Like it or not, when you get some formal culinary training, you turn into a bit of a snob. As soon as I polished my knife skills at the Cordon Bleu, I abandoned many prepped ingredients and other convenience items that are the mainstays of time-pressed cooks: prechopped onions, presliced mushrooms, grated carrots, grated cheese, shredded cabbage, and such. Whole ingredients are cheaper, higher in quality, and have a longer shelf life.
Then I slipped getting out of the shower, sprained my wrist, and promptly changed my tune. I learned to do many things with my nondominant left hand: shift gears in my manual car, flip a quesadilla in a pan, to name a couple.
But it’s hard to do much slicing and dicing with your sore wrist in a splint, so I had to revisit these prepped ingredients if I wanted to stay in the kitchen. You don’t need an injury to appreciate these items. They come in handy for anyone who’s really pressed for time or simply doesn’t enjoy the prep work of chopping and slicing. That said, here are few things to keep in mind before bringing these products into your kitchen.
Expect to pay more. I know, duh, but buying prepped ingredients is the home chef’s version of hiring a prep cook: you pay for someone else to do the grunt work so you can get cooking. Sometimes the difference is significant. A medium whole yellow onion costs about twelve cents an ounce vs. forty cents an ounce for diced onions, and you’ll pay more than three times as much per ounce for shredded carrots as for whole. But that’s not always the case; I found that ounce for ounce shredded cheese cost about the same as brick cheese. Sold!
And don’t forget the eco-cost. Sure, with whole ingredients there are unused trimmings, but those can go into the compost. With prepped ingredients, there’s always packaging that may or may not be recyclable.
Choose wisely. For the most part, I was satisfied with the quality of the chopped onions, sliced mushrooms, grated carrots, and the like. Hardy veggies like onions, carrots, or butternut squash tend to hold up better than more delicate items like apples or watermelon. One major exception: jarred minced garlic. It’s convenient, but it doesn’t retain the bright flavor and color of fresh garlic. For that, I dug my garlic press out of the back of the drawer.
Check for freshness. If convenience products don’t look perfectly fresh, don’t waste your money. Also check the “best by” or packing date. The package of sliced mushrooms I bought was stamped with the packing date and time, so I knew they were really fresh. Also buy from stores with high turnover, so you know items haven’t sat on the shelf too long. Some markets prep their own fruits and veggies on site, which is even better.
Be flexible. You may not find exactly the type of shredded cheese or cut of onion you want, so be prepared to make substitutions.
Use prepped ingredients promptly. Once ingredients are peeled, cut, and prepped, they start to deteriorate quickly and don’t have the shelf life of whole ingredients. Plan to use them within a couple of days after buying them.
My wrist is on the mend, and I’m ready to pick up my knife. Prepped foods aren’t my first choice to use all the time, but now I can appreciate how handy they can be. And you never know, I might need them again.
Hey, I’m a klutz.
(Originally published September 2010 on www.nourishnetwork.com)