Saturday, May 29, 2010

Saturday Throwback: Frugal Food Hacks - 10 Tricks to Simplifying Online Recipe Searches

Earlier this year, Casual Kitchen (my new favorite blog) posted a stupendous essay called How to Tell if a Recipe is Worth Cooking with Five Easy Questions. A phenomenal guide to recipe analysis, CK’s tips are invaluable whether you’re reading a cookbook, browsing the web, or picking through Grandma’s age-old dessert file. The post was so good, in fact, it inspired me to write a sequel of sorts – one focusing on simplifying online recipe searches.

See, combing the web for recipes can be a tricky venture. Between quasi-independent monsters (AllRecipes, Chow), corporate mega-sites (Cooking Light, Food Network) and neato personal blogs (The Wednesday Chef, A Good American Wife), there are literally millions of dishes to pick through. As taste is totally subjective, and reviews range from right-on to catastrophically misleading, there’s no easy way to discern the bad from the good.

Since I tend to take most of my food from the ‘net, I had to learn how to pick through the labyrinth quickly and efficiently. What follows, then, are a few self-spawned tricks to navigating the endless internet recipe abyss – guidelines to help you choose the cheapest, healthiest, er, good-est recipes ever. Hope they help. (And feel free to add more in the comments section!)

1) Be specific. Whether you’re googling a Coq au Vin or trying to pinpoint a butternut squash soup on AllRecipes, specificity is key to finding exactly what you want. Lots of the larger sites have some method of narrowing down the parameters of your hunt – an Ingredient Search, a Collection Search, or some way of marking off categories (Healthy, Course, etc.). If you’re starting big with Google or Yahoo, try to enter particular terms – the ingredient list, the preparation method, “light,” etc. The more specific you are, the more accurate the results will be.

2) Check the number of reviews. A recipe with 1,436 reviews and 1228 comments is infinitely less scary than one with two reviews and no comments. A large pool of reviewers means the dish has been around awhile, and it’s at least vaguely working. Helpful serving suggestions and/or useful substitutions are likely included within the comments. (This isn't to say, "Don't try new things," but rather, "If you're looking for a sure bet...")

3) Choose a recipe with a high rating. I find regular ol’ people (as opposed to high-falutin’ pro critics) are much more lenient on food. They’re just as likely to give five stars to a merely edible dish as they are to a meal that really knocks their socks off. So, when sampling from the AllRecipes, Epicurious, or Food Network sites, try not to use a recipe that has less than four stars / three forks. If you’re entertaining, make sure it has at least 4-1/2 (but it’s never a good idea to try a dish for the first time on guests, anyway).

4) Follow all Casual Kitchen’s advice. Once you find a tantalizing-looking recipe, read through it. Make sure you like and/or are willing to experiment with all the ingredients. Then, check to see if each one is readily available, either on hand or at the local store. After that, ensure you’re comfortable with both the prep time and the techniques employed. Finally, consider price and ease of big-batch cooking. If your potential meal hits all of these qualifications, it’s probably a winner.

5) Take suggestions to heart. If two-thirds of 254 reviewers think the sugar should be halved in a certain dish, go for it. Recipe writers can make mistakes sometimes, and reviewers are just the folks to correct them. But remember – majority rules. If Megdoodle from Monkeybutt, Kentucky likes quadruple the amount of red pepper in her chili, but 200 other commenters say the spice is just right, side with the 200.

6) Read/consider the available nutrition information. No one wants to serve their kids a lard casserole. When you’re scouting recipes, check to see if the calorie, fat, and fiber readings are included on the webpage. AllRecipes and Cooking Light do this consistently now, and you can occasionally find them on Epicurious and Food Network (with Ellie Krieger and Kathleen Daelemans, in particular). If dietary info isn’t available, try scanning the list for key words – “stick of butter,” “1/4 olive oil,” “fried,” etc. It’ll do your health better in the long run.

7) Stick with a chef you trust. If you’re a frequenter of the Food Network site or a big fan of Lidia Bastianich’s online collection, hang out with her cuisine for awhile. Make her classics. Work your way through her oeuvre. The same goes for personal blogs. I love and dream of emulating Orangette’s writing and cooking skill, and her food photos are absolutely to die for. Yet, I’ve tried a few dishes from her site (Butternut Squash Puree, Chickpea Salad, and Green Beans) and I don’t think our palates quite match up. On the flip side, Deb from Words to Eat By totally works for me. Her Amazon Cake, Pumpkin Bread, and alternate glaze for Barefoot Contessa’s Turkey Meatloaf put me squarely in her culinary corner. The moral is: all in all, finding a cook you trust is worth his/her weight in meatballs. That said …

8) Maybe avoid Sandra Lee (and other cooks who use too many prepared ingredients in their recipes).  Um ... Kwanzaa Cake. 'Nuff said.

