A Moveable Feast

The pleasures, and stresses, of cooking with an iPhone.

My iPhone is absolutely filthy, and not because it’s clogged with frisky NSFW photos. The screen cover is coated with streaks of flour and butter and overlaid with a haze of anonymous kitchen grease. For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been trying to suss out whether the iPhone can earn a place in my kitchen. And just as any new pair of sneakers must one day be scuffed, I’ve had to let my shiny wireless pet get mussed.

The first smudge was unsalted butter. It was my daughter’s second birthday, and she wanted pink frosting on her pink cupcakes. In search of a good buttercream, the kind made extra fluffy with Italian meringue, I downloaded the Epicurious app, which houses the Condé Nast recipe library (Bon Appetit’s, and—sniff—the late Gourmet’s). The Condé repertoire is huge: My search delivered 15 recipes for vanilla buttercream, and I chose one with a high (3.5- out of 4-fork) reader rating. The type was crisp and clear. A handy shopping list function presented a checklist of necessary ingredients.

Phone-assisted production of the frosting proved a little tricky, though. Preparing this kind of buttercream, you see, includes a few moments of tension: first, pulling the sugar syrup off the stove at the correct temperature, and second, whipping said syrup into egg whites without throwing the screaming-hot liquid back onto your skin—or any several-hundred-dollar device that might be lying next to the bowl. I had started churning the whites in my mixer when my mind went blank on the proper temperature for the syrup (238-242 degrees Fahrenheit, it turns out). I looked to the phone—its screen was black. I had to stretch across the counter, using one hand to keep the thermometer in the pot and the other to reawaken the phone and find the correct temp, which, in the interim I had overshot. Although the buttercream survived the extra degrees, I started feeling nostalgic for the printed page. A cookbook can lie open, but a smartphone needs constant tactile reassurance.

After trying Epicurious, I turned to Michael Ruhlman’s app, Ratio, based on his book, Ratio: The Simple Codes Behind the Craft of Everyday Cooking, in which he encourages home cooks to do more improvisation by understanding the basic proportions of key recipes: the fat/meat/salt balance of a fresh sausage, say. His Web tool provides these ratios for several preparations and then calculates the proper quantities of the ingredients for you: for X amount of flour, use Y amount of liquid, and Z ounces of eggs. I used it to make buckwheat crepes for a family dinner. Somehow the stripped-down nature of the mobile phone matches Ruhlman’s structuralist approach to cooking. Since this technique entails simply lining up the correct ingredients rather than mastering tricky methods, I was less troubled by the iPhone’s persistent blank-outs.

Less bare-bones is the Vook format, which I first learned about when David Lebovitz considered the future of the cookbook on his blog. Vooks are electronic books that can be downloaded to your iPhone (or to your PC), enriched with photos, video clips, and social functions. For $3.99, I downloaded what at the time was the only extant cooking Vook, The Breakaway Japanese Kitchen, by Eric Gower, which, along with its recipes, has little videos of Gower preparing his Cal-American riffs on Japanese ingredients like shiso, udon, and pickled ginger. But in the end, I used the Vook’s simple recipes, not its multimedia, to guide me in the kitchen. I’m with Michael Pollan in thinking that cooking videos often lead to lethargy rather than active inspiration.

Having tried a few cooking applications, it seems to me that the only undisputed advantage of cooking from a smartphone is the ability to fold shopping into the process of making a meal. I mentioned Epicurious’ handy shopping list. Grocery Zen is even better. The app downloads recipes from Amanda Hesser’s Food52site—like, say the couscous, fennel, and almond salad I tried out—and breaks the ingredients into a shopping list. You can add non-recipe items like Bon Ami or Cheerios and cross off items as you fill your cart, or, if you like, send the list to your sweetheart to pick things up after work. This fluidity between procuring and preparing also allows you to respond to the market: If you see a nice stash of mackerel at the fish counter, you can find a recipe online and purchase the other ingredients on the way home, without a second trip. Shopping applications (there are others, too, like Grocery IQ) combined with recipe apps take full advantage of the iPhone’s mobility. Back home in the kitchen, though, mobility isn’t really what you’re seeking: You just want something easy to read and able to survive a splattering of Sriracha. (That’s why, when I do work from Web recipes, I generally print them out—backward as that may be.)

The digital writing may be scrolling across the wall, but I’m still drawn back to my printed library. The other night, I had some lovely sour cherries on hand and I thought I’d like to use them to make a clafouti, a favorite easy dessert of mine, basically fruit surrounded by a batter that cooks up somewhere between a cake and a custard. I flirted with a few recipes on the Epicurious site, but the user comments weren’t universally positive, and I already have the perfect clafouti recipe in mind: Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s from his first cookbook. His version is a pear clafouti with star anise, which I have made dozens of times with every conceivable fruit.

Cookbooks have continued to sell even as other sections of the print industry plummet, and for a while, at least, I think they’ll continue to buck the trend. I just can’t imagine that too many people want to interrupt their whisking to refresh their screens. And rich as the Web-recipe repertoire is (since, of course, you can use your iPhone for browsing, too), those tiny little screens still present just a snapshot view of a food writer’s craft. Cookbooks and cooking magazines sell not just recipes, but a whole logic of the kitchen. It’s the interstitial pictures, and headnotes, and sidebars, that communicate the author’s philosophy—whether she is more concerned with streamlining for ease or refining toward perfection, preserving tradition or debunking kitchen myths, cooking through the seasons or discovering exotic ingredients. Cookbooks are like albums, whereas iPhones, for now, only offer tracks. I know it’s just a matter of time before form and function converge for a truly compelling digital cooking album (no doubt the iPad will push that form along), and I’ll likely take my iPhone to the grocery store from here on out. But for now, at least, once I start preparing dinner, I’ll stick to print and let my phone recharge.