I used to think that being particular about certain brands of ingredients was a snobby thing. My family didn’t have much money when we came to America so the less expensive generic products of the 1970s and 1980s were fine by us. As the photo above (from Pleasantfamilyshopping.blogspot.com) suggests, many people looked down on the plain labeling of the generic foods, skeptically thinking that the contents matched the labels. No pizazz. But when you’re on a budget, you just want to feed your family.
Having written five cookbooks, I've had to make a lot of brand recommendations, and admittedly, certain brands of ingredients, like fish sauce and flour, matter. But over the years I've added more store brands to my list and they've been well received with no stigma attached.
The generic products sold at supermarkets nowadays sport spiffy labels and some of them are excellent, often times the same or better than the leading national brands. I chalk it up to savvy consumers and smart private labeling deals that allow stores like Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s and chain supermarkets partnering with leading manufacturers to offer value on quality products. Here are my favorite generic ingredients and why I like them. (I hope you'll share yours!)
Regardless of your position on GMOs, consider trying Whole Foods’ canola oil. It’s non-GMO, expeller pressed, and very well priced (about $3.99 for this size). Along with the financial and ecological reasons, the oil is lighter than say, the regular canola sold at Costco. It does not weigh down on food and make it greasy.
Not all canola oils are the same. For example, in China, the canola oil (known better as rapeseed oil) is less refined and very thick and yellow. Costco was selling a non-GMO canola oil but I haven’t see in for a while.
What brand of tofu do I tend to buy? Usually the store brand, like this one from Safeway, which looks and tastes a lot like what’s sold under the Whole Foods label. (Maybe they share the same supplier?) My rationale is that the store is motivated by what turns over fastest. Then there’s the taste test, and the Safeway O brand of tofu is consistently good.
I’ve tried both versions of Whole Food’s 365 soy sauce and you’d think that the organic version would be best. It’s not. I bought the organic bottle a while ago and after a taste, stashed in the back of my pantry. It finished with a bite on the back of my throat.
The other day at the store, I noticed that the regular Whole Foods 365 shoyu (soy sauce in Japanese) came from Japan, whereas the 365 organic soy sauce came from America. Intrigued, I bought the non-organic soy sauce and it was excellent, with lots of well-developed, round savory-sweet notes. The Whole Foods 365 shoyu has greater complexity than its organic version. The Whole Foods 365 shoyu really surprised me this week. It pays to read the label to see where things come from.
Trader Joe’s sells a lot of generic, private label products and the coconut milk is really nice. It echoes a bit of the flavor of fresh coconut milk. It’s thinner than usual, and has a bright flavor. A lot of canned coconut milk is made to be so thick with coconut fat that it’s often lacking the sweet lilt of fresh coconut.
The Trader Joe’s organic coconut milk contains no guar gum to bind the contents so it will separate easier than say, the Sprouts brand. Trader Joe's sources its coconut milk from Sri Lanka so that may also make a difference. Thai and Indonesian coconut milk have been reliably good for years but it's great to know that Sri Lanka may also be a marker of quality. Again, read the fine print.
Many Asian markets save their customers money by buying in bulk and bagging things up. For ingredients like sesame seeds, I’ve got no problem buying what Lion Foods packages up. It costs a little less than other brands and I figure that if I don’t like it, I know who to complain to!
Food and grocery shopping has changed a lot since the 1970s and 1980s. Many of the private labeled, generic products sold today are great and worth trying, whether you’re trying to save money or not.
What are your favorite generic products?