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How to Shop For Gourmet Foods

Shopping for gourmet foods can be very intimidating. Specialty shops are full of dozens of different brands of olive oils, cheeses, chocolates, sauces, and numerous other gourmet items. Many products have labels in a foreign language and price variations that make no sense to the casual observer. How, then, is a consumer to make any rational buying decision without spending hours of preliminary research? Don't despair. Here are a few easy tips to reduce your stress and better prepare you as a gourmet shopper.

Decide What to Buy. Start with a general idea of what you want to buy. Do you need truffle oil for a recipe or a sheep cheese for tonight's party? Gourmet shops are full of wonderful items. It's tempting to buy some delicious sounding Asian sauce or pickled mushrooms. More often than not, though, if you don't know what to use them for, that bottle is going to end up in the pantry for the next six months and eventually the garbage. Money wasted.
Do Some Research. If you need truffle oil, there may be only one or two brands available at the store. If you're looking for olive oil, however, there may be dozens of brands. Choosing just one can be nerve wracking. Lucky for us, someone has probably tasted most of those brands and posted their thoughts on the Internet. Find a reputable web site (this one is a good place to start) and use their recommendations as a guide. Remember, though, everyone has different tastes and what you like may be different from the writer. If several different people are recommending the same product, it's probably a safe choice as far as quality is concerned.

Decide on How Much to Spend. Your research should give you some idea of how much an item costs. Some products, like olive oil and chocolate, have different price categories. Know what you are going to use the item for and what quality you need. You probably would want to buy olive oil in a higher price category (say around $30) if you are using it to drizzle over warm slices of ciabatta or tomatoes and mozzarella. A lower priced selection, however, would be much more suitable if you were planning to saute with it.
Read the Label. There are several important facts you can get from the label. Make sure what it says on the front matches what's on the ingredient label. If you're buying hazelnut oil, the ingredient label should say something about hazelnuts. Even products from foreign countries should have ingredient labels in English. However, this rule does not seem to be enforced too strictly. 
Very important is the expiration date. Certain specialty items don't move very quickly on the shelf and may be past their expiration date. A reputable gourmet store will remove these items when expired. If you find more than one or two expired items, find a new place to shop.

Ask for a Sample Certain items that are sold by the pound may be available to taste. Cheeses and olives are often offered for sampling to shoppers who ask. If a store seems reluctant to give a sample to taste, find a store that is more consumer friendly.
Ask a Lot of Questions. The best piece of advice for gourmet shopping is to find a shop where the employees are knowledgeable about the products they sell. A good store will have its employees taste and discuss the products, so they will be able to make recommendations to you about taste and suggestions on the product's use. If you become a frequent customer of a particular store, good employees will tell you about the latest products, what's the freshest, and what's on sale.

Tips
1.    Look for items on sale. This is your opportunity to try products you wouldn't normally buy. Be sure to check the expiration dates, though. Some stores try to unload expiring products with sales.
2.    Compare prices of different quantities. Some items, like olive oil or chocolate, are cheaper if you buy a larger quantity. However, be sure you can use that quantity before it goes bad.
3.    Watch for tasting events. Many gourmet stores have tasting events where olive oils or cheeses are offered for sampling. This is your opportunity to try several different varieties of a product without paying anything. Cooking demonstrations might also give you the opportunity to taste a new product.
4.    Subscribe to the store newsletter. If the store has a newsletter, be sure to sign up. The newsletter will alert you to tasting events, sales, special products, and other important things that will increase your gourmet enjoyment.

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