What does a recipe maximize?

Brad DeLong’s daring but unsound cinnamon gambit led me to wonder what a recipe is intended to do.  I see at least two possibilities:

1. A food recipe is designed to put you on the highest indifference curve possible, taking into account market prices and constraints.

2. A food recipe is designed to taste as good as possible, ignoring market prices and constraints.  Bring on the caviar.

Cookbooks by famous chefs are more likely to fall into #2.  The chef makes money not just from the cookbook but also from TV appearances, endorsements, and other ancillary products and activities.  You might resent having spent so much on the saffron, but if it tasted good you will praise and value the chef.  Few people will visit the restaurant of a man who shows you how to find cheaper potatoes.

Knowing this, how should you adjust recipes?  It depends on the quality/price gradient.  You could cut back on the most expensive ingredients, cut back on all ingredients, or perhaps add more spices and buy a quality of meat lower than suggested.  At the very least you should cut back on your labor input and take shortcuts.  This is in fact what most home cooks do, relative to the recipes they use.  You don’t really peel all those boiled almonds, do you?  Don’t feel guilty, just ponder the first-order conditions, smile, and gulp it down.

If you have a not-very-clearly-branded cookbook, you might be better off following the instructions to the letter.  They are hoping to make money from happy book buying cooks, not ancillary food products.  If the recipe is old enough, it is hard to predict the direction in which relative prices have changed, but at the very least wages have probably gone up.  So you are back to making adjustments and taking some extra shortcuts to stay on your highest possible indifference curve.

If the recipe is from a supermarket, cut back on the high-margin items.  Use more canned goods and less expensive cheese, relative to what is suggested.  (Hey, what about blog recipes?)

Lunchtime Pho with Alex contributed to these ideas; I enjoyed the food but I believe the restaurant followed #1.  I spent $6.45.  Comments are open.


on the blog thing - I know something about what I do to recipes I am about to distribute (yes, I actually change them before I give them out). I do a funny hybrid thing, now that I examine it - I rewrite the recipe to make the ingredients and directions easy to find/follow - then I provide a commentary on what I did differently than the recipe I originally received - and what I will do the next time. Guess I am thorough... and what am I trying to achieve? I want to feel that others find value in what I have shared - so I am minimizing their risks in trying my recipe. And trying to help them achieve the results THEY want by giving them some options (original recipe, my take and my future take).

For old recipes -- ones written when prices were higher relative to wages -- it may make sense to substitute upwards in the ingredient inputs. That marinara sauce tastes fine with canned tomatoes, but it'll probably taste even better with the organic farm-fresh heirloom tomatoes. In some cases, the upgrades have happened almost invisibly to the consumer/cook. When was the last time you bought grade B meat?

I think you've answered your own question: a recipe, like an article or blog post, exists in a context and reflects the intent of its author, whether it is to promote a product (as in recipes on the back of the can of pumpkin) or to simply reproduce a previous, favorable cooking result (my mother in law's cake recipe). So what the recipe maximises depends completely on the author's intent. Martha Stewart maximises for different factors than the author of a jail-kitchen recipe.

It is good to have at least one comprehensive, well-branded cookbook simply because most recipes will have seen some research and experimentation to create a quality product. If you want to understand the process of applying science to the process of cooking and baking to maximise for taste, I suggest a subscription to Cook's Illustrated magazine.

In evaluating and adapting recipes, there is also a difference between cooking and baking. Many cooks consider cooking (making a roasted chicken, or a marinara sauce for example) much more of an art form with the ability for wild improvisation, while baking is more of a science: a cake has a precise ratio of flour, water, eggs, sugar, butter (or other fat), and leavening for a reason, and varying arbitrarily from the recipe can lead to disasterous results. I would happily triple the garlic in a lasagna recipe but I would never dare to triple the number of eggs in a cake recipe.

In my opinion, for baking, it's best to find a source that gets you favorable results and follow recipes well. For cooking, I get the best results consulting a cookbook and a google search and taking elements of each recipe that I like.

Oh, and any cook will tell you that if you want to have food that tastes good, quality ingredients are absolutely key.

As for the receipe from supermarket, at least in Brazil, shampoos come with a suggestion for "washing twice for better results".

Textbook multi-attribute choice problem it seems to me. As such "optimal" choice will always depends on whose utilities are used.

Personally: always marginal value before marginal taste - less risk.

res saffron - if you go to a place like Seattle's Pike Place Market, there are three stores, probably more, selling saffron for $8.00 a gram, and a couple grams will do a lot of recipes. QN for the freakonomicists: Why do grocery stores charge outragously for small amounts of herbs and spices, go to any Mexican market, even section in the same supermarket, and get them for 10-20% of the price? Rob

Well, part of Delong's problem is using those old recipes. If he gets a current cookbook, the ingredients should be closer to optimal - at least relative to the income/preferences of New York foodies. He is spending a lot of time trying to second-guess relative prices from fifty-seventy-five years back - not a good use of his time, relative to bashing Bush in his blog.

I use Bittman a lot - both his first (How to Cook Everything) and the new one (The Best Recipes in the World) - he is generally pretty close to my priorities in trying to supervise homework and baths and cook dinner for the wife and kids in the hour and a half after I get home from work. He has some blind spots - he does have to hold his head up in New York Foodie World, after all, so he rarely if ever talks about crock pots.

Now, about old recipes: I got a genuinely old recipe for Hopping John once, wanting to do it for New Year's, and, when I got to the part about 'fry six slices of bacon in butter' - well, I knew the world had changed.

i really like the post it`s so special, keep in that way my friend

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