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How to shop at Aldi, according to a professional chef

Illustration for article titled How to shop at Aldi, according to a professional chef
Photo: Rolf Vennenbernd/picture alliance (Getty Images)

America suffers from anti-Aldi sentiment. The lack of recognizable brands and disregard for traditional shelving can be unnerving, and no one helps bag your groceries. Many shoppers never return, but those fire-eating few who care more about prices than ambiance quickly become devotees just like me. Unlike me, most other Aldi regulars are not professional chefs. It’s this fact that uniquely positions me (nay, begs me) to become an evangelist for the German grocery chain.

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To be clear, I don’t do all my grocery shopping at any one store. Aldi is where I fill my pantry with staples, or “background” ingredients. Elements of the foreground might be a carton of tiny, perfect strawberries from a farmers market, cuts of lamb raised by a friend, golden-yolked duck eggs from a CSA, or a trove of last season’s rabbit rillettes discovered while cleaning a fridge at work. I scurry home with small treasures a few times each week, and then fill in the background to make a meal.

In many ways, Aldi is actually geared to a chef’s efficiency-driven mindset. Fewer shelves means that less time and labor is spent restocking those shelves. The same is true for bagging customers’ groceries and wrangling shopping carts; using a cart requires a coin deposit that shoppers only get back once they’ve returned the cart to the corral themselves. (Although those light on change can supposedly use a house key). The speed of the Aldi cashiers would make a line cook breathless, and the store’s irregular selection demands that customers have a line cook’s flexibility. Aldi reliably keeps some basic products in their stores, but much of their inventory is temporary and location-specific. Smaller stores with less storage space are another way Aldi reduces overhead costs, though that means less inventory is available to customers. All of this means you shouldn’t enter Aldi with a firm recipe and a lengthy list of ingredients. That’s like betting that a dishwasher will show up to work on time. It might happen, but it’s a frustrating game to play, and one that’s likely to end with you elbow-deep in dishes.

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Here’s how I approach my Aldi shopping trips to gather the best possible haul with minimal headache.

Snack foods

Avoid the products attempting to replicate popular brands—they’ll always disappoint, because you’ll know exactly what they’re missing. Focus instead on the unfamiliar, like Aldi’s German brand Deutsche Küche, which translates to the clever name “German cuisine.” I always buy the Bavarian Sweet Mustard. It’s tangy and delivers the spicy punch that a mustard ought.

Dry goods, spices, nuts, and oils

There’s some faulty logic that says organic food is better than conventional, and if you want to make good food you must buy organic, and if you can’t afford to give Whole Foods your firstborn’s college fund then you and your food are simply bad. Well, even if you adhere to that logic, Aldi can still deliver. It offers a full suite of organic products including extra virgin olive oil, unrefined coconut oil, avocado oil, almond butter, flaxseed, raw honey, agave, brown sugar, coconut sugar, turbinado sugar, and more for a pittance. You can be a “good” person who eats well and has a college-educated child!

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At Aldi, everyone can afford to buy walnuts, pecans, and almonds by the pound. A classic Frenchy way to finish sauteed food involves browning butter in a skillet, toasting crumbled nuts, and adding salt, lemon, and chopped parsley. I’ve been known to give green beans, whitefish, and ravioli this treatment multiple times per week. You can also find unsalted roasted peanuts in the snack food aisle and toss them into stir-fry for added crunch.

All the spices at Aldi cost $0.99, and organic options are only a dollar more. Should I have saved that for the end? If you’ve abandoned this article and are currently hurtling toward your nearest Aldi location, I understand and urge you to remember shopping bags. And a quarter.

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Dairy and eggs

There was a beautiful week in 2016 when Aldi sold burrata at rock-bottom prices. It wreaked havoc on my digestive system, but I still daydream about the many gorgeous rupturing and oozing cheese blobs. When it comes to cheese, Aldi’s selection rotates, but there are a few standbys. Its Specially Selected Aged White Cheddar is every bit as good as Cabot’s Extra Sharp Cheddar at a fraction of the price, and Happy Farms Plain Goat Cheese is equal to the Trader Joe’s version, also cheaper.

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When baking or cooking with a large quantity of butter, I can’t afford to use the fancy cultured butter that goes on my toast. Luckily, Aldi’s butter sells for around $3 per pound. Cream cheese, milk, and eggs are also consistently the cheapest around. Aldi actually has to limit each customer to six dozen eggs. After I witnessed a cook unload a car full of Aldi food at the back of their restaurant, I’ve always assumed this limit was placed to ward off cookies like me who might turn to Aldi when a supplier falls through.

Produce

Stock up on onions and lemons. They’re essentials to most cuisine, and Aldi sells bags of each for a couple dollars. The quality and price of everything else is an unknown, so spend a little time evaluating. There are “local” items, but good luck tracking down an employee to find out more about those. I first walk through the department and hawkeye the prices. On my second walk-through, I scrutinize the deals and feel items for freshness. If you follow this method, you’ll either leave satisfied knowing you got the best available, or accompanied by a security guard who wants you to stop groping the vegetables and causing alarm.

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Wine

Seeing how much Aldi charges for wine may trigger bad flashbacks to youthful, moscato-induced hangovers. Don’t let this prevent you from browsing. Yes, Aldi sells some wine capable only of reducing you to an insipid, drunk adolescent, but sprinkled in among those are some respectable bottles that you can buy to pair with a nice meal. If you find something you like, savor it, because you might never find it again. Since there’s likely no knowledgeable employee to make recommendations and no brands that are remotely recognizable, selecting wine here can be a grab bag game. But since you’re spending less than $10 on the bottle anyway (there’s rarely anything more expensive offered), why not play?

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One more thing. Before you run off to Aldi, heed this warning: Snooty friends and family might make judgmental remarks and subtle digs at your shopping destination, but avoid becoming an Aldi apologist. Be an Aldi enthusiast. There’s a difference, after all, between being thrifty and being cheap. One connotes a lack of generosity, while the other suggests something more scrappy and perseverant—two adjectives that could describe many a chef.

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DISCUSSION

ubercultute
uberculture

It’s funny, when Aldi first showed up in our area, the produce was awful. I’m tempted to say it’s the best produce in town at this point. They’ve really stepped up the quality of it. I also can attest to the Deutsche Küche brand.  I’m partial to the Jaffa cakes and the frozen spaetzle.