Blog Post

Why it’s impossible to build a digital recipe library

For more read the follow-up post: A better recipe for digital cuisine

Remember those roasted Brussels sprouts you made last year for the holidays? The whole family loved them — even Uncle Enzo, who normally turns green whenever forced to eat something of that color. Your family now thinks you’re a kitchen wizard and wants you to repeat your culinary feat this weekend, but you can’t seem to find the recipe. You remember discovering it online last year after having one egg nog too many, but you can’t remember where. The copy you printed out has long since made its way into a recycling bin, and when you type “Roasted Brussels Sprouts” into Google(s goog) you get thousands of listings. If you can find that recipe again, you must remember to save it. But how?

When you find that perfect ingredient combination for pumpkin pie filling or the ideal technique for roasting Cornish game hens, the web doesn’t give you many options for holding onto it. You can bookmark recipes that have a dedicated URL; you can cut and paste recipes into an email or document; or you can hit the ‘print’ button, but these are all pretty clunky ways of storing ideas you want for quick reference. Many of the big recipe sites  now have digital recipe boxes behind their login screens, but those are of limited use as well. Maintaining dozens of different accounts with food sites is not only a pain, but by distributing my recipes all over the Internet, I can’t browse, sort or search them as whole.

This year, I decided to build a digital recipe library using what tools were available on the web and through various app stores. It turns out there are plenty of recipe aggregation tools out there, but I wound up focusing on three: Paprika’s Mac and iPad apps,(s aapl) MacGourmet’s Mac App, and KeepRecipes’ web portal. I discovered they’re all great services for saving and cataloging specific types of recipes, but they all share a single huge limitation.

First, the good

KeepRecipes is both a recipe library and a community cooking portal. You can enter your own creations or cut and paste recipes manually into its fields, but the really handy tool is a button you install in the bookmarks bar of your browser. If you find a recipe you want to save for a later date, you hit the button and up pops a recipe window with the ingredients, directions, notes and pictures pre-entered – theoretically, at least – into the appropriate fields. You tap the save button and the recipe is stored in your digital online library forever more.

Paprika's recipe management app for Mac

Paprika and MacGourmet perform similar types of website scraping, but they do so within embedded browsers. You surf to a recipe page through the apps, and when you press the save button, both generate digital recipe cards with the relevant fields for ingredients, their individual measurements, directions, notes, even dietary information and photos. Both apps go beyond just storing recipes, though. With both, you can create shopping lists with one click on a recipe and even generate weekly meal planners. Paprika and MacGourmet both have iPad and iPhone apps as well, allowing you to sync shopping lists and recipes between devices. That’s quite handy if you don’t know what want you cook before you go to the store or if you happen upon some tremendous deal on lamb chops and change your meal plans on the fly.

These are all great apps, though each performs some functions better than others. If I wanted to write my own digital cookbook using my own recipes (which right now are hand-scrawled into a dog-eared notebook), I’d go with MacGourmet. It allows you to enter a tremendous level of detail for each recipe, all of it in relevant searchable fields. The interface is a bit clunky, though, compared to Paprika’s more streamlined look. Paprika also seemed to have the better scraping algorithms, putting the right data into the right boxes, and it was able to grab a lot recipes MacGourmet couldn’t. It also generated far more useful shopping lists, with simple lists of ingredients and quantities you can check off your iPad with a finger flick.

As for KeepRecipes, I loved the concept more than I loved the actual implementation. Its web-based service is not only free; it’s very democratic. I could access my recipes from any browser, even the microbrowser on my Android (s goog) phone. MacGourmet and Paprika require you to download – and pay for – different versions of their apps on your different devices, and neither supports Android. (I suppose we Android users are expected to survive on take-out Chinese and frozen pizzas.)

KeepRecipes also has built up an extensive community so you can share recipes with friends, follow what other people are cooking and promote favorite dishes. The problem is that KeepRecipe’s scraping function is pretty basic. It’s really entering data into a few text fields rather than cataloging the components of a recipe, and it often fails to scrape the right or any information at all from a recipe page. KeepRecipes’ scraping methodology was definitely the most wonky, but it wasn’t alone.  It’s a problem facing any app trying to decipher a recipe from the seemingly random HTML code of a website.

