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Cook like a top chef

Whether you're whipping up a special meal or baking a favourite cookie recipe, it's worth springing for top-quality ingredients. As every good chef knows, higher-end ingredients elevate the flavour of any dish and won't break the bank.

To find out which ingredients are worth paying more for, read on.

Choice chocolate
Buying good chocolate is always worthwhile, and by good, we don't mean the low-grade, waxy grocery store brands or the not-actually-chocolate candy bars available everywhere.

High-end chocolate is additive-free and will perform better than its cheaper counterparts when melted. It also tastes better and should melt like butter in your mouth. It should break with a snap -- bendy, waxy or crumbly chocolate denotes filler vegetable fats, which just get in the way of flavour.

Look for chocolate with a high percentage of cocoa solids. For the dark stuff, cocoa starts at 52 percent and moves to between 70 percent and 90 percent for really dark chocolate; a good milk chocolate contains about 35 percent cocoa solids.

Each chocolate brand has its own style, regardless of bean origin. Europe is choc-a-bloc with terrific cocoa masters such as France's Valrohna, Swiss-made Lindt, Italian Amedei and Belgian Callebaut. Other best-bet brands include US-produced Scharffen Berger or Israel's Max Brenner.

Good quality bars ($8 to $15 for 500g) are comparably priced with cheaper supermarket varieties, so really, it's a small investment for a lot of taste. Visit a baking supply shop or gourmet store, where staff can direct you to some choice chocolate.

Worth its salt
It's time to set down the shaker and reconsider this basic of basics. Free-running iodized table salt, long a dinner table flavour enhancer, has been pushed aside for more varied flavours. There are hundreds of salt varieties available, from flaky Kosher to black Hawaiian volcanic salt and even truffle- or rosemary-scented salts.

If this all seems a bit precious, try these upscale basics. Start with sea salt, like La Baleine's Salins du Midi ($3.49 for 26 oz.), which is what's left behind when the sun evaporates seawater from shallow clay basins. It has a bright, clean flavour and tastes of the minerals found in the seawater where it is harvested.

French-produced Brittany sea salt carries flavour from the clay basins. Moist, unrefined gray sea salt like Le Tresor's Sel Gris de Guérande ($9 for 16 oz.), is best used during cooking and to sprinkle over a meal.

Its more refined cousin, fleur de sel, is hand harvested by traditional "paludiers" (salt farmers) in France's Guérande region. Like fine wine regions, different areas within Guérande produce salts with unique flavours and aroma profiles, like Fleur De Sel de Camargue ($9 for 4.4 oz.). A pure tasting salt with a whiff of violets, fleur de sel should be reserved for finishing dishes. This is one to sprinkle over a salad, an upscale steak or even foie gras.

Additive-free kosher salt, like Diamond Crystal ($7 for 1.36 kg), is best for everyday cooking -- it is saltier than regular table salt, with a coarse texture that makes for a satisfying pinch, and it dissolves beautifully.

Most grocery stores carry grey, sea and kosher salts, but try a spice trader or gourmet store for more adventurous varieties.

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-- Posted: Dec. 21, 2007
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