16 Cheap, Low-Cal Condiments to Brighten Up Boring Food
As much as I try to be a good gourmet and buy produce that is fresh, bursting with flavor, and grown close to my home, I can't always afford it. Like everyone else, I have to buy supermarket groceries that aren't exactly grown with care or overflowing with sun-kissed flavor.
We can't all be locavores all the time, and sometimes, we have to make do with largely flavorless produce and boring staples. If you're like me, facing down a jar of dried garbanzo beans, white rice, and some frozen chicken breast can make it seem mighty tempting to run out for burgers or call in some pizza. But if you are trying to cut down on dining out, whether for financial or health reasons, you've got to tackle that chicken and learn how to make lame food taste good.
I've learned to cheat my way to tasty food through a rather liberal use of spices, sauces, and sneaky cooking methods. I rarely use prime ingredients in my cooking, but that's OK — subprime ingredients can be massaged into behaving like they come from a high-priced grocer.
Here are some tasty condiments that have helped me save time and money when I was facing a bland dish or meal. (See also: Cheap Ways to Add Big Flavor to Your Food)
Your average Indo-Pak store packs more flavor per square foot that any American-style grocery chain. If you're new to Indian spices, there are plenty of online resources to teach about Indian food. Indian stores actually carry most spices you need — you can buy cinnamon, cardammom, bay leaves, salt and pepper, cloves, and everything in between at most Indian stores, and you'll find it for MUCH cheaper than you will at Safeway or Whole Foods.
1. Masala Spice Mixes
Photo by Stian Martensen
Masala is just a word that means "spice" in Hindi. If you've ever had Indian food, you know that there's no shortage of spice in that cuisine. Indian food snobs will point out that the best Indian food is made with fresh, hand-ground spices that are mixed by each chef to their liking, and that a good conisseur will learn to create their own masalas. These are people with far too much time on their hands.
When I make Indian food or just need to make some chicken breast taste better, I use these little boxes of pre-mixed ground spices from my local Indo-Pak store. I usually buy the MDH and Shan brands, mostly because I am familiar with them. If you don't have an Indian store in your vicinity, you can easily find these online. A single box shouldn't be more than $5, and a little bit goes a long way.
While these masala mixes are usually made for a specific dish or type of dish, I long ago abandoned any pretense abiding by the rules. So the box says "Chicken Tikka Masala" on it; who cares? The spices are equally delicious used as a rub on a couple of fish fillets just before baking. Masalas can improve roasted veggies, casseroles, soups, and popcorn.
The trick to using Indian masalas is making sure that they cook long enough. Sometimes cooking the spices on a frying pan with a little oil on low heat can help get rid of any bitterness and tame the pungency.
2. Mint-Cilantro Chutney
Also a favorite at my local Indo-Pak grocery is a "chutney" (sauce) made from mint, cilantro, lime juice, and green chilies. It's spicy, salty, and is amazing cooked into almost any meat dish. It can also be mixed with sour cream or yogurt for a savory dip with international flair.
3. Indian Pickle (Achar)
Photo by L. Marie
I don't mean to go overboard on Indian food, but you can't get much more flavorful than Indian pickle. "Pickle" is a loose term in India and Pakistan — as far as I can tell, it means "fruit or vegetable in a jar with oil and spices." It can range from lemons to green mangoes to spicy chilies to Indian gooseberries to carrots to ginger and beyond.
As with anything else from an Indian store, you don't need much to pack a powerful punch of flavor. A spoonful of green mango pickles can lend a mouthwatering spiciness to three-day old rice (just add a couple of eggs and stir fry on high heat for a couple of minutes). A spoonfull of mashed Indian pickle makes regular old ground beef sing with succulence, adding panache to lasagna, meatloaf, or burger patties.
4. Tamarind Paste/Sauce/Chutney
Photo by Malcolm Manners
Tamarind is a fruit that grows all over South and Southeast Asia, and is a popular ingredient in India, Thai, and Vietnamese cuisines. You can find tamarind sauce in most East or South Asian grocery stores. It looks a bit like A1 sauce, but is more tangy and less savory.
Chinese and Vietnamese grocery stores are often a good place to buy cheap, fresh fruits, and vegetables. My favorite chain in Washington, Ranch99, offers giant bundles of greens for less than two dollars. Of course, the sauce aisles offer amazing selection, as well.
Photo by cookbookman17
By now, you've probably familiarized yourself with Sriracha sauce, the red chili sauce with the rooster on the bottle. It's a popular staple on many an Asian restaurant's condiments counter. Sriracha is spicy pepper sauce that was made popular by pho restaurants (you can read about the confusing history of Sriracha here). It is spicy and salty, a perfect topping for $1 frozen pizzas, tacos with under-seasoned meat, and too-sweet teriyaki. It's also a brilliant addition to spaghetti sauce, stews, homemade chicken pot pie, and cold noodle salads. Whether cooked in or squirted on top, Sriracha will add a kick to any dish that needs spice.