Now the bad

The scraping algorithms of all three apps are optimized to read the recipe formats of most popular cooking websites such as the Food Network (s sni) or Epicurious. Once you go outside the list, the apps can’t recognize the recipe staring at you from your screen.

Of course, those big cooking sites hold huge repositories of recipes for any dish imaginable. If you love Alton Brown (which I do) and Emeril Lagasse (which I don’t), then you can create a substantial recipe library by mining the Food Network site alone. But the best food ideas aren’t necessarily on those big sites. Some of the most innovative – and tasty – stuff is going on at the innumerable culinary blogs popping up all over the web. Every time I tried to grab a dish off of the recipe blog aggregator Gojee, I saw the same message telling me MacGourmet or Paprika couldn’t detect the recipe or the same KeepRecipes window with a bunch of blank fields.

Then there’s the issue of compatibility. Once I save a recipe with Paprika or MacGourmet, they’re trapped inside those applications, stored in a proprietary format. KeepRecipes has great community sharing features, but my recipes are still locked within that community. Since I might find each app useful for different things, at the end of the day, I wind up three separate digital recipe collections.

And what about the quarter-metric-ton of dead trees on my bookshelves? While I’m increasingly going to the web for my recipe ideas, Julia Child’s (et al) Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Irma Rombauer’s Joy of Cooking and Larousse Gastronomique are my culinary bibles. Even if I can build a digital catalog of my favorite dishes from the web, how do I bring these culinary staples (which make up the lion’s share of my cooking) into that new digital library?

If I were to pick one app, I’d probably go with Paprika, since it was the easiest to use and had the best success rate in transforming online recipes into usable digital recipe cards. But I’m under no illusions that I can use Paprika as the foundation of a comprehensive digital recipe library. When it comes to food, the web has made finding a wealth of new ideas and dishes much easier, but when it comes to storing and organizing those concepts, the web has effectively changed nothing from the days of the printed cookbook. My recipes are still bound in tomes. Some of those tomes are now digital, but they’re just as isolated from one another as the cookbooks on my shelves.

Note: While this post identifies the problem of cataloging recipes in the digital age, my follow-up post explores a possible solution. For more read A better recipe for digital cuisine: Why digital cookbooks need to emulate digital music

Bookshelf image courtesy of Flickr user Paper Cat
Cookbook image courtesy of Flickr user Lori L. Stalteri

57 Responses to “Why it’s impossible to build a digital recipe library”

  1. Dave Price

    Kevin — Glad to hear you’re giving YummySoup! a try. It’s simply amazing, and easy to use. Smart Groups of recipes are really useful. But best of all is the ability to import from almost any web page… or text file. And the support is first-rate.

    Easiest way to handle print recipes is to search for them on the web, then import. If necessary to scan, then scan to a PDF and copy the text as text and import into YummySoup!

    Dave P.

  2. I’ve been using DevonThink Pro and DevonThink to Go. It’s a great, but pricey solution. I had DevonThink for other reasons. Just turns out to be good for recipes too. I usually use the Web Clipper.

  3. I built a simple database out of FileMaker way back in 1995 and have been enhancing it ever since. I now have no paper, book or even web clipped recipes. Everything gets poured into my database, including images and I take my MacBook Pro into the kitchen when I’m cooking. Clean, simple… its all I want/need. 23,000 recipes later…

  4. Evernote is great for saving recipes, and Say Mmm just launched an Evernote integration to extend some of our more popular features to recipes on Evernote. You can automatically create grocery lists from recipes or recipe links right on Evernote, and it will even estimate nutritional information for recipes. Here is more info:

    Also, unlike other shopping list tools that just copy over ingredients to the shopping list, Say Mmm will use smart logic to convert ingredients into items you would actually buy in the store, so for example, instead of 1 cup of shredded carrots it would tell you to get 2 carrots. We have a number of other free meal planning and grocery shopping features on our site, and have made it so bloggers can add features to their recipes right on their sites as well.

  5. Jim Benton

    Interesting article. I’m surprised at the amount of interest recipe storage solutions seem to attract, but then again, managing recipes found online is a common problem.

    I’m working on a small site that’s dedicated to helping home cooks become better chefs. It’s called Forkchop (you can sign up for an invite at It does support importing recipes from various websites, but I’m focusing more on providing tools that help cooks make a recipe better each time they prepare it. If you find yourself becoming more interested in tracking your technique and process over time than in archiving lists of ingredients and steps, it might be worth checking out.

