I recently found myself with a particular First World Problem. Pepperplate, the recipe management app I'd been using, no longer properly imports from myrecipes.com, which serves as the recipe repository for Cooking Light and some other related magazines. I wrote in and received a possibly-canned reply about it, but after a couple weeks, had to face the fact that the app has had no real updates since 2014 and waiting any longer was probably futile.

Pepperplate's feature set was exactly what I needed it to be. It had not only a web interface, but was also available for a wider-than-usual variety of platforms including not just Android, but also Nook, which is where I'd first used it. It could import from many websites and build a shopping list from ingredients in selected recipes. Its interface was well-designed for each platform: the web interface was well-suited for typing or importing recipes, the small phone screen displayed a shopping list clearly, and the Nook's in-between size was best for displaying recipe directions. It also had the benefit of being completely free with no ads...which may explain why its developers are no longer bothering with it. I honestly have no idea how they got any money for making that app.

The plight of users who stubbornly cling to old software, like Eudora, began to seem more understandable. But ultimately, that way lies only trouble and madness. So I set out to find a reasonable replacement, and I have documented my thoughts during the process in this...

Guide to choosing a recipe management app

1. Do you actually need a recipe management app?

This is one of those "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" situations. My mom, who grew up and established her cooking habits long before the Internet was in homes, has a two-pronged paper-based system. First, she has a couple boxes of recipes on index cards that she neatly wrote over the course of many decades. Second, when she started getting more recipes from magazines and copying became tedious, she got some binders that use a spring to keep pages bound together without punching holes, and she began clipping out pages and putting them in there. Every week she makes a careful list on paper of everything she needs to buy at each of a few stores. Mom has an iPad now, but her system has worked for longer than I've been alive. To copy all those recipes into any digital system would take hours upon hours of data-entry work, the paper never needs software updates, and her long practice with this system means she's already comfortable with the discipline required to run it. (When she started, there were no alternatives.)

If you're already fluent in a paper-based kitchen, you're probably fine as you are. A recipe app is good if:

  • You don't have a large repertoire yet, or it's scattered through cookbooks you can't clip from
  • You get a lot of recipes from the Internet
  • You want some assistance with meal planning and scheduling, and/or building shopping lists
  • You want a search function, or want to get suggestions for how to use ingredients you have on hand

These are the kinds of features you're likely to see. Some apps are tied to specific recipe collections, essentially being the digital version of a particular cookbook, or might provide access to some other curated database of recipes. If you want instructional videos with your recipes, these more "focused" apps can sometimes provide them. If all you need is digital index cards, a more minimalist solution with importing capability might suit you better.

I find that a recipe manager eliminates clippings and handwritten cards, but not necessarily my favorite published cookbooks. Those often have commentary, descriptions of general techniques and principles, lavish full-sized photos, and other information that merits later reference but might not fit within the bounds of a single recipe.

2. What platforms do you need this to work on?

Cross-platform is always a plus. This goes doubly if you anticipate typing in a lot of family favorites; you'll want a real keyboard for that. Some apps can scan recipes from a photo, but this may be a premium feature that you have to pay for, sometimes per scan. Do multiple people in your household cook, and are you all on the same ecosystem? If you decide you don't like your current smartphone and switch to its competitor, will you still have access to your recipes?

In my case, I found that moving to an app with no Nook support was the last straw that pushed me to dual-boot my Nook HD as an Android tablet...because "cookbook" was about the only thing I was using the device for.

3. Are you willing to pay for this app, and on what schedule?

Some free apps are very nice. But I did encounter one major pitfall, which is that if a developer's not getting enough money for their efforts, they'll stop developing.

The app I've settled on is Paprika, which is actually one of the relatively expensive ones. You have to pay separately for each platform you want to use it on, and the Windows desktop client is the priciest of the set at about $20. The plus side is that you only pay these fees once per ecosystem. Many other apps that got reviews as high as Paprika's, and had a similar feature set, require a monthly fee to use their cloud storage. I'd much rather pay once for a thing than have to keep subscribing to it forever, especially when it aids a relatively basic need (food) rather than entertainment (Netflix).

It's also worth noting that the time and expense required to dual-boot the Nook HD could be considered the cost of an extra platform, if I still don't use the Nook for much besides cooking.

4. Is the app getting regular updates?

This is a good question to ask of any app you intend to use for a long time. If it stopped getting updates a while back, it's a good bet that it will slowly begin to break as the rest of the world moves forward and bugs start piling up.

Speaking of updates, when you look for reviews of apps, be warned that if an app has been in use for a while, longer reviews outside the app store may be from when it was relatively new. The reviewer may lament the exclusion of a feature that has since been added. The relative benefits of one app versus another can shift over time as they add new features on different schedules. For example, I found one review where someone commented that they preferred Pepperplate over Paprika because it had more features. That was back in 2010, and even if Pepperplate's bugs were fixed, the reverse would still be true now.

All this is one reason I'm not including a lot of actual app names here: by the time you read this guide, the players in this game may have all changed, and principles will serve you better than names.

5. Can you back up and export your data?

This is for portability and security. The main benefit of paper recipe storage is that the only way it fails is if the paper is physically destroyed. Some recipe apps have ways of importing from other platforms, but they don't always have a clean way to export their data. I recommend keeping favorite cookbooks and anything with sentimental value in a safe place. The app makes your collection convenient, but it should always be considered a possibly-transient thing.

It's a fascinating chapter in the history of cookbooks. The first cookbooks offered little more than the amounts of ingredients (measured in fistfuls and "butter the size of an egg"s) and very general instructions; they assumed that anyone using one already knew the basic skills of cooking and just needed ideas for new combinations of ingredients to try. As we've become less and less likely to learn cooking skills from our parents, cookbooks have become more specific in their instructions. Now, a recipe posted online is very likely to come with a video tutorial, and I've seen reviews for recipe apps that express disappointment that these can't be imported into the minimalist apps. The trend is toward more hand-holding...and greater precision, which allows home chefs to get very fancy results if they are so inclined.

I think Paprika will work out fine, and I look forward to playing around with an Androided Nook!

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