Having trouble balancing your food budget while prices go though the grocery store roof? Before you start clipping coupons or stocking up on canned soup, consider looking toward a more unusual source for tips on cooking on a shoestring budget: professional cooks at successful fine dining restaurants.
Restaurants are on a tighter budget than almost any household. If cooks don’t precisely control food costs, they’ll be left without a penny of profit at the end of the day. At restaurants where ingredients are expensive, making the bottom line work is even more difficult but also even more important. Whether they learn it in culinary school or on the job, restaurant cooks have many tricks that can help you save money without sacrificing quality.
A word of warning: Cooking well and sticking to a budget aren’t effortless. These tips will save you money only if you’re willing to spend more time with your food. But this type of cooking is immensely satisfying and gets easier with practice:
•Buy food when it’s in season:
Most successful fine dining restaurants follow basic rules of seasonality. They do so because food tastes better and it’s cheaper. Fruits and vegetables are cheap and plentiful in the summer, so make salads. In the winter, when it’s a pleasure to stand over a hot stove, cook soups and stews.
•Buy in bulk, wisely:
Even at grocery stores that don’t specialize in bulk purchasing, there are ways to maximize your yield per dollar. Items such as onions, apples and potatoes often come in bags that make the items much cheaper per pound.
Many stores will give you a 10 percent discount for buying food by the case. If your local grocery store doesn’t do this, ask why not. If enough people complain, the grocery may change its policy.
But before you buy 10 pounds of something perishable, consider whether it’s likely to wind up rotting or sprouting before you can eat it.
•Waste not, want not:
Chefs have an uncanny knowledge of the exact contents of their walk-in refrigerators. It’s not rocket science; they just keep a running list in their head of what they’ve bought, what they’ve used and what they have left.
Your fridge is much smaller. Keep it clean, and keep track of what’s in there. Don’t buy food without having some idea of what you’re going to do with it, especially if it’s an item that requires a certain amount of preparation or other ingredients you don’t always have on hand.
•Let go of the list:
You’ve probably heard it a dozen times: Go to the grocery store with a detailed list and don’t get anything that’s not on the list. That’s fine when it comes to cleaning supplies and staple ingredients, but when it comes to buying meat, fish and produce, your list is not necessarily your friend.
Choose your food based on what looks good and what’s reasonably priced. Get inspired by ingredients and cooking won’t feel like nearly as much of a chore. You can still make a list – just make it more general, detailing what kinds of food you need, rather than specific items. Write down “four vegetables for four people” rather than “carrots, green beans, broccoli and cabbage.”
•Expand your culinary horizons:
Americans have become used to eating the more tender and more expensive cuts of meat. Eating the “whole animal” may seem like a trend, but it’s actually the oldest and most cost-effective way to eat.
To save money, buy cheaper cuts of meat, rather than lower-quality meat. Make soups, stews and pasta sauces, because they stretch meat out to more portions.
Start with chicken. Cooks tend to prefer dark meat over white meat because it’s far more flavorful. Don’t take off the skin (or if you do, don’t tell me). The added fat and flavor from the skin make the meat more flavorful. Cut empty calories from your diet rather than fat from natural sources. Legs and thighs can be roasted or braised, and they’re much less expensive than chicken breasts.
Cheaper cuts of beef, lamb and pork are usually the tougher cuts. These types of meat are superior in flavor to more tender cuts – they just take a little more work and a lot more patience.
Treat meat like a flavoring ingredient rather than the focus of the plate. Use smoked or cured meats like bacon, ham hock or guanciale (cured, unsmoked pig jowl or cheek) in soups or as the base of otherwise vegetarian dishes. Think of it as “vegetarian plus.”
Offal, which used to be part of every cook’s repertoire, has been making a comeback in restaurants, but not as much in home kitchens. Chicken and calves’ livers are good places to start.
Even seafood has cheaper options. Octopus (if you can find it) and squid are a bit challenging to cook, but when prepared correctly they are delicious. Cleaning mussels is an onerous task (that’s why restaurants may seem to charge a lot for them), but they’re relatively inexpensive and very easy to prepare once they’re clean