When I started this article, there were 10 days till my next paycheck and roughly $200 left in my bank account. Not a lot-and certainly not enough to indulge in big-ticket items if I wanted my money to last.
As a home cook on a budget, I’m mindful of how much things cost. Dairy and pantry items often dismay me with their high prices. That doesn’t mean I don’t buy them (I’m looking at you, pine nuts!), but it does mean I think twice about what I really want and need, and what, if any, economical hacks I can implement or substitutes I can use.
Here are items that I don’t just toss into my cart:
1. Vanilla Beans
In my baking life, I’ve bought vanilla beans exactly once and it was so long ago, I cannot recall why. Though feather-light, at $116.80, they’re hardly cheap. They’re a labor-intensive spice that grow from orchids; they need hand pollination, for crying out loud; and the biggest producers are now in faraway Madagascar and Indonesia.
The price seems justified, certainly, but if you’re like me and just cannot get over that high per pound cost, rest assured there is an easy substitute: vanilla extract, which costs $4.12 for a two-ounce jar. (There’s also imitation vanilla extract, which costs about $1.60 for an eight-ounce jar if even extract is too much.)
Opinions vary on exact substitution ratios; anywhere between 1 teaspoon and 1 tablespoon extract per bean should do it-but keep in mind, it depends on how much of a vanilla essence you want in your dish. Some home bakers insist on using vanilla bean when infusion is called for-in hot chocolate, for instance. For my friend Lia Miller, vanilla bean is essential in crème brûlée or a crème pâtissière-“in other words, in something that really needs a fresh taste of vanilla,” she wrote in an email. “In cake batter, vanilla extract is fine.”
Others disagree. My other friend Rachel Porter is among them. “The seeds are cute and signal snaz,” Porter said, “but I can’t think of a time when they really improve flavor more than an excellent vanilla extract”-which, in any case, she makes herself from vanilla bean.
Like most nuts, they’re not cheap; at the Fairway near my office, they go for $13.99 a pound if I buy the supermarket’s pre-packed option. If I go for the halves and pieces together they’re a bit cheaper at $11.99 a pound.
Other nuts are in the same ballpark: Almonds are $9.99 a pound and pecans, which I only ever buy to make pie at Thanksgiving, are $13.99. There are cheaper options, but you get what you pay for: I worry that the pre-packed walnuts might sit around for a long time. The difference in price when buying freshly packaged nuts-or nuts from a regularly replenished bulk bin-is sufficiently small that it’s worth it to me to spend the extra pennies for the fantasy (or is it delusion?) that I’m eating well.
More: Alice Medrich explains why she buys whole nuts rather than nut pieces.
3. Artichoke Hearts
I heart artichoke hearts but am generally too lazy to steam fresh artichokes (it takes 45 minutes at least!). Artichoke hearts that someone else has prepared will do me just fine. In olive oil at the deli counter they run about $7.48 per pound.
While I generally like olive oil, in this case, I find it obscures the artichoke taste rather than enhances. I like my artichoke hearts unadulterated-or to be adulterated by dressing that I administer. Native Forest whole artichoke hearts (in water they weigh almost 10 ounces; the dry weight is about 5 1/2 ounces), cost $2.57 and are good enough for me to eat as a snack straight out of the jar, or to add to a salad where my own dressing dresses them up just fine.