12 Affordable Ingredients that Add Gourmet Flair to any Meal

By Linsey Knerl on 28 November 2008 35 comments
Photo: Jessica

Does the ingredient list from that snazzy Food Network dish leave you feeling a bit underpaid and overwhelmed? Are you doubtful that your local grocer will ever carry persimmons? Here is an expert list of a dozen common ingredients that will add some flair to your dish — for less than you'd expect.

Roasted Garlic

I'm guilty of doctoring my garlic bread with that generic garlic salt from the dollar store. Jeff Swedarsky, founder of DC Metro Food Tours, insists that you only go fresh for the best flavor. Cut whole garlic cloves in half before oven roasting, and replace the stuff in the bottle completely. “It's a little more tame,” says Jeff, but it gives authentic gourmet flavor.

Greek Yogurt

Jeff also suggests using this healthy alternative to sour cream. It has a richer, more complex taste, and it still looks fabulous as a topper.

Romaine, Red Leaf, and Other “Fancy” Lettuces

Sure, the iceberg is usually what's on sale, but does that make it the best choice? Susan Palmquist, who blogs at The Budget Smart Girl's Guide to the Universe, doesn't mind “spending an extra 20 cents for something like a romaine or red leaf. Think about what's going to be the star of the dish, what ingredient are you going to be tasting more than any other and allocate more of your food dollar to that item. If the salad is just a side dish, the iceberg might work, but if the salad's going to be your main course, go with a lettuce with more texture, more bulk, and more flavor.”

Calamata Olives

These are just delish. I like to eat them straight out of the container, but Michele Samuels, a public relations consultant, mom and wife, has some even better ideas. She uses them to adorn salads, enhance a pasta sauce, dress up sandwiches, and garnish potato salads!


Seriously? I didn't even know what a caper was before I worked in a restaurant. After I learned of the odd little ingredient, however, I was hooked! Michele also loves the tiny flower buds, using them atop bagels and cream cheese and egg salads.

Dried Beans

When you sacrifice convenience, you are often rewarded with flavor and savings! According to Anna Broadway, author of Sexless in the City (and a writer who spent nearly two years in Brooklyn eating on $50/week or less for food and transit), soaking and cooking them yourself will take extra time, but a 1 lb. bag of dried beans is a better buy. There is also a marked improvement in the flavor of the beans.

Sundried Tomatoes

Many foodies claim that adding a few will bring impressive flavor to any dish. Blogger Stephen Bertasso dries his own, adding that the surplus of last season's fresh tomatoes were perfect as a dried ingredient in pastas, meats, and breads.

Whole-Milk Mozzarella

This creamy alternative to pre-shedded and prepackaged mozzarella comes recommended by Laura at Eating Well Anywhere. The higher fat content gives it a dreamy consistency and flavor (and you have to check out her grilled cheese photos).


This was an overlooked ingredient at my home. Until I accidentally planted a batch in my garden, I was unaware of the flavor and texture the little guys can bring to an ordinary recipe. Chuck Wilkins, of Reston, VA agrees. After reading Anthony Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential, Chuck began to live by shallots. “They are inexpensive and their flavor is so much lighter and more complex than ordinary onions.”

Citrus Zest

Nothing gives your dishes a zip like the zest of oranges, lemons, and limes. Jill Nussinow, The Veggie Queen, calls it the “bonus ingredient” because you also get to use the juice!

Toasted Nuts

Just about any nut can add some crunch and depth to your recipes. Julie Languille, of Dinners in a Flash, favors toasted hazelnuts, pinenuts, and almonds. She suggests adding a few tablespoons to salad and pasta for an extra special treat!

Bulk Dried Spices

The little spice containers from your local grocer aren't the best deal you could be getting (and their freshness is questionable). Stu Lustman, an equipment and tech leasing broker, buys his favorite 5 or 6 dried spices in bulk to save money. They are perfect for rubs, but Stu also uses them in the same way as fresh. The trick? He pan fries them slightly in a little oil to open up the flavor and adds them directly to his recipe.

