Alternatives to storing recipes
June 6, 2018 4:25 AM   Subscribe

I'm a reasonably skilled cook, and the idea of storing an individual recipe for each dish doesn't quite sit well with me. Especially since I never seem to go back to recipes. I would however like to have some method of being organised, storing cooking information in writing, and smoothening out my workflow. Help me find a system?

I prefer improvising with what I have on hand to being finicky about exact ingredients or quantities. But I'd like to fine-tune my cooking and not start from scratch each time. This is the kind of information I figure I need to store:
— References to cooking techniques and variations
— Lists of "types" of dishes (eg. tsatsiki, or pizza, or lasagna) with brief notes on the techniques or ratios involved, and on variations or ideas of ingredients.
— Ratios for baking, notes on the ratio variations I experiment with and what effect they have, and ideas of different variations on the same recipe (like different sorts of bread or cakes)

I had the idea of perhaps making an Apple Notes folder with say one note on a type of dish (Breads, Cakes, Middle East Condiments, Italian Sauces, etc) and store all notes in there. I still can't quite come up with the right system though.

I also wondered about using the Paprika app and twisting it around to suit my purposes. The good thing being it's easy to read while cooking and can convert ratios, etc, but it's probably overkill and not the right tool for me.

Does anyone do something like this or have any ideas?
posted by miaow to Computers & Internet (22 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
An afterthought: maybe I SHOULD think of it as storing recipes, but broad recipes, for example just "Cake" instead of Banana Pineapple Cake, and "Bread", and so on.

As you can see I'm a little confused :-). I welcome your input.
posted by miaow at 4:36 AM on June 6, 2018

I too cook this way, improvisationally, maybe making your own index cards after perusing a book like: Salt, Fat, Acid Heat or Link: Prep School: How to Improve Your Kitchen Skills and Cooking Techniques. But sounds like you want a digital go-to?
posted by coevals at 5:09 AM on June 6, 2018 [1 favorite]

Yeah, think of these as skeletal recipes or recipe heuristics. They are still recipes in the broad sense, they just don’t go into the low-level detail that you don’t need or want.

I’m the same way in terms of cooking preference, and I used to keep everything in my head, but eventually you forget something or want to look up/share etc.

I started keeping some notes in Notational Velocity (most any other searchable note app will do)

So I might have an entry like:
[recipe] Ma Po Tofu
Soft tofu
Fermented black bean paste
Pork (or pork fat)
Garlic, ginger — generous
Black pepper/red pepper — to taste

I know how to cook it a and adjust amounts, but this helps remind me of the key flavors and since the main ingredients are listed, it will pop up if I just want to scan my tofu dishes or see how to use up my bean paste.
posted by SaltySalticid at 5:17 AM on June 6, 2018 [1 favorite]

This might not be helpful if Paprika is "overkill" for you, but recipe management is one of the many things I use Emacs org-mode for.
posted by overeducated_alligator at 5:17 AM on June 6, 2018 [1 favorite]

Not sure if you're looking for a digital solution / app or an organization system for your accumulated cooking information.

If more the latter, and since you bring up ratios, take a look at how the chapters are organized in Ratio: The Simple Codes Behind the Craft of Everyday Cooking.

I'm not an improvisational cook like you, but I've been keeping notes in Circus Ponies Notebook, and since that was discontinued, I am in the process of migrating to Outline.
posted by needled at 5:24 AM on June 6, 2018 [1 favorite]

I once picked up a booklet from Whole Foods next to their bulk bins that included tables with cooking instructions for bulk items like grains and beans. I can't find the whole thing online, but the tables had info like this.

This format would be useful for more complex items too. I could imagine having a table with columns for ingredients, baking temp, baking time, notes, and variations (add zucchini and cinnamon, etc.) If there's a standard way of making that item, you would note it on the top of the page - for example, mix wet ingredients and add to dry.
posted by beyond_pink at 5:46 AM on June 6, 2018

I keep a notebook (gasp! analog!) of what I call "Recipe Sketches." I have one for fall/winter and one for spring/summer, since I cook differently in the seasons. I allocate a page for each kind of thing I cook: Vegetable, Grilling, Fish, Marinades, Sauces, Dessert, etc. I keep a list of ingredients, instead of a recipe, since I pretty much wing it when putting things together. I also make notes on timing things I am likely to forget, like how long to grill a rare steak . it seemed a little haphazard when I started it, but it's been remarkably useful to me, especially since I cook in a couple of different locations with varying access to internet.
posted by sarajane at 5:52 AM on June 6, 2018 [1 favorite]

Perhaps you have already rejected this idea for reasons, but I think that you could bend Evernote to your will via tags, especially if you are a bit tag obsessive (because sometimes it's difficult to predict what terms future-you will use to search).

