20 Expensive Ingredients That Are Actually Worth It

While there are a large number of foods that aren't worth the splurge, there are also a fair few food items that are well worth the extra exorbitant expense it takes to get them from the market to your mouth. Whether this increase in spending is because the food in question is extra delicious, extra rare to come across, extra sizable, or any combination thereof, there are a million and one reasons that a certain ingredient item can just about break the culinary cash limit ... but once and a while, splurging on a delicious delicacy, especially one you're confident about in terms of quality, can be a worthwhile investment.

Yes, it's entirely possible to make a ton of tasty treats out of inexpensive ingredients, but that doesn't mean that every single meal can or should be a variation of that $2 rice and beans dish you learned to make in college. Remember the saying: everything in moderation, including moderation. So, don't get so lost in the wallet lockdown that you forget to live a little every now and again by splurging here and there on a mouthwatering (if expensive) morsel. Your heart and your soul and certainly your palate will thank you, even if your wallet will not.

1. Real vanilla

When it comes to a simple flavor like vanilla, you can't skimp on the real stuff. And, in this case, the real stuff is expensive, but actually well worth it in terms of ingredient quality to cost ratio. Yes, it can feel like spending an arm and a leg to buy an entire bottle of authentic vanilla extract for baking cookies ... but it's important to keep in mind that one bottle of vanilla makes much more than a single batch of cookies. In fact, you could probably make a year's worth of cookies with a single bottle. That's hundreds of cookies with real vanilla flavoring, for context — which makes this ingredient investment a worthy one.

The same principle stands for the steep expenditure of vanilla bean pods as well, but keep in mind that this ingredient (and the money that went into it) is not meant to be consumed in a single sitting. And a single vanilla bean pod can go a very, very long way in terms of flavoring foods for months if not years to come. So, don't balk at the thought of putting down big cash on real vanilla beans. And unless you're trading the last family cow for a handful of magic beans (looking at you, Jack), then your vanilla bean purchase is well within the realm of propriety.

2. 'Nduja

For the salami lovers of the world who aren't opposed to spending a little extra for an ingredient that gives a little extra in terms of spice, spread, and va va voom, then the wholly unique Italian processed meat, 'nduja, is for you. Whether eaten on a perfectly toasted crostini, used as an add-in for an otherwise lacking recipe, or simply eaten straight with your fingers, 'nduja is just one of those food items that pays for itself in terms of quality and bang for your buck. 

And while there are a fair number of spreadable meat-food items out there, few if any can match the balance of intense but enjoyable flavor notes quite like 'nduja. And whether its expensive nature is due to the importation cost, the cost of production, or simply driven by popular demand, the simple fact remains that 'nduja is expensive ... and that 'nduja is actually worth the amount of money you have to put down to, well, put it down (the hatch).

3. Whole fresh Dungeness crab

There are two kinds of people in this world: those who know the joy of sitting at a table with a pile of napkins and a personal plate featuring an entire Dungeness crab, steaming hot and served with a side of crusty bread, fresh lemon wedges, and a dipping bowl of melted butter so good you almost want to drink it — and those who haven't, but should after reading just how worth the splurge these shellfish are. (Unless you're allergic, in which case, don't try this at home.)

Though Dungeness crab prices vary drastically by region and grow more scarce the further inland you live, they're still an expensive item for crab-loving coast dwellers as well. But this crab's popularity despite its price is a testament to its tastiness. And that applies to more crab recipes than just steamed crab dipped in butter with bread (though classics are classics for a reason). But between crab cakes, crab rolls, and crab wontons alone, it's easy to see just how good these pinchy creatures of the sea can be when prepared correctly. Fresh crab ceviche and crab cioppino are also excellent to have in the recipe repertoire to help make this expensive ingredient show off its best, most fresh side.

4. Fresh foraged mushrooms

For anyone who has yet to experience the thrill of a mushroom hunt, the cost of fresh-foraged mushrooms may seem a touch exorbitant. But, to the foragers who drove 300 miles on a Thursday to clamber up hills, down ravines, and through enough poison ivy to make a possible medical problem for later, the cost of those chanterelles ... well, it checks out. And that's not even accounting for the amount of research it takes to be able to properly identify wild mushrooms and the trees they grow with, plus the rain measurements and the seasonal differences by region and elevation, finding the fungi in the first place, and then keeping others from finding them for themselves!

By the time those fresh-foraged mushrooms arrive in your kitchen, they are just about worth their weight in gold. From the pungent, umami-rich coffee flavor of black trumpets to the subtle seafood taste of a wild lion's mane, there are few things that can compare to properly made mushrooms. Especially since many of the best gourmet mushrooms cannot be cultivated by man, such as everyone's favorite wild fungi: truffles. So, the next time you see a store stocked with fresh-looking foraged mushrooms (which will be firm and not at all slimy, by the way), be sure to grab a sample and see for yourself if they're worth the cost.

