Bi-Rite Market’s Eat Good Food

I am of the mind that the process of learning how to cook should always begin with learning how to shop.

If you know how to select the highest-quality, freshest ingredients you can afford, and if you can organize your life so there’s time to stock your fridge and pantry with those, you’ve really won half the battle.

First in terms of cooking motivation — we all know the magical inspirational powers of vibrant produce — but also in terms of results: the exact same recipe and skills will yield an incomparably tastier dish if you’re working with the good stuff. (And in truth, the good stuff barely needs your intervention to shine.)

This is why I was thrilled when I received a copy of the just-released Bi-Rite Market’s Eat Good Food book, co-written by Sam Mogannam, who runs the popular independent grocery store near Dolores Park in San Francisco, and food writer Dabney Gough.

The premise of the book is right in line with this belief of mine: even before the recipes (ninety of them, from farro salad to pear skillet cake) appear, the authors take you on a detailed tour of an ideal market, aisle by aisle, explaining how to shop for this or that ingredient, what to look out or watch out for, and how to handle them properly once you’ve brought them home.

In the introduction of the book, the section titled “The Marketplace Manual” reads like the wise shopper’s manifesto, and had me nodding my head in enthusiastic agreement at every paragraph. From these five pages alone, I knew I was in good hands, and this was confirmed in every one of the subsequent chapters, as I was steered from the grocery to the deli, to the produce department, the butcher counter, the dairy case, the cheese department and the bakery, and finally to wine and beer.

It is all too easy for the twenty-first century shopper to become overwhelmed by the organic, the sustainable, the local, the seasonal, the artisanal, the heritage, the non-GMO, the grass-fed, the humanely raised, the line-caught, and the fair-trade. With so many adjectives to reconcile, it’s a relief to hear a voice that offers sound, enlightened, realistic advice, peppered with clever practical tips.

If you’ve seen the book, I’d love to hear what you think. And how about sharing the best food shopping tip you’ve ever been given?

Sam Mogannam.

  • I totally agree. Good cooking starts with good shopping. A good example are tomatoes in winter, sometimes they are just without any taste – you hardly get a good soup out of them.

  • I had heard about the book, but, now that I’ve read your glowing recommendation, I think I might just have to go out and buy it! One of the best shopping tips I ever received was at a paella cooking class when the instructor was showing us how to make aïoli; he said that if you sniff a clove of garlic and it smells like garlic, then it’s already no good. And although the rule doesn’t apply to everything (you want tomatoes to smell like tomatoes, after all!), I’ve been smelling things ever since, letting my nose lead the way, rather than my eyes.

    • I agree! Learning to incorporate the sense of smell in your purchases is a big one. Of course, that doesn’t work too well with the plastic-wrapped produce at some grocery stores. (Sigh.)

  • Andrew

    I just went there on Sunday and got an amazing sandwich from their deli and ice cream from their creamery. Then you go sit and have a picnic at Dolores Park on a warm sunny day :-)

    • I tried their ice cream just once, a couple of years ago, and still remember it fondly.

  • Great book idea! I have always loved grocery shopping, even as a child, I would volunteer to be my mother’s helper at the weekly grocery shopping expedition.
    Even now, whenever I’m traveling, one of my favorite things to do is to visit grocery stores. It’s almost as good as a museum. You learn so much from them!

    Show me a grocery store and I can tell you about the people, the culture and its values.

    Bravo to the authors…


    • Tina

      Diane, Clotilde, and Bi-Rite, thank you for giving me a new way to think about grocery shopping. Lately I feel dismay rather than delight when I “have” to shop. Instead of enjoying the bounty, I feel harried and overwhelmed. Now I have a window for changing that. Merci!

  • So excited about this book–now even more so from your great review. I love, love, love the sound of the format…I spent many a lunch break in my school days sauntering the aisles of the market. Yeah!

  • Crumbcake

    Bi-Rite is pricier than even Whole Paycheck. I wonder if they have tips on eating well and sustainably if one doesn’t have a six-figure income (aside from farmer’s markets).

