What makes a food luxurious? Scarce foods such as truffles usually make the grade, as do foods that are complex to produce, such as saffron. One common feature shared by just about all luxury foods is their high price. It's possible, though, to find delicious substitutes for the original. Unless you're a die-hard foodie, with the gustatory equivalent of perfect pitch, you may not be able to tell the difference.
For many people, caviar is the definition of a luxury food. The deep, rich, salty roe is harvested from beluga sturgeon in the Caspian Sea, and is famous for its flavor and its eye-popping price. While imports to the United States are now banned to protect the endangered sturgeon, its common substitutes are still very expensive. Osetra caviar, from a different kind of Caspian sturgeon, is nearly $500 for a 4.5 ounce tin. But there are many other kinds of caviar to choose from, some of which are highly rated by connoisseurs. Costco sells a Bulgarian Sturgeon Caviar in a 2-ounce can for about $110, and many reviewers on Amazon like Roland Black Caviar, which is less than $7 for 2 ounces.
Foie gras is made from the liver of specially fattened geese or ducks. It is a luxury both because it is hard to make and because the product is extremely rich – it's about 80 percent fat. Most foie gras is sold in restaurants, but D'Artagnan sells 5-ounce pieces for $27. A good substitute is a foie gras pate or mousse, which can be found at many specialty stores or online for about $16 a half pound.
Truffles are a kind of fungus found mostly in Europe but now grown in the United States as well. They grow underground and are located by special truffle-hunting pigs or dogs. Scraped or shaved onto meats, omelettes, and soufflés, they impart a rich earthy flavor. Scarcity is the reason you'll pay $95 for a 1-ounce truffle. For a cheaper substitute, try truffle oil, which has much of the flavor of truffles without the sky-high price. Williams-Sonoma sells a 3.38-ounce bottle of black truffle oil for $19.95.
Wagyu is a Japanese breed of cow, pampered from birth and bred for its distinctive marbling. True Kobe beef is produced from Wagyu cows from the Hyogo prefecture, and processed according to the rigid standards of the Kobe Beef Marketing and Distribution Association. In the United States, you can order Kobe beef in restaurants, but if you want to cook at home, it will cost more than $1,000 a pound. However, some Wagyu cattle is raised in America, and while the domestic version costs upwards of $100 a pound, it's a lot less than the original.
King crab, caught off the coast of Alaska, is succulent, sweet, and expensive. Red King crab is considered the best of all, and the legs are the most desirable part. King crab legs, which can weigh about a pound apiece, come frozen and can be thawed and eaten cold, steamed, or grilled and dipped in melted butter. They cost about $50 a pound. A highly satisfying alternative is snow crab legs, which are smaller but just as tasty to anyone but a crab leg fanatic. The largest snow crab legs can be had for less than $20 a pound.
Though more common and less expensive than it used to be, lobster is still a luxury food for many diners. If you order lobsters from Maine and have them shipped overnight, they will cost about $25 a pound, plus shipping. But you can often buy them at your local supermarket for a lot less, as low as $14 a pound.
This delicacy comes from western Spain, where black pigs are fed a diet of nothing but acorns. The free-range pigs are fattened slowly, unsullied by other foods or earthly cares. The ham is cured for a long time and has a rich red color and nutty flavor that connoisseurs love. Due largely to the care taken in raising and curing the meat, three thinly sliced ounces cost close to $50. A similar product is Jamon Iberico. The diet of the pigs is somewhat different, as is the curing process, but the ham has a distinctively Spanish flavor nevertheless. The price is less than $15 for a 3-ounce package.
The most gourmet of gourmet bakers swear by Tahitian vanilla, easily the most expensive kind of vanilla flavoring. Tahitian vanilla pods are fat and moist, and their flavor is floral and nuanced. It costs $35 for an 8-ounce bottle. As an alternative, Madagascar vanilla has a rich, smooth vanilla flavor and costs $20 for an 8-ounce bottle.
Saffron is one of the most expensive spices. It is made from the hand-picked and dried stigma of a particular kind of crocus that blooms for only a few weeks a year in temperate climates. The stigma are red in color, with yellow toward the bottom where they attach to the flower. One gram of saffron contains the stigma of about 450 crocuses. The most expensive saffron is usually from Spain, Iran, or India. The good news is that even a little goes a long way, because most recipes call for only a few threads. It will last for years if kept away from heat, light, and humidity. Good quality saffron can cost over $250 an ounce, but you can find good quality Spanish saffron at Costco for about $160 an ounce.
This is the crown jewel of the whiskey world. Single malt Scotch must be made from malted (fermented) barley in a single distillery located somewhere within Scotland. One of the most widely admired single malt scotches is The Macallan. Its 18-year-old sherry-casked scotch is rich and smooth, with hints of caramel and spice. Unfortunately for scotch lovers, it costs more than $200 a bottle. However, part of what you are paying for is the name, and you can experience a similar single malt scotch for less than half the price with Glendronach 15-year-old Revival. It, too, is aged in sherry casks and is rich, spicy, and smoky on the palate. (For more on good cheap whiskeys, see our guide to the 12 best whiskeys under $35.)