22 Supermarket Items You Should Leave on the Shelf (and What to Get Instead)

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[Photograph: Shutterstock]

The best life advice I've ever gotten was from my high school physics teacher. His philosophy? It's okay to be lazy. Good, in fact. You should want to do things the easiest way possible, as that's what's going to drive you toward finding ever-more efficient ways to do them. Of course, the unspoken fine print read: so long as you don't sacrifice on quality.

I carry the same philosophy into the kitchen. Sure, there are times when I enjoy doing things the old-fashioned, hard way, but most of the time, my goal is to make the best-tasting food in the least amount of time possible, and if there's a convenient supermarket product that's going to help me get there, all the better. The problem is, sometimes those convenient supermarket products end up veering into "sacrifice on quality" territory, a place we want to avoid.

Here's my list of 22 common supermarket ingredients that you should never put in your shopping cart, along with suggestions on what to look for instead.

#1: "Fresh" Shrimp

What's Wrong With Them: The vast majority of "fresh" shrimp you see at the supermarket are frozen shrimp that have been thawed out on-site—the same frozen shrimp they sell you by the bag. Once thawed, shrimp have a very limited shelf life, which means that unless you literally see those shrimp alive and kicking before you buy them, it's likely that those "fresh" shrimp are already on their way out before you even get them home.

What to Get Instead: Buy bags of IQF (Individually Quick Frozen) shrimp. Kept in their bags in the freezer, they'll last for months, and they take only 10 to 15 minutes to thaw under cold water.

#2: Full-Sodium Broth or Stock

What's Wrong With It: Full-sodium broth may taste better straight out of the box or can than its low-sodium counterpart (which explains why stocks with the highest salt content win taste tests), but it's less versatile. Many soup, stew, and sauce recipes call for allowing stock to reduce to concentrate its flavor. Reduce a full-sodium stock and it becomes unpalatably salty.

What to Get Instead: Low-sodium stock. My favorite store-bought stock brands are Swanson Organic (available everywhere) and Kirkland (available at Costco).

#3: Beef Broth, Period

What's Wrong With It: Federal regulations for canned or boxed beef broth require a paltry 135-to-1 ratio of moisture to protein, and almost all options on the shelf hover around that point. The result is that most boxed or canned beef broth contains almost no beef at all, instead relying on yeast extracts to provide it with a savory aroma and flavor.

What to Get Instead: In most recipes we've tested, boxed chicken broth will provide far better flavor than boxed beef broth, even for traditionally beef broth–based dishes like beef stew or onion soup. This is because, despite the fact that there is no minimum protein requirement set by the USDA, most boxed or canned chicken broth contains around 60 parts liquid to 1 part protein, twice as much as in beef broth. If you really want a deeper beef flavor without having to make your own stock, I'd recommend Better Than Bouillon Beef Base, which lasts forever in the fridge and contains a fair amount of actual beef, along with plenty of other flavor enhancers, to give it a rich, hearty flavor. The only downside is that it also contains lots of sodium, which makes it impossible to reduce like a traditional beef stock.

#4: Cooking Wine

What's Wrong With It: Cooking wine has salt added to it, which means that, like full-sodium broth or stock, it's impossible to reduce without making your food overly salty. Of course, it's not particularly tasty wine, either.

What to Get Instead: Regular inexpensive wine. You don't need fancy wine to cook with—anything dry with no overtly off flavors will do. What if you don't drink wine at home and don't want to have to buy a full bottle for a recipe that calls for just a cup or two? There are a few solutions. Most stores that sell wine will sell half or quarter bottles. Boxed wines with an internal plastic bladder and a spigot will let you pour out just what you need, and the rest will last for months. Finally, for most recipes that call for white wine, dry vermouth will do just fine (and, like boxed wine, will last for months in the refrigerator).

#5: Salad Dressing

What's Wrong With It: Most premade salad dressings are designed to be shelf-stable, which means that they lack the freshness of a homemade dressing. Garlic and shallots taste dull and cooked. Lemon juice tastes pasteurized. Herbs and spices are dried and dusty. You get the picture. Moreover, when buying pre-bottled dressing, you're paying premium prices for low-quality oils and vinegars.

