Cheap Ingredients, Of Thee I Sing

I’m back and road-weary, but not too weary to enjoy the comments and emails from the last few days. Some of the most enjoyable have read, in essence: Joe, in the last week you’ve dumped on both gourmet salts and real vanilla, are you on some sort of project to tick your readers off? That’s a fair line of inquiry since I wondered the same thing myself!

To answer the question, I’m not on some sort of temperamental bender, rather just expressing a core Joe Pastry belief: that ingredients are only part of what a baker needs to make superior pastry. Technique and understanding matter as much, even more. So I endorse cheap ingredients, especially chocolates, salts, flavors and whatnot. Not necessarily the cheapest mind you, since the very cheapest flours, sugars and butters can actually ruin a project. But you know, just the normal, middle-of-the-road stuff. In the right hands the so-so can be elevated to the miraculous. Just ask anyone with a grandma who bakes!

I worry when new “hot” ingredients emerge. The boosterism around them is designed to make all us home cooks and bakers think that Magic Stuff X is the thing we’ve really been missing all these years. Believe me, as a professional ingredients marketer I know where those messages come from! However my experience in the retail and business-to-business ingredients industry has shown me that there’s little point in paying up for truly great components when you’re not using what you already have to its full potential. This is a principle that’s known industrially as “ingredient performance” or “product performance” and it’s something every company is trying to boost, since wasted potential is wasted money, and no business wants that. The key to maximizing ingredient performance is of course: better technique.

If you combine cocoa powder with boiling water before you use it you’ll get twice as much flavor out of it. Most industrial users of cocoa powder don’t know that. Neither do most home bakers. But that’s knowledge that’s just as useful for us, right? In an ideal world we’ll be informed and efficient in the way we use what we buy too. This idea, culled from industry, was part of the genesis of Joe Pastry.

So don’t be surprised if I trash talk high-end goods every so often, it’s in my DNA…baked in the cake of Joe Pastry, as it were. There are true masters out there who can consistently get the most out of grand cru chocolates. Pierre Hermé and Thomas Keller for instance. Me, I’m lucky to tease the full potential out of a Hershey bar, which is why I keep buying them…and probably will for many years to come. Thanks, all you emailers and commenters, for some very thought-provoking reading. It’s great to be back!

16 thoughts on “Cheap Ingredients, Of Thee I Sing”

    1. Thanks LML! Indeed our ordinary is extraordinary by any historical measure…another point I’m wont to drone on and on about! But it’s a privilege to have a problem like over-shooting the mark on quality. We’re extremely lucky people!

      Have a great weekend,

      – Joe

  1. Thanks, Joe,

    It’s posts like this that keep me coming back daily. I’ve come to trust you and your recipes.


    1. And it’s great to have you, Philip! Thanks for your participation as well…it’s what keeps the blog going!

      – Joe

  2. Nice post, especially mentioning that even the highest quality ingredients will never replace technique. The best butter in the world will not help a cake if the baker doesn’t understand what it means to “cream butter and sugar together.”

    But I am curious about the potential you see in a Hershey bar!! 🙂

    1. Thanks, Chana! Actually I use even cheaper chocolate to top doughnuts…the absolute cheapest I can find. It’s perfect for a doughnut since good chocolate calls attention to itself. The cheap stuff blends far more harmoniously!


      – Joe

      1. A true story: After not having eaten them for years (because I was introducing myself to the “hot stuff” like Valrhona and Scharffenberger, which I had previously never heard of), I was offered some Hershey’s Kisses. The nostalgic element overtook my brain, and I was so looking forward to popping one into my mouth, which I did. I almost gagged. And I really, really wanted to like them. (I have since adjusted my expectations!)

        I have no patience for the attitude (very prevalent lately) of “buy my not-so-good product for twice the price, and thank me for condescending to take your money.” But sometimes the good stuff is expensive with good reason, it’s just not something most of us can buy regularly. It’s why I love Trader Joe’s, because they offer good products at a decent price point. So I guess everything has its application.

  3. Momofuku Milk Bar cookbook speaks highly of artificial vanilla, and its “cream sugar+butter in the stand mixer for 8-10 minutes until pale and full of tiny air bubbles” method has helped a lot with my cookies. I think it’s a good resource for getting results with cheaper ingredients.

  4. Well said! I happen to find the posts informational and a reminder not to get caught up in all the hullabaloo

  5. I couldn’t agree more.
    My dearly departed mother was born in 1921, I learned to bake and love baking by watching her , ingredients were precious in our household growing up so I was allowed to help but never let loose to bake at a young age because I guess you just couldn’t waste stuff – didn’t stop me learning to bake though.
    Mum always dissolved cocoa in hot water before adding to mixtures – she would have learned that from watching her mother I dare say – not many recipe books in those days – let alone TV or Internet to learn techniques from.
    I am incredulous that in New Zealand we produce pretty good butter and I know people who buy imported butter from Europe !!! A friend and I call it food snobbery……and just on the quiet it doesn’t make their baking any better!

  6. Thanks, Joe!

    “If you combine cocoa powder with boiling water before you use it you’ll get twice as much flavor out of it.”

    I’ve been following a long time, but do you have a post that might list small techniques/tips like this? (Meaning, compiled together?)

  7. Hear hear! Sablés have become my thing of late, simple butter cookies in terms of ingredients. So you’d think that the fancier the butter, the better the cookies, but no. I’ve tried making them with organic butter and I don’t like them as much as with good ol’ Land O’ Lakes. That’s my baking butter. I don’t buy store brands, even though they’re cheaper. I presume they are, therefore, inferior, though I’ve never tried baking a batch of cookies I was prepared to throw. I get great results with LOL. Also, I’ve made a zillion batches of the cookies. I have the technique down. People think that I buy the cookies from a bakery because they look so perfect. (Tip: Chill logs of dough in cardboard tubes you’ve slit open so you can snug the cardboard right around the dough and then secure it with rubber bands.)

    As mentioned in another post, I, too, am a fan of fake vanilla.

    I buy Domino granulated sugar, Ceresota all-purpose flour, Morton salt, standard grocery-store eggs. Nothing fancy. But the end results are great.

    I am, though, also one of those who believes our emotions go into our foods. Thankfully, I can’t bake when I’m really upset. I screw stuff up. So only good stuff goes into my baked goods. I bake with love. I swear it makes everything taste better.

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