Photo: Elise Bakketun/iStock/Thinkstock
Squash: Go Beyond Butternut
We love lush, sweet butternut squash mashed or blended in fall and winter soups, but it can be a chore to prepare. It's big and heavy, difficult to cut and has a tough outer skin that can be tricky to remove. So, we often find ourselves spending the extra money to buy prepeeled, precut chunks, which can run from $2.50 up to as much as $4 a pound. Then we discovered delicata squash, a slightly less sweet but still mildly sugary variety. It's more tender, so it's easier to cut; plus, its skin is edible. You can get the same amount of squash for $.99.
Switch and save: $1.50 to $3.99 per pound
Berries: Consider How You'll Use Them
A recent bulletin from the USDA about the price Americans pay for fruits and vegetables (analyzed here by National Geographic
) ranks blackberries and raspberries at the top of the list. They cost $3.94 and $3.87 per pound, respectively. For budget-friendly alternatives, it depends on how you're using the fruit: To fill a tart, go with apples (they average 83 cents per pound). To serve with shortcake and whipped cream, try peaches, which run about 97 cents per pound. If you just want a sweet-tart fruit to top your breakfast cereal, plums ($1.16 per pound) or strawberries ($1.47 per pound) are less-pricey options.
Switch and save:
$2.50 to $3 per pound
Steak: Be Okay with a Little More Fat
People regard filet mignon as the best steak you can buy. It's tender and velvety and has a subtle flavor that doesn't need much more than salt and pepper to make it taste delicious. Such decadence isn't cheap: A center-cut piece can go for $30 a pound (even more for grass-fed). Rib eye, though, is only slightly less tender, can be even more flavorful, since it has more fat—and runs about $18 a pound. Pan-frying is your best bet with this cut (grilling can be dicey because of the fat, which can catch fire).
Switch and save: $12 per pound
Saffron: Tint Your Paella with a Different Spice
The most expensive spice in the world (it's been a boon to Afghan farmers lately
) is also one of the most subtle-tasting. Some say it's slightly spicy, while others detect a floral note. Cooks use it most often to give paella and curries their yellow hue, but if you're not up for spending $11 (or much more) for a 1/2-gram jar, it's fine to substitute turmeric (the spice that gives mustard its color)—which costs about $4 for a 4-ounce bag (more than 100 grams). Just use less, since it's quite potent and could overpower other flavors.
Switch and save:
$7 per container
Coffee: Ditch the Caribbean for the South Pacific
Jamaican Blue Mountain is one of the most well-known and high-priced coffees. Its fame helps it command a hefty sum (as much as $42 per pound), but Jason Dominy, former chair of the Barista Guild of America, says beans from Papua New Guinea are often just as good—and much cheaper (about $12 a pound). In fact, many Papua New Guinea coffees are from plants that grew from the seedlings of Jamaican Blue Mountain.
Switch and save: $30 per pound
Dried Mushrooms: Choose a Different Variety That's Just As Useful
Dried mushrooms are a cook's secret weapon. They keep for months in your cupboard; when you need them, just plump them up in hot water, strain and cook (and the savory soaking liquid is as valuable as the mushrooms themselves, especially for risotto
). The most popular are porcini and morel, but while porcini cost about $10 for 2 ounces, morels, which grow wild, fetch around $50 for the same amount. Porcini still have an intense, smoky flavor and are particularly good in pasta dishes and omelets, with garlic and fresh flat-leaf parsley or thyme.
Switch and save:
$20 per ounce
Grating Cheese: Step Out of the Northern Italian Comfort Zone
Parmigiano-Reggiano, produced only in northern Italy's Emilia-Romagna region, is known as the king of Italian cheeses because it's sharp and sweet, with a crumbly texture and tiny crystals that give it a subtle crunch. It costs a princely sum, too, usually around $18 per pound. Pecorino Romano and Locatelli Pecorino Romano, which come from farther south, near Rome, are slightly saltier but still excellent grated, and they are less expensive (most run about $13 per pound). And if you're fine with topping your orecchiette with a non-Italian cheese, look for domestic Parmesan, which you can find for about $12 a pound.
Switch and save: $5 to $6 per pound
Liver Spread: Hit the Deli Counter for Champagne Taste on a Beer Budget
Pâté is a delicious and easy snack to have on hand for casual cocktails; spread it on crispy toast or crackers and you have an instant hors d'oeuvre. Many country pâtés can cost around $15 a pound, but liverwurst—which is also made primarily with pork and pork liver—is usually closer to $7 for the same amount. The deli-counter staple may be more at home on saltines than on table water crackers, but serve it on a platter with cornichons and some plum jam alongside glasses of dry white wine, and trust us, your guests won't mind.
Switch and save: $8 per pound
Rice: Sop Up Sauce with a Stickier Grain
Spices are usually the most expensive component of an Indian dinner; top-quality cardamom, garam masala and curry powder can quickly add up. Add pricey basmati rice, which features prominently in many dishes, and you may start to wonder if takeout would be cheaper. Basmati, which has a dry and fluffy texture, is one of the most costly grains: $11 for a 5-pound bag. Jasmine, which originally comes from Thailand, is stickier, with a shorter grain—but still tastes delicious smothered in a fragrant curry sauce. A 5-pound bag costs about $6.50.
Switch and save: $4.50 per pound