We don’t think they matter, but added up over time and cumulatively with other not-so-savvy choices we make with our money, they can have a definite impact on our bottom line.
And even very smart people can be taken in by marketing ploys and enticed to spend more than they should.
A case in point occurred recently in my family. My husband – who is one of the most intelligent people I know -- was cooking a meal using a new recipe he’d found on-line.
Now, he happens to be a wonderful cook, and the recipe was in fact delicious (although more complicated than I personally like - I'm a much lazier cook than he is).
But he was doing the work, so I sat back and enjoyed the meal thoroughly.
I knew immediately that my husband had been the victim of what I call “hidden” advertising. It is pervasive in today’s culture – a constant promotion of products that is so subtle sometimes that we are completely unaware it’s going on.
When Recipes Call for Pricey, Unnecessary Ingredients
In this case, he’d seen the very specific listing for “sea salt” in the ingredient list of the recipe and had assumed that the ordinary version of salt simply would not suffice for the recipe to turn out right.
The little marketing gimmick worked, and the result was one more consumer erroneously believing that very expensive, “natural” sea salt must possess some flavor properties that are essential to food enjoyment.
Without boring anyone with a lesson on the chemical nature of salt, let me simply say that that salt is salt. All forms of it used in cooking - plain old NaCl, or sodium chloride - share the same essential chemical properties, and thus the same flavor properties.
That also means they all dissolve in pretty much the same way into whatever you are cooking. Once it’s blended in the food, I can guarantee that nobody would be able to determine the difference in a blind taste test.
Let me restate that clearly: sea salt does not actually add any more flavor to a meal recipe than regular table salt does.
Yet it costs 4-15X more! And since salt is something most of us use every day, if you have a family, that’s several dollars added to your bill without you even noticing it.
The same goes for kosher salt. You can find it frequently listed quite specifically in recipes, as if its presence or absence will noticeably affect the flavor.
(As an aside, all salt is inherently kosher. The real reason kosher salt is called kosher is because its coarser grain is well-suited for drawing the blood out of meat after the slaughter, in keeping with the Jewish custom.)
There is no benefit to the consumer in paying exorbitant prices for “fancier” versions of salt for normal, everyday cooking.
Any benefits typically accrue only to the person promoting the product in the recipes, usually in the form of a fee in exchange for the product placement from the manufacturer or the industry trade group, but sometimes only in a sense of elevated status or perceived cool factor that comes with being on the cutting edge in matters of food consciousness.
Other Overpriced Recipe Suggestions
Salt is hardly the only item mentioned so specifically in ingredient lists.
There are many other such examples -- among them ones that demand the use of such things as fancy condiments, Greek yogurt, gourmet cheeses, organic products only, or expensive cooking oils, or free-range eggs, etc., etc. You get the general gist.
And the use of absurdly expensive cooking sprays is also something you often see mentioned in cooking instructions - as if it's essential - when there are much cheaper and healthier options that have been around for centuries.
The point is that it's best to ignore instructions that call for particular, pricey ingredients when you're trying to stick to a budget.
Simply substitute a more generic version of the same product, or a similar one, and the recipe will in all likelihood turn out just fine.
Brand Marketing in Recipes
Often a recipe will go so far as to list a specific brand of a given ingredient, thereby giving the impression that it is the only option that will guarantee the recipe’s success.
While that’s immediately obvious as a marketing tactic to the savvy consumer and experienced cook, many people don’t recognize it as such.
So they believe that they must follow the instructions to the letter and buy that exact product, which is typically not the cheapest one available.
They don’t realize they can easily substitute ANY brand of the same product, or even a similar product and achieve completely satisfactory results.
Substitutions Are Almost Always Possible
Exchanging an ingredient for something cheaper or whatever you happen to have on hand is almost always possible in recipes, and seasoned cooks have done it for centuries.
Anyone who says differently is either misinformed, or a fanatical foodie, or has an agenda to sell you something you don't need.
Be aware of any such marketing gimmicks so that you can avoid being conned into overpaying for food --- or anything else, for that matter.