When I inherited my late grandmother’s recipes, I wanted to keep them safe and eventually hand them down to my own family. I already had my own jumbled collection, including instructions dictated by Wilma herself, images saved on my phone, Word files on my computer, and more. So I set out to find a way to organize, preserve, and share this part of our family history with everyone.
What I learned during my research tickled me as much as memories of Wilma’s pecan pie. Organizing these records would be much easier than I had anticipated, and the journey brings home cooks like me even greater rewards than I ever imagined. Going digital saves time and money, reduces waste, and best of all, allows you to eat more healthfully by planning ahead and choosing recipes that meet personalized dietary needs. Better yet, sharing recipes and connecting with epicures across the world helps us grow and improve, just in time for the holidays.
Apps to Help You Get Started
Melanie Carr, founder of the Dish Dish website that helps home cooks gather, access, and share recipes, recommends first gathering the recipes you regularly use, as well as old family favorites you want to keep.
Jaclyn Strauss, creator of the digital organization system 2ndvault and a mother with her own recipes to manage, says her own grandmother was the source of many treasured recipes. As a starting point, she enlisted her family. “I asked everyone via email to provide the top 5 recipes that stood out to them as their favorites. I gathered the emails, removed any duplicates, and then typed each recipe identified as a family favorite into 2ndvault.”
There are many web-based services you can use to consolidate your collection, complete with apps so you can also access them anywhere you go. BigOven, one of the first recipe apps for iOS and Android, claims over 3 million cooks. Membership is free, and people with free accounts can store up to 200 recipes and digitizations of up to three images. If you have a family collection to manage, like I do, the premium service is $25 per year, with unlimited recipe storage and digitization of 25 images and the ability to purchase more. Marketing director Jordan Kooijman explains that the pro offering is ideal if you're looking to augment your experience “by adding additional filter options for searching, meal planning, and creating custom folders to organize your recipes.”
Alternatively, Copy Me That, owned by founder Tine Bak, offers unlimited recipes in a free account, with cloud hosting for backups and remote access. The company's premium membership, available for $13 per year ($24 for life,) provides recipe scaling so you can quickly halve or double recipes without doing all the math, the ability to create shopping lists for different stores or occasions, and a list view of multiple recipes at one time. “One advantage of going digital,” Bak says, “is simply being able to find your recipes again. You can tag (or label) them, but even if you don't feel like doing that, just having a basic text search is helpful.” Another Copy Me That feature that all cooks will appreciate is the ability to export their content at any time.
If you’re looking for another option that includes meal planning as well as recipe storage, Plan to Eat is not free ($49 per year with unlimited storage) but it is ad-free, and the company's unique mobile screen Cooking View keeps your screen awake while you're cooking, a major plus for multitaskers like me.
Preserve Your Paper Memories
My grandma Wilma’s cursive hand was as precise as her flour measurements, so I wanted a way to preserve those physical records, which were always in danger of fading or getting swamped by gravy. Using BigOven’s RecipeScan tool, all I had to do was snap a picture of her precious pecan pie recipe with my phone and upload it. I received an instant response that read: “A real, live human being will read it and type it in for you, putting the right text in the right place. Submit one recipe at a time, but repeat as often as you'd like!” Big Oven also provided a link to track the conversion and presto, within the hour Wilma’s famous recipe debuted to the world! Taking this gem to the electronic frontier meant that the ingredients were now individual fields, sortable for shopping, scaling, and meal planning. The flip side of this is that your recipes are now on the web for all to see, so secret family recipes won't be secret anymore. However, there's no charge if you want to set your recipes to private.
There are other options for extracting the content of paper recipes, says Bak, including Google Drive, which supports optical character recognition (OCR) for JPG, GIF, PNG, and PDF files up to 2 MB in size. “Or you can also use voice tools available on your smart phone,” Bak says. “Instead of typing out your recipes, simply read them aloud.”
Food bloggers such as Michelle Adenle, founder of My Morning Mocha, use their paper recipes as the genesis for their own website. “When I was young, my mum would teach me how to make my favorite family dishes and desserts. I would type them up on Microsoft Word, print them, and save them in a folder. But as I grew older, I noticed that some pages had water marks, food marks, and doodles which were unreadable.”
