So Bon Appetit has announced that its going to do start doing it own “seal of approval,” putting its stamp on products the magazine’s team of editors and recipe testers like and recommend. I’m fine with this as a way to get more exposure for good products, but here’s what I recommend: get some friends over and find out what you like when it comes to cooking staples.
Think of it as a wine tasting, but instead, assemble a mix of various brands or versions of one or more everyday grocery staples, such as salt, pasta, cheese, olive oil, chicken stock (above), vinegar, fresh or canned vegetables, such as tomatoes, beans, etc., peanut butter and canned tuna. I’ve even done comparative tastings with frozen peas. For instance, with parmesan cheese, you’d want to try out an array of price ranges and styles, from freshly grated authentic Parmigiano-Reggiano, to a pre-shredded supermarket to the dried, grated stuff in a can. Remove a portion from the packaging and taste each item blindly, take notes and compare. You can use small dishes, small paper plates, whatever, just make sure you mark them with a number or letter and keep track.
- SaltySeattle.com’s awesome salt-tasting party
- Nami-Nami’s fresh tomato tastings
- Fresh apple tasting tips from U.S. Apples
- Peanut butter tasting at 5DollarDinners
This is a fun experiment to do with friends and neighbors. Just ask each to bring what they’ve already got in their cupboards or fridges, or assign them something to bring. It’s a great conversation starter, and an excellent addition to a book club.
After having done this with numerous people over the past few years, here’s a few tips. Try at least three to five samples of each food products, but no more than that or it will overwhelm most people’s palates. Most people don’t have the vocabulary to articulate what they’re tasting, so I recommend It’s helpful to provide a list of descriptive words to get people thinking about what they’re tasting, such as this list of wine terms (most can be applied to food), and this list of food-related words.
What’s important isn’t what the others think, but starting to understand what you like and seeing how what you purchase and start cooking with affects the final outcome of the dish. As the French chefs taught me at Le Cordon Bleu, it’s important to taste, taste, taste as you cook — taste the ingredients you’re using before you add them, tastes multiple times as you cook a dish and taste it again before you serve it.
Recommended reading: I’m a fan of the book The Tasting Club by Dina Cheney, which provides more insight into how to conduct tastings of all kinds of ingredients, including chocolate and olives. Her book gave me the idea to start doing tastings in the first place, and I still refer to it. If you’re interested in tastings, it’s certainly worth a look.