    • Although there isn’t a specific section on saving money, the overall philosophy of the book is to focus on buying “raw” ingredients in season, which (in general) end up costing a lot less per meal — and satisfying more — than prepared or out-of-season foods.

      This is by no means a revolutionary concept, but the advice is more specific and better laid out than anything I’ve ever read on the subject.

      Also, the book encourages readers to “buy less and waste less,” which is definitely a piece of advice many Western households can stand to be reminded of: according to the authors, the average US household wastes 14% of the food they buy, and I’m pretty sure it’s not exclusively an American problem.

      • Julie

        Better quality ingredients – even dried beans make a difference. The store where I find the best beans, is the cheapest store. Organic meat tastes better. My family buys a whole or half animal for meat and uses the variety of cuts. This solution provides us with organic meat, at prices even or below what the supermarket takes for regular meat. These solutions aren’t for everyone, but we do it b/c it’s our priority and interest.
        I absolutely agree with Clotilde that the ingredients are key,and that finding the freshest foods at the right price point is a skill that evolves over time.
        As the mom of 4 children ages 10 – 3, I try to provide my family with the cleanest food I can at our price point. This means we eat alternative sources of protein at least 2 times a week.
        As for Asian cooking – I would think that though it’s very inovative in using a lot of things the western kitchen wouldn’t even consider – the backbone of most Asian cuisine is based upon very fresh ingredients. Perhaps much fresher than we could ever imagine.
        I enjoy the presence blogs like Chocolate and Zuchinni that offer me inspiration and invovation. I don’t live near the store in question, but I am interested in making the most of my own food budget – thanks for the book tip! I look forward to reading it.

  • kirsten

    Couldn’t agree more that the key to being a good cook is being a good food shopper! It’s not as easy as it seems these days and this book empowers me to feel I can do it well wherever I am.

  • As you said so well, it is very difficult these days — with all the adjectives you list — for a mindful cook to shop wisely and economically. I’ll be checking out the book. (Maybe the pearls are like some of my grandmas’s!)

  • I love that more and more people are understanding the importance of eating with what the seasons give us and eating locally. and I LOVE Bi-Rite Market! it is the IT spot to pick up a Dolores Park picnic or beautiful items to stock the home…..and the ICE CREAM….you cant find any better………..being in Melbourne now, you still cant find any better ice cream than bi-rite.

  • Joanne

    This sounds like a great holiday present for the young people in my life who are just venturing out on their own. My tip is about selecting melons. If you knock on it (gently!) it should give a nice thumping sound. The stem spot on the end should yield gently and you should be able to detect nice melon-y perfume right there. Anything over this and it likely too ripe.

  • lynh

    I think that what I like about this blog is that food doesn’t have to be disconnected from thinking – it’s ok to be seduced by beautiful produce, and better that than candy bars and other junk food?

    My best shopping tip is maybe from Melissa Clark – to choose tomatoes as taught as water balloons, and my mother – to choose melons based on smell. I wish I knew a good way to choose bell peppers – sometimes they are heavy inside and sometimes they are not – does that matter? Does anyone know if it makes a difference in terms of taste?

    (The garlic one is interesting….I will have to check harold mcgee on that). Thanks for sharing Clotilde, this book sounds great.

  • I so agree. I know that if I do my shopping at the Biocoop, we will eat well all week!

  • luosha

    i’m disappointed. here’s what this post sounds like:

    can’t afford gorgeous perfect produce from whole paycheck or a fancy farmer’s market? well then forget cooking, nothing you make will taste that good anyway.

    the sheer entitled arrogance of “knowing how to shop is half the battle” just takes my breath away. as if *the ability* to identify and procure the finest ingredients were the problem, rather than finding the time and money to devote to doing so!

    i used to love your blog, but there’s much less in it post-cookbook deal. and now, now it appears that it’s really only for rich people?

    bummed and miffed.

    • That is not at all what I’m saying, Luosha.

