Bittman Tells Us What's "Out" and "In" for 2009

Mark Bittman
(Photo courtesy of Omnivoracious' Amazon Blog)

On January 6, Mark Bittman offered readers of the Dining & Wine section of the New York Times his opinion regarding the "Out" and "In" pantry staples of 2009. My contributions to the world of writing about food are mere blips on the radar in comparison to Bittman's, so I was highly interested to see what he had to say. As with anything else, I'm never going to learn anything unless I begin to question what's already out there and to form some opinions of me own. I've documented my reactions to Bittman's list here.

OUT: Packaged bread crumbs or croutons

Instead, Bittman suggests making fresh bread crumbs and croutons. The idea of making fresh bread crumbs is really appealing because you can season them any way you want or make them from bread you have on hand. I made fresh bread crumbs for use in my Eggplant-Stuffed Mushrooms, so I hear what Bittman's saying. However, if I'm severely pressed for time, I'd probably still reach for my canister of packaged bread crumbs.

OUT: Bouillon cubes or powder, or canned stock

I'll admit it. The sodium content alone in bouillon cubes or powder scares me so much that I'll very rarely use it. With that said, I will also confess that I do have a package of chicken-flavored bouillon in my cabinet right now. The reason why escapes me, but I know that it's in there. What confuses me here is Bittman's stance that canned stock is "out." Especially since I was under the impression that there are some really great brands of stock and broth available in the grocery store these days. So, instead of relying on canned stock, I'm supposed to "simmer a carrot, a celery stalk and half an onion in a couple of cups of water for 10 minutes." Guess I'll have to try it before I knock it, right?

OUT: Aerosol oil

I definitely agree with Bittman on this one and have never really understood the appeal for aerosol oil. His suggestion to use a "hand-pumped sprayer or even simpler, a brush" makes so much sense. I realize that using a vegetable spray may seem like a good idea for people who are looking to cut calories or cholesterol, but you have to consider how those sprays are made, right? Not exactly natural, in my opinion!

OUT: Bottled salad dressing and marinades

I'm not sure how I feel about this one. For the most part, I make my own dressing at home because I like experimenting with different combinations of oil and vinegar. But I'm not exactly against using a bottled salad dressing as a marinade for chicken before grilling it off. In this case of this suggestion, I'd probably say to use bottled salad dressing and marinades sparingly and to make it fresh when possible. Though, I suppose I could say that about everything on this list!

OUT: Bottled lemon juice

Wow. I think the last time I used bottled lemon juice was back in high school when I convinced myself I'd look good with highlights. Yes, I used the lemon juice on my hair. The results weren't so pretty, so you can imagine where I stand on this one! ;-)

OUT: Spices older than a year

This makes complete sense. Of course, if left to sit unused, dried spices will lose their flavor and, in some cases, their color. Although Bittman recommends tossing spices that are a year old, I've heard that dried spices should be replaced in six-month intervals. Which is it? Sure, the "In" to this "Out" is the recommendation to use fresh spices. For me, that would be tough since I'm on a strict budget lately. But I can dream about the possibility of having fresh spices at my fingertips someday, can't I? Ahhh, what a lovely dream...

OUT: Dried parsley and basil

I definitely agree here! Fresh parsley adds so much to a dish, from a brightness you can taste (I should go into marketing) to a splash of color. And fresh basil? I love it!! I must eat a ton of fresh basil during the summer. Ripe tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, basil, and olive oil? Can't beat that! Plus, adding fresh basil to a tomato sauce is, in my opinion, far superio than adding dried basil. Whole new layer of flavor there.

OUT: Canned beans (except in emergencies)

Bittman asks readers to consider making the switch from canned beans to dried beans since they are "more economical, better tasting, space saving and available in far more varieties." While all of those reasons may be true, most people just don't have the time required to prepare dried beans before cooking. I know I certainly don't! I've only ever cooked with dried beans a few times, so I'm not inclined to forego the convenience of using canned beans just yet.

OUT: Imitation vanilla

I didn't need to read the New York Times to figure out that imitation vanilla is a bad idea. Bittman suggests vanilla beans, which I've always wanted to buy and keep in my kitchen but haven't been able to justify the expense given the limited amount of baking I do. This is something I'm going to have to get over as soon as possible. So, in 2009, I vow to bring on the vanilla beans! (Someone will have to hold me to that or I'll forget!)

