most vanilla is grown) has experienced extreme weather that’s killed so many plants that the price per pound skyrocketed to over $300.
The price of vanilla is beginning to stabilize, but if you’re turning to the synthetic type, which is far less costly, you should know what it’s synthesized from—guaiacol (a petroleum byproduct), wood pulp, or coal tar. So, yes. The Real McCoy is worth every penny! Alternatively, you can buy some vanilla beans and make your own!
6. Prosciutto di Parma
Prosciutto Crudo di Parma, like Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, hails from the Italian province of Emilia-Romagna. Free of all preservatives or other chemical interference (and thus, organic), Parma ham is the cured leg of a specially-reared pig. The only ingredients are sea salt and pork. This extraordinarily fine product is made by a consortium of producers. These are the keepers of the prosciutto and have been since circa 1100-800 BCE!
While certainly costly, remember that this delicacy cures for at least 16 months and may be cured for up to two years, resulting in the silky texture of this extraordinary product. It’s also imported, which adds to the price. But the care taken in production renders a culinary delight that must be experienced as an example of artisanal food which has been produced in its original agricultural area for over two millennia!
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7. Pink Himalayan Salt
Mined in Pakistan, this rose-colored salt is sought after by foodies and health-conscious people alike. Not only does this type of salt contain markedly less sodium (about 1/3rd less) than your average table salt, it contains trace minerals (zinc, iron, calcium, potassium, and magnesium) in small amounts, which vary between brands. Another advantage of this type of salt is the absence of iodine and other chemicals commonly added to commercial table salt. It’s also regarded as a powerful anti-inflammatory.
Of course, where you purchase pink Himalayan salt matters. Always look for labels indicating the absence of GMOs and for Kosher certification. This salt is well worth the price of admission, but remember to read the label carefully to ensure it’s the real thing.
8. Organic Wine
For wine lovers, the advent of organic wine was happiness itself! So, it didn’t take long for organic wine to pace the traditional market. With consumers hungry (and thirsty) for organic comestibles, it was inevitable that wine lovers would go organic.
The rigorous standards of the USDA extend to vintners’ care of the soil in which wine grapes are grown and exclude the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Wines produced elsewhere and labeled organic must meet the Agency’s criteria to be sold as organic in the USA. But if you want to go one step further than organic, try biodynamic wine. When a vineyard is seen as a coherent ecosystem, with each part serving the whole as a crucial link to the end product, the resulting wine is enjoyed on a spiritual, environmentally conscious level! And that, friends, is worth every penny!
Treat Yo’ Self
Gourmet ingredients and fine foods make life an adventure. Tasting the world through these painstakingly produced gourmet and organic ingredients and products brings quality, traditional artisanal practices, and organic goodness to your table. So, the next time you’re at the grocery store, remember that life is for living and fine food is for savoring – even if it costs a little bit more!
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Expensive Ingredients That Are Worth The Price:
- Parmigiano Reggiano
- Coconut Oil
- Grass Fed Beef
- Vanilla Extract
- Prosciutto di Parma
- Pink Himalayan Salt
- Organic Wine