Adenle digitized her recipes by typing them into a WordPress blog. She added step-by-step pictures, and now her collection is available to the world; in fact, her site has been featured on online publications like MSN and Your Money Geek.
Clipping New Recipes From the Web
The internet has revolutionized cooking for so many foodies. I need only imagine a crazy combination—say, chicken marsala on pizza—and lo and behold, a recipe for it already exists. So how do you preserve the dishes you find without getting lost in an alphabet soup of bookmarked URLs? I used to cut and paste the links to recipes I liked into a Word document on my computer, but this proved cumbersome with no way to index my finds.
Luckily, most recipe organizers on the web also allow you to clip and save recipes from anywhere on the web, with varying success when it comes to importing recipe names, measurements, and steps. My heart leapt after I used the BigOven Clipper to store a favorite recipe I first found on the web for make-ahead turkey gravy. You can even modify your saved recipes, as long as they are private. “This is the advantage of flagging recipes as private or public,” says Kooijan.
Copy Me That’s Recipe Clipper is designed to store web recipes with the ease of a button you can install on your browser (desktop or mobile.) Simply click to copy a recipe from any website, and even if you modify it to suit your tastes, all recipes retain the original link. The default for recipes saved to Copy Me That is that they are private, but with a premium membership you can opt to make your recipes public and share them.
Create a Cookbook, Online or Off
Once you have all of your recipes collected in one place, congratulations, you are now the author of a virtual cookbook! But it gets even better. Advances in publishing technology allow you to create different types of “books” that can be printed on demand, and at the same time live forever as electronic data. It may sound like stepping back from digital, backed-up recipes to paper versions, but don’t underestimate how lovely it would be to give or get a book of your family recipes for the holidays or a birthday.
After Strauss completed her survey of family favorites, she imported her collection into Shutterfly, a photography and image-sharing company, and ordered a printed cookbook. Yet she didn’t relinquish the advantages of digital content. “The last step I took was to upload all of the recipes without the images into 2ndvault, which automatically converts and stores my file as a PDF.” This step will protect her file in case of a flood or other disaster, natural or human, such as simply misplacing the book.
Dish Dish makes creating online and printed cookbooks as easy as apple pie. “Our Digital Recipe Album package is perfect for a large collection of family recipes,” Carr says. “We send our client an envelope to retrieve their recipe collection, type in all the recipes for them, and return the originals to them when finished.” It’s a great option if you don’t want to lift a finger, and costs range from $50 to $150, depending on the number of recipes you send. Dish Dish also sells printed family or group cookbooks. Processing is $30 if your recipes already reside in their database or you provide them electronically; otherwise the company charges 50 cents per recipe. Books start at $6.50 each for a 50-page, 6 x 9-inch version and $8.25 each for an 8.5-inch by 11-inch volume.
Eating Better, Cheaper, Greener
Plan to Eat, which was specifically designed to help streamline meal planning, reports that its users save money in food costs and waste less food, so if you’d like a more complete meal planning service along with your recipe storage, this company's tools go that extra mile. Plan to Eat automatically creates a shopping list based on your customized meal plan, which can hold an unlimited number of events. The service also has a feature called The Freezer, designed for batch cooking and storage, that tracks the number of servings and meals provided for each batch, along with the date they’re prepared.
Back at BigOven, one of my favorite features helps reduce my carbon footprint. The service’s Use Up Leftovers tool allows you to enter up to three surplus ingredients into its database to receive suggestions and recipes for how to use them.
A New Generation of Cooks
I love having the opportunity to digitize, back up, and preserve my family recipes, but I also appreciate the ability to connect with more epicures and improve my cooking. Members of Dish Dish receive regular newsletters, meal recommendations, and tips. I can participate by rating recipes from other members and adding favorites to my own collection.
For example, at BigOven, I can easily follow other cooks and search their database of recipes to find more. In fact, I found many entries for holiday stollen that included tips and techniques I’ll certainly use as I try to replicate Wilma’s version. I may even, ahem, update it to healthier standards.
Eventually I’ll need to pass on Wilma’s recipe box and famous bread pans to another family member, my son Dashiel or niece Bailey. But they won’t just inherit a ramshackle collection of paper recipes. They’ll get a digitized collection they can pass down to their own children, and more. My grandmother so loved sharing her recipes with others, I'm certain she would have been happy to know that her favorite dishes are now available for cooks across the world to enjoy.
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