Being obsessed with food is in many ways a blessing. It opens us up to different cultures and experiences, and helps to create lasting memories like little else. But for all the joy that eating brings, the hunt for the next delicious meal always comes at a price. As with anything, a love of the finer things in life weighs heavy on your wallet. However, a taste of luxury doesn’t necessarily have to cost the earth. To help you eat well for less, here’s a list of 12 thrifty ingredient alternatives that are just as good as the real thing.
Once considered an everyman’s dish, overfishing has seen the cost of lobster explode over the last century. While its sweet, succulent flesh may be out of most people's price range, it’s perfectly possible to find a more affordable oceanic substitute. Monkfish's meaty texture makes it a perfect replacement in dishes that require a strong seafood presence.
Highly sought after for their powerful, heady aroma and taste, truffles are a key ingredient in classical French and Italian cooking. However, getting your hands on the real thing could set you back more than $1,000 for a relatively miniscule amount. Save yourself a financial headache by investing in infinitely cheaper, but no less pungent, truffle oil.
Worth more than its weight in gold, saffron’s sizable price tag is an understandable obstacle for many. Despite being an essential ingredient in many Southern European dishes, the minuscule orange threads are often justifiably overlooked by spendthrift shoppers. Fortunately, saffron’s sought-after flavour and colour can be recreated with other, more readily available alternatives. A mixture of turmeric and paprika will give dishes a rich golden colour and also deliver the deeply savoury taste of the real thing.
9. Kobe Beef
Notorious for the meticulous care and dedication that goes into preparing each and every Kobe cow, Japan’s most famous meaty product is well beyond the reach of most chefs. Though rules on exporting Kobe beef are strictly monitored, it is possible to get hold of its less luxurious cousin, wagyu, for a smaller price. Though still expensive, wagyu beef is a great way to experience a more affordable slice of luxury.
Dubbed “The King of Cheese” in its native Italy, Parmigiano-Reggiano is rightly regarded as dairy par-excellence. However, for something usually scraped onto salads or sprinkled on pasta, true parmesan commands an inordinately hefty price tag. For a similar flavour at a fraction of the price, shoppers can pick up a slice of subtly different but equally tasty Grana Padano in most local supermarkets.
Salty, sweet and richly marbled with fat, pancetta is a great way to give Italian dishes a meaty kick. While real pancetta inevitably costs a pretty penny thanks to hefty import taxes, the product’s similarity to bacon means that the flavour can be easily reproduced. For anyone working to a budget, unsmoked streaky bacon makes for a great alternative.
6. Single Malt Scotch
A centuries-old Scottish tradition, single malt Scotch is rightly hailed as the pinnacle of the whisky world. Unsurprisingly, anyone hoping for a taste can also expect to pay for it. A single bottle of Macallan can set you back over $200, making this tipple not one for the light of wallet. However, one of the things that makes certain Scotches so expensive is the reputation of a particular distillery. Therefore, by exploring possibilities outside of established brands, it is still perfectly possible to find a high-quality, affordable bottle of Scottish whisky.
5. Foie Gras
As controversial as it is coveted, true foie gras is one of France’s most desirable culinary exports. While its airy texture and rich flavour make it a favourite of chefs around the world, innovative cooks have shown that it’s possible to imitate the foie gras experience without the price tag or the question marks over animal rights. Both chicken and duck livers can be prepared to recreate the real thing so effectively that only connoisseurs can tell the difference.
Despite being a staple ingredient in a wealth of Asian dishes, real rice wine is not only pricey but can also prove incredibly tricky to find. Given that most recipes typically only call for a splash of the stuff, investing and questing for hours for a bottle is a waste of both time and money. As an affordable alternative, it's easy to reproduce mirin's distinctive, sweet flavour by using a dry sherry mixed with marsala wine.
3. Chia Seeds
As the number of dieting fads has multiplied in recent years, ingredients that were once ignored have found themselves thrust into the limelight. This extra attention has meant that niche foods, such as chia seeds, have suddenly become premium products. However, there’s no need to pay top whack for the nutritional value of these ingredients when there are plenty of thrifty alternatives available. Chia seeds can be replaced in most dishes with significantly cheaper oats.
Thanks to chronic overfishing, cod is no longer the plentiful dinnertime staple that it once was. Though stocks are now slowly recovering, cod continues to command a premium, so many chefs and home cooks have scoured fishmongers for affordable alternatives. Thankfully, fish like pollock and haddock mean that diners can continue to enjoy the firm, flaky flesh that made cod so desirable, without paying top dollar.
No other ingredient is as synonymous with luxury as caviar. Served in the finest restaurants to the world’s rich and powerful, these tinned fish eggs have a reputation that few other foods can match. However, while authentic beluga sturgeon caviar can cost as much $10,000 a kilo, there are a number of ways to recreate the elusive caviar experience on the cheap. Tasting just as good and looking near identical, lumpfish roe delivers bags of bold, salty flavour at a fraction of the price.
Sometimes, it feels good to treat ourselves to a premium product. The psychology of eating something ultra expensive can have a huge impact on our overall enjoyment of the food. However, when we want to imitate the taste of famous ingredients without the need to take out a mortgage, it pays to know about the affordable alternatives. By using this guide, you can enjoy food that delivers on flavour and won’t break the bank.