OUT: Grated imitation "Parmesan"

Included in this "Out" are other pre-grated cheeses, and I have to agree with Bittman once again. While buying blocks of cheese to grate at will ensures you won't be compromising on flavor, it's also much more economical. And don't be scare if mold should start to form. Just scrape it off and continue using! (That's allowed, I promise.) Plus, you can get more bang for your buck by saving the rinds of the cheese and using them to enrich homemade soup. You just can't go wrong with saying goodbye to grated imitation cheese and saying hello to the real thing.

OUT: Canned peas

Rather than using canned peas, use frozen peas. I agree. Canned peas smell funny and taste like, well, the can. Better to go with the frozen version when possible, which should be on more occasions than not. I should note that Bittman extends this "Out" to also include other canned vegetables. Again, I agree. Except when it comes to preparing green bean casserole at Thanksgiving. For me, it's just not the same if you make the casserole with anything but canned green beans. It's a textural thing.

OUT: Tomato paste in a can

Is there anyone out there who can provide a reason as to why canned tomato paste doesn't come in smaller cans? Are there canning regulations that consumers don't know about? Because I can't remember the last time I used an entire can of tomato paste. I've been using Bittman's "In" suggestion, tomato paste in a tube, for years, simply because it just makes sense. Squeeze out what you need and then reseal the tube. Unless you know you're going to use the whole can, go with the tube. You'll feel better about yourself.

OUT: Premade pie crusts

Premade products have added value. Using a premade pie crust saves you time, so, of course, it's tempting to reach for it when you're trying to whip up a quick dessert. But making a graham cracker crust from scratch is so much better and it doesn't take all that long to do. So, if you can, follow Bittman's advice and leave the premade crust on the shelf in the grocery store.

OUT: Cheap balsamic or flavored vinegars

Apparently, what's "In" is sherry vinegar. Now, to be perfectly honest, I don't have that much experience in cooking with sherry vinegar. I'm too attached to my balsamic vinegar. But, if Bittman says sherry vinegar is "more acidic and more genuine than all but the most expensive balsamic," then I'm going to have to believe him. So, I'm going to interpret this snippet of advice to mean to get rid of any vinegar in the cupboard that's not on the more expensive end of balsamic vinegars or that's not sherry vinegar. Hmm... I wish I knew where he stood on malt vinegar. Don't think I could imagine eating French fries in the summertime without it!

OUT: Minute Rice or boil-in-a-bag grains

I'm sure we've all figured out by now that Bittman is advising against the convenience items. Rather than these quick-fix grains, he wants us to stock our pantries with "genuine grains," the ones that take longer than five minutes to cook. I can understand that. I used to be intimidated by rice because I'd always wind up overcooking it or undercooking it. Using Minute Rice was very appealing because I could rarely mess it up. However, I'm stubborn and I didn't want to always fall back on the Minute Rice. While I could have purchased a rice cooker and gone that route, I kept trying and eventually perfected my method of cooking rice. So, for now, no boil-in-a-bag grains in my kitchen!

OUT: "Pancake" syrup

Okay, for folks who are new, I'm from New England. "Pancake" syrup or imitation syrup is just unacceptable. There is nothing like REAL maple syrup. Aunt Jemima won't be offended if you abandon her for real maple syrup. Just the smell of the stuff brings back so many wonderful memories for me that I think it's more than worth it to have some in the kitchen!

While I've questioned some of Bittman's suggestions, it looks like I agree with his list for the most part. I don't see anything wrong with taking a shortcut here or there when necessary, but if you have the time to devote to cooking from scratch and/or with real/genuine ingredients, do it. Both you and your food will benefit from it!

I'm dying to know, how you feel about Bittman's "Outs"? Or about my reactions to those "Outs". So, leave a comment and share your thoughts!

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Justine said…
I completely agree with the syrup issue. I'm also from NE and only maple syrup will do.
V.Streit said…
Hmm. I dunno. It seems like his out list is about things that are already considered "out".

That aside, I agree and disagree with some of the list.

Aerosol spray: works great in grilling applications. It's quick and you get an even spraying.

Canned beans: I will always stand by canned black beans. It's so much easier than having to soak the beans then cook them.