5. Iberian ham

Iberian ham, or jamón ibérico as it is called in its mother tongue of Spanish, is far from inexpensive in terms of ingredients you can put in your pantry — but this pork product's perfect balance of umami, savory, salty, and something more will have you overspending time and time again just for a taste. But before you commit to spending so much on specialized meat, it's important to know what makes this pork stand out from its competition.

First and foremost, Iberian ham is highly controlled and specialized. In much the same way Parmesan-Reggiano is a very specific cheese from a very specific region made a very specific way, and Iberian ham is much the same. The Iberian ham process begins with free-range pigs that are let loose to roam the hills between Spain and Portugal, feasting on acorns and their lives are generally abundant and abuse-free in terms of farming practices. This intensive Iberican ham procurement process results in a happy, well-fed pig that is then turned around to happy, well-fed buyers who reap the rewards of trading real cash for real quality.

6. Sea urchin

Sea urchin is, in many cultures, a delicacy that goes by many names: uni, in Japanese, or achinós in Greek. But by whatever name you call a sea urchin, it will still taste as sweet and be just as expensive. Though differentiating between sea urchin varieties can be a bit of a learning curve, the simple fact remains that they are small, spiny, and not as simple to collect as just swimming out to sea when you have a second to spare.

But the flavor of this seafood is what sets it apart from other oceanic offerings, specifically its savory, sumptuous, and somehow sweet flavor profile that brings out the best of its saltwater origins through a creamy, rich, and sometimes floral flavor profile. And if that sounds like a complex culinary composition, that's because it is, which is what makes this not-a-fish so expensive.

Sea urchin is usually served simply over rice or on a crostini with oil, vinegar, or a sauce, though some excellent chefs have found creative ways to utilize this incredibly delicate ingredient for interesting ideas such as sea urchin risotto. Rather than cooking this pricy seafood into the risotto, it can instead be added at the end for a still-fresh take on a hot and filling sea urchin dish. However you eat your urchin, just make sure to account for its subtlety and remember that it is considered an acquired taste.

7. Parmigiano Reggiano

There are a nearly countless number of parmesan cheese replacements on the market these days, but none of them can compete with the authentic Parmigiano Reggiano. This cheese is so specialized, so regional, and so quintessentially itself that its cost is completely in line with its quality. Honestly, you can almost taste this cheese's price tag just by watching a wheel of authentic Parmesan being pulled from its curing shelf and opened with specialized tools and skills ... and to see it crack and crumble in beautifully crystalized, nutty, not-so-creamy chunks in the process, well, that alone is worth spending some exorbitant euros, dollars, loonies, or otherwise.

The best part of this expensive ingredient is its inherent flexibility and simplicity since the complex flavor profile and quality backing authentic Parmigiano Reggiano is unlike anything else on the market, which marks Parmesan as a prime ingredient for simple and impactful cooking. So, shell out a little extra for your cheese and dinner can be as simple as boiling pasta and grating some greatness on top.

8. Bottarga

Before delving into the benefits of bottarga, it may be best to first explain what exactly bottarga is and why it is considered so good. For starters, bottarga is an ingredient comprised of salted and cured fish roe pouch. This fish product undergoes an intensive and highly specialized curing process before it is then sold at a high price and is typically grated over and into dishes to add a salty umami element that is often unexpected and appreciated.

Bottarga comes in many fish flavors, though many prefer tuna bottarga to other varieties for its (alleged) superior quality. And though bottarga of any kind can certainly cost a fair bit of cash, it is an ingredient that is well worth spending a little bit extra for an experience. This is especially true when you consider the cost-saving effects of bottarga, which (if utilized correctly) can be used to augment incredibly inexpensive meals that ultimately cost less with a well-placed fish addition to the dish. Steamed veggies, potatoes, and even low-cost seafood can be taken from zero to 10 out of 10 with just a sprinkling of bottarga.

9. European-style butter

Anyone who thinks they know butter has yet to taste the simple but divine pleasure of real European-style butter, served at room temperature with a side of authentic baguette, sliced longways with jam and/or jelly on the side. The flavor is ... incomparable. And though other butter is far from bad, there's a certain je ne sais quois when it comes to creamy butter from France, England, and other European countries that just take that extra step to make butter that much better.

And though there are a ton of fancy butter brands to choose from, the only important thing to know when spending extra savings on butter is this — unsalted European butter is better in terms of taste, texture, and probably preservatives than anything you can buy with a label that reads anywhere else on the atlas.

