What Makes an Ingredient ‘Good’?

If you’re a fan of cooking shows, you may have noticed when a celebrity chef instructs you to use a “good” version of an ingredient but doesn’t explain what makes an ingredient worthy of that designation. Celebrity chefs likely can’t endorse a specific brand without the brand expecting some kind of compensation or endorsement deal, so they turn the label where the camera can’t see it, cover it up or create a new, fake label entirely.

For anytime you’ve heard or read the words “good” cheddar, chocolate or olive oil, read below for suggestions for the top-of-the-line, tried-and-true brands for these and more, so your next dish will be ready for its own close-up.

Olive oil
For making salad dressings, finishing dishes and dipping bread into, look for extra virgin olive oil that has been cold pressed, which means no heat was applied during the crushing process and less flaws will be in the oil. Select a California oil over a Spanish or Italian one, as California has stricter regulations than its international counterparts, which means your oil has less of a chance to go rancid. Color, whether it’s more green or yellow, doesn’t matter, and remember that quality olive oil will always cost more. Fortunately, you should only use extra-virgin olive oil when you want the flavor to shine, but for sautéing or baking, regular olive, canola or vegetable oil is fine.

Chocolate chips
According to America’s Test Kitchen, Ghirardelli 60% Bittersweet Chocolate Baking Chips are the best for making desserts from chocolate chip cookies to ganache. Their wider, flatter chips distribute chocolate more evenly through the cookie, snap pleasantly like dark chocolate should, are not waxy and have a nice balance of sweet-to-bitter flavor.

Cocoa powder
The gold standard in cocoa powder is Pernigotti cocoa, from one of the oldest chocolate manufacturers in Italy, founded in 1860. It’ll cost you (about $23 for just over two pounds), but its cocoa and vanilla flavors and higher percentage of fat set it apart from the other cocoa powders. Callebaut Baking Cocoa Powder is another excellent choice, rated “Best Overall” in Cooks Illustrated Magazine but is considerably more expensive.

Dark chocolate bar
“Dark” is in the eye of the beholder. Technically, European rules specify that chocolate must not contain less than 35 percent dry cocoa solids, 18 percent cocoa butter and 14 percent of dry non-fat cocoa solids. For you, this means that dark chocolate cacao percentages can be all over the place, from 70 to 99 percent, and the higher the number, the better for you, but the more bitter the chocolate. If you prefer chocolate in the lower range, choose Scharffen Berger Bittersweet Dark Chocolate, 70% Cacao, for its smooth texture and deep-but-not-bitter chocolate flavor. On the much darker side of the spectrum, Lindt Excellence Extra Dark 85% Cocoa bar is the best for its bright, intense chocolate taste.

Cheese
Brand recommendations don’t necessarily apply here, but instead, look for the following, and select ones that are more grainy looking and less waxy: For feta, choose a Greek feta that’s a solid block (not already crumbled) and packed in brine. For cheddar, look for a white, sharp cheddar that’s been aged for at least six months. For the best flavor and texture, parmesan should be either Parmigiano Reggiano or Grana Padano, the latter of which cannot technically be designated Parmigiano Reggiano but tastes similar and is much cheaper. Mozzarella should be fresh or whole-milk; if you choose fresh, your dish will be wetter than traditional whole-milk mozzarella. For a delicious, no-fail blue cheese, select a Stilton, which is always produced with high standards in Stilton, Cambridgeshire, England.

Chicken stock
You’ve always heard homemade chicken stock is better, but realistically, most of us don’t have the time or freezer space to make our own. Two canned broths stand out as acceptable substitutes: Swanson Natural Goodness chicken broth and Swanson’s Chicken Cooking Stock. For a space-saving alternative, try Better Than Bouillon Chicken Base, a (salty) cooking base made with real chicken, vegetables and herbs. Hint: You don’t even have to heat it with water separately; just whisk a teaspoonful into a cup of water (for every cup of broth or stock called for in the recipe) and stir into your dish. However, adjust the salt in your original recipe when using Better Than Bouillon so your finished meal doesn’t end up too salty.

Vanilla extract
When it comes to vanilla extract, always opt for pure over imitation. Nielsen-Massey Madagascar Bourbon Vanilla Extract is regarded as the industry standard for the best pure vanilla extract. With only four ingredients – water, alcohol, sugar and vanilla bean – Nielsen-Massey produces a vanilla extract with a sweet, creamy, intense vanilla flavor that you sense as soon as you open the bottle.

Salt
Overall, varying brands of Fleur De Sel, a French, briny, mild salt with large flakes, is the gold standard for salt, though it shines best when used as a finisher, such as sprinkling over gently sautéed fresh green beans or sugar snap peas. For using every day, seasoning meats before cooking and baking, Maldon flaked sea salt is top-notch, as its flakes are actually pyramid-shaped. If you prefer fine ground versus coarse salt, opt for Celtic Sea Salt, Fine Ground.

Canned tomatoes
Available in a variety of brands, San Marzano tomatoes are considered the world’s best paste tomatoes by chefs. Similar to the Roma tomato, San Marzano tomatoes are more slender with a thicker flesh and a strong, sweet taste.

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