Even the biggest fans of kitchen shortcuts—and I count myself among their ranks—must admit that there are some foods for which one ought not cut corners.
Here’s my entirely opinionated list of which pre-sliced, pre-chopped, pre-made items to ignore at the store.
The stone-cold truth is that pre-minced garlic tastes really different from the fresh stuff. Often it’s much more pungent, too: Garlic’s signature flavor comes from a compound called allicin, which forms when its cells are ruptured (i.e.: cut). That flavor tends to build right up until the moment you use your garlic. Consider, too, that the nature of garlic’s taste changes depending on whether it’s whole, sliced, crushed, minced, or microplaned. Each preparation entails a different use.
Jarred garlic is a different animal than the fresh stuff, so buy your garlic in whole heads, and use a clove—or a bunch of cloves—at a time. If you’re making, say, a tomato sauce and need to roughly chop nine cloves of garlic, just hit them with the side of a knife to get the skins off more easily and throw them in a mini-prep. It’ll save time and frustration.
Any fan of mushrooms on her pizza can tell when her local pizzeria has switched to pre-sliced (or worse, started buying the jarred, watery kind). Pre-sliced ‘shrooms dry out, so on a pizza, you’ll notice papery little skins rather than plump, bodacious slices. Mushrooms also have a way of getting wonky over time in the refrigerator. Don’t add to the problem by buying them pre-sliced. Yes, it’s a time-saver, but those tend to go bad faster.
Lemons, limes, and oranges are persnickety and want to be squeezed pretty much to order. (There’s a reason you never see signs trumpeting “three-day-squeezed orange juice!”) Pre-squeezed juice just doesn’t tend to hold up very well, its flavor changes over time, and—if you’re buying it—it often comes with preservatives and sulfites.
If you must go in that direction, check the label; otherwise, buy an inexpensive citrus reamer.
Unlike yogurt, granola is a food I absolutely think is worth making on your own. You can cook it on a baking sheet, control the amount of sugar and salt you add (I like this recipe, which incorporates olive oil), and make enough at one go to top your yogurt for a week or two. There’s a ton of great granola on the market, but at $9 to $13 for 14 ounces, you can likely do better on your own by buying bulk oats on the cheap.
Every time I buy pre-chopped kale I am full of regrets. Most companies chop their kale haphazardly. Unlike lettuce, you really can’t do anything with those heavy ribs leftover from the rough chop. You end up de-ribbing each piece of kale, generally hating your life, and wishing you’d simply run your fingers down each leaf to remove the green stuff.
If you’ve never tried this, pinch the stem end of the leaf hard between your fingers, then use the first three fingers of your other hand to create a “pincher” shape. Folding the kale leaf in half, run the pincher down the length of the leaf like you’re pulling a sword from its sheath, removing green from both sides of the rib as you go. After some practice, you should end up with rib-free greens.
OK, there’s some great salad dressing on the market, I know. But I tend to prefer the stuff I make at home, usually haphazardly, adding a 2:1 ratio of olive oil and red wine vinegar to the tablespoon of mustard left at the bottom of the mustard bottle. I add salt and pepper and maybe minced shallot, and shake the bejesus out of it. Or I’ll blitz up a green goddess dressing, and use that in marinades, too. If you’ve got five minutes, you can generally make your own dressing.
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Oh, mashed potatoes. Tater technology has changed; you can now make great ones in an Instant Pot and—crucially!—hold them at temperature under pressure and they don’t get gluey. But pre-made packages of mashed potatoes make my skin crawl. Those of us who make our own stovetop taters know just how lumpy and annoying they can get—and how fast it happens. Yes, there are tricks to revive them, like whisking in hot milk, and you can always make potato pancakes out of leftovers. But I would not recommend buying pre-mashed potatoes; there’s just too slim a chance that they’ll be great. Why mess with one of the best foods there is?
Alex Van Buren—follow her on Instagram and Twitter @alexvanburen—is a Brooklyn-based writer, editor, and content strategist who has written for The Washington Post, Bon Appétit, Travel + Leisure, New York Magazine, Condé Nast Traveler, and Epicurious.