What to Get Instead: Make your salad dressings fresh. The flavor you'll get out of a high-quality olive oil, good vinegar, and fresh citrus juice and aromatics will be brighter and fresher than anything in a bottle, and cheaper as well. Once you've got the hang of making a basic vinaigrette (you can learn about the extremely simple process here), you won't even need a recipe to come up with as many different salad dressing flavors as your imagination allows.

#6: Jarred Gravy

What's Wrong With It: There's nothing wrong with jarred gravy per se. Most of it is simply commercial stock or broth that has been thickened with starch. And that's exactly what's wrong with it: You're paying a high price for something you can make yourself at home in just a couple of minutes.

What to Get Instead: Buy a good-quality low-sodium stock and make gravy yourself using our simple guide. A good gravy can be as simple as thickening commercial or homemade stock with a butter-and-flour roux, or you can enhance your gravy using pan drippings, extra bits from a chicken or turkey carcass, aromatics (like onions, carrots, celery, black pepper, and bay leaves), and umami boosters (like soy sauce, fish sauce, and Marmite).

#7: Powdered Hollandaise Sauce

What's Wrong With It: Real Hollandaise is thought of as being difficult to make, which makes instant Hollandaise an attractive option. However, instant Hollandaise—made with powdered butterfat, starches, stabilizers, and artificial flavorings—is nothing like the real thing.

What to Get Instead: Despite its reputation, real Hollandaise is easy to make using our foolproof two-minute method. Get yourself some eggs, butter, and lemon juice, and treat yourself to the real deal.

#8: Pre-Grated Cheese

What's Wrong With It: Pre-grated cheese comes coated with cornstarch or some other powder intended to prevent it from clumping. However, this anti-clumping powder can affect the way the cheese melts or incorporates into sauces. Does your macaroni and cheese come out overly thick or grainy? Pre-grated cheese might be the culprit. Plus, pre-grated cheese generally costs more than its un-grated counterparts.

What to Get Instead: Buying blocks of cheese and grating them yourself can save you money, will give you more control over quality, and will also ensure that recipes come out the way they were intended to.

#9: Standard Ricotta Cheese

What's Wrong With It: Ricotta cheese is made by treating whey (or whole milk, less traditionally) with an acid and/or heat, collecting the curds that form, and draining them of excess water, for a creamy, protein-rich result. Most commercial ricotta cheese production skips the time-consuming step of draining, instead relying on gums and stabilizers to keep excess water from weeping out. The result is a watered-down, gummy-textured product that is a far cry from the real deal.

What to Get Instead: Check the labels. When buying ricotta, buy only brands that contain, at most, milk or whey, salt, and some form of acid (in the form of either vinegar or live starter culture). Avoid any brands that have gums or stabilizers. Our favorite widely available brand is Calabro, though your best bet is often a local option. If you can't find great ricotta in your supermarket, don't despair! It's quite easy to make at home using our five-minute method.

#10: Pre-Ground Black Pepper

What's Wrong With It: The more finely ground a spice is and the more it's exposed to the air, the more quickly it loses flavor. With spices that you keep in a sealed container and don't use too frequently, this is not a huge problem. But ground black pepper—which is most likely sitting out in a pepper shaker or in a container that gets opened for use every day—will rapidly deteriorate from aromatic and hot to dry and dusty.

What to Get Instead: Buy whole black peppercorns and keep them in a pepper mill to grind them as you need them. Our favorite pepper mills are made by Peugeot and Unicorn. (And make sure to check out our guide to black pepper if you want to get extra fancy.)

#11: Seasoning Packets for Tacos or Chili

What's Wrong With Them: Seasoning packets for taco meat or chili consist of a small amount of spices, along with salt and typically some form of thickener. You pay a large premium for ingredients that should be cheap. (And that's not even considering their flavor: underpowered.)

What to Get Instead: Individual spices will have more flavor and can be blended to suit your own taste. The cost may be a little more up front, but they'll easily pay for themselves within a few uses. If you want to give even better flavor to recipes that call for chili powder, try our technique for making chili purée out of whole dried chilies instead.

#12: "Stew" Beef

What's Wrong With It: The precut chunks of beef labeled "stew" or "stewing" beef are cut from scraps of beef behind the butcher counter. They end up with inconsistent levels of fat and connective tissue (both of which are necessary for tender, juicy stewed meat) and unpredictable flavor. Most likely, those chunks are also cut smaller than you'd like them to be for a decent stew.