This is by no means an exhaustive list of all the simple ingredients you can use to liven up your cooking (but it's a good place to start). Please share what works for you in the comments!

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Guest's picture
martha in mobile

Caramelized onions -- cheap and easy -- add a depth to any dish utilizing onions; just start cooking them on their own long before (15 min) you add any other ingredients.

1T of nut butter (peanut or almond or cashew) adds richness and depth to almost any soup, without actually adding a "nutty" flavor.

Myscha Theriault's picture

This is a great list. I was excited to see that several of your suggestions are ones that we already use.

Regarding capers, I've always wanted to experiment with them a bit more, and noticed at the Costco here that I could get a huge jar of them for a good price. So I picked the little buggers up and brought them home. Now, I just need to start collecting cool things to try. I did see a chicken breasts done in lemon sauce and capers at a dinner party we went to. But I know they can be used for other things too. I just need to keep looking for things that grab my attention on the recipe front.

And by the way, amen to the citrus zest! It's how I feel warmer and fuzzier about buying bulk oranges when the prices go up. I make sure I zest or grate the peel before I even eat the oranges. Then I freeze it for sweet breads and such. 

Thanks for putting this together. I think quite a few folks will be inspired to keep a few of these things on hand.

Guest's picture

A couple of years ago, hubby and I had two incomes and no children and ate out frequently at nice restaurants. Now we have two children, one income and eat out only occasionally, usually at some place with a play area and a dollar menu. :) While I do enjoy cooking, I miss eating out mostly because restaurant dishes seem so much more interesting than what I fix at home. Thanks for giving me some ideas for jazzing up my home cooking! Also, thanks for the link to Eating Well Anywhere--I'm really enjoying her blog. And Myscha, I'd never thought to freeze citrus zest to keep it for later. I have tangerines and lemons in the house now, so I'll have to zest 'em and stock up the freezer for winter baking.

Linsey Knerl's picture

This is an awesome idea. I often buy the discounted limes and lemons in a package, but they go bad before I can use them all.  This saves me mucho money!

Linsey Knerl

Myscha Theriault's picture

When you look at how much the dried peel pieces cost, it's a huge motivator. Plus, if you don't get around to using them for cocktails, marinades and water jazzer uppers in time, you can always freeze the juice too.

To tell you the truth, I actually prefer the DIY zest. Even the frozen stuff. It's way more colorful and flavorful than the purchased variety in the spice section.

Keesha, just a tip . . . I've found (the expensive way) that the tangerines aren't necessarily as easy to zest as oranges, limes and lemons. I bought a bunch thinking I'd do exactly that, and I don't know . . . just something about the difference in the skins. Unless I got an "off" batch. Just wouldn't want you to miss out on a long term savings strategy because you accidently tried the toughest fruit to do it with right out of the gate, so to speak. Maybe you'll have different luck than I did. But I gave up on them and have been using them for marinades only, due to the seed factor.

Guest's picture

Couple things I like to do with citrus:

- Preserved lemons. They sell jars of these little buggers for exorbitant prices. But a small jar (containing 2 lemons) costs under about 55 cents to make. They last forever and have a huge flavour punch. Just quarter lemons after cutting off the ends, roll them in a bunch of kosher salt and pack them into a jar, adding in another teaspoon or so of salt to the jar. Smoosh them so all the juice comes out, and if they're not covered in juice (mine always are), add a little more then seal. Shake a couple times a day for a couple weeks and use in your cooking. Just rinse well before you use.

- If you have too many lemons/limes/whatever that might be going bad soon, cut them into little bits and put one bit in each slot of an ice cube tray. Fill with water and freeze. These are perfect to put a couple in your water or tea for cheap flavouring.

And, vinegar:

I keep a bunch of vinegars in the house, and I add a splash to soups, stir fries, all sorts of things. Anytime something just needs a little oomph somewhere, a splash of vinegar will often cheaply do the trick.

Andrea Karim's picture

Amen to preserved lemons - seriously my favorite garnish ever.

