It's amazing to think how many recipes are online, but I'd prefer to stick with my old-fashioned cookbooks and recipe cards.
I’ve been an avid recipe collector since I was a kid. I have memories of sitting at my parents’ friends’ dining tables, carefully copying out recipes for delicious foods they’d served me. Those were pre-Internet times, so I wanted to capture the tastes and be able to recreate them at home. If I didn’t copy them out, I’d lose them forever.
Starting at age 11, I spent my money on cookbooks. I would save and save, then spend an hour poring over the cookbook section at Chapters in Toronto, trying to determine which book was most worthy of my hard-earned funds. I didn’t buy it to cook with, but rather, to read and “fill my head with fantasy food.” That was the start of my now-substantial cookbook collection.You might think that, with the glut of recipes available on the Internet, I’d be overjoyed by the easy accessibility to almost every recipe that’s ever existed, but I’ve found it to be the opposite. I’m not a fan of online recipes for several reasons, which I’ll talk about in a bit, but this is why I was curious to read Bee Wilson’s article, “Social media and the great recipe explosion: does more mean better?”
Wilson, a food writer and historian, talks about how the experience of home-cooking has changed drastically in recent years with recipes’ ability to travel around the world in a matter of seconds. It used to be a slow process, matched with human migration, but the Internet has changed all of that. Food is now an “open source, rather than something whose mysteries should be jealously hoarded. Chefs are no longer judged by their ‘secret recipes’ but by how often their top dishes are shared, photographed and copied.”
The Internet has made recipes more accessible to many people, which has certain benefits, but I don’t think cooking from the Internet is as great as it’s cracked up to be. (If it were, wouldn’t there be more people cooking, as opposed to less than ever?)
1. It's harder to develop favorites.
There are so many options that are constantly evolving – your Google search will look different every week, based on new content – that, unless you remember exactly what it was you made, it can be hard to recreate the same dishes. That’s sad because establishing a ‘food repertoire’ is something I enjoy. I loved it as a kid, feeling familiar with the foods my mother prepared, and I know my kids love it, too.
A physical cookbook gives you the same recipes all the time. This may sound limiting, but given a good collection, it’s entirely possible to spend years cycling through the same recipes without getting bored.
2. There are a lot of bad recipes online.
For every excellent recipe, there are many awful ones, and nothing’s more discouraging than a bad batch of anything. Wilson cites Charlotte Pike, founder of Field & Fork, an organization that teaches non-cooks how to cook. Pike says there are
“too many mediocre recipes out there, either poorly written, or ones which produce underwhelming results. I think this colours people’s experiences – if you follow a recipe carefully and end up with a disappointing result, then it’s bound to be offputting.”
I don’t blame her. I like the reliability of old favorites. Ingredients are expensive and time is precious, so I cannot waste either on a non-trustworthy source. (Admittedly, there are very good cooking sites that I favor when I do look online, but even those recipes have not been as rigorously tested as ones in a hardcover book.)
3. Online recipes aren't as good at furthering kitchen craft.
There’s a lot more to cooking than simply following recipes. It takes good ‘kitchen craft’ to be a successful home cook, and by that, I mean the development of daily rituals and repeated practices that ease the process of making food.
Whether it’s learning how to grocery shop, how to plan menus based on what’s available, how to cook in bulk and save portions for other recipes, or how to think in advance (setting beans to soak, mixing dough to rise, pickling veggies, marinating meat), these practices are much better taught by cookbooks, with lengthy introductions, and by watching older generations in the kitchen.
Internet recipes tend to be stand-alone, whereas a cookbook or personal recipe source provides more context, continuity, and connection, i.e. whole menu suggestions, overlapping ingredients and techniques that can be used for another dish, and comprehensive guides to following a specific diet.
4. They lack personality.
With a cookbook or a recipe from a friend, you get a sense of what a food is supposed to be like, what its story may be, why you like it so much. Wilson describes cookbook author Diana Henry’s thoughts:
“Digital recipes… are food without context. ‘I am not interested in recipes that don’t come from somewhere.’ She sees a good recipe as being like ‘the capturing of perfume’, of a particular time and place, whether it’s something from her travels, from her mum’s old recipe collection or a friend’s Tunisian lemon and almond cake she once scribbled down on a piece of paper.”
That must be why, after all these years, I still only make two blueberry muffin recipes – the sugar-topped ones I got from Annette when I was 12, after snowshoeing near her house all day, and the almond-flour ones that Andrea brought me the day I gave birth to my youngest child. There are thousands of other blueberry muffin recipes out there, but I haven't tried them because these two are perfectly delicious – and they have meaning. What more could I want from my food?