The only exception to this expensive European butter is better rule can be found in authentic regional butter, i.e. something farm-fresh that has mooed, been milked, and had its butter made within 50 or so miles of the plate you plan to eat it from. And when local butter isn't an option, just splurge for something that's been imported.

10. Guanciale

Guanciale may sound like a mouthful, and that's because it is — a delicious, delightful delicacy of an Italian cured pork jowl that's so good it could make a vegan question their moral convictions. But, vegetarian veto aside, guanciale also happens to be an exorbitantly expensive cut of meat that some uninitiated or uninformed foodies could very well pass up for less pricy pork products such as pancetta or prosciutto — even the best bacon can't compare to guanciale. But once you taste that melt-in-your-mouth flavor bomb that is a perfectly seared portion of guanciale, there's no going back.

Whether served up in pasta or as an augmentation to a soup or salad, guanciale changes any culinary game and takes it from good to oh my god. And that kind of quality, in this case, can be bought. So, if you're looking to impress your friends with pasta but don't know if you have the skills to do so, don't worry — just spend some cash on guanciale, an ingredient so good, you just can't fail when cooking with it.

11. Proper balsamic vinegar

Balsamic vinegar is easy to come by, but real balsamic is worth its weight in gold for a good reason. The simple fact of the matter is that a lot of people can go out and buy any old balsamic vinegar, and many more enjoy it in their meals at least from time to time, but that doesn't mean that any of these balsamic buyers can speak to the experience of real balsamic.

With a culinary cabinet staple like balsamic vinegar, it can be easy to get stuck in a rut of relying on cheaper choices because vinegar just doesn't come across as an ingredient that's worth splurging on. But nothing could be further from the truth, since it's often the most simple of ingredients that shine the most if bought at the proper expense. So, splurge on some proper vinegar, try some balsamic recipes, and enjoy the experience only expensive balsamic can bring.

12. (Extra) virgin olive oil

Olive oil may seem a bit pricey in the grand scheme of things, but it's well worth the cost to have authentic extra virgin olive oil all over your salads and so on. Like many oils found on the shelves at modern grocery stores, olive oil can and often is rancid by the time it hits your kitchen. By shelling out that extra expense to buy yourself yiayia (Greek granny) approved extra virgin olive oil, you open yourself to experiencing olive oil in a way many never will otherwise.

In order to justify the expense of olive oils, one much also address the difference between cooking olive oil and dressing olive oil. To put it simply, extra virgin olive oil is not typically used for cooking, which is a big part of what justifies its big price tag. After all, olive oil that is only used in salad dressings, over anchovies, or otherwise raw as a part of a dish rather than being utilized as the dish's frying element will stand in its quality much better than if it was cooked into something.

13. Rack of lamb

Lamb chops are one of the fancier and more expensive ingredients commonly found in a kitchen culinary rotation, but they're also one of the best. From the appealing aesthetic of lamb lollipops with medium rare meat topping beautifully charred rack bones, it's hard to go wrong with any amount of wallet drain due to delicious lamb. And, let's be honest, rack of lamb is a show stopper, whether the show is a dinner party or a high-stakes date with a dame or dude you've been trying to impress for a long while.

The best part of this well-worth the expense cut of meat is its versatility. From simply salted and charred over a fire to pan-seared lamb with garlic and all the way to crusted in pistachio and pesto crumbs after being cooked sous-vide for 14 hours ... long story short, lamb rack is a worthy investment in terms of impressive ingredients that will win over even the least intrepid eater.

14. Pine nuts

It's safe to say that pine nuts pretty much cost an arm and a leg these days, but it's worth that big blow to your wallet for a properly prepared pesto (toasted pine nuts included). Just imagine ... the flavors of fresh basil, pine nuts, and Parmesan-Reggiano, bursting across your palate like a flavor firecracker. Perhaps your pesto is possibly accompanied by a rack of lamb, cooked medium rare, or a simple Caprese sandwich with mozzarella and sun-ripened tomatoes, nearly bursting off the vine. Whatever dish you want to make with pesto, it's practically impossible to make a proper pesto recipe without pine nuts.

Yes, there are substitutions that can sufficiently scratch the surface of a pesto craving, but it would be an untruth to try to convince anyone that arugula and walnut pesto is going to entirely replace the real deal. And though pesto does technically translate to paste, which anything ground with a mortar and pestle can technically be, it's a touch pedantic to argue pesto unless it's who does it best-oh!

Pine nuts are what makes pesto pop, and the same can be said for their other applications — think salads, sides, and every other dish that calls for the almost spicy, entirely unique flavor of (toasted) pine nuts.