  6. Kevin Fitchard

    Thanks everyone for your comments! Sorry I couldn’t reply to everyone individually, but this story is getting much more attention than I thought it would (not that I’m complaining). Lots of good suggestions on apps/sites/approaches to cataloging food, and I plan to use to the holiday downtime to explore them all.

    The amount of support for Evernote as a recipe aggregator is really interesting. I never thought of it as a way of cataloging recipes since it seems to be a more general note-taking tool, but given the inherent limitations of any app designed to scrape recipes, maybe a general tool is what’s called for. I’ll definitely look into the possibility of using Evernote (Springpad, too) as a the basis of digital recipe library.

    As some of you might suspect, this isn’t the last post I plan to make on this topic. This week I plan to blog on the possibility (and limitations) of a digital recipe format. So stay tuned, and, as always, would love to hear your feedback.

    • Jason Kesler

      When exploring Evernote, keep in mind that not only can you import from the web easily, but it scans PDFs and pictures for text, making them searchable. I have been attempting to digitize recipes from cookbooks and family recipe cards. When evaluating Evernote for this project, I scanned the cards and took pictures of the cookbooks. Worked perfectly, though it wasn’t the prettiest solution. Also, it doesn’t offer the nice features of a dedicated application. Now if there was a way to have Paprika scrape those images (jpegs & PDFs), I’d be a happy man….

    • jeffjaner

      One major difference between Evernote and Springpad is that Springpad saves the recipe as structured data. This not only enables one click shopping list creation, but also integration with sites like for alerts to coupons specific to recipe ingredients.

    • Kevin Fitchard

      Hi Howard, but wouldn’t alphabetically be the only way it could sort those recipes? I have docs save as e-mails and PDFs all over the place. What I’m looking for is a way to easily categorize and cross-index them. But to your point, maybe a keyword search is the best tool at our disposal today.

  7. Just create your own file of PDFs from the original file pages and store them in a folder appropriately named. However, I have not used a recipe since I started cooking myself when I was 8 years old except when I baked a cake from scratch that year.

  8. jeffjaner

    Jeff Janer, Springpad co-founder here. Of course, I’m biased, but with more than 750,000 recipes saved to Springpad – many of our users have taken advantage of our web and mobile apps, including our bookmarklet and extensions to quickly save and access their recipes on the web and on the go. We also have one click shopping list creation and a recipe box notebook that’s customized to make it easy to save recipes in one place:

    • Kevin Fitchard

      Thanks Jeff, I’ll definitely give Springpad a whirl as a recipe book. Maybe I need to do a followup post on Evernote and Springpad — how general tools may be the answer to specific recipe storage needs.

  9. You seem to have deliberately ignored Yummy Soup, one of the most established recipe systems out (longer than KeepRecipes and Paprika..)

    It too can scrape websites (the Big 11 –,,,,,,,,, and – with more coming…), plus you can SHARE your recipes between each other by broadcasting it into your account (iCloud is coming too). Plus there’s an iOS player for recipes that you can use as a cookbook – and you can mark where you are in a recipe with a touch.

    I’ve been using it for years, and when I have to mark something in manually it rarely takes more than pair of minutes, yet I have URLs, proper proportions, organized metadata, URLs, genres and sites to search by and a whole lot more than you’d get from a spreadsheet.

    It’s hard to imagine you accidentally left this off the list!

    • Kevin Fitchard

      Hi HollandJim. Nope, nothing accidental at all. There are dozens of recipe apps out there, and I chose to only highlight these three in the article. They just happen to be the apps I’ve used myself or had heard a lot about. The point of the piece was more of an experiment than any kind of comprehensive review of all food apps. YummySoup was one of the ones I considered though.

      On your suggestion, I did download YummySoup for Mac. There definitely seem to be some neat features (particularly the sharing features you pointed out). But it does seem that it has the limitations as all of the other recipe scraping apps out there. It grabbed Alton Brown’s Corned Beef recipe easily, but then I tried one of the test recipes I’ve been using for all of the apps I tested out and got same blank recipe card:

      But like I pointed out in the post, this is the same limitation all recipe apps face. Unless some kind of standard recipe format emerges (more on this in a future post), everyone is restricted to the same big sites.

