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A Common Problem

August 9, 2012

Let’s face it.  We’re all a little bit lazy sometimes, especially when it comes to cooking.  How many times have you opened the fridge door, poked around inside, and tried to cobble together a recipe on the fly with the ingredients before your eyes.  Usually, in disgust you’ll close the door only to re-open it again five minutes later hoping that the mythical fridge gremlins have restocked your refrigerator with better items.

The new KitchenPC will attempt to help people facing this problem with a feature that allows users to search for recipes that use only “common ingredients.”  What can we make out of the ingredients an average household is likely to have on hand?  Now, the only question is what is a common ingredient?

I asked a few potential users how they would define common ingredients and, of course, got differing potential answers.

My vote is for eggs and stuff you have on hand.  I don’t want to go to the store in order to make dinner tonight! – User A

Common to me is anything you can buy at a local grocery store. – User B

So, there are two trains of thought on the subject.  The first is that common means “I’m likely to already have it.”  These are the people who might see the feature as allowing them to search for recipes they can make right now, without having to put on pants.  The second meaning is more analogous with a common name.  A common ingredient is one that the average person is familiar with.  You could find it in a grocery store within a minute or two, and you don’t have to look it up on Wikipedia first.

One can assume the first definition is a subset of the second.  An ingredient the average person has in their cupboards is most likely one that they’ve actually heard of, otherwise what on earth is it doing in their cupboard?  However, though even the chef with the most basic culinary vocabulary is familiar with a watermelon, how likely are you to have one sitting on your kitchen counter right now?

Possible Solutions

By now, it should be obvious that there is no black and white definition of ingredient commonality.  It means different things to different people of different cultures, backgrounds and dietary preferences.  Which leads me to believe that it’s more useful to use a sliding scale rather than a Boolean value.  Salt is the most popular ingredient on KitchenPC, and almost every single reader has some in their kitchen right now.  This ingredient should have a very high commonality rating.  Milk and eggs would probably be right up there as well, but not everyone consumes dairy and not everyone keeps eggs on hand at all times.  Goose liver would of course be towards the bottom of the scale.

Using the average score of the combined ingredients, it would be possible to score an entire recipe as well.  From this average, I could most likely determine how likely it is that you could make a given recipe without having to go to the store, or even how likely it is for such a trip to be an easy excursion, without you having to make a side trip to an exotic meat shop.  Results could even be shown in order of commonality, with those containing the most common ingredients at the top of the list.

Does Common Mean Popular?

While it would be possible to go through the entire KitchenPC ingredient database and come up with a score for each one, perhaps there’s a better way.  One hypothesis would be that there exists a correlation between how common an ingredient is with how many recipes it’s used in.  Having well over 50,000 recipes in the database now, I’m in a pretty good position to test this.  So let’s look at the top 20 most used ingredients in the KitchenPC database:

  1. Salt (28,016 Recipes)
  2. Granulated Sugar (25,389)
  3. Eggs (24,707)
  4. All-Purpose Flour (21,386)
  5. Salted Butter (17,782)
  6. Vanilla Extract (14,091)
  7. Water (11,345)
  8. Black Pepper (9,920)
  9. Baking Powder (9,766)
  10. 2% Milk (9,174)
  1. Light Brown Sugar (9,031)
  2. Baking Soda (8,711)
  3. Ground Cinnamon (7,316)
  4. Garlic (6,526)
  5. Onions (6,255)
  6. Vegetable Oil (5,860)
  7. Olive Oil (5,807)
  8. Powdered Sugar (4,726)
  9. Unsalted Butter (4,436)
  10. Lemon Juice (4,399)
See Top 1,000 Here

Looking at this list, do you have most or all of these ingredients in your kitchen right now?  At any one time, are you more likely to have one of the higher scoring ingredients in your kitchen?  I’d say in general, this holds true for me.  I always have salt and sugar on hand, I usually have eggs, I often have onions, and only occasionally have any lemons to juice.

With this said, I think it would be reasonable to use this trend data within KitchenPC to figure out a score for each ingredient.  It would certainly be faster than going through each one by hand.

Then What Is a Common Recipe?

Obviously, a recipe’s average ranking on the list above would indicate how common that recipe was.  The recipe, “Big Bowl of Salt” would of course be the most common recipe ever.  However, we still need to define what is and is not a common recipe, as the search interface is simply a check box.  This most likely means we need to choose a maximum ranking for ingredients used in that recipe.  For example, if a recipe contains any ingredient with a score over x, that recipe can’t be common.  Even if this recipe calls for “Salt, Sugar, Eggs and alligator tail”, it simply cannot be considered a common recipe.

The good news is that this cut-off point can be tailored as the database grows and changes.  Users don’t want to be flooded with thousands of results, but if this number is set too low, that might be just as bad.  How many recipes can you make with the top ten list above?  Not many, though this is perhaps a great time to share one of my favorite breakfast recipes.

Thoughts?

I’d love to get some feedback on how the “Show Common Recipes Only” feature should work, and what you’d expect to get out of it.  Am I on the right track, or is this feature completely useless?

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