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Digital Recipe Library Still Defies Construction

Remember those roasted Brussels sprouts you made last year for the holidays? The whole family loved them—even Uncle Enzo, who normally turns green whenever forced to eat something of that color. Your family now thinks you’re a kitchen wizard and wants you to repeat your culinary feat this weekend, but you can’t seem to find the recipe. You remember discovering it online last year, after having had one eggnog too many, but you can’t remember where. The copy you printed out has long since made its way into a recycling bin, and when you type “Roasted Brussels Sprouts” into Google, you get thousands of listings. If you can find that recipe again, you must remember to save it. But how?

When you locate that perfect ingredient combination for pumpkin pie filling or the ideal technique for roasting Cornish game hens, the Web doesn’t give you many options for holding on to it. You can bookmark a recipe that has a dedicated URL, you can cut and paste a recipe into an e-mail or document, or you can hit the ‘print’ button, but these are pretty clunky ways to store ideas you want for quick reference. Many big recipe sites now have digital recipe boxes behind their log-in screens, but these are of limited use as well. Maintaining dozens of different accounts with food sites is not only a pain; by distributing my recipes all over the Internet, I can’t browse, sort, or search them as a whole.

This year, I decided to build a digital recipe library, using what tools were available on the Web and through various app stores. It turns out there are plenty of recipe-aggregation tools out there, but I wound up focusing on three: Paprika’s Mac and iPad apps, MacGourmet’s Mac App, and KeepRecipes’s Web portal. I discovered they’re all great services for saving and cataloging specific types of recipe. They share a single, huge limitation.

First, the Good News

KeepRecipes is both a recipe library and a community cooking portal. You can enter your own creations or cut and paste recipes manually into its fields, but the really handy tool is a button you install in the bookmarks bar of your browser. If you find a recipe you want to save for a later date, you hit the button—and up pops a recipe window with the ingredients, directions, notes, and pictures pre-entered—theoretically, at least—into the appropriate fields. You tap the save button and the recipe will forever be stored in your digital online library.

Paprika and MacGourmet perform similar types of website scraping, but do it within embedded browsers. When you surf to a recipe page through the apps and decide to press the save button, each generates digital recipe cards with the relevant fields for ingredients, their individual measurements, directions, notes, and even dietary information and photos. Both apps go beyond just storing recipes, though: You can create shopping lists with one click on a recipe and even generate weekly meal planners. Paprika and MacGourmet both have iPad and iPhone apps as well, allowing you to sync shopping lists and recipes between devices. That’s quite handy if you don’t know what you want to cook before you go to the store, or if you happen upon some tremendous deal on lamb chops and change plans on the fly.

These are all great apps, although each performs some functions better than others. If I wanted to write my own digital cookbook, using my recipes (which are hand-scrawled in a dog-eared notebook), I’d go with MacGourmet. It allows you to enter a tremendous level of detail for each recipe, all in relevant, searchable fields. The interface is a bit clunky, though, compared to Paprika’s streamlined look. Paprika also seemed to have the better scraping algorithms, more reliably putting data in the right boxes, and it was able to grab a lot of recipes MacGourmet couldn’t. It also generated far-more-useful shopping lists, offering simple lists of ingredients and quantities you can check off your iPad with a finger flick.

As for KeepRecipes, I loved the concept more than I loved its implementation. The Web-based service is not only free; it’s very democratic. I could access my recipes from any browser, even the micro-browser on my Android phone. MacGourmet and Paprika require you to download—and pay for—different versions of their apps on your different devices; neither supports Android. (I suppose we Android users are expected to survive on take-out Chinese and frozen pizzas.)

KeepRecipes also has built up an extensive community so you can share recipes with friends, follow what other people are cooking, and promote favorite dishes. The problem is that KeepRecipe’s scraping function is pretty basic. It’s really entering data into a few text fields, rather than cataloging a recipe’s components, and it often fails to scrape the right information—or any at all—from a recipe page. KeepRecipes’ scraping methodology was definitely most limited, but the problem faces any app that tries to decipher a recipe from a website’s seemingly random HTML code.

Now, the Downside

The scraping algorithms of all three apps are optimized to read the recipe formats of most popular cooking websites, such as the Food Network or Epicurious. Once you go outside the list, the apps can’t recognize the recipe staring at you from your screen.

Of course, those big cooking sites hold huge repositories of recipes, covering any dish imaginable. If you love Alton Brown (which I do) and Emeril Lagasse (which I don’t), then you can create a substantial recipe library by mining the Food Network site alone. But the best food ideas aren’t necessarily on those big sites. Some of the most innovative, tastiest stuff is going on at the innumerable culinary blogs popping up all over the Web. Every time I tried to grab a dish off the recipe blog-aggregator Gojee, a message told me MacGourmet or Paprika couldn’t detect the recipe or I found the same KeepRecipes window with a bunch of blank fields.

Then there’s the issue of compatibility. Once I save a recipe with Paprika or MacGourmet, it is trapped inside the application I selected, stored in a proprietary format. KeepRecipes has great community sharing features, but my recipes are still locked in that community. Since I might find each app useful for different things, I wind up with three separate digital recipe collections.

And what about the quarter-metric ton of dead trees on my bookshelves? While I’m increasingly going to the Web for recipe ideas, Julia Child’s (et al) Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Irma Rombauer’s Joy of Cooking and Larousse Gastronomique are my culinary bibles. Even if I can build a digital catalog of my favorite dishes from the Web, how do I bring these culinary staples (which make up the lion’s share of my cooking) into that new digital library?

If I were to pick one app, I’d probably go with Paprika because it was the easiest to use and had the best success rate in transforming online recipes into usable digital recipe cards. But I’m under no illusion that I can use Paprika as the foundation for a comprehensive digital recipe library. When it comes to food, the Web has made finding a wealth of new ideas and dishes much easier. When it comes to storing and organizing those concepts, it has effectively changed nothing from the days of the printed cookbook. My recipes are still bound in tomes. Some of those tomes are now digital, but they’re just as isolated from one another as the cookbooks on my shelves.

Also from GigaOM:

Dissecting the Data: 5 Issues for Our Digital Future (subscription required)

Will You Track Your Health Data With an App or a Device?

Five Tips to Make a New Mac User’s Experience as Pleasant as Possible

The Year in Mobile Apps: Where We’ve Been, Where We’re Going

Getting the Most Out of Your Gift: Roku Edition

Fitchard is a writer for the GigaOM Network.

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