Cooking with the iPhone.

What to eat. What not to eat.
Feb. 2 2010 9:28 AM

A Moveable Feast

The pleasures, and stresses, of cooking with an iPhone.

Illustration by Charlie Powell. Click image to expand.

My iPhone is absolutely filthy, and not because it's clogged with frisky NSFW photos. The screen cover is coated with streaks of flour and butter and overlaid with a haze of anonymous kitchen grease. For the past couple of weeks, I've been trying to suss out whether the iPhone can earn a place in my kitchen. And just as any new pair of sneakers must one day be scuffed, I've had to let my shiny wireless pet get mussed.

The first smudge was unsalted butter. It was my daughter's second birthday, and she wanted pink frosting on her pink cupcakes. In search of a good buttercream, the kind made extra fluffy with Italian meringue, I downloaded the Epicurious app, which houses the Condé Nast recipe library (Bon Appetit's, and—sniff—the late Gourmet's). The Condé repertoire is huge: My search delivered 15 recipes for vanilla buttercream, and I chose one with a high (3.5- out of 4-fork) reader rating. The type was crisp and clear. A handy shopping list function presented a checklist of necessary ingredients.

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Phone-assisted production of the frosting proved a little tricky, though. Preparing this kind of buttercream, you see, includes a few moments of tension: first, pulling the sugar syrup off the stove at the correct temperature, and second, whipping said syrup into egg whites without throwing the screaming-hot liquid back onto your skin—or any several-hundred-dollar device that might be lying next to the bowl. I had started churning the whites in my mixer when my mind went blank on the proper temperature for the syrup (238-242 degrees Fahrenheit, it turns out). I looked to the phone—its screen was black. I had to stretch across the counter, using one hand to keep the thermometer in the pot and the other to reawaken the phone and find the correct temp, which, in the interim I had overshot. Although the buttercream survived the extra degrees, I started feeling nostalgic for the printed page. A cookbook can lie open, but a smartphone needs constant tactile reassurance.

After trying Epicurious, I turned to Michael Ruhlman's app, Ratio, based on his book, Ratio: The Simple Codes Behind the Craft of Everyday Cooking, in which he encourages home cooks to do more improvisation by understanding the basic proportions of key recipes: the fat/meat/salt balance of a fresh sausage, say. His Web tool provides these ratios for several preparations and then calculates the proper quantities of the ingredients for you: for X amount of flour, use Y amount of liquid, and Z ounces of eggs. I used it to make buckwheat crepes for a family dinner. Somehow the stripped-down nature of the mobile phone matches Ruhlman's structuralist approach to cooking. Since this technique entails simply lining up the correct ingredients rather than mastering tricky methods, I was less troubled by the iPhone's persistent blank-outs.

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