      I definitely saw enough interesting in YummySoup to make me want to fiddle with it further. Luckily the holidays are the perfect time to do it. :)

  10. YummySoup is the go: it not only recognizes a bunch of recipe sites, it allows you to very easily pull off the components of a recipe from an arbitrary site to save in its database. There’s also an iPad version, but it needs work before it’s of much value.


  11. My recipe file is windows. Recipe format is free form. Search finds what I’m looking for almost instantaneously. Sugarsynch backs it up and provides sharing possibilities. I also use my Linux and iPad systems to access them depending on where I am. Sometimes apps are overkill. I think a recipe app needlessly enforces strict structure on something that is inheritently personal and chaotic.

    • Kevin Fitchard

      Good point, Denny. As it’s becoming readily apparent from all of the comments, everyone has different requirements from a recipe collection. The order I might want to impose on my database could be useless detail and categorization to another.

    • Kevin Fitchard

      Hey Tim, but how do you know it’s a good recipe? I can’t tell you how many times I’ve burned by some random recipe I’ve found through search. In any case, once you’ve found that perfect Cake recipe and you want to keep it, how do you go about? Just hope it pops back up in your search next time you want it? You get no argument from on the sheer volume of recipe information the Web provides, but curating and organizing that info seems to be a problem.

  12. Duane Bemister

    You can also use WebSonar. Click the reader tab in Safari then print to pdf and then add the recipes to your library. You can search the content and add posit the notes that are also searchable.

  13. I can’t imagine looking past evernote….getting it in is a doddle from web clipping to scanning, organising through tags, it has great search and can be accessed from any device…

  14. Joe Lamkin

    I recently converted from MacGourmet to Paprika. For me, the most important aspect is seemless syncing between Mac, iPad and iPhone. I do most recipe management on the Mac, use the iPad while cooking, and shop with the iPhone, and with Paprika I always have an updated database when I need it. And it’s a great balance between the full-featured but clunky MacGourmet (which I could never get to sync) and the free-form Evernote. The recipe scraping works just as well on iOs devices, which is a big plus.

  15. Good summation on the issues around maintaining a searchable database of food related information. All the downsides of various methods make the whole process, uhm, not fun. Nice of you to take the trouble so we don’t have to.
    I have three options at my disposal:
    Filemaker Pro, requires at lot of setup, but would probably work well enough. Not tried yet.
    Numbers, could work, but really ugly and clunky. Probably slow too.
    Notational Velocity plain text only, the one I am using. Copy and paste
    recipes, with links. Tag as a recipe with a hot key. Global searching, very fast. In Dropbox, so I have access on the iPhone. So based on your research I think I stay with NV. Thx for the article.

  16. I know Google’s micro formats are supposed to make the recipes food bloggers share easier to find, but they are piddly and aggravating. The current crop of plugins for WordPress leave a lot to be desired (at least the ones I have tested so far) and the very thought of digging back through and reformatting the hundreds of recipes I’ve posted on my site over the past few years makes me want to crawl back into bed and say to heck with it.
    I know I don’t have the resources to hire someone to perform this feat, it’s just another chore that gives large sites an advantage.
    Personally, I take a more analog approach to recipe storage. I print it, hole punch and add it to a binder. If I end up using it, it gets moved to a second binder with my annotations. If I end up loving it, it goes on my site.

    • Kevin Fitchard

      I take it you’re a food blogger, Heather? (What’s your site? Feel free to share.) I’d love to get your perspective on the idea of digital recipes that are easy to share and store. If you create a recipe do you want to give people the ability to easily copy and share it independently of your blog, or do you want people to access it from your blog? Not sure if you’re monetizing your blog through ads, but I imagine it would make all of the difference in the world.

  17. Darryell Randle

    I just either create or copy and paste a recipe into a file or spreadsheet in my Dropbox, therefore making my recipes accessible wherever I am. It’s not impossible, it’s actually fun.

    • Kevin Fitchard

      Hey Kevin, This is very, very cool. Sure it doesn’t provide individual recipes, but, man, the time savings of this feature will be extraordinary. I can’t count how many time I’ve had some ingredient and wanted to do a quick scan of my main cookbooks to see what recipes they offer. Even with the free service, I can do a quick scan of my big five in an instant.