For example, one of the things that I have in my "recipes" notebook is a tip for velveting meat (from this food article). I've tagged it with: chicken, chinese, marinade, meat, methods, stir fry, techniques, tips, velveting, wok ... which is a little overkill, but I don't know if I'm going to be thinking "I want to stir fry some chicken; now what was that marinade I read about?" or "What was that velveting technique I saved?" or "I'm feeling like making some stir fry; what are the tips I want to remember?" Etc. The good thing is you can make tags as you-centric as you want, and impose any sort of classification structure, strictly organized, or super fuzzy (my method!).

To search multiple tags, search this way:
any: tag:1 tag:2 tag:3 tag:4

Also worth mentioning: after first trying to have different notebooks for stuff like recipes, techniques, conversions, substitutions, etc., I realized it was actually counterproductive for me, so I just throw it all in my "recipes" notebook where I do all my non-hardware cookery related browsing, and I don't have to spend a ton of time trying to remember what notebook(s) to save something to while I'm whizzing through recipes and cooking articles online. I just tag them with the pertinent terms.

I have an Evernote Clipper Chrome extension for saving stuff online (and of course you can manually create notes, or cut and paste notes), and it's set to automatically save in my "recipes" notebook (I can select a different notebook when saving, but this is convenient, since most of my Evernote activity is cooking related).

Finally, since all this requires some amount of effort, I feel *relatively* secure that Evernote is not going to disappear on me, as some other apps might do.

Downside: sometimes updates or whatever (app, or browser, or operating system) fuck things up a little, like recently when searches weren't returning anything at all, and I had to google the problem and learned how to rebuild the search index (easy, but took a while to find). At least there's an active forum, and enough people using it that you're likely to find answers.
posted by taz at 6:13 AM on June 6, 2018 [1 favorite]

I have been writing family recipes on 3 x 5 cards and storing them in a little file box for several decades. It's old-school, but it has survived several desktop and laptop computers.
I sort by quick meals, meats, desserts, etc and have some recipes handed down from quite a while back.
The cookbooks didn't make the cut, though. Too many good recipes online.
posted by TrishaU at 6:29 AM on June 6, 2018

I have a few pieces of notebook paper listing things we like to eat (In the order I remembered to write them down). Some have notations like "Based on roast tomatoes in X book" or "from Gastronomique" (which is not a cookbook, exactly), or "learned from Perry."

Too simple?
posted by Lesser Shrew at 7:38 AM on June 6, 2018

I use Paprika and I like it. You could make it work, although I'd agree it's not perfectly adapted to this purpose.

It almost sounds like a lab notebook would be a better fit. There are apps for that too.
posted by adamrice at 7:46 AM on June 6, 2018

Pinboard would do this quite nicely. It is a bookmarking service where you save webpages, but you can also save plain text notes. Tagging is important because then you can add those tags to a Bundle for a sort of Super Tag. If you have a Meat bundle, you can add chicken, beef, and pork to it and then you can see all bookmarks and notes with any of those three tags. note: this is not Pinterest!
posted by soelo at 9:28 AM on June 6, 2018

I started using Paprika, mostly at the strong urging here on the green.

I tried other alternatives, like notecards, notebooks, pinterest, etc. (I couldn't wrap my head around Evernote.)

I think of Paprika as a digital equivalent of an old recipe box with notecards in it. You can put as much or as little on the notecard as you want. There's room for ingredients, directions, as well as a notes panel.

I also use Paprika to save 'meals' that are combinations of the notecards that work well together.

I like using Pinterest to find recipes. Then once I make something I want to make again, I'll add it to Paprika. I never make a recipe the same way twice, but it's still nice to have it somewhere permanent, and not at the whim of a blogger who might take down their site. I add notes of what I tried, or what I want to try next time I make the recipe. Or I just adjust the ingredients/directions to reflect how I'd like to make it next time.

