Exotic spices and pricey cheeses seem to be everywhere these days—but as Rachel Mount discovers, you don't always need such extravagant ingredients to cook delicious meals.
Any chef worth his artisanal sea salt will tell you: If you want superior results, start with the best ingredients. But best isn't necessarily the most expensive. Just because you have an extra-virgin olive oil lovingly pressed by Tuscan monks during a full moon doesn't mean you should use it to cook with (it deserves to be a finishing garnish, where its deep flavor can be savored). And yes, the pleasure you get from an aged prosciutto from Parma can be worth $25 a pound—but not if it's crammed between bread and cheese in a panini (domestic charcuterie, including bacon or ham, will taste just as good). Save the prosciutto to serve with a tray of fresh summer melon and an aperitif.

Here's further proof that counting pennies is compatible with dining well: In a large-scale blind tasting conducted by the authors of The Wine Trials 2010, both regular consumers and sommeliers liked inexpensive bottles (all under $15) just as much as, and often more than, their costly ($50 to $150) counterparts. The same principle is true for cheese—cheaper domestic versions are often just as delicious as imported ones. For example, Jason Hopple, who curates the cheese cart at New York City's upscale restaurant the Modern, likes Wisconsin Stravecchio more than the often pricier Italian Parmigiano-Reggiano.

Another smart strategy for eating well on a budget: Avoid paying for convenience. If you're willing to invest a little extra time, you can often save a lot of money. Always buy things like chickens and watermelons whole, for example, then cut them up yourself.

So what should you splurge on? We interviewed culinary experts and scoured scientific reports to find out. Happily, they also had lots of suggestions for everyday saves: Seven-dollar wine! Discount club cookware! Toss them in your cart and know that both your taste buds and your wallet will be getting a treat.

12 ways to eat well on a budget


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