What to Get Instead: Whole cuts of beef suitable for stewing. Chuck (cut from the shoulder) is your best all-around inexpensive bet, but we also enjoy boneless short rib and flap meat (also sold as sirloin flap or sirloin tip) in our stews. (Here's our complete guide to stewing cuts.) Buying whole cuts also lets you sear the beef before cutting it into chunks, which is a more efficient way of developing flavor while maintaining tenderness in a stew. (See more on that technique here.)

#13: Pre-Marinated Meat

What's Wrong With It: Pre-marinated meat typically means over-marinated meat. In truth, most of the flavorful compounds in marinades are large organic molecules that can barely penetrate past the surface of the meat (read up on the science of marinades for more details). However, things like salt and acid can affect the texture of the meat well beyond the surface. Over the course of a few days, acid can cause meat to turn overly tender to the point of being mushy, while salt can give it a cured, ham-like texture. Without knowing how long meat has been stored in its marinade, it's impossible to know how its texture is going to wind up after cooking.

What to Get Instead: Buy fresh meat and marinate it yourself. You'll have complete control over what goes into the marinade, along with how much time the meat spends in it. With the vast majority of marinades, there is no reason to marinate any longer than an hour or so (remember: flavors don't penetrate beyond the surface), which means that buying pre-marinated meat is not even much of a time-saver. Here are a few great marinades to get you started.

#14: Frozen Hamburger Patties

What's Wrong With Them: With rare exceptions, frozen burger patties are made from scraps of beef that could have come from anywhere on the carcass (or from any number of carcasses), ground extremely fine and packed very tight. You're losing the battle for good burger texture and flavor before you've even started to cook.

What to Get Instead: If you want a great burger, you need to start with good beef. Buying fresh ground beef from the glass display case is a step up, but for the best burgers, buy whole cuts of meat and grind them yourself (or ask the butcher to grind them for you). That way, you have full control over the flavor and texture. Check out these articles on selecting the right cut of beef for grinding and on the best way to grind beef at home.

#15: Wet Scallops

What's Wrong With Them: "Wet" scallops are scallops that have been treated with sodium triphosphate (STP), a chemical that helps them retain moisture, thus allowing the fishmonger to get a few more bucks out of you. Unfortunately, STP's effects wear off the moment you start cooking your scallops. They'll shed copious amounts of water, which makes browning them next to impossible. STP also has a strong, off-putting chemical flavor.

What to Get Instead: "Dry" scallops—scallops that haven't been treated—are what you're after. Dry scallops will typically be labeled as such, but if not, it's easy to tell. Wet scallops will appear milky and opaque (and often sit in pools of milky liquid), with a very glossy, shiny surface. Dry scallops will look translucent and moist, but won't be wet to the touch. Given the choice between dry and wet scallops, take dry scallops every time, even if they're frozen or previously frozen. And remember, even if the per-pound price of dry scallops is higher than that of wet, the only difference is how much water you'll be paying for.

#16: Boneless, Skinless Chicken Breasts

What's Wrong With Them: I admit it: I used to be the kind of person who might judge folks who insist on eating boneless, skinless chicken breasts, but I can understand their convenience and health appeal these days. The part that still gets me is their price: A boneless, skinless breast can cost two to three times as much per pound as the bone-in, skin-on version.

What to Get Instead: Whole or split bone-in, skin-on chicken breasts are far more inexpensive than boneless and skinless (even accounting for the extra weight the skin and bones add). As a bonus, buying your chicken breasts with the skin and bones gives you the foundation for making your own chicken stock. (You can freeze the skin and bones from multiple chicken breasts until you have enough to make a big batch of stock.) Finally, even if you plan on eating your chicken without the skin, in most cases you're better off cooking it skin-on and removing the skin before serving. That skin will act as an insulator to help the meat cook more gently and retain more moisture. (See here for techniques.)

#17: Fresh Vegetables in Sealed Plastic Bags

What's Wrong With Them: Without being able to touch and examine your produce, it's difficult to gauge its quality. Those Brussels sprouts or onions that look okay through the plastic window may reveal blemishes on closer inspection.

What to Get Instead: Buy your vegetables from the loose-produce displays, where you can pick and choose what you're paying for.