Guest's picture

speaking of the Greek Yogurt, crumbled feta cheese ( I buy it in bulk) is a make a nice addition to salads, eggs, all kinds of sauce. And I also use a lot of sundried tomatoes but buy it dry and reconstitute it with water and saute' in olive oil.

Guest's picture

Try adding a few sprinkles of red pepper to salads. Just don't overdo it.

Also, add raisins (bought in a canister, much cheaper and fresher than those little boxes) and various types of nuts to your breakfast oatmeal. And sweeten the oatmeal with unsweetened applesauce instead of adding spoonfuls of sugar. Not only do you get a lot more flavor, you get extra servings of fruits and less processed carbs.

You can also used unsweetened applesauce instead of oil for low fat brownies. That's the "secret" in high-priced, low-fat brownie mixes...they just tell you to subsitute something else for the usual oil, usually yogurt. I like applesauce better myself.

Guest's picture
poor boomer

Garlic roasting on an open fire
Shallots wafting up your nose

Guest's picture

Thanks for the heads-up about the tangerines, Myscha. I'll give it a try and see how it goes, but won't get too frustrated if it doesn't turn out well.

Linsey Knerl's picture

Hey guys!

Jill Nussinow (The Veggie Queen), whom I interviewed for the article, just followed up with me in regards to the tangerine zest.  She says  "you can just peel the entire tangerine and let it sit to dry. It’s then ready for use, unlike the other zest which is too bitter underneath."

Hope this helps!

Linsey Knerl 

Myscha Theriault's picture

Really? So then I could just put the dried peel in the blender or whatever to break it down? I have a few left I was going to squeeze for sweet and sour kielbasa tonight, so I'll try that. Thanks for the follow up, Linsey.

Also, one thing I do if I have quite a bit is to just run the oranges up and down a box grater. It's way faster than using a zester on 5 or 6 oranges. And it comes out fine. More of a "grated peel" than zest, but really I've always had it be fine for sweet breads and such. Now, if you were making something where you visually didn't want the peel to show but wanted the full flavor of the citrus, then you would probably need to start zesting with gusto.


Guest's picture
Aaron S

Instructables (as is often the case) has a great tutorial written by canida on making your own sun dried tomatoes if anyone is interested!

Guest's picture

I have seen sun dried tomatoes in the store with prices of around $4 for a very small bottle, so I likely never would have tried to add that to any dish as it would just be too pricey, but after checking out the Instructable thinking about growing some tomatoes next year and giving it a try. Thanks for sharing the info!

Guest's picture

i don't use a zester, but a microplane grater. they are pricey - about $12 - but are the best for zest, ginger, chocolate, etc. and last a long time. one of those tools that are worth the money, like a good knife.

and bacon should be on the list! for those who eat it.

Myscha Theriault's picture

I'll second that. It's an awesome accent ingredient, and way better than eating it as a main meal item when it comes to calories. Good stuff.

Guest's picture

I love this article...and LOVE great extras on entrees. Thanks.

Linsey Knerl's picture

When the bulk box (10 pounds) of odds and ends bacon goes on sale at my store  - $5.00 for the box -- I snag a few.  These sit in my freezer until meat is difficult to buy at a good price.  I add it to pastas (carbonara - yum!), salads, and breads.  Of course, that also means my kids get their favorite meal ever:  BRINNER (Breakfast 4 Dinner.)  I mix them into hashbrowns or serve it as the main course to our waffle feast.  It's a super, super cheap meal that everyone loves!

Linsey Knerl

Guest's picture

How about freshly ground pepper? If you don't want to or can't spend a lot of money on spices, you can splurge on whole peppercorns and grind them yourself...the difference is really remarkable. Same for whole nutmeg, which you can grate as needed. It's easy to buy too large of an amount of spices- as most good quality ground spices are good about two years...but whole ones last for four!

Great post!

Linsey Knerl's picture

Is the perfect affordable addition to the list.  Thanks!

Linsey Knerl

Guest's picture

can make anything taste gourmet. One of my favorite things to eat is just bread dipped in olive oil and vinegar-- yum! And if you have a couple of windowsill herb plants, just chop those up and add. Fresh herbs make a HUGE difference.

