The Surprisingly Effective Way to Organize Your Recipe Collection

When a company called Recipeasly launched a new product this week, it might have seemed like a dream come true for home cooks drowning in information overload and struggling to organize recipes. Product manager Tom Redman announced on Twitter that he and two friends had created a solution to “fix online recipes,” making it easier to collect your favorites from the Internet but “without the ads or life stories.”

Within hours, Recipeasly received a torrent of criticism from food bloggers and others, arguing that the company was violating copyright laws and robbing content creators of their income streams. In a tweet that’s been liked over 1,000 times, Kat Kinsman, senior editor at Food & Wine magazine, responded to Redman, “Wait, so you are just stealing content, eliminating context and creator revenue, and diminishing the labor that is the only way these recipes exist in the first place because you have decided the humans behind them are annoying?”

Recipeasly quickly took down its website and apologized, suggesting that its intentions were to help content creators. But by removing the introductory notes, it erased what many consider to be the heart of the recipes, what one food writer, Jessica van Dop, said on Twitter “tell the stories of generations of families who created dishes that represents a culture.”

Redman claimed that imported recipes could only be viewed by the person who did so, just as if they had printed a recipe or copied it into a document. But in an article about the controversy in the Washington Post, several bloggers disputed this, adding that the site could have created revenue streams that benefit Recipeasly rather than the people who originally published the recipes.

Dubious ethics aside, because of the intricacies of copyright regulations, Recipeasly may not have technically violated the law. According to the U.S. Copyright office, “mere listings of ingredients” are not subject to copyright protection. (Whether or not the blogs themselves included a copyright symbol or were registered with the copyright office is irrelevant.) In a 1996 lawsuit involving recipes from a book of Dannon Yogurt recipes that were copied by another publisher, the court ruled that the lists of ingredients and directions for preparing the dishes were excluded from copyright protection.

Regardless, Recipeasly’s design would have run afoul of the standard practice for recipe attribution that has been neatly summarized by well-regarded food writer David Lebovitz. He says that if you’re not substantially changing a recipe and rewriting it in your own words, or if you’re simply copying a recipe, the right thing to do is link to the original source and give proper attribution in your text. Although Recipeasly did include a small link back to the original recipe, it failed to give credit to its source.

Of course, Recipeasly isn’t the first company to attempt to solve the problem of organizing online recipes. Sites like Copy Me That, Pepperplate, Paprika, and Big Oven all have various ways for you to bookmark, save, and organize recipes from around the Web, or to add your own recipes. And even the New York Times Cooking app offers a similar capability to paying subscribers.

But none of these sites would help you organize the deluge of recipes that you may have collected from your grandmother’s file box, clippings from magazines that you may have stashed away in a drawer, or your favorite cookbooks that may be festooned with Post-it notes. So what’s a home cook to do?

I’m here to offer two solutions – one that may be right for the highly organized person, and one for everyone else. Here’s what I do: Because I frequently cook from recipes that I’ve found in the New York Times, I organize recipes in the Times cooking app. But I also keep a master spreadsheet with an alphabetical list of every recipe I’ve recently cooked, as well as a second file with a list of recipes I’d like to make. Ideally, I’d have a note listing the source of every recipe (a website link, or the page number of a cookbook or magazine) so I can easily find it again. But even a detail-oriented home cook like me finds that system hard to maintain. Clearly, it won’t work for everyone.

The second solution is a “radical suggestion” that I’m borrowing from Christopher Kimball, from a recent episode of his Milk Street Radio podcast. Kimball’s surprising advice was to try cooking without using recipes at all. Instead, he suggests that you try cooking differently, by mastering a small number of basic dishes that you can vary endlessly. “You’re going to discover that you don’t need recipes as much as you think you do. It’ll make life easier,” Kimball said.

When you cook without recipes, or use them only as a rough guide, you gain confidence in the kitchen, by trusting your own experience rather than following step-by-step instructions. This technique might not work as well for baking, or when you’re making dishes that require a specific ratio of ingredients to turn out properly. But often, you can cook just as well using your instincts and your tastebuds. And that way, you can rely on cookbooks and food blogs not for directions, but for inspiration. And perhaps even more importantly, you can allow yourself time to savor the life stories that didn’t need to be fixed in the first place.

How do you organize recipes in your own collection? Leave a comment and let me know!

What I Ate: Mushroom risotto, adapted from The Food Lab by Kenji Lopez-Alt

Organize recipes like this mushroom risotto from Kenji Lopez-Alt's The Food Lab

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