A Moveable Feast
The pleasures, and stresses, of cooking with an iPhone.
Less bare-bones is the Vook format, which I first learned about when David Lebovitz considered the future of the cookbook on his blog. Vooks are electronic books that can be downloaded to your iPhone (or to your PC), enriched with photos, video clips, and social functions. For $3.99, I downloaded what at the time was the only extant cooking Vook, The Breakaway Japanese Kitchen, by Eric Gower, which, along with its recipes, has little videos of Gower preparing his Cal-American riffs on Japanese ingredients like shiso, udon, and pickled ginger. But in the end, I used the Vook's simple recipes, not its multimedia, to guide me in the kitchen. I'm with Michael Pollan in thinking that cooking videos often lead to lethargy rather than active inspiration.
Having tried a few cooking applications, it seems to me that the only undisputed advantage of cooking from a smartphone is the ability to fold shopping into the process of making a meal. I mentioned Epicurious' handy shopping list. Grocery Zen is even better. The app downloads recipes from Amanda Hesser's Food52site—like, say the couscous, fennel, and almond salad I tried out—and breaks the ingredients into a shopping list. You can add non-recipe items like Bon Ami or Cheerios and cross off items as you fill your cart, or, if you like, send the list to your sweetheart to pick things up after work. This fluidity between procuring and preparing also allows you to respond to the market: If you see a nice stash of mackerel at the fish counter, you can find a recipe online and purchase the other ingredients on the way home, without a second trip. Shopping applications (there are others, too, like Grocery IQ) combined with recipe apps take full advantage of the iPhone's mobility. Back home in the kitchen, though, mobility isn't really what you're seeking: You just want something easy to read and able to survive a splattering of Sriracha. (That's why, when I do work from Web recipes, I generally print them out—backward as that may be.)
The digital writing may be scrolling across the wall, but I'm still drawn back to my printed library. The other night, I had some lovely sour cherries on hand and I thought I'd like to use them to make a clafouti, a favorite easy dessert of mine, basically fruit surrounded by a batter that cooks up somewhere between a cake and a custard. I flirted with a few recipes on the Epicurious site, but the user comments weren't universally positive, and I already have the perfect clafouti recipe in mind: Jean-Georges Vongerichten's from his first cookbook. His version is a pear clafouti with star anise, which I have made dozens of times with every conceivable fruit.
Cookbooks have continued to sell even as other sections of the print industry plummet, and for a while, at least, I think they'll continue to buck the trend. I just can't imagine that too many people want to interrupt their whisking to refresh their screens. And rich as the Web-recipe repertoire is (since, of course, you can use your iPhone for browsing, too), those tiny little screens still present just a snapshot view of a food writer's craft. Cookbooks and cooking magazines sell not just recipes, but a whole logic of the kitchen. It's the interstitial pictures, and headnotes, and sidebars, that communicate the author's philosophy—whether she is more concerned with streamlining for ease or refining toward perfection, preserving tradition or debunking kitchen myths, cooking through the seasons or discovering exotic ingredients. Cookbooks are like albums, whereas iPhones, for now, only offer tracks. I know it's just a matter of time before form and function converge for a truly compelling digital cooking album (no doubt the iPad will push that form along), and I'll likely take my iPhone to the grocery store from here on out. But for now, at least, once I start preparing dinner, I'll stick to print and let my phone recharge.
Illustration by Charlie Powell.