Are They Chocolate Deprived?
Commissioner's Statement: January 6, 2006 Employment Report

The Economics of Recipes

Tyler Cowen and commentators wrestle with the difficult problems of the economics of recipes:

Marginal Revolution: 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.... 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....

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.... [I]t 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. Posted by Tyler Cowen on January 6, 2006 at 06:47 AM in Food and Drink.


on the blog thing - I know something about what I do to recipes I am about to distribute.... 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... and what I will do the next time.... --Dana

Cutting back on the amount of labor expended is a smart strategy, as at least in my experience the suggested preparation times in most recipes are unrealistically low. It always ends of taking a lot longer than you are led to believe. --Peter

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.... --James Grimmelmann

...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.... [C]ooking (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.... --unstablehuman...