Are Recipes Better on the Internet?

A stack of four books on cooking recipes
Are Recipes Better on the Internet? Too many books!

Dear Ms. Smartphone: During the pandemic I acquired a whole bookshelf of cookbooks. I guess I ordered them online and didn’t pay attention to how many!  Now I am back at work and only cook once a day in the evening, usually for myself.  I don’t know what to do with these cookbooks and am wondering whether recipes are better on the Internet? How do I decide whether to cook from a recipe online or keep these books?  Bennie

Dear Bennie: You are in good company. During the pandemic, there was a steep rise in cookbook sales, and in 2021 the sale of baking cookbooks was 42% higher than in the previous year. This past year sales have leveled off, so the trend may have been a flash in the pan (pun intended). Still, cookbooks continue to be the fourth largest category of nonfiction books sold in the United States so you are not alone in buying many of them!

If you are looking for what to cook for dinner, there are good reasons to use the Internet instead of a traditional cookbook. The Internet offers at least two distinct advantages. First, you can read cooking tips, modifications, and recommendations from other people who have tried the same recipe. Although you do not know if your share their diet or palette there is not much reason to have your guard up. Still, keep in mind that the cooking site you visit online (e.g. The Food Network) will be moderating all reader comments and only allow ones they endorse to be ‘published’ on their platform.

A second clear advantage of Internet sites, vis a vis cookbooks, is that the videos can show you, step by step, how to prep a dish. This is helpful if you are cooking something for the first time, say whipping cream, and then folding it into a mousse.  After all, folding sounds like something you do on paper, and a mousse might be a large animal with antlers. That visual demonstration is worth one thousands words. So, yes, recipes are better on the Internet (sometimes).

Prepping or Browsing?

A drawback of learning to fold ‘online’ or searching through reader comments, is that they will draw you in and take a lot of time. You will find that many of the recipes are interspersed with long stories and multiple advertisements. The stories may occasionally be entertaining, but they don’t help you get food on the table. If your objective is to prepare a meal, and not spend excessive time on the Internet browsing and searching, then the more mindful solution may be to find a recipe in your traditional cookbooks. 

But if you want to improve upon the Internet, it’s important that you carefully select the right one. During Covid, you may not have needed to take this step, particularly as the books accumulated. If it’s fast meals you are after, choose a cookbook that offers weekday meals say in under 30 minutes, it it’s entertaining with pizzazz, go for a more full-color cookbook with food pictures, and if you cook only in an air-fryer, get a cookbook specific to that type of cooking. Unless you are a cookbook collector you will want a book that you use frequently and has dependable recipes. You should also be able to browse it, in an efficient way, for the weekly quick shopping list and plan the staples you need. If you have a small kitchen and find that you make just one or two recipes you use in a particular cookbook, you might be better off taking a picture of those recipes on your phone or tablet to record them. If you current selection of books do not fill this need then consider giving them away. Or, winnow down the selection to a few that make you smile, or give you inspiration and encouragement.

Flipping the Page:

Print has additional advantages. You don’t have to scroll the screen with greasy fingers or worry about loose flour getting into the keyboard.  And, there’s nothing better than coming across a cookbook, perhaps one that you hand-down to a friend, that has splatters on a page and crib notes by a favorite recipe. Although you might post your comments or ideas for a recipe online, the print cookbook is more personalized. The bookmarks on your Internet browser are not a legacy for future cooks.

But keep in mind that looking for a recipe or thinking about food these days is seldom just about prepping a meal. On the Internet there is a large component to cooking that treats food as ambient background or entertainment. It is often presented culturally, as something deeply nostalgic and emotional.  Food has become the universal language to explore ethnic diversity, cultural heritages, and lost traditions.  The narrative of food is presented by grandmothers or influencers, scripted by image makers, and designed for your digital consumption. It is less about what you are cooking this evening, and more about e-immersions.