15. Suckling pig

When you see the price tag on a whole suckling pig and wonder if your dinner party is worth its expense, know that every single one of those guests will remember that party for some time to come. In fact, a whole suckling pig is such a singular item to see on a table in front of you that it just may become a memory that lasts an entire delicious lifetime.

For those that can move past the weirdness factor of consuming a whole pig, head and all, true tasty delight awaits. By cooking the entire suckling pig whole, the moisture of the meat is entirely preserved. It's pretty much impossible to overcook a suckling pig. Plus, all the drippings of fat and flavor are preserved within its crispy skin, and the meat within is nothing short of life-changing. And all that can be yours for the simple price of a little bit of cash. Especially considering how the complaint most often heard about pork is that it is dry (in texture and flavor), suckling pig is practically foolproof (especially with an apple in its mouth).

16. Chocolate/cocoa

Chocolate can cost a fair bit of change, but that doesn't mean that you should start counting cocoa beans like they're pennies — spend that extra bit of cents on real chocolate ... if you want real flavor, that is. Why is real chocolate with a good cocoa percentage important when considering your chocolate ingredients? Well, to keep it simple, it's something you can easily discern once you've tasted the real thing. And after you've had real chocolate, you absolutely cannot go back to the wax-filled, tasteless, overly-sweet, and often burnt-tasting imitation chocolates available in most manufacturers other than Willy Wonka and other authentic, expensive chocolate factories and companies.

So, before reaching for that premix hot chocolate combo, consider instead shelling out a little extra time (and, admittedly, effort) to make a hot chocolate that's worth sipping on a cold winters night in front of a fireplace with friends, family, and otherwise loved ones.

17. Wild salmon

Before buying the least expensive salmon available at your local grocer, it's important to consider one thing: why exactly is that fish so inexpensive? The answer is deceptively simple — that fish is probably farmed, filled to its gills with unhealthy and possibly unnatural feeds, and otherwise just a wholly inferior ingredient in comparison to wild salmon.

And admittedly, wild salmon is more expensive, but it's also as healthy, fatty, and full of flavor. And even though there are a fair few types of salmon to choose from, the most important thing to know in terms of quality cash-matching, wild-caught king salmon is, well, king. In much the same way you can tell Henry VIII from an English peasant, so too can you can taste a royally sumptuous slice of salmon from its peasant-like peers. Whether you differentiate your wild and farmed salmon from tail or price tag, you're bound to make the right call spending just a little extra for some ensured extra flavor.

18. Prime beef

Prime beef is just that ... prime. If you're in a grocery store's meat aisle, stuck choosing between a few cuts of cattle and just can't decide between saving a couple of bucks and shelling out for that pricey prime stuff, choose the prime. There may be moment spent second-guessing whether or not spending that extra bit of savings on an ingredient will really make a difference to the dish as a whole, but just buy it and enjoy the consequences later (with a side of potatoes).

Once you have that prime beef cooked up, cooled down, and cut up on the tip of your fork or fingers, you'll know you made the right call handing over a little extra for a little extra quality. The flavor will be better, the texture better, and the overall eating experience so much more with the money that you'll never consider the cheap beef cuts again.

19. Real maple syrup

Maple syrup is one of those ingredients where even a monkey could taste the amount of money spent in procuring the product. There's no in-between substitute for maple syrup — either you're eating the real deal in all of its rich, syrupy glory ... or you're eating flavored liquid sugar that's trying its best to be maple syrup in the same way a bad cover band is trying to cover Celine Dion. In other words, telling mock from real maple syrup is like choosing between a cheap imitation trying to hold its own against an icon.

So, the next time you see the price of a proper maple syrup, try to hold off from acknowledging that sticker shock, because those dollar signs are just about equal to their weight. This liquid gold is preferably served drizzled over waffles or pancakes on a bright and sunny weekend morning (with or without mimosas).

20. San Marzano tomatoes

When food lovers first start the process of trying to recreate a little bit of restaurant magic at home, it's industry secrets such as using San Marzano tomatoes that truly make the difference between home cooking and home cheffing. So many people make the simple mistake of buying whatever canned tomatoes are the least expensive, operating under the misguided but common misconception that canned tomatoes are canned tomatoes. But San Marzano tomatoes are much more than your run-of-the-mill tomato ... they're the premier sauce tomato on the market.

Sure, you can make a marinara with some basil-infused blend of who-knows-what breed of tomato and the results are probably going to be alright. Or you could invest a little bit extra in the real deal, the cream of the crop, the kind of tomato even Italian grandmothers write home about. And its ingredient intuition and inspiration, such as that one finds in the seemingly (deceptively) simple San Marzano, that takes a plate of pasta and makes it a plate of darned near perfect pasta.