I had no idea they made imitation parmesan.
Anonymous said…
Oh, sure, I agree that all these things should be "out"; but when and why were they ever "in"?
Shelby said…
well, I keep lemon juice in my fridge for two reasons make sour milk and to have on hand in case of emergency!

I also use better than boullion which is a concentrated broth base. I doubt I will change that.

Guess I'm "out"
Karen said…
I laughed that it's what's in and out for "2009" when I think 90% of that you could read in "How to Cook Everything"...which I just bought the 10th anniversary edition of for my sister.

I agree, canned veggies are the ick.
FOODalogue said…
Hey Michelle...thanks for posting this. Like you, most of these I already embrace; others give me pause to think like making my own croutons and breadcrumbs and others I'll probably never embrace like exclusively cooking beans from scratch. And I know I probably should get into the spice cabinet and halve it!
Totally agree with you! Some out Bittmans "Outs" seem so outdated...pancake syrup and imitation parm?...that should have been on the "Out" list decades ago!

I was a HUGE fan of canned stocks when living back I'm in Europe where it is nearly impossible to find...bouillon cubes and powders only (and I too have a pack of chix bouillon in my cupboard). So, I've been saving bones in the freezer and will slip them in while a soup is bubbling away and then just remove them. Does the trick.
HoneyB - Nah, you're not "out." I tend to just use fresh lemons because I buy a bunch for tea. As for the prepared v. fresh stock/broth, I'm with you. I'll stick to using the stuff in a can or carton until I have the time to prepare it myself. In a perfect world, I'd use fresh stock/broth all the time, but I know I don't live in a perfect world! ;-)
Styggiti said…
Lot's of what Bittman says makes sense. There are a few that I disagree with, however:

Packaged bread crumbs - I'll take packaged panko over homemade breadcrumbs just about any day. In fact, these days I use panko in place of just about all breadcrumbs. It's just that much better.

Bouillon cubes or powder, or canned stock - I make homemade stock whenever I can, but in the occasions when I don't have any on hand I use soup bases from Penzeys.

Dried basil - I'll take fresh any day, but when it's not available from my backyard I reach for basil we've preserved in salt. It's something between fresh and dried and it's absolutely fantastic.
Joan - I'm on the fence in terms of homemade bread crumbs and croutons. I like the idea, but I know I'd never be able to execute that idea every time I needed one of those ingredients!

And the beans? I think Bittman was trying to stress that we didn't have to rely on the canned beans if we prepped way in advance. Doing up a pot of beans, say, on a weekend and then freezing them in portions might be a better alternative to using canned beans. That is, if you have the time to devote to that.

As for the spices, I think we're all a little guilty there. ;-)
What a fun post. I have to admit, I do most the things that I should not. Not because I don't know better, but for the sake of time. (No excuse, I know.) I enjoyed your post, very much. I found you on the Foodie Blogroll.
Gastroanthropologist - I'm glad I'm not the only one who thought Bittman's "Outs" were a little outdated! But perhaps things like pancake syrup and imitation Parmesan are still popular in kitchens across the world?

I didn't realize canned stocks were so hard to find in Europe! I think your solution is best, though. Put those bones to work!
Justine - I think I'd get booted out of the "New Englanders Club" if I ever put the fake syrup on my pancakes or waffles!
Veronica - I agree with you. It really seems like Bittman was late in putting this list of "Outs" out.

In my current culinary world, grilling only consists of using my grill pan. So I use olive oil and make sure the application is even by using a paper towel to spread the oil around the pan. I'm sure I'd feel differently if I were dealing an outdoor grill or something a little more sophisticated than a grill pan!

I'm with you on the canned beans. The convenience they afford you is worth keeping them in the pantry. I don't know when I'd ever have the time to soak dried beans and cook them and portion them and freeze them.

And be blessed you weren't aware of the existence of imitation Parmesan. ;-)
Karen - Stephen's parents bought me the 10th anniversary edition of Bittman's How to Cook Everything for Christmas! I haven't been able to try any of the recipes yet, but I'm looking forward to rooting through it. :)
Styggiti - I'm actually surprised Bittman didn't mention anything about panko. I'm going to have to start using it more with an endorsement like yours!