I have a teeny kitchen and actually compiled a list of my most essential items a while back... and it overlaps yours quite a bit. I get my sundried tomatoes at Costco (no backyard to grow my own, boo) but the huge jar is under $7 and still fits neatly into my fridge.


Guest's picture

Local Indian and Middle Eastern markets have a myriad of affordable offerings on spice shelves and in the produce sections. Nothing is quite as satisfying as making your own chai masala.

Guest's picture

That mozarella wouldn't last 5 minutes in my house. ;)

Andrea Karim's picture

You can make your own Greek yogurt by buying regular plain yogurt and draining it in a cheesecloth. The excess liquid drains out, and what you have left is much creamier. That said, I've heard that some of the most important nutrients in the yogurt come from the excess liquid - maybe you can save it and through it in a protein shake or something?

I second the call on freshly ground black pepper. I'm also a sucker for good salt - not Morton's, but good sea salt with no iodine in it. I take kelp supplements as it is, so I don't need the extra iodine in my salt. It changes the flavor so much - I don't need to use nearly as much sea salt to flavor something as I would use if I used regular table salt.

I also love fresh herbs. They're pricey to buy at the store, which is why I have my own rosemary and oregano growing outside my door - I barely care for the plants, just hack off bundles of leaves whenever I need a good steak or soup topper. Thyme is also extremely hardy.

Linsey, have you had caper berries? For years, I didn't realize that capers were flower buds, but they actually do produce fruit if pollinated. I had one in a martini a few years ago, and have been hooked ever since.

Linsey Knerl's picture

Thanks for the tip.  I'm not even sure where/how I could get my grubby little mitts on a caper berry.  Next time we lunch, let's scout some out!

Linsey Knerl

Guest's picture

All tips are great! I wanted to add a new favorite of mine: sesame oil. I tried it over some steamed rice and the taste lingered in my mind for hours! That's what makes the seaweed salad so addictive.

Guest's picture

I also love capers. However, shallots are expensive where I live (NC). I didn't know what a shallot was until 2 weeks ago when I needed them for a recipe. One little bag of 2 shallots was $3 I believe, and that was at Super Target!

For spices, find your local international market (for me, it's an Indian market). You will find the CHEAPEST spices there, and you will get a TON!!! The selection may vary, but my local Indian market has sesame seeds for $0.18/oz (compared to $0.42/oz at the local warehouse club).

Guest's picture

How much apple sauce do you sub for the oil?

Linsey Knerl's picture

More info at my article here:


It will give you a nice background, and some links with exact measurements. (As well as tips for when you shouldn't sub applesauce for oil.)

Linsey Knerl

Guest's picture
MidSouth Mouth

Be forewarned: waxy citrus in the regular stores sucks for zests. Try to get unwaxed or organic even.

Guest's picture

Fresh cilantro is very cheap, really good for you, and can truly 'make' sooo many dishes. I have used it in everything from soup to eggs. You can Doctor Up store bought salsa's, give a real mexican flair to home made Latin dishes, kick a salad up a notch, and even use it as a base for wonderfully exotic sauces. Taste the difference of good old chicken noodle soup (homemade or store bought) with a bit of cilantro and a touch of sriracha (hot sauce)thrown in. If there is ever an ingrediant that I just have to have in my kitchen it's definitely Fresh Cilantro!

Guest's picture

My Great Late Aunt used to make a very spicey Zuchini spread we enjoyed over creme cheese and crackers. It was the color of lime jello & I would swear it had red hots in it, but she stated none were used. It was a very peppery tasting treat that has been lost to the ages. Does anyone have a recepie for such? Thanks.

Guest's picture

I've made the sun dried tomatoes that Aaron is talking about and they are amazing and can be quickly tossed in all kinds of recipes. I would highly recommend that! I love capers too but I don't tend to ever find them at a good price... maybe I'm not shopping at the right spot. Great list by the way Linsey!

Guest's picture

That is such a great idea of using greek yogurt in place of sour cream! I will have to give that a try, it will save me so many calories and fat. Thanks for sharing that tip!