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Do quality ingredients really matter? My proposal.

Many cooking and baking recipe books suggest using ‘the best quality ingredients you can afford’.

But is are they worth it?
Do quality ingredients really make a difference?
Are quality ingredients always the expensive option?

I propose a nuanced addition: source the best quality ingredients you can afford for the purpose.

What is the difference? First, I think the common suggestion can subtly imply the best quality ingredient will be the expensive option; this is not necessarily true as I will give examples of below. Second, the common suggestion may infer the best quality is required; however, “best” is often not required for an excellent result.

Some people have plenty of money; some have none to spare. Either way, thoughtful sourcing of ingredients can often save money to give/spend/save elsewhere.

My proposal is to think about the outcome first and what level of quality is required to achieve it. Sometimes it may be the expensive ingredient option, but often not.

Here are some examples from my experience.

I use a specific mixed spice for my sourdough spiced fruits loaf and hot cross buns because the blend of spices is unique and delicious. It is available in supermarkets and happens to be cheaper than many other brands.

My roast pumpkin sourdough rolls are usually at their best when pumpkin is cheapest. Why? Because pumpkins (and most fruit and vegetables) are cheapest when in season. And often the discounted rack is just as good if you are going to bake with it.

Often the best rosemary is the one growing your garden, or neighbours garden, or that hedge near the park. And it is free (assuming you have asked permission and checked it has not been sprayed with chemicals).

‘Seconds’ dried fruits (e.g. apricots) are usually several dollars per kg cheaper than the standard/premium option. They are often near identical and grown in the same region. It is a great way to use these sometimes-wasted foods and help growers whose produce may be otherwise rejected (e.g. hail damage) and save some money too. For a cheese platter it may matter, but if chopping up and mixing into a delightful gourmet fruit loaf or muffin no one will ever know.

But some ingredients are “all the same” – right? I thought this about seeds (e.g. sunflower seeds, linseed, pepitas, etc.) until this week when I opened my big new bag of Australian sunflower seeds from my new wholesale supplier. The aroma was rich, and the flavour was almost buttery, without the bitterness sunflower seeds often have. I can get the seeds a bit cheaper elsewhere, but I will not be.

I pay more for a different sultana from the standard 4 or 5-crown sultanas. Why? Because I like the natural sultanas; the flavour is richer and more caramel-y, they are slightly drier than 5-crown sultanas so less watery in the baked loaf. They are also more expensive. But I think it improves the loaf.

Chocolate is also a good example of an ingredient where price does matter. It is subjective, but premium chocolate is nicer (taste and texture) than cheap chocolate. Yes, they both taste like chocolate, but if you go to the effort to make a special dessert, cake, or biscuit, the better chocolate will taste better.

Premium tree nuts are amazing. But a great nut at three times the price of a good nut is not something I can justify for putting into a loaf of bread or mixing into a cake batter. Notice in this case it is not cheap and nasty vs expensive and excellent. It is yum vs amazingly yum. But sometimes the amazing will be lost in the particular application. It is about choosing the best option for the purpose.

And be aware, if you use large amounts buying in bulk may enable you to use a better ingredient for a similar comparative price buying small retail packets.

So, ‘source the best quality ingredients you can afford for the purpose because best does not always need to be most expensive, but it may sometimes; it all depends on the purpose.