June 18, 2024


Food & Travel Enthusiast

I can’t believe it’s not Nutella! Chefs’ and food writers’ favourite grocery bargains | Life and style

People who cook for a living are paid to make things you and I won’t – or feel we can’t – make at home. Their aim is to retain your custom. It follows that their recipes or tips often feel a little out of reach. It is aspirational fare. They’re still trying to knock your socks off.

It is when you ask a chef what they cook for themselves after a late-night shift, or what they shove on their shelves for their toddler’s midweek tea, that you get the good stuff: the deeply relatable, the always useful, the budget-friendly.

Here, then, are recommendations from cooks, chefs and foodies around the country for affordable store-cupboard staples and kitchen basics. From condiments and snacks to tipples, dry goods and spices, these lower-budget wonders taste as good as their better-known or more glamorous counterparts. Some – the wine, the pasta, the chocolate spread – have been subject to blind tastings, with no discernible differences detected. In times of stretch and squeeze, that makes these comfort supplies, in every sense of the word. It’s also a prompt to get taste-testing yourself.

Brands capitalise on packaging and blurbs, so more bounty is definitely lurking in blandly marketed basics ranges. And given that, as Jack Monroe has pointed out, supermarkets are surreptitiously retiring those ranges, even as inflation and supply-chain woes hit people’s pockets in terrible ways, driving up demand for them is practically a political stance. Making sure store-cupboard staples, and nice things too, remain affordable is a necessity.

José Pizarro, TV chef and restaurant owner

Sainsbury’s Chickpeas, 500g, £1.20
“Always buy supermarket own-brand packets of dried pulses rather than brands. It’s the same with frozen peas (Tesco Petits Pois, 1kg, £1.40) or broad beans (Asda Freshly Frozen Broad Beans, 750g, £1.75) – go for supermarkets’ own over, say, Birds Eye.”

Nixe Sardines in Sunflower Oil, from Lidl.
‘Perfect on brown buttered toast with thinly sliced onion’ … Lidl sardines

Nixe Sardines in Sunflower Oil, 125g, 49p, Lidl
“We don’t buy in a lot of branded food, but when we do we are particular. Mustard has to be Colman’s, Worcestershire sauce is only Lea & Perrins, hot sauce is Tabasco and mayo is homemade or Hellmann’s. But we do love going to the big Lidl across the road, where everything is off-brand, and going on culinary adventures with crisps in a tube called Tingles and preserved fish from the continent. These sardines are perfect on brown buttered toast with thinly sliced onion, and a glass of chilled chenin blanc on the side.”

Winemaker’s Selection Fairtrade Paarl Chenin Blanc, 750ml, £5.49, Lidl
“Most fun at Lidl is the wine. They have nothing you have heard of, almost nothing over £10 and you rarely find the same thing twice so it’s completely pot luck, which adds to the adventure. We have had some really delicious bottles. The trick is to avoid anything with a vaguely familiar sound and go off-piste – unknown regions, new world, lesser-known grapes – so yes! to Moldovan riesling or South African chenin blanc. We have been pleasantly surprised more often than not, and when we weren’t, it was only a fiver … perfect weekday fun.”

Beefeater London Dry Gin, 700ml, £16
“This rather than Bombay Sapphire or Hendrick’s: delicious, straight to the point, no fuss and a better drink. It’s great in a negroni.”

Jacob’s Cream Crackers, 300g, £1.30
“These, and Carr’s water biscuits, over other, more premium crackers every time.”

Packet of Jacob’s Cream Crackers.
A classic … Jacob’s Cream Crackers

Ben Ebbrell, chef, cookbook author and co-founder of Sorted Food online community

Quixo Chicken Stock 12 Cubes, 120g, 35p, Aldi
“There is a huge price difference between using basic supermarket stock cubes and fresh stock. We used the Aldi stock cubes at 6p a litre, for example, compared with a fresh pouch from Borough Broth Co at about £15 a litre. In terms of taste I think the choice of stock cube makes very little difference, plus you can keep them in the cupboard and have them to hand whenever you need them. However, it’s important to remember the fresh stock does have a place when it’s much more the focus – for instance, in a broth-based soup – and has more nutritional benefits, despite being less convenient.”

Sainsbury’s House Dry White, 2.25 litres, £13
“Some people like to say you should only cook with wine worthy of drinking, but I disagree. I think it can be hard to tell once it is in a dish. We recently cooked a velouté using this wine box and another using a £25 bottle (UVC Chablis Premier Cru, 75cl), and our team struggled to tell the difference when blindfolded. However, if you are opening a bottle of wine to cook with and are going to be left with the rest to drink, I would personally use something more expensive so I can enjoy drinking what is left.”

Sainsbury’s Spaghetti, 500g, 70p
“I don’t think you can go wrong with using supermarket spaghetti in most dishes, and it saves a lot of money. All spaghettis have the same basic ingredient: durum wheat. It is generally how the pasta is cut that makes the difference in price and changes its texture – something that is not usually important for midweek pasta dishes.”

Jeremy Lee, chef and cookbook author

Packet of Sainsbury’s Pecorino Romano.
‘I use pecorino for all recipes that might call for parmesan’ … Jeremy Lee

Sainsbury’s Pecorino Romano, 170g, £2.55
“There is always a wariness when veering off the familiar path of tried, tested and trusted ingredients. That said, cooks are curious and forever on the lookout for other things, such as a bumper bag of peppercorns for cooking, so as to keep more costly, fragrant peppercorns for grinding over a finished dish. Choosing a pecorino over a costly piece of parmesan aids the pocket too. I use it for all recipes that might call for parmesan, either thinly flaked or grated fine. Or cut in shards to eat at the end of lunch or dinner, or a lovely elevenses. There are myriad pecorino cheeses, so tasting is vital and a splendid adventure.”

