With list in hand you’re ready to follow these eight secrets for finding the best ingredients for any meal.
1. Choose ripe produce. It may sound simple but ripe fruits and vegetables cook faster and add much more flavor than their immature counterparts. How do you tell what’s ripe? There’s one cardinal rule for almost all fruits and vegetables: if it doesn’t smell like anything, it won’t taste like anything.
2. Choose fast-cooking cuts of meat. Save the pot roast for the weekend when there’s more time for slow cooking. During the week, pick cutlets, chops and fillets that start out tender and cook quickly.
3. Insist on fresh meat and fish. Ask the fishmonger or butcher if you can smell before you buy. Fish and shellfish should smell like blue ocean at high tide on a spring morning, never like the tidal flats on an August afternoon. Meat should smell clean and bright, not like copper, soured yogurt or runny cheese. You may get a reputation for being a kook, but you’ll win accolades at home when dinner is full of the true flavors of good food.
4. Sometimes less is more. While it’s cost-saving to buy produce or meat in bulk, it can be time-killing too. A bag of peppers or 12 pounds of ground beef will leave you cooking vats of food and often lead to a depressing sameness in your menu. That eight-pound side of salmon looks like a deal, but by the third night, it’s a catalyst for culinary boredom. If you need one celery stalk or a handful of diced peppers, consider shopping at the salad bar in your market to buy exactly what you can use and no more. Quick cooking is often about measuring the gap between cost and convenience.
5. Embrace the convenience of frozen vegetables and precut fresh vegetables that can trim time and effort from any cooking endeavor without sacrificing quality. Frozen and pan-ready mushrooms, onions, peppers and other ingredients can make speedy cooking a weeknight breeze. Look for good-quality vegetables in your market’s freezer case or produce section—not those doped with salt solutions or chemical preservatives that can be loaded with salt and hydrogenated fat. Prewashed bags of salad mixes might cost more than whole heads, but you often end up with less waste and more variety.
6. Buy containers of peeled garlic cloves and refrigerated jars of chopped ginger, both usually available in the produce section. The time saved in chopping can mean dinner on the table faster.
7. Choose convenience items carefully. Canned broths and tomato sauces, for example, can be a true gift to the cook. But beware of preseasoned convenience products that are loaded with salt and hydrogenated fat.
8. Shop with your pantry in mind. A well-stocked kitchen helps you avoid the there’s-nothing-to-eat-so-let’s-go-out moment. Follow our handy guide to things that will keep for months on end and always restock essential pantry items when they run low.