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It's a wild, wild food world out there, and it's easy to get lost. I love cookbooks so much that it's almost become a borderline hoarding disorder, but sometimes you have to venture beyond their pages and see what else you can find to inspire you. Not too long ago, that meant turning on your computer. Now, all you have to do is check your phone or, better yet, your fancy new iPad. And some big names out there have jumped in to hold your hand and show you the way through the food world's electronic wilderness.
Mark Bittman has taken his two invaluable, but space-hogging, cookbooks, How to Cook Everything and How to Cook Everything Vegetarian , and turned them into apps for both the iPhone and iPad ($9.99 each for the iPad; $4.99 each for the iPhone). They each hold more than 2,000 recipes, plus variations and instructions on the basics of cooking. There's a different featured recipe every week, the search capability is excellent, you can send ingredients to a shopping list and there's a "quick dinners" category for recipes that take 30 minutes or less. The genius part? There's an embedded timer in each recipe that works even when your device is asleep.
Michael Ruhlman's 2009 book, Ratio: The Simple Codes Behind the Craft of Everyday Cooking ($4.99 for iPad, iPhone and Android), changed the way I think about cooking. Instead of recipes, he provides ingredient ratios for categories: doughs, batters, meat preparations, custards and sauces. This means that you learn the amount of flour versus the amount of water that pizza dough needs and how a different flour/water ratio will work best for a loaf of bread.
Once you know the magic formula, you can ditch the measuring cups, and you're free to improvise around the ratio, while avoiding disastrous results. The app takes this one step further to reassure the timid. It provides a calculator for all of Ruhlman's ratios, and by plugging in the amount of just one ingredient, it tells you how much of the other ingredients you will need (and how many servings your recipe will make). You can also save your own recipes and convert from metric to U.S. measurements.
I admit it. I have a weakness for Jamie Oliver. I don't know how he puts out a cookbook practically every year, but the recipes in the ones I've purchased are almost always the kind of food I like to eat. His app (for both the iPad and iPhone) is free, but if you want more than 10 recipes, you'll need to buy themed bundles for $1.99 a pop. This isn't actually a bad thing. You can try Oliver's cuisine on for size and then decide if you want to invest in a batch of, say, comfort-food recipes or perhaps five different sets of 20-minute-meal recipes. The app has only the basic bells and whistles — videos, a shopping-list capability and a good search engine — but what you're really buying are Oliver's recipes in a convenient, updatable format.
Although designed as an iPad lifeline to getting through the holidays, the Food52 Holiday Recipe and Survival Guide ($9.99 for iPad only) can be used all year long as a reference when entertaining. The Food52 website, co-founded by New York Times writer and James Beard-award winner Amanda Hesser and food writer Merill Stubbs, is a crowd-sourced compendium of recipes by home cooks (out of which a lively, gregarious community has sprung up), and all of the recipes on the app come from the site.
However, Hesser and Stubbs spin gold by not only explaining how to prepare dishes with step-by-step slideshows and suggested menus, but by also telling you when to shop for ingredients, as well as tethering the app to the Food52 Hotline. In this way, you can send questions and concerns directly from the app to the site and receive prompt, practical answers from the always active Food52 community.
Are you serious about your cooking? Really, really serious? Then you might want to fork over the cash for the Culinary Institute of America's iPad app, The Professional Chef . Based on the school's renowned textbook of the same name, this $49.99 app is a culinary program in a box that you can take with you anywhere (it will replace the hardback book used in courses at the institute next year). It includes detailed descriptions of technique, videos, a place to keep notes and lots of recipes. Tests at the end of each section ensure that you've got a thorough grasp of the material, and its social networking capabilities connect you with others also working their way through the iPad-based program.
I was excited when the Kindle came out in 2007 — one of my first thoughts was how effortless it would be to carry my cookbooks around as I traveled. Now that I can carry those books around on my phone, the mesmerizing slideshows, the satisfying electronic click as you check off things from your grocery list and the interactivity of these culinary applications make me feel like a monkey with an extremely shiny, new ball. I'm happy, and I'm glad I have a device to remind me that there's a world beyond bananas.