One of my favorite recipes in a cookbook I co-wrote with chef Gordon Hamersley is a savory tart filled with caramelized onions, goat cheese, walnuts, and beets. (Shameless plug: you can find the recipe in the book Bistro Cooking at Home or get just the recipe.)
The tart is really all about the beets, which when diced, look like jewels nestled in the creamy filling. Gordon suggests roasting the beets, which I used to do diligently. Then a friend turned me on to Melissa’s baby beets, which come steamed, peeled, packed in Cryovac plastic, and are found in the produce section of the supermarket. Not only do they save me a step in making the tart, but they taste delicious.These days I almost always keep a stash on hand. Aside from that tart, I mainly use them, sliced or diced, in a tossed green salad or as the featured flavor in a composed salad.
These beets got me paying more attention to other shortcut ingredients I use regularly. I even brought the topic up at a Fine Cooking staff meeting, asking my coworkers about what store-bought shortcut ingredients they use. I was met mainly with stares of incomprehension. Finally our editor, Susie, asked “Does mustard count?”
Hmmmmm. So maybe it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the Fine Cooking staff use few, if any, store-bought shortcut ingredients when they cook.
Obviously a prerequisite of working at Fine Cooking is a love of cooking. And it’s not that I don’t love it, too. One of my favorite things to make, when I have the time, is fresh pasta. But I’m also one of the few of us on staff with school-age kids, which I use as my excuse for seeking out shortcuts here and there.
Eventually, some editors did own up to using things like chicken broth, canned tomatoes, and frozen puff pastry. Thing is, I don’t even count those as cheater ingredients, since just about every cook has those items in his or her home kitchen. The way I see it, it’s only a shortcut if, when you use it, you get a niggling (but not insurmountable) feeling of guilt, and a little voice inside of you says, “I really should have made this myself.” I never get this feeling opening a can of tomato paste, but I do when I pop open a container of the pesto my local Stew Leonard’s market sells under its own label. (The feeling quickly fades, however, when I use the freshly made pesto along with my store-bought pizza dough to create a delicious pizza in practically no time.)
I also keep some shortcuts on hand, not just for time saving, but also as “in case of emergency” flavorings. For instance, Soy Vay Veri Veri Teriyaki sauce looks and tastes very much like an Asian marinade I make from scratch all the time, with lots of finely chopped ginger and garlic. My own marinade is quick enough, but when there’s no fresh ginger in the crisper drawer, the bottled marinade makes a good stand-in.
All of these shortcuts contain no added chemicals or imitation flavorings. I take care to look at the labels when I choose a convenience ingredient, and, with few exceptions, I go only with products that are all natural.
There are, of course, drawbacks to using prepared ingredients, the main one being cost. You will almost always pay more for the prepared ingredient than if you made it yourself (not counting your time). You’re also limited, in the case of the beets, for example, to only one variety, size, and shape.
Bearing all of this in mind, I have put together a completely subjective list of the half-dozen shortcut ingredients I regularly use, as well as the ways I use them. We also asked our CooksTalk forum community for their favorite shortcuts (see below). I stuck, for the most part, to brands that are distributed around the country. But some of the best short-cut ingredients are those prepared on-site at a store or marketed (as in the case of Trader Joe’s) under its label. Keep in mind as you read that prices are approximate and will vary. Then go ahead and try one for yourself.
We promise we won’t tell.
The cheat sheet
Rao’s Marinara ($5.79 per 15.5-oz jar): I had been using this jarred marinara for a while when Fine Cooking ran the recipe for homemade marinara written by the owners of Rao’s, a New York City institution. Just for fun, I made the marinara from scratch and compared it to the one I got from a twist of the lid. I could not tell them apart. Now, I’m not saying to never make the sauce yourself (for one thing your kitchen smells wonderful when you do). But if you’re short on homemade sauce, it’s a terrific substitution.
How to use: as you would your own marinara, on pasta and as a sauce for pizza. I also like to add some to steamed mussels and clams.
