Virtual kitchens are a mouse click away as millions of cooks, bakers, chefs and people seeking to boil water turn to the Internet for help.
In the beginning, there was Grandma.
She knew most of her recipes by heart, a natural skill when choices were few, heritage was strong and the duty was daily. She passed them along to her daughter, who wrote them on small cards and filed them in a box alongside recipes clipped from magazines, newspapers and packages of wonderful new convenience foods.
That box, however, is now gathering dust. Today's cooks get recipes from the Internet, or from watching the Food Network, or from cookbooks discovered through someone's food blog.
Recipe sites pop up like cremini mushrooms after a rain, proving both a boon and a frustration to a curious cook. Technology is changing how we plan meals, shop for groceries, tweak recipes, even assemble entire virtual cookbooks. That guy pushing his grocery cart while studying his cell phone screen may be checking ingredients on a downloaded recipe.
Perhaps he chose that particular recipe based on comments posted to a site by cooks eager to share their opinions. It's all what Jessica Hogue, an analyst for Nielsen/NetRatings in California calls "bringing the kitchen table online."
Consider these recent developments:
• Mobio Networks has an application -- with a little carrot icon -- that searches thousands of recipes on your mobile phone, reviews them, then assembles the necessary grocery list (www.getmobio.com).
• At GroupRecipes.com, the Recipe Robot will track your tastes and recommend recipes -- which seems sort of "Space Odyssey"-creepy until you realize it's the sort of thoughtful familiarity we'd appreciate from the chef at our favorite restaurant.
• BakeSpace.com, "a place for cookers and cakers," lets you build a custom online cookbook with videos and graphics, and also stage live cooking demonstrations. The site reports having 20,000 registered members from more than 150 countries.
• CHOW.com lets you "hack" into recipes, save your modifications to a posted original, then post your hack so that others can see your adjustment. A culinary one-upmanship? Perhaps, but also a way for people with, say, wheat allergies to see how others adapt.
• Yahoo! Search has a shortcut in which typing "recipes" followed by a dish pops up the top-rated selections. Type "recipes beef stroganoff" and you get, oh my, a whopping 954,000 recipes. Imagine -- even allowing for duplication -- almost 1 million recipes for beef stroganoff have been typed, cut, pasted, forwarded and otherwise shared, and can be accessed in 0.12 of a second.
Leaps and bounds
Hogue, of the Nielsen company, said 2007 was a huge year for growth in online cooking sites. Last May, about 50 million U.S. Internet users visited food sites. By December, that figure climbed to 62 million. Most seek a quick fix to a dinner dilemma.
"They've got turkey and maybe some parsnips in the fridge, so they'll go to Recipezaar and plug in a main ingredient and get literally thousands of community-reviewed ideas," she said.
That can be overwhelming, which has led to more focused sites and more narrowly defined message boards, she said. Mothers of picky eaters, spouses of diabetics, bakers who are gluten-intolerant -- there's a community of fellow seekers out there, all eager to share their experiences.
Some cooks are creating platforms from social networks like MySpace or Facebook to set up groups devoted to, say, cheesecake, to which others then subscribe.
Food companies also are capitalizing on online commenting, Hogue said, with more references to name brands and product reviews infiltrating popular sites.
Cathedral Hill cuisine
St. Paul cook Elisabeth Meyer started a culinary blog last spring, mostly because it seemed as though everyone she virtually hung out with on Cooking Light magazine's bulletin board had a blog. Thus was born Cooking in Cathedral Hill (cookingincathedralhill.blogspot.com/), on which she posts photos of her dinner entrées along with recipes and commentary.
The site makes life easier when dinner guests invariably ask for her recipe. "I can just point them to my blog," she said. "And it's helpful for me, too, because now I always know where my recipes are!"
Meyer, 27, owns and directs a preschool in Inver Grove Heights. She said her most popular posts are those in which she's shared an old family recipe, such as hard-to-find traditional Swedish recipes from a late great-great-aunt. "It's really a social thing," she said, although she's never met any of her blog friends in the flesh.
Living out your culinary life on the Internet can get a bit spicy.
"Sometimes people get here because they've Googled, but whatever [search] words they used, they clearly are not looking for food recipes," she said. "That's always a shocker for me."
Meyer consciously does not post photos of herself or of anything identifiable in her life. "I've gotten a few comments like, 'Where do you live on Cathedral Hill? I think I know that corner,' and I'm like, this is so not where we're going with this."
Clearly, though, there's a sense of security within the communities nurtured on various bulletin boards. On Cooking Light's site, for example, there is the "other stuff" forum in which members trade posts about "American Idol," their pets, or leads on rental properties in Mexico.
How popular are these community sites? Very. Click the prompt on www.grouprecipes.com to see how many new recipes have been posted in the preceding 24 hours: 140. Read one blogger's profile and learn that she joined one year ago, has 42 cooking friends and her recipes have tallied 10,980 page views.
Some of the most entertaining reading on the Net can be found in the list of blog names running down the side of home pages. Pinch My Salt, Habeas Brulee, Running With Tweezers, The Four Coursemen, I'm Mad and I Eat -- the sociological and psychological motivations are never far from the culinary bent.
Hogue also has observed a spike in the number of consumers posting videos of themselves cooking, sometimes to entertain, but often to seriously instruct. Some are polished; some are hesitant. "The people who are uploading their own videos are skewing slightly younger," she said. "It's an interesting way to educate others about techniques, to become better consumers."
Cookbooks still popular
Hogue doubts that the Internet hurts the cookbook market. If anything, both online and dead-tree resources are benefiting from a growing interest (or resurgence) in hanging out in the kitchen.
"There's something in the nature of people who like to cook, and sharing is a natural part of that," she said. "There's less of an idea that people are going online to seek an immediate solution to dinner tonight, but rather to explore some really important solutions that make a difference to their lifestyles," such as seeking out foods for specialized diets.
And, she added, rising oil prices that nibble away at people's disposable incomes may mean more meals cooked at home, whether for economics or for a desire to get back to basics. No matter whether the recipe is in Grandma's handwriting or was downloaded from some blogger in Biloxi, the skills needed to feed yourself are not yet obsolete.
Kim Ode • 612-673-7185