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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