And, um, can you air-mail me some of that preserved basil? :)
Lisa@BlessedwithGrace - Thanks so much for stopping by! I'm quite excited to be on The Foodie Blogroll now and I'm looking forward to meeting new bloggers!

And trust me, when time is against me, I fall back on a lot of the "Outs" that Bittman's trying to encourage us to move away from. Sometimes, you just need to rely on the time-savers!
Karen said…
Hopefully the 10th anniversary edition still has the banana bread recipe...I have the older book and the banana bread is to die for.
Karen - There is a recipe for Banana Bread in the anniversary edition, but I'm not sure whether it's the same. Stephen has the older edition at his house, so I can't compare the two recipes.
Sue said…
I think most foodies would wholeheartedly agree with that list. Of course, the ideal is to have tons of stock in the freezer ready to go, but it's nice insurance to have some cans of stock in the pantry.
Mari said…
I think the only things I do use on Bittman's list are bouillon cubes and canned beans, although I suspect that many of my herbs are older then a year old...tee-hee.

In my defense, the organic bouillon cubes I buy here in Holland have very little salt, and I only use them in a pinch, as I absolutely prefer to make my own stock. Instead of buying chicken breasts which are infinitely more expensive, I buy whole legs or leg quarters for dishes like stir-fry. Then I ask my butcher to de-bone the legs and reserve the skin and bone, so that I can make bouillon. The bones and skin of two legs will make about 2,5 liters of stock, which I freeze until I need it.

As far as the canned beans are concerned, I tend to buy canned chickpeas, but that's just about it. Making beans from scratch does take planning, but they do taste infinitely better, so I am in agreement there.

Good suggestions all in all, and probably more intended to help those who are less familiar with the simplicity and joy of making food from scratch, then those of us who are already in the know.
Sue - I agree. The ideal situation would be to have everything in your kitchen so you can prepare a fresh meal. And if that means going to your freezer to pull something out that you've freshly prepared yourself, then so be it. But I think you're right in saying that having some of the canned whatever-it-is in the pantry, just in case, is okay and probably preferable to having nothing at all should an emergency come up!
Mevrouw Cupcake -

"Good suggestions all in all, and probably more intended to help those who are less familiar with the simplicity and joy of making food from scratch, then those of us who are already in the know.

I couldn't have said it better myself! Thanks for commenting and adding to the discussion! And, have no fear, no matter what Mark Bittman says, I know I'll probably never stop using canned stock or canned beans. ;-)
Anonymous said…
I agree with your assessments more than Bittman's. Who wants to bother with dried beans, anyway?

A question on pie crusts: Why are people so afraid to make their own? And why does Bittman turn to graham-cracker crusts instead? Even if you make flour and shortening/butter crust, it takes approximately 5 minutes, plus 15 in the freezer (or an hour in the fridge) to make it easier to work with.
badcoverversion - You do get more for your money if you buy the dried beans, but I think canned beans are worth the extra expense since the canned kind saves so much time.

I'm not sure why people are afraid of making pie crusts. Graham-cracker crusts are super easy, so once you make one, you'll realize there was nothing to be afraid of. As for pastry pie crusts, perhaps it's the butter that intimidates people... If you're not used to doing something, the unknown is enough to be scary! ;-)
Angie - I agree with you that Bittman is reaching a bit far with his expectations for the average home cook. Most of us just don't have the type of time necessary to devote to cooking "fresh." Some things it would be great to make fresh and, if possible, freeze for later (i.e. stock). But some of the other suggestions are just unreasonable for my (and your) lifestyle.

Angie, I love your attitude! Stay true to yourself!!
Joie de vivre said…
I have to say, I don't agree with Bittman. People are going to be cooking a lot more at home this year (my prediction) even people who don't cook a lot. To expect the average home cook to make their own stock, boil their own beans, I think it's stretching.
Joie de vivre - It's interesting that so many of us focused on Bittman's thoughts about stock and beans! I think you're right in predicting that more people will be gravitating toward cooking at home this year and that most of them won't be going at it "from scratch."

What I'm taking away from Bittman's article is to try the fresh approach if the time is there. If you devote, say, one weekend per month to making the stock and beans from scratch and then freezing them, they'll be there when you need them. And doing that would be preferable to reaching for something that's been canned. However, if I find myself in a situation where using a shortcut would be more appropriate, I'm going to use it!