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.


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