The better the ingredients, the more delicious the dish. Starting with the essentials, we held taste tests in search of the best. Some of the winners are surprising bargains. Others are what we call affordable splurges. All are worth it. These are the ingredients you'll always find in our kitchens, and we hope you'll find them indispensable in yours.

Olive Oil

The best oil is balanced -- not too acidic or peppery, just fruity and nuanced. We like M. Barbera & Figli Olio Extra Vergine di Oliva, which has character but doesn't dominate dishes. $18 for 16.9 oz.,


Transcending ideals of light and sweet or burnt-caramel dark, Rare Hawaiian Organic White Honey has a rich floral creaminess flecked with minute sugar crystals. $15 for 8 oz.,


The dark horse in our taste test -- we expected a European style to win -- was Kate's Homemade Butter, made in Maine. The sea-salted variety tastes pure and delicately sweet. It's everything a freshly churned butter should be. $3 for 8 oz., available at select Whole Foods stores


Valrhona's Dutch-process formula gives baked goods a mellow, deep-chocolate flavor and makes the best cup of hot cocoa. $14 for 8.8 oz.,

Maldon Salt

Chefs swear by a last-second sprinkle -- on roasts, fish, and cooked greens -- for a delicate crunch and a savory boost. $10 for 8.5 oz.,


Tahitian vanilla is subtle, but so light that it fizzles once heated. Madagascar vanilla beans stand up to cooking and have a lovely, warm flavor.

The Best Source

Buying vanilla beans in bulk is a great value. Beanilla Trading sells beans, extracts, and powders from around the world, in a variety of quantities. Madagascar beans, $13 for 10,


Bars of French Valrhona milk (39 percent cocoa) and dark (61 percent) chocolate have superior flavor and performance in baking. $13 for 8.8 oz.,

Sea Salt

What Maldon offers bold dishes, fleur de sel (a salt with finer crystals and more minerals) gives to delicate foods and salty-sweet confections, such as salted chocolates or caramels. Le Saunier de Camargue is our pick. $9 for 4.4 oz.,


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