      I am talking about learning how to select the highest-quality, freshest ingredients you can afford, and finding a way to organize your life so there’s time to buy those. I am not saying either of these propositions is easy to implement, otherwise I wouldn’t stress the importance of learning those skills.

      Nowhere in this post do I dictate the kind of store or market where you should shop. Every situation is unique and comes with unique challenges, and I know better than to think there’s a one-size-fits-all solution for this. Compromises will be made, and perfection is not the goal, but why would you suggest that only the wealthy can or should learn how to tell the difference between good ingredients and lesser ones?

      I stand by my point: regardless of your budget, and especially if it is tight, choosing your ingredients well, i.e. making the most of your grocery money, is half the battle. If you feel this is an arrogant or entitled thing to say, then we can just agree to disagree.

  • Denise

    As a single person who’s not independently wealthy, this is crucial. My refrigerator is usually quite empty — I plan my recipes ahead and buy just what I need. I make the full recipe for 4 or 6, portion it off and freeze them and have the best lunches in my office :) I try to have a variety of things so I don’t get tired of eating the same thing every day. I have close to zero waste — and I can afford to shop at Whole Foods as a result. And, I’m really tired of the criticism of Whole Foods — they have some pretty good sales, support local farmers (often giving them bigger chunks of the profit than is the industry norm), and make all vendors adhere to strict -HEALTHY- standards. If you “work” the sales you can manage quite nicely.

  • luosha

    i do realize that you didn’t *intend* the message i ascribed to you … nonetheless i think you conveyed it. perhaps i just disagree with your assumption that what stands between mots of us and good food is *primarily* lack of practice at shopping effectively, rather than lack of cooking skills themselves, or lack of overall resources (time & money). perhaps i’m reacting to a condescension that wasn’t there, but it seems offensive to me that you would assume that people who aren’t eating as well as you are are failing to do because of *ignorance* (of the right way to shop) rather than other limitations. i would guess that someone who was trying to stretch their grocery budget would be a much more savvy shopper than someone who could afford to buy seriously marked-up produce at places like bi-rite … but of course i don’t have anything but my own observations to back this up. finally, maybe i just disagree that ingredients matter more than the skills that you bring to them. i always thought one of the most impressive things about lots of asian cookery was the ability to take less-than-stellar ingredients and nonetheless make something remarkable and delicious out of them. (in contrast to the one who “just uses great ingredients” … getting great ingredients is EASY if you have money … doing a lot with a little is hard, and in my opinion, more worthy of admiration).

  • Jennifer Reese

    This book is wonderful for the reasons you explain, but it is also full of superb recipes. I can vouch for the sour cream chocolate cake, the lamb meat loaf, the padron pepper poppers, the plum almond cake. Really a beautiful and useful new cookbook.

    • Caroline in SF

      The only recipe I tried from Eat Good Food so far is the one for Mujadara (lentils and rice). It was inedible, due to the recipe calling for too much salt (“1 tablespoon plus 2 teaspoons”). I thought it was too much salt so stopped at 1 tablespoon, but too late. It was very annoying especially after dicing 3 onions for the recipe. I am glad to read that other recipes are successful. BTW, I love Bi-Rite Creamery’s salted caramel ice cream. It is simply the best.

      • That’s too bad, sorry to hear that. Have you notified the publisher about this, and to see what the correct measurement might be? I know publishers and authors are grateful for this sort of feedback because it means they can correct any mistake in subsequent editions.

    • So glad to hear you had such good success with the recipes in that book, Jennifer. Did you publish a review of it anywhere? If so, I’d love to have a link if available.

  • I completely agree. Cooking starts with good shopping and preparation. I get excited planning out what to buy at the store so I have everything I need to make the best dishes! Love this post, looking forward to reading more. I’m glad I found your blog!

Get the newsletter

Receive FREE email updates with all the latest recipes, plus exclusive inspiration and Paris tips. You can also choose to be notified when a new post is published.

View the latest edition of the newsletter.