Photo by Andrea Nguyen (MSG and mushroom salt)
I love MSG, and I don't care who knows it. Sure, lots of people have reactions to MSG, but I don't, and so I'm going to eat it until it gives me cancer. This much maligned and misunderstood chemical compound can be purchased in small packets of crystals. Just add a small sprinkle to bland dishes, and MSG magically enhances the flavor of all ingredients, from meat to garlic to salt.
7. Chinese Vinegar
Photo by joyosity
Vinegar is just all-around awesome, but many people have never tried Chinese black rice vinegar, which is dark, tart, and smoky (sometimes made from black rice, but often from millet or other grains). If you have ever had traditional Chinese dumplings in an authentic restaurant, you were probably served a small dish full of black vinegar and shreds of fresh ginger alonside. This is Chinkiang vinegar — it looks like balsamic, but lacks the sweetness, and has greater depth and a higher salt concentration. I've never found Chinese vinegar outside of Asian stores, and even inside Asian stores, I often have to hunt for it.
Chinese vinegar has a deep flavor that can be used to add tartness to dishes that are too sweet. It's great for making hot and sour soup or any East Asian-themed stew.
8. Fish Sauce
Photo by Annie Mole
You've probably seen Fish Sauce in fine pho establishments. It packs a salty, fishy wallop with a healthy dose of umami, and can add flavor to soups, casseroles, pasta sauces, meat loaf, and chicken dishes. Like most condiments mentioned here, you don't need much fish sauce to get excellent flavor, so don't go overboard with it.
9. Ponzu Sauce/Maggi/Soy Sauce
Photo by palindrome6996
People tend to reserve soy sauce for stir-fry, but it's a great way to add a pop of savory richness to nearly any dish. I use it extensively in soups and marinades for steak and fish, as well as in sauces and reductions.
- Ponzu sauce is lighter than soy sauce and has a citrus flavor (usually yuzu, but sometimes from other citrus fruits). Like soy sauce, it provides a savory flavor enhancement to stews, casseroles, meatloaf, and grilled veggies, but with a lighter, slightly less salty, springier taste.
- Maggi seasoning is often thought of as an Asian ingredient because of its popularity in Asian countries, but it's actually from Austria. Created as a meat-substitute flavoring, it is often compared to soy sauce in flavor, although it contains no actual soy.
Any Ol' Grocery
The following items can be found at pretty much any grocery store, anywhere, and can save you from another meal of boiled potatoes and chicken.
10. Kosher or Sea Salt
Photo by Heather Johnson
Those of you who have yet to try kosher salt need to get on the bandwagon. It brings out the flavor in food in a much different way than regular table salt. Sure, you'll pay a bit more, but you get more zing for each penny.
11. Marinara Sauce
Photo by Dave's Gourmet
I have found that marinara possesses some rather unique meat-tenderizing qualities. I will often marinate a tough cut of beef in marinara or fresh salsa for a day or so before throwing it in the slow-cooker. The results have always been spectacular. When cooked, tomatoes have an umami quality that is very satisfying, and you don't have to splurge on pricey organic tomato sauce if you're just going to throw it on top of fish and bake it. In a pinch, a can of Spicy V-8 can be substituted.
Photo by Steven Depolo
Growing up, I hated ketchup, but I've come to appreciate the fact that it manages to incorporate all of the tastes that the human tongue can detect — sweet, sour, bitter, salty, spicy, and umami. I've also found that ketchup does an amazing job of adding a hint of savory tomato taste to boring soups, wan tomato sauces, and pretty much any meal containing ground beef.
Photo by Nick Azwaa Azmi
Mustard, be it basic French's yellow mustard or a fancy ground dijon, provides a fantastic pop of flavor to dull-tasting marinades, soups, and stews. You can substitute dry mustard powder for a stronger flavor. I like to add mustard to beef stew — it changes the flavor profile without diluting the meaty goodness. Mustard is also a great way to add dimension to stir-fried veggies and curries.
14. Worcestershire Sauce/A1 Sauce
Photo by Jessica Spengler
Worcestershire sauce is my go-to for marination — no matter what I'm throwing on the grill. In my family, we tend to marinate steaks for a long time before grilling (up to five hours), but Worcestershire sauce is also delicious over tofu or seitan and added to salad dressings.
Photo by Michał Bażak.
OK, pesto isn't technically "low-calorie", but it's a life saver when staring down a dish of lasagna that didn't come out quite right. I buy my pesto pre-made from Costco, and it has been the salvation of many a sad-looking roasted chicken breast, flavorless fish fillet, and bowl of plain pasta.
Photo by Bill Bradford
Marmite is a British food thing (you might find it in Indian stores as opposed to your local grocery). There are many colorful descriptions of it (a friend refers to it as "the taste of licking the floor of a local brewery"), but to me, Marmite tastes like concentrated soy sauce mixed with yeast. It's an acquired taste, to say the least. While I don't slather it on toast like my British-schooled husband, I find it adds depth (and saltiness) to stews that haven't had enough time to "cure." It's also good for you — packed with B vitamins.
What condiments, sauces, or spices do you find to be lifesavers in the case of a bland meal?