Gary Lee, head chef, Joe Allen, London

Waitrose Extra Virgin Olive Oil, 1 litre, £5
“I use this as opposed to other, premium olive oil brands when cooking – it’s just as delicious but a lot cheaper. It’s the best way to start and finish pasta dishes.”

Nick Wyborn, director of food, Incipio

Sainsbury’s Wheat Biscuits, 860g, £2.75
“A cheap and cheerful version of Weetabix, these have a rustic texture but a great, wholesome flavour. At home, I reach for them as a breadcrumb replacement when in need of a crisp texture. I like to lightly crush them before dressing with a heaped tablespoon of gremolata (chopped parsley, lemon zest and garlic) and finely grated parmesan, or to form a golden crust on fillets of fish. Equally delicious for breakfast with milk and yoghurt.”

Ximena Gayosso, head chef, Madera, London

Asda Olive Oil, 1 litre, £3
“Rice and olive oil are an essential part of my daily diet. As much as I like to use them, sometimes prices on the market for olive oil are very high. I was happy to find this alternative. Delightful and delicate, it is of a very high quality.”

Lidl Nero d’Avola Terre Siciliane, 750ml, £4.79
“My must-have when making anything spicy. Flavoursome and with a unique aftertaste, this red wine shows plum and red fruit flavours when young, with high tannins, medium acid and a strong body.”

Moser Roth Sea Salt Dark Chocolate Bars, 5 x 25g, £1.49, Aldi
“Aldi is the closest big supermarket to me and I really swear by this chocolate: so much cheaper than bigger brands, it strikes the perfect balance of salt to chocolate. I always keep some in the fridge and end my day with a couple of squares.”

Jar of Al-Rabih Tahini.
‘Fresher, smoother and more flavoursome’ … Denai Moore on Al-Rabih Tahini

Al-Rabih Tahini, 454g, £2.69
“Tahini is an important pantry staple for me. I buy mine at my local Turkish shop. As opposed to bigger branded jars in supermarkets, it’s always fresher, smoother and more flavoursome. I love to add a drizzle on top of oats, with torn dates and seasonal fruit.”

Natco Cumin Seeds (Jeera), 100g, £1.25
“Don’t buy those tiny glass jars (at Sainsbury’s, it is 22p per 10g). Instead, head to the ‘world food’ aisle in your local supermarket and grab an amazing-value sack.”

Tesco Tortilla Chips, 200g, 76p
“Not only are these cheaper than the branded version, they’re simply flavoured with just a pinch of salt, way more versatile and with none of those E numbers and strange synthetic powders.”

Dan Lepard, baker, food writer and chef

Belbake Cocoa Powder, 250g, £1.09, Lidl
“Rich and dark, this has great intensity and a reddish colour, so is great for dusting on tiramisu or adding to a chocolate brownie with the flour to punch up the flavour. I make a jug of hot chocolate (milk thickened with a little cornflour and cocoa, sweetened with raw sugar) to keep in the fridge and microwave when I want something chocolatey at bedtime that isn’t too calorific, but comforting.”

Jackson Berg, head chef, Barletta at Turner Contemporary, Margate

Aldi Brioche Burger Buns, 89p for four
“They deliver every time. Softer than cashmere and tastier than anything Paul Hollywood could make.”

Mediterranean Direct Spanish White Beans, 580ml, £1.69
“I am a huge fan of jarred (as opposed to tinned) beans and chickpeas. I find them to be consistently more skilfully cooked and seasoned, and creamier too. The fancy branded Spanish ones can be expensive so I scour my local corner shops for Spanish or Turkish jars that are half the price.”

Dunn’s River Coconut Milk, 400ml, £1
“I often use coconut milk in vegan desserts. I chill the cans, scoop off the creamy top, leaving the watery part behind, and whip the creamy bit to a pillowy fluff. I have found for this the more affordable Caribbean brands are best: they tend to have more stabilisers, which I usually try to steer clear of but for this particular use they are key.”

Bottle of Bacardi Carta Blanca Rum
Bacardi Carta Blanca Rum … Favoured by Luís Gonzalez-Castro

Waitrose Essential Mayonnaise, 500ml, £1.10
“We use this in our arroz imperial (a classic Cuban dish of yellow rice, chicken, mayo and melted cheese). It’s made with superior oils and it’s just so much better than the mainstream favourite.”

Sainsbury’s Tomato Ketchup, 680g, 90p
“Heinz might be the best known, but it’s too sweet for me. I prefer more richly flavoured supermarket’s own-brand versions. Perfect as a key ingredient in our barbecue guava sauce.”

Bacardi Carta Blanca Rum, 1 litre, £19.50
“Bacardi is a much better product than some of the posher and more expensive Havana Clubs. We use it for cocktails and desserts. The coconut rum is sublime.”

Judy Joo, TV chef and founder of Seoul Bird, London

The Foodie Market Smooth Peanut Butter, 280g, £1.15, Aldi
“I like natural-tasting peanut butter and this one is made with 100% peanuts. It has just the right amount of sweetness and, importantly, it doesn’t use palm oil. It’s great value at less than half the price of Meridian, and pretty much just as good.”

Nutoka Hazelnut Chocolate Spread, 400g, £1.09, Aldi
“I honestly can’t tell the difference between this and Nutella. Smooth and packed with two of my favourite flavours (chocolate and hazelnut), it works amazingly with fruit and homemade pancakes. My guilty pleasure!”