Every once in a while, you find a hapless, bewildered person wandering through the grocery store. Perhaps that person is you.
You’ve been sent out to pick up something unusual for a new recipe or some kind of produce you’ve never laid eyes on, much less judged through the knocking/squeezing/smelling process.
Fear not. This incomplete and arbitrary guide based on random anecdotes is here to help.
Lettuce vs. Cabbage
When I was a kid my father had to feed us when my mother was visiting family. One day we ended up having a raw cabbage salad. I don’t recommend it.
This is a cabbage. It has very tight, somewhat waxy, light green, leaves. Cabbages are dense and feel somewhat heavy for their size.
Iceberg lettuce looks similar to cabbage except it should not feel waxy and the leaves are more delicate and thin without pronounced veins. It is much less dense and feels light for it’s size.
When in doubt, just buy romaine lettuce. It has more vitamins than iceberg lettuce anyway. This is what romaine lettuce looks like.
All fresh leafy greens can be found in the produce section, normally refrigerated and occasionally spritzed.
Cucumber vs. Zucchini
If you’re not in the U.S., zucchini is also called a courgette because why not make things more difficult?
(Pedantic aside: Actually, zucchini’s etymological base is from Italian and courgette’s is from French.)
Zucchini is delicious grilled, fried, or sautéed in ribbons. Cucumber is usually eaten fresh or pickled. Both can be found in the produce section, and both make you feel vaguely uncomfortable at checkout if you also need to buy hand lotion.
Zucchini is somewhat angular and has a woody stem on one end.
This is a zucchini.
Cucumber is rounder with small bumps and is generally stemless in the store.
This is a cucumber.
They’re like onions but much smaller, ovoid, and with a brownish red papery skin. You normally can find them in the produce section in the bins by potatoes and onions.
These are shallots.
These are pearl onions, which are bright white and have a stronger flavor than shallots. They are not interchangeable.
I don’t know why a stranger asked me about scallions instead of a store employee, but I saw desperation in his eyes. Dude just wanted whatever the hell scallions were so he could leave.
While scallion refers to a family of onions, it’s generally fine to consider scallions and green onions synonymous. They’re a little thicker than a pencil and have a white base and green stalks.
These are scallions.
They are usually in the produce section near leafy greens.
Parsnips look like big carrots that are so terrified the color drained from them. They’re probably next to the whole carrots sold in your grocery store. Since parsnips are more of a niche item sometimes they’re displayed by the fancy organic produce.
These are parsnips, or as one man called them after an exhaustive search, “motherfuckers.”
Cream of Tartar
Moving out of the produce section, cream of tartar is not a cream, not related to tartar sauce, and does not derive from the tribal Tartars. It is a byproduct of wine making that is purified and used to stabilize egg whites for things like meringue.
A friend of mine went through the whole soup aisle several times looking for cream of tartar. This is the wrong place to look.
You’ll usually find cream of tartar in the spice section of the baking aisle.
This is cream of tartar.
If you’re learning to cook non-Western food, you’re going to be exposed to new condiments like tahini sauce, fish sauce, black bean paste, and more. Frankly, your best bet is to go to a local ethnic grocery store that matches what you’re setting out to make. (Tahini sauce is Middle Eastern for the record.)
However, more grocery stores are starting to have a catch-all not-American aisle that is called “International,” “Asian/Mexican/British,” “World Foods,” etc.
Start in this aisle for those condiments, and if you can’t find them there, try the official condiment aisle. If neither aisle has tahini sauce, you probably need to search a different store.
This is tahini sauce.