The Chef is In: Salt and Vinegar and Olive Oil, Oh My!
July 21, 2005

Such a good idea!

My question is which items typically found in your kitchen (or the kitchen of an average person who enjoys cooking for a hobby) are worth spending the extra bucks on? Every time I go into a gourmet store, I get overwhelmed with the choices of oils, vinegars, salts, spices, etc. I never know if the $30 bottle of balsamic vinegar is worth the investment or if the $12 bottle would be just fine. Do I really need the funky salts or will kosher work for most things? What do you splurge on?


Dear Deirdre,

Your question comes at a time when I recently had to sit down and think about what special items I needed to bring from San Francisco down to San Diego this summer. What couldn't I live without? Let's see, I devoted an entire wine case to my special olive oils and vinegars. They are the things I can't live, well, cook without. The pure, clean flavors that come from using really good ingredients in conjunction with other really good ingredients is, to me, the most important thing about cooking and eating. I just don't compromise on certain things.

I will start by telling you where I don't mind compromising. Other than that big red box of Kosher salt for general cooking, a smaller, more expensive box of Malden Sea Salt for finishing some of my pasta dishes, and local lavender salt for certain occasions and my bathtub, I don't get into the pink, brown, coconut, red, Hawaiian, smoked, fried, or whatever salts. I mean, it's just salt. It tastes...salty? No doubt there are palates and people out there who will email me with quite an opposing opinion but I personally don't get it.

Unlike salt, I do believe that really good, fresh spices make a difference in your dishes. That said, I tend to buy my cumin, curry powder, or nutmeg indiscriminately. I might get them at Albertsons, Whole Foods, or, if I'm feeling expansive, the Farmers' Market. There's this fascinating spice place in San Francisco that sells herbs, spices, and a bunch of other cool stuff in bulk -- I've heard very good things about them. One of these days I'm going to check them out, but only when I get to the point where I'm okay with ditching my spices out when they are past their freshness date (2 years for fresh and 6 months for ground) and splurging on high quality stuff. But I'm not there yet -- spices from the grocery store can be expensive enough as it is.

Balsamic and other vinegars are areas where I happily plunk down the large change. Back when I was in culinary school, I bought a teensy-weensy bottle of the really good balsamic stuff. The kind of stuff that's so aged it doesn't move on the plate -- it's sticky, sweet, and amazing. Because of its golden price tag, I only used that balsamic for special raw preparations, and it took us a nice long time to finish the bottle. I haven't replaced it because it isn't something I would use every day. However, I do refuse to buy the thin, overly acidic, colored balsamic vinegar that some supermarkets sell. Refuse! I used to buy that junk and too many times I had to counter the bad taste with much more olive oil, lemon juice, or Dijon mustard than the whole mess was worth. A few years ago, I tested out O's balsamic vinegar (200 ml for $10.00) and really liked it. The thing is, I use balsamic so frequently that I needed a larger bottle. In the last few months, I've become hooked on Stonehouse's Imported Dark Balsamic Vinegar, which runs me $11.00 for 500 ml. I do believe that O's stuff is worth the money, though. I've tried almost all of their wine vinegars and have become particularly attached to their Port, Zinfandel, and Citrus Champagne varieties.

Because I use it in almost everything, the most important ingredient in my kitchen is my olive oil. I've written before about the best, best olive oil we have in the house but it's too expensive and precious for everyday use. At one point, I was using it for everything -- roasting, sautéeing, dressings, finishing, etc. -- and my carefully cared for store was quickly disappearing. It's better to save that bottle of Maussanne for cold dishes -- tapenade, salad dressing, salsas -- or finishing hot dishes, rather than allowing the precious oil to denature during high-heat cooking processes. I've started using Stonehouse's olive oils in place of the precious Provence stuff and I love them. They are flavorful, rich, and relatively inexpensive. I get the 750 ml for $15.00 and I consider it a very good buy.

Those are my priorities. It's now really between you and your tongue to decide whether the $30.00 bottle is something you can't live without or if the $12.00 bottle will do just fine. My personal belief is that while the $30.00 bottle is probably going to be amazing, if you're mixing the vinegar with other things, the $12.00 will probably be plenty tasty. I do encourage you to taste around and trust your own palate -- the more you try, the more you will be able to discern the subtle (or not so subtle) differences between the various price ranges.



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