Why bother with a cookbook when you have the internet?
Lots of people tell me that when they need a recipe they just search online and there it is – magic! To be honest, I do this too sometimes. Especially when I know roughly what I want to cook and don’t have time to browse my cookbook collection.
I also go online to figure out, or find, obscure ingredients. And it’s definitely a great knowledge source to help work out what I could substitute for ingredients I can’t get, or to double check cooking times for things like roast meat. Techniques are another thing that the internet can really help with, especially if, like me, you have limited formal kitchen training. Things like how to easily get the flesh out of a mango or what exactly egg whites should look like when they’re being whipped for meringue are easy to find and usually fairly reliable.
Buying cookbooks online to download is something I have tried and given up on, actually going back in one case and buying hard copies of two books I had already bought as downloads. I find the experience of cooking from instructions on my iPad deeply unsatisfactory – there’s something tactile about a cookbook that can’t convert onto my screen, and I can’t as easily make notes on my iPad version. Also, because I am too lazy to switch out the ‘sleep’ timer on my screen, I often find myself with hands covered in flour or meat or oil needing to check something in the recipe before the next step when the screen needs to be woken up. In fact, if I’m using an internet recipe for something important such as a dinner party or Christmas, I will usually print or write out the recipe before I start. But that’s just me – maybe you absolutely rock the online thing and there’s probably money as well as trees to be saved by staying online.
Because the internet is a huge go-to place for many people I thought I’d share a few of my learnings about how to get the best from it and some of the possible pitfalls.
TV channel food sites (bbc.co.uk/food and foodnetwork.co.uk in particular) are great online recipe resources, and some of the food-focused magazines such as Good Food, Good Housekeeping and Woman and Home have online recipe collections. There are millions of recipe ideas online and an inexperienced cook could fall victim to a poorly designed suggestion so if you are cooking from an internet recipe, check a few things before you settle on the recipe you use:
- Are there ingredients that you can’t get where you live? Recipes from the US, in particular, often seem to combine a packet of this and a tin of that rather than using fresh food. Recipes from Australia or South Africa will include fish, fruit or veg not easily found in other places – and the opposite applies about European recipes if you are located in either of these countries.
- What measurement system is your recipe in – imperial, metric, US, Australian? Can you cope with converting everything if you will need to? Will you have to spend too much time converting ingredients from one system to another – in Europe cooks will typically weigh stuff in grams, however in the US it will be ‘a cup of all purpose flour’, ‘a stick of butter’. If you’re in the US and don’t have a kitchen scale then you’ll need to work only with US recipes, if you’re in Europe those cups are very specific and not just a mug out of the kitchen cupboard.
- Compare the same recipe across different sites when you’re baking. The quantities may be slightly different from one to another but if the one you like is a complete outlier maybe think again before rolling up your sleeves
- If you have picked your recipe because it gets 5 Stars from reviewers, have a look at what the reviewers are actually saying. There are a couple of recipe collections (remaining nameless here) that are full of reviews saying things like ‘We don’t like cranberries so I left them out, and venison is expensive so we used chicken, but it was DELICIOUS – 5 stars!’ I’m sure it was delicious, but it wasn’t the same recipe! Make sure the people who didn’t change the recipe beyond recognition still think it’s worth all those stars.
Because I love cookbooks it would break my heart if the supply of fantastic new offerings dried up. So, not surprisingly, I’m always going to encourage people to buy the book rather than pick out a few online recipes from it. On the ethics of it, using the internet to find recipes reproduced from your favourite chefs instead of investing in the book is not great, unless they’re from TV food programs where the recipes cooked are often freely offered online.
And finally, if you’re lucky enough to have access to a public library you should find a reasonable selection of cookbooks there to borrow, so lots of chances to try before you buy without going online.