I watched an interview with Mario Batali and he said to really improve your cooking at home you need to improve all of your ingredients but didn't go into great detail. So I'm wondering, what ingredients improved at home make the biggest difference? he did mention sourcing farm raised non-pasteurized eggs, I live in the city and don't know any farmers. Grass fed beef? where do you find it? what other ingredients make a difference when improved?
Improving Ingredients For The Home Cook
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Assuming you're consistent as a cook, then yes, better ingredients bring more flavor and character along with them.
If you can't cook the ingredient consistently to start with, then I have my doubts that the better quality ingredient will matter as much.
And as you note, sourcing is certainly an issue with it's own time and transport costs.
You have to balance all that out for yourself if the return is worth it.
As to finding it, you have to look.
Shop different grocers to see what is available. Ask at the butcher counter about the beef, sourcing and so on.
Visit the ethnic grocers. Knowing what your Latin grocer carries compared to your normal grocer for example. The fresh produce options are notably different as will be the meat counter. Notice the price on shrimp for example. If the latin grocer isn't cheaper for shrimp, I'd be very surprised. This is not to say the shrimp are of the same quality either, but they can be. You have to try it out to know.
Similarly, an Asian grocer will change things up again. Some things cheaper, others more expensive, varying quality, some things you just can't find anywhere else.
The Euro-specialty stores tend to be easier to find and much more expensive. Europeans, generally speaking, spend a bigger percentage of their income on food than people in the US. There is a great interest in the regionalilties and protected product production.
So is it worth it to buy special onions, celery and carrots for mirepoix in a weekday stew? For me, only for special occasions. That reflects the realities of budget, time, availability of the product.
On the other hand, if a particular ingredient is the star of the dish, say an onion soup, I'll be more likely to seek out special onions.
You'll start to find yourself stocking your pantry differently. If you ask your co-worker how many different kinds of rice he or she has, they'll probably just have one generic long grain.
Ask on this forum, and most will have 4 or 5 different kinds of rice I bet.
Basmati, jasmine, Arborio, Chinese glutinous rice, black rice....
There is is an obvious truth in this advise. However words like "quality" and "better" aren't universal. The overall quality of an ingredient is determined by what you want to get out of it, not its pedigree.
As an example, I'm a BBQ chef at the moment. One of my providers got me a line on some certified black angus briskets at a really good price. The "fine dinning" part of my brain got really excited by this and I rushed out to try some samples. At the end of it all I stuck with "aa" and "aaa" product I had always bought. It just suited the smoke better and gave much better final product.
I buy fresh eggs from the market from a couple of farmers. I use these for eating as "eggs" and for sauces. I also buy grocery store eggs for baking sweets. The poorer "egg" taste in the factory farmed eggs works better (to my taste) in these recipes where you don't want to taste the egg itself.
One of my favorite vegetable farmers grows fennel (one of my favourites) that is powerful if taste, smell, and even texture that I can only use it in dishes where the fennel bulb itself is the focus. Its almost "the form of the form" of fennel to my mind and as such the "best" I've ever had. But I have to use it more sparingly than truffle.
There are some things I will happily dismiss as crap (water pumped chicken breasts, I'm looking at you) and chucking them in the bin will improve your cooking already. But for many things you and your palate have to determine overall quality.
Try all kinds of food, and as many versions of them as you can afford. This is best way to get to know your food, and that is the key to finding the "best" product for the dish at hand.