Cook Italian gourmet on a budget

Cook Italian gourmet on a budget by keeping a few simple tips in mind.

Individual panacotta on a white plate

Panacotta

Close up of cannelloni al forno
Detail of Italian vegetable pizza
Close up of Sicilian caponata sauce.

Spaghetti and meatballs is always a great way to cook Italian style meals, but as-is, it is not exactly considered gourmet. Cooking gourmet Italian on a budget means doing things a little differently around your house at dinner time. There are a few things you need to do to switch up basic Italian cooking for gourmet Italian cooking. Let's take a look at some ideas for cooking Italian gourmet within a tight budget:

Take the time to cook

Believe it or not, you will not find a little lady in Italy cooking an entire meal in under thirty minutes. And no, you won't hear a “ding” coming from a microwave before a gourmet Italian meal is served. You would be surprised at the difference it makes in the taste of the meal when you actually take the time to cook a meal from scratch – just like authentic Italian cooking is done in Italy.

Flavors develop over time and if you are just reheating something previously flash-cooked, you will not get the true gourmet flavors you are trying to achieve. In a tomato sauce, for instance, the spices you use are fully developed in the acidity of the tomato. Once broken down or developed, the oils in the sauce become enhanced with the flavor of the spices and infuse throughout the dish. Because you take the time to actually cook the dish correctly, you get an entirely new flavor than you would if you rushed the process.

Several techniques, like toasting seasonings and nuts, as well as crushing herbs and spices, take time, and are done for a reason. Infusing oils with seasonings and herbs is another technique you'll find in Italian cooking that takes planning and time. Again, there is a reason for these steps, and the proof is in the flavor. Time taken for these methods can make the difference between basic dishes and gourmet meals.

Learn about the culture

Okay, so you are asking what the culture has to do with cooking gourmet Italian. That is a great question. And the answer might surprise you a bit.

Technically, learning about the culture makes absolutely no physical difference to the dish itself. Nope, none. If you tried the dish before learning about the culture and after, the results would be the same. Except, studies have shown that people who throw themselves into another culture begin to pick up on the slight variations and derivations in cuisine. By learning about the culture, you are effectively changing the taste of the dish in your mind, and raising your expectations.

By immersing yourself in the culture, you will begin to gain a better understanding of why certain ingredients are used in the region. You will begin to look for these ingredients more prominently in your own cooking. The reasons ingredients became prevalent in a culture or region usually has a story, and that story adds to the flavor of the dish, both physically and emotionally.

Learn which ingredients you can skimp on

There are some ingredients that take a regular dish to an outstanding level. These are the ingredients where quality matters most. When you learn what ingredients are most important to the gourmet appeal of a cultural dish, you will pay a little extra for that, while skimping on other, less dramatic ingredients. Not only will your dishes be superb, but you will also pay less than trying to go all out on all of the products.

In Italian cooking, there are some basic ingredients you can usually skimp on in price. These items often include dried spices and most grains. Depending on your area, many times frozen or canned produce are a wise choice rather than buying fresh produce, which may not be that fresh in your area.

On the other hand, the ingredients most Italians seek quality in is olive oil, pasta, and breads or doughs. There is a definite benefit to choosing the best available quality in these foods. Not all olive oils are created alike, and there are varieties to consider for different dishes. Pasta, when made properly, takes a special touch, and these gourmet pasta products make all the difference in a proper Italian pasta dish. So, spend your money wisely, where it matters most, and save on the less fussy ingredients.

Get the results

When you attempt to take your Italian dishes from ordinary to gourmet, your meals will turn out more like the ones made in the Italian bistros and less like the ones in the freezer section when you use these basic suggestions. All you need is keeping a few tips in mind. Gourmet Italian cooking doesn't require a cooking class in Tuscany, but it does require some smart choices in technique and ingredients.