Recipe resources: why they suck and what can make them better

There are areas of the web, dark, dark areas, where misinformation is rampant and ratings count for nothing. Where you can look for help and find disaster. Where you can hope to make an impression on a loved one, and end up breaking up before the evening is over. Where SEO rules more than taste.

Yes, I’m talking about recipe sites and apps.

At CES a few weeks ago one of the hottest trends was smart, Internet of Things (IoT) devices. Samsung, in particular, showed a lot of new, smart products among them, a refrigerator. Ideas abounded about what a smart refrigerator could do: see what items are in the fridge, create shopping lists, order groceries and find recipes that include these ingredients. Yet how can we talk about smart refrigerators telling us what to make with the ingredients in our fridge without sounding like the a brand-driven Costco cookbook? (Not to belittle the Costco book: it may be full of Costco products but recipes are easy to follow.)

The smart fridge would need to conduct a smart search. Here are a few criteria I would consider for a smart recipe resource:

  1. Quality over quantity any day. I’d much, much rather have two or three good options for a recipe than 100+. In fact, nothing gets me to abandon a recipe search faster than hundreds of results. Too many sites and apps focus on quantity.
  2. Experts vs crowd-sourcing. It goes back to my first point but as much as I love crowd-sourcing, it doesn’t work very well in the recipe arena. I have found that recipes by known authors, from Food Channel stars through famous restaurant owners to food bloggers, tend to work out better.
  3. Better search, customized for recipes. If I’m looking for a recipe by ingredient I expect my top results to have that ingredient as the star (in the recipe title, for example, or by relative quantity in the recipe) and not just as a minor ingredient. I expect low-rated recipes not to be included and I expect recipes by chefs I admire (previously looked at) to be top results. Also, as all websites are not created equal, as per Google’s original pagerank algorithm, so are recipes. Take best search engine practices and add them to recipe search (which you would think would already be there, but it seems as they are not.)
  4. Algorithm vs personal curation. This is a tough one to decide and in the end I prefer a mix. Use curation to collect the best recipes but use a smart algorithm to find them for me.
  5. Reviews: reviews are generally helpful but when too many recipes have 5 stars reviews cease being a relevant indicator. Rather, they should be one of several criteria to ranking results. Comments for recipes also fall into this category, where chefs with more expertise explain that they’ve replaced this spice with that and this berry with that and… to the point where their input is useless.

My go-to sources for recipes are those that fit most of those criteria. One is the New York Times Food section where I know a recipe has been tested for flavor and I trust their instructions. The second is Tasting Table, which highly curates its recipes, brings interesting recipes from local chefs, and everything I’ve tried from there has been great. I tend to ignore resources like Epicurious, a humongous database of recipes from supposedly high quality sources (it bills itself as “Savor 100,000 recipes from Gourmet, Bon Appetit, Self, cookbooks, chefs, and home cooks”) because it takes too long to wade through the results and find a recipe I want to try (plus, looking at the site on a mobile device is a nightmare of multi-page articles, full-page pop-over ads and other, invasive, floating ad formats. But that’s a complaint for another day!)

Buttermilk & blueberry scones from the Tartine Bakery cookbook.

Freshly baked buttermilk & blueberry scones from the Tartine Bakery cookbook.

Finally, surprisingly enough, sometimes the best recipes come from (gasp!) cookbooks! Most of the recent books I’ve purchased include recipes not found anywhere else. Maybe cookbook authors can start thinking more like the music industry in terms of release timeline. Like an artist who releases their album first on a CD and iTunes, then on music premium streaming services and finally on free streaming services, so can recipes be released gradually. Or make them a premium feature in smart fridges: Samsung can team up with some celebrity chefs to offer suggested recipes or maybe recipes from books already purchased. Regardless, recipe resources have a long way to go before we can blithely include them in smart fridges.



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