9) Link baby, link. Cooking bloggers, in particular, are excellent sources for … yep, finding other excellent cooking bloggers. Once you find a chef/site you like, scroll through their link list. Odds are, someone just as awesome lies at the other of that URL.

10) Bank recipes. Find a recipe you like, but don’t have the ingredients on hand right that very minute? Start a Word file. Over time, you’ll amass dozens of dishes that caught your eye at one time or another, and it’ll make for easier rummaging down the line.

Have more ideas or suggestions for simplifying online recipe searches? The (comment) lines are open! We’re waiting for your call advice!

(Photo courtesy of Flickr.)

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mo said...

i loooooooooovvvve you.
i honestly love you.


i light up every time you post.


Kris said...

Bask in Olivia Newton John with me, Mo.

Daniel Koontz said...

CHG, I like your sequel, this is a keeper! There are a LOT of recipes out there floating in cyberspace and these are great ideas to filter things down to just the good ones.

And yep--you have to follow ALL of my advice...!! :)

Daniel Koontz
Casual Kitchen

FIRE Finance said...

Thanks for your guidelines. We have citied this article as a favorite in our Sunday Review #45.
FIRE Finance

MommySecrets said...

Great article! I started saving my favorite recipes in a word document about 7 years ago. It was a very smart move! No more magazine clippings and paper copies breaking loose from folders - it's all in one neat little place. It's easier to share recipes with the zap of a finger over email. It's easy to transform my recipe file into a collection of recipes for a newly marrried couple. :)

ChristinaL30 said...

I second the idea about saving favorite recipes on the computer. I use a spreadsheet file, so I can glance at the tabs & know which recipes I have in that file. I also copy the URL info so I can readily find any comments (or leave one) about the recipe.

wosnes said...

I have a couple of other criteria:

Does it contain ingredients that I typically have on hand? If not, can I find another way to use the special ingredients in a timely manner? They don't have to be expensive or hard-to-find, just something I don't normally use/have on hand.

CK asks if a recipe can be doubled. I ask if it can be cut down to serve 1-2 people. I don't mind leftovers, but I usually don't want to be eating something for a week and I don't have enough freezer space to freeze leftovers in individual portions. Actually, I'm not fond of frozen leftovers. I'd rather have a scrambled egg or an omelette than something frozen and reheated.

There are exceptions to this, but they are exceptions.

Kimmer said...

My version of this is to save each recipe as a Note in Outlook (I have a separate folder just for recipes.) I can't sort by category, which is frustrating, but I can change the color of the notes. Yellow is the default color, but I periodically go through them and change the color of the ones I'm most interested in making to pink. It's a good way to get me to look through all of them once in a while, and get me out of my culinary rut.

chzplz said...

I store my recipes in individual Google Documents files. This way if I find a recipe I'm interested in online, I can always save it in my recipe library regardless of if I'm at work, or at home, or somewhere else.

If I want to find a recipe that uses a particular ingredient, I just search my google documents library and it pulls up a list of recipes with that ingredient.

If I forget my grocery list (it happens...) I can pull up the recipe in the grocery store using my blackberry.

Google Documents is at:

ScienceandtheCity said...

This is all great advice, thanks!

One thing I would add - search the right site for the type of thing you're looking for. I know that's vague, but what I mean is, if you're looking for a recipe for a really common food (ex: cornbread, pork chops) and you're just planning on making dinner, Foodnetwork or Allrecipes are great resources. If you want to impress dinner guests, I would go with Epicurious because they tend to have recipes that are more difficult to make but are more impressive. If you're looking for a recipe for something DIY or something you'd like to see step-by-step pictures of, look for recipes on food blogs. I really like for that last one - that site is awesome!

Elizabeth said...

@chzplz - that is brilliant! I bet it would also make it easy to share the recipe with someone, especially one that you've tweaked from the original. I hate sending someone a link to a recipe with 10 things I did differently.

Kris I hope you're enjoying the long weekend. Otherwise I might have to assume the lack of new posts means your apartment has been ransacked by some of those fearsome Brooklyn ratzillas.

Mattheous @ Menu Musings said...

I would add a way to catologe your favorite and non-favorite (but still tasty) recipes in both an analog and digital format.

For example, I use MacGourmet on my MacBook and a Moleskine Passions Recipe Journal for when I'm on the go (AKA when I take my knife roll with me).

Calissa Leigh said...

I totally agree with comments. If you try a recipe, please comment and tell how it turned out! A lot of us read those, and we take to heart any changes or substitutions you make.

I'll often take up even if a couple of people tried a substitution and said it turned out wonderful, just to experiment.

But I always look for recipes with many comments so I can read the exact details of how others liked it and if they ever made any changes.

You have to love the foodie network. :)