To me, Paprika has been the only recipe-saving method that I've stuck to (2 years and counting). I like how easy it is to browse my saved recipes and choose something for dinner. I purchased it for my desktop computer as well as my phone, and it's great to share between the two.
posted by hydra77 at 11:40 AM on June 6, 2018

If you're OK with it being public and stored in a Facebook owned service, I know people that use Instagram for this (or Tumblr, if you prefer the Verizon form of evil corporate overlord). They take a picture of the final product, tag it with what they want it to be searchable for, and then use the body of the text with any notes they have about the particular experiments that worked well or not so well. But they're also OK with vicarious readers following them based on searching for those tags.
posted by Candleman at 1:37 PM on June 6, 2018

We use Plan to Eat and it's great. You can search by ingredient.
posted by onecircleaday at 1:46 PM on June 6, 2018

How about GitHub? Here's an example (not mine, just an example). Perhaps not ideal for mobile usage, though.
posted by O9scar at 2:21 PM on June 6, 2018 [1 favorite]

Thanks guys, I can't identify a best answer, but it's been super useful reading all your comments. I still have to make my decision but I'm leaning towards using some of your organisation tips and using Paprika as skeleton system. Or alternatively using printed sheets that I keep updated. Thanks also for the book references.
posted by miaow at 11:09 PM on June 6, 2018

We have cooking styles in common! (Yay improvising, boo finicky.)

I am moving towards streamlining by paring down the basics onto cheat-sheet index cards and also keeping a separate, more detailed notebook and log (either digital or handwritten) where I include the full original recipe and my notes and tweaks. Like you, I tend not to go back to recipes, so only the ones that I've tested and decided to keep go in the notebook.

The quick reference stuff goes onto index cards or post-its that I tape to the inside of the cabinet doors above the counter--this is for stuff similar to what you listed, like conversions, ratios, or temperatures for common dishes, like "1C flour = Xg" or "quiche egg:milk ratio" or a list of cooking times at what oven temperature. You could add a card that lists your favorite variations.

If it's a frequently needed recipe, I probably know the instructions by heart so all the card needs is the list of ingredients, temperatures, and times. If it's something where it's not frequent enough for memorization and my mental inertia would slow me in looking up the info again (for me this is couscous:water or basmati:water ratios), it goes on the card and up in the cabinet. If the recipe is a particular version that I may want to look up again later, I add the source (e.g., a specific waffle recipe from a specific edition of The Joy of Cooking).

Another thing I do sometimes and should do more often is to make notes on cooking timelines for a complicated or multi-dish menu. It helps me feel less stressed to know what time to start soaking the potatoes or preheat the oven so everything is ready by 7pm.

Things I have tried but don't work as well: keeping notes in laptops/apps, printed recipes in binders with my notes, random bookmarks in browsers, recipes torn out from cooking magazines clipped together, stray recipes on scraps of paper... These collections are not perfectly organized so it discourages me from using them. The main problem with my old/current system is too much information spread in multiple formats. The fewer places it could be, the easier it is for me to get on with the cooking and enjoy it.
posted by Sockin'inthefreeworld at 3:26 AM on June 7, 2018

Sockin': thanks for describing your system—we do seem to have very similar cooking styles! What do you do when you spot an interesting recipe somewhere on the internet that you MIGHT just want to make someday? Do you just let it go, or do you still save it?
posted by miaow at 5:36 AM on June 7, 2018

I use and adore Paprika. You can use it for traditional recipes but you can also use it to make recipes for, say, "Chicken and stuff" where you make your notes of flavor combos, things you've tried and liked/not liked, etc. And you can tag/categorize them, and move seamlessly between devices.

My recipes tend to have names like "The One True White Cake" or "Banana Bread That Doesn't Suck" and notes like "says it makes 18, this is lies, it makes 12".

Alternately: digital or analog notebook.
posted by oblique red at 8:34 AM on June 7, 2018

The book How to Cook Without a Book is based on this principle — framework recipes that can be adjusted depending on what you have to work with. Looking at it might help spur ideas. (That link is to the original version; apparently there's an updated version coming out soon.)
posted by Lexica at 5:21 PM on June 7, 2018

What do you do when you spot an interesting recipe somewhere on the internet that you MIGHT just want to make someday? Do you just let it go, or do you still save it?

My current method is either to bookmark it in a recipes folder or to jot it onto a note on the laptop--and then go through the list the next time I'm browsing for cooking ideas. I guess it's like the "IN" tray for the recipe system, and if a recipe is good enough to keep, it gets added to the index cards.
posted by Sockin'inthefreeworld at 5:42 PM on June 13, 2018

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