      It’s too bad there isn’t a short description of the recipe in each entry. A page number would be helpful as well. It doesn’t solve the problem of creating a digital recipe library, but as indexing tool, bravo!

  18. Jeff Clark

    I have tried many of the same tricks you mentioned, but alas, I have gone to the cut and paste method and stick them in Google docs. I do very little clean up, so each recipe looks a little different. I don’t get a database of ingredients so I can create shopping lists or have the ability to data mine what can I make with these ingredients, but I don’t miss those features, as I never used them in some other software.

    I do organize my recipes into collections on Google docs, pretty much like a regular cookbook, the same recipe can be in multiple collections. For example, I have my Beef Burgundy recipe in the beef, soup and stews, and French recipe collections. Also with Google docs, I can share with other cooking friends or family (my choosing), they can add comments to the recipe, which I can decide to include or not include, and ultimately I think it would be cool to cook with a friend the same dish and share our experience on Hangouts in Google+.

    • Glenn Bolton

      As an avid cook, I find MacGourmet to be the most robust Recipe app for the Mac/iPad/iPhone platform. Since I am a regular MacGourmet user, I will update a few points you made in your article.

      1- The app provides an export method into other Recipe managers such as MasterCook and Meal Master. If you want to share a recipe, you can simply e-mail it to someone as well OR email it yourself and label it within GMail.

      2- For grabbing recipes from a non-supported recipe site(as there are endless numbers of them), ensure the “Clip Recipe” service is enabled for your browser and highlight the recipe, select the “Clip Recipe” and Voila!, it goes in as a clipping into MacGourmet’s Recipe Import Assistant so you can clean it up and save it as part of your recipe collection.

      3- It provides a Nutritional Database for those that need to track calories, carbs, fat, etc. According to the website description, Paprika only imports the data if provided on a website, but MacGourmet provides extensive nutritional data based on the USDA food list from within the program.

      Fourthly, for those hard copy books/recipes, I’m amazed at how many of those individual recipes you can find online to import into MacGourmet. For those I can’t find, I simply enter the recipe as I cook them so I have the ones I want for later instead of a bunch I’ll never try.

      Overall, a great article as I’m always glad to read the latest and greatest on recipe app. Just wanted to add clarification to some key points. :)

      • Kevin Fitchard

        Thanks Glenn,

        I apologize if I sold MacGourmet short. I loved the level of detail in MacGourmet, though it took a while to figure some of the features out, and now that you’ve pointed out the export feature, I think I really will use it to make my own recipes digital (one of these days). My big fear is doing all that work only to have my recipes trapped within an app.

        I was only dealing with the free trial version so I might not have gotten access to all of the add-ons. I did notice the clip recipe feature but couldn’t get to work. Keeprecipes had a similar feature, which allows you to highlight a block of text before you hit the save button. It’s only saving a big text file, though. Is that what MacGourmet does as well?

  19. Rolf Wagels

    My app of choice is Website, iPad and iPhone App work hand in hand, and the pepperplate bookmarklet solves the problem for the site that are not supported by pepperplate directly (being from Germany, that’s most of the sites, actually..). Great scaling, great timers, great shopping list features. Highly recommended!
    (The problem with recipes in the book is not solved, though, but sure that’s imminent).
    Happy holidays!

  20. Brea Plum

    I gave up years ago and just put everything into a spreadsheet. It’s clunky and it ain’t pretty, but I’ve never had compatibility problems. I also clip to Evernote but, as you say, those recipes are now trapped in that app until I copy & paste them into the megaspreadsheet.

      • brianweeden

        Huge Evernote user here. I typically will copy the recipe and then hit cut and paste into Evernote twice – once with the full “as-is” page to set the URL, and then if the formatting is messed up I hit CTRL-Z to undo and re-paste it just as text. I also tag the recipe by cuisine and type of food (party, appetizer, grill, comfort, etc).

        What I love about Evernote is that it syncs across al my devices. So if I’m at the store and need to double-check a recipe or find a recipe to make use of a certain ingredient on sale, I can easily.

    • Peta Off Duty

      I use Evernote too. Ipad propos up nicely to use in the kitchen. No need for printing. And also on the iPhone to check for ingredients when at the shops. Webclipper is great to capture recipes from anywhere. And if someone emails me a recipe I can just forward it to evernote as well.