#18: Pasteurized or From-Concentrate Lemon or Lime Juice

What's Wrong With It: I get the appeal. Lemons and limes can be a bit pricey, and the convenience of squeezing a little plastic lemon or lime to get as much juice as you need is enticing. However, the stuff tastes nothing like fresh lemon or lime juice. It's like when that well-intentioned aunt goes out and gets you a GoBot for your birthday instead of a Transformer: It's similar in many ways, yet deeply disappointing.

What to Get Instead: Buy real lemons and limes and squeeze them yourself. A good hand-held citrus reamer or a citrus juice press makes it quick and easy. Get sticker shock at the cost of lemons and limes at the fancy supermarket? Try your local Asian or Latin market instead. You'll most likely find lemons and limes at a fraction of the price. They'll last for a week or two uncovered on the countertop, or several weeks in the vegetable crisper drawer of your refrigerator.

#19: Out-of-Season Beefsteak Tomatoes

What's Wrong With Them: Most tomatoes are picked while still green and firm in order to be able to withstand the rigors of cross-country travel in the back of a produce truck. Some vegetables and fruits will ripen just fine after being picked. Not tomatoes. While picked green tomatoes will eventually turn red (especially when treated with ethylene gas, a naturally occurring gas that triggers color change and ripening in many fruits), they will not develop flavor. The result is tomatoes that look bright red and ripe, but taste mealy, watery, and bland.

What to Get Instead: Tomatoes are best enjoyed seasonally—at the end of the summer and into the fall—from a local grower who picks them when they're fully ripened on the vine. If you must buy tomatoes during the off season, choose smaller varieties, like cherry, grape, or plum (Roma) tomatoes, which are generally picked riper. For cooked applications like sauces and stews, canned peeled whole tomatoes will invariably be better than fresh tomatoes: They're picked fully ripe before canning or jarring.

#20: Jarred Garlic

What's Wrong With It: The chemicals that give garlic (and other alliums) their characteristic aroma and pungency are created and released as soon as plant cells are ruptured through cutting or crushing. The thing is, the sweet, aromatic compounds (i.e., the desirable ones) tend to disappear faster than the sulfurous, overly pungent compounds (i.e., the ones you want to limit). Pre-chopped or pre-crushed garlic has all of the bad qualities of garlic, and none of the good.

What to Get Instead: Buy fresh garlic in whole heads. Peeling and chopping or crushing individual cloves is very easy (yes, a garlic press will work just fine for most applications—check out our taste test of garlic chopping methods here), and, when left in its papery skin and stored in a cool, dark place, a head of garlic will last for weeks. In a pinch, the pre-peeled cloves available in the refrigerated produce section of many supermarkets will work for most cooked applications in which garlic is not the predominant flavor.

#21: Dried Delicate Leafy Herbs

What's Wrong With Them: Some succulent herbs that grow in particularly dry, hardy climates (like rosemary, bay leaves, or oregano) will retain plenty of flavor even when dried. Delicate leafy herbs (like parsley, basil, tarragon, cilantro, or chives, for instance) have much more volatile aromatic compounds: Once dried, they lose any quality that makes them worth cooking with.

What to Get Instead: If you can, spring for fresh herbs. Stored upright in a sealed jar with an inch of water, they'll last for weeks (see our storage tests here). For even longer storage, you can dry them yourself using the microwave (a process that retains much more flavor than standard dehydrating), or, better yet, chop and freeze them.

#22: Gnocchi

What's Wrong With It: Gnocchi should be light and delicate. I have yet to find a single store-bought brand that comes even close to this ideal. (The worst offenders are the shelf-stable versions that come in vacuum-sealed bags in the dried-pasta aisle.) I'd much rather eat properly cooked dried pasta than leaden lumps of dough.

What to Get Instead: Forget gnocchi and just stick with dried pasta or a good-quality fresh pasta made by a local producer. If you want great gnocchi, you're just going to have to get it the traditional way: Make it yourself. Luckily, we have a few different recipes. These ricotta gnocchi are the easiest and, with a little practice, can be made in less time than it takes to bring a pot of water to a boil. Potato gnocchi are a little more time-consuming to make, but also quite simple once you get the hang of it. For a different take on gnocchi, try our easy Parisian gnocchi (which are best sautéed until brown and crisp!).