Time saved: about 1 hour
Melissa’s Steamed Baby Beets ($3.56 per 8 oz. package): These are sweet and tasty with a great tender-firm texture and no additives. Unopened, they keep for several months. (Trader Joe’s carries Cryovacked steamed beets as well.)
How to use: Slice or dice them to add to green salads. Give them a quick pickle and serve as part of an antipasto platter or on sandwiches. Simmer in broth and purée for soup.
Time saved: 40 to 50 (mostly hands off) minutes.
Thai Kitchen Curry Pastes ($3.29 per 4-oz. jar): I can make a fine Thai curry in literally minutes after opening one of these jars. Though I have to say, I hadn’t realized making my own curry paste was so simple, until we ran Nancy McDermott’s Thai curry recipes last month. While they were very good using store-bought curry paste, they were outstanding with her homemade curry paste. I plan to make and store some of Nancy’s curry paste for my own homemade shortcut. But I’ll still keep Thai Kitchen in the door of the fridge, too, and use it without compunction.
How to use: Make Thai curries by combining it with broth, fish sauce, and coconut milk, plus meat and veggies. A little curry paste also packs a nice punch in a vinaigrette.
Time saved: 1 hour
Kuner’s Refried Beans with Roasted Chiles ($1.29 per 15.5-oz. can): Unlike most refried beans, which taste only salty, these have a nice toasty but not too spicy flavor from the addition of the chiles. Though still quite high in sodium, they also offer a good dose of fiber.
How to Use: My 11-year-old son loves a bean and cheese burrito made with these beans. They’re also delicious in quesadillas and dips.
Time saved: about 1 hour
Tribe Hummus ($2.99 for an 8-oz. tub): I’ve had a can of tahini in my pantry for what must be a good year now. I keep meaning to make my own hummus (a snacking staple in my house), but then I go and buy yet another tub of it and don’t bother.
How to use: As a dip for pita and vegetables, of course. I also use it as the “glue” to keep a chopped tomato and basil topping from tumbling off bruschetta.
Time saved: 10 minutes
Soy Vay Veri Veri Teriyaki ($4.99 for a 21-oz. bottle): As mentioned already, I use this more to cut out shopping time rather than cooking time, when I’m out of fresh ginger or soy sauce.
How to use: Straight out of the bottle, it is a zesty Asian marinade for grilled chicken breasts or pork tenderloin. It can also give you a head start on making some weeknight sesame noodles.
Time saved: 10 minutes
We asked users of the CooksTalk forum to comment on their own favorite shortcut ingredients. Like the staff at Fine Cooking, these folks are more fanatical than most (in a good way) about food and cooking, and so there was no mention of canned cream of mushroom soup. (Well, actually there was, but only to dismiss it.)
The product that received the most positive mentions was frozen artichoke hearts, with a particular emphasis on those carried by Trader Joe’s. Indeed, these are quite a convenience, as there is no denying that dealing with fresh artichokes can suck up a lot of time. We’ve even devised a recipe that uses the extra moisture in frozen artichokes as an advantage-it keeps chicken thighs moist during roasting.
Though most expressed defiance (as well as feelings of guilt) about it, a few people admitted to using pre-bagged greens. “I don’t care what gourmet cooks say,” writes SallyBR1 about the baby spinach she uses for quick pasta sauces and in our barley “risotto” with shrimp. Weighing in on the topic, Adele remarks on the benefit for the single diner: “It is way more cost-effective if you are one person to get a bag than to buy individual lettuces.”
Aberwacky recommends wonton wrappers for fast baked pastas. They’re also quite good for weeknight ravioli such as this one filled with butternut squash.
Among other contenders: frozen mussels (out of the shell), jarred roasted red peppers, Hatch brand canned enchilada sauces, More than Gourmet stock products, and frozen pizza dough.
Perhaps the most insightful post came from TracyK. Responding to those in favor of making their own coconut milk over using canned she asks, “Is the difference noticeable?” Then she adds: “I am sometimes willing to spend time on something like that if it makes a huge difference in the finished product, but if it’s a marginal difference, no way.”