Cookbooks vs. Food Sites



In the short hallway leading to my kitchen, most of my cookbooks sit on a built-in shelf. When we chose this house, the shelf was a factor, because I really wanted my precious culinary library close at hand. So I’m abashed to report that several of my newly acquired books sit on the shelf, pristine and neglected. (Any well-used cookbook is a mess of gravy stains and grease blots.) Why? Because more and more, I turn to the Internet for ideas and inspiration. When I use my cookbooks, it’s usually the ones I’ve had for years, where I know there’s a tried-and-true recipe for arroz con pollo or the potato salad I always make for summer potlucks.

But with so many blogs and foodie websites out there, how do I know which ones will provide me with reliable, tested recipes? As a busy parent, I don’t have the time to fiddle around with half-baked formulas. If a recipe’s no good, I’m stuck with grumpy, hungry kids.

For years, I’ve relied on epicurious.com. The site is eclectic and easy to search by ingredient, course, event, preparation time, and kid-friendliness. User ratings and reviews (including comments) help guide you to the better selections. Knowing the recipes come from Conde Nast’s stable of thoroughbred cooking magazines and websites inspires justified confidence. However, they aren’t the only horse in the race. I spent some time at a few other sites for this piece, and found some winners —as well as a dud or two.

Of all the family-centered sites, weelicious.com tickled me the most. The deep archive of recipes was easily and intuitively searchable, and included vegetarian and allergen-free search options. Add a feeding plan for infants and a range of creative, mouthwatering Crock Pot recipes, and you’ve got a site worth bookmarking. The site also has a consistent, reliable voice, much like a favorite cookbook.

At babble.com, they’re big on slideshows. I browsed “Fifty Best Recipes for Kids,” which included sections for picky eaters and allergen-free foods. But browsing the site’s smallish archive requires going to an alphabetical list and either scanning it visually or using your browser’s find function to look for keywords. Drag. More annoying is this editorial tic: “Kids will be so overjoyed to see [insert cheesy this or fried that here] that they won’t even notice the added [insert vegetable here].” In reality, truly picky eaters (I was one) sniff out yucky vegetables. We have superpowers. They also lean too hard on “fun” foods. Aren’t we done making tuna sandwiches look like ice cream cones? Better to spend time making it taste good.

Also, please don’t waste your time at iVillage.com. Though I know they offer some good recipes (after all, they’ve employed several terrific food bloggers) the lousy search functionality and pop-up ads are maddening. 

So aside from weelicious and epicurious, where else can a cooking parent turn for inspiration? There are dozens of fabulous blogs out there, but that’s another column. For my money, the website of Cook’s Illustrated magazine is the gold standard. But it is for money — the archives are only available to paid subscribers. However, I continue to pony up for the combination of accessibility, ironclad testing — these recipes do not fail — and ease of use. The site also includes equipment reviews, taste tests and instructional videos.

Speaking of equipment, if you have some extra money or time to throw around, giggle.com is fun to browse. The site offers curated shopping, tending toward sleek design. A site-wide icon system cues for characteristics such as “Innovative,” “Simple,” “Easy,” “Responsible,” and “Good Value.” However, given the site’s prices, that last trait is clearly a matter of wallet size. 

One last recommendation. If you, too, have a shelf full of beloved cookbooks gathering dust, consider signing up for eatyourbooks.com, a site that allows you to search through your own cookbooks — all of them. That’s right. You get home from work, frantic to make that fabulous tortilla soup your kids loved last month, but you can’t remember which cookbook it was in. If you’re registered at Eat Your Books, you can probably find it. For $25/year (or try it for free with up to five cookbooks), you enter the titles of the books in your collection. (This took me all of 20 minutes. So far, they’ve captured information on 340,000 cookbooks and indexed more than 1,500. They didn’t have a few of mine, but there’s a button to request missing titles.) Then you can search by ingredient, recipe title, or keyword. It’ll find recipes in your cookbooks that match, and even create shopping lists.

For me, that $25/year is worth it to get my laptop off the kitchen counter and my cookbooks back on it.     

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