It’s been almost 50 years since Julia Child’s warble first filled American kitchens and democratized the art of French cooking. The tutorials Child shared on her television and radio programs—butter-rubbed roast chicken, perfect quiche Lorraine and, who could forget, beef bourguignon—were a boon to inquisitive amateurs at home.
Today, another formidable force of culinary democratization has found its way into our kitchens: the tablet computer. With a growing number of apps, magazines, recipe networks and videos made specifically for the web, and a size advantage over the smartphone, it’s hard to dispute its new role as cook’s best friend.
Replacing the cookbook
In home kitchens, digital devices increasingly occupy prime counter space beside the Cuisinart, according to a poll (PDF) conducted this summer by AllRecipes.com. Recipe and cooking websites have largely replaced traditional media, with 44 percent of respondents selecting digital media their preferred cooking resource—more than double the 19 percent who still cite cookbooks.
In addition to polling users about their cooking habits today, the AllRecipes study also compared changes in the kitchen since the first survey in 1999. Notably, in the ’99 study, when asked what was the most difficult thing about getting dinner on the table, close to one in three respondents said “finding time to plan and cook.” Today, the number has dropped by 39 percent.
“People are watching how-tos on tablets in the kitchen the same way housewives used to watch Julia Child while attempting an omelette,” says Phoebe Lapine, a self-taught chef and blogger with a role in BBC America’s new show Chef Race: UK vs US.
Mobile technology has also made its way into professional kitchens. Marnely Rodriguez-Murray, the chef behind the blog Cooking with Books, is, as the name of her site implies, a traditionalist. But she has noted a growing reliance among her colleagues on the web’s horn of plenty: “A lot of us just jump online while literally being ‘on the line’ at work—either to double check if a specific brand is gluten-free or to just grab a recipe from a food blog to test.”
An entire industry of kitchen-specific accessories has bloomed, providing additional peace of mind to tablet owners cooking alongside their devices. From spill-resisting sleeves to docking stations, these add-ons ensure that sticky fingers and wobbling bowls of whipped cream are kept clear of precious hardware.
Then there are apps like iCookbook, available on all tablet platforms including Windows, which integrate hands-free technology into their software. The tablet’s built-in camera tracks hand movements, allowing user to “flip pages” by waving a hand over the device.
Help at hand
Lest we forget, smart phones and tablets are communications devices that can connect amateurs with world famous chefs and give experts access to an eager audience.
“This summer I was cooking from Michael Natkin’s Herbivoracious and saw I didn’t have one of the recipe’s key ingredients,” Rodriguez-Murray of Cooking with Books explains. “I tweeted him for suggestions, and he responded in less than a minute.”
Well-established chefs like Dorie Greenspan and Mark Bittman are big digital communicators; each has gained a six-figure following. While their behaviors differ (Bittman, for example, likes to share recipes, while Greenspan posts most often about events at her various cookie shops), they tweet dutifully in service of their followers.
Food52, a recipe-sharing site founded by writers Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs, added a food hotline to its site this year. Users “in a pickle” can submit a query marked as urgent and receive advice from the community almost immediately. Answers to dilemmas such as “Can you pause a braise?” and “What’s a good substitute for sherry vinegar?” can be crowd-sourced to a vast network of experts, displacing the quaint “ask an editor” column of traditional print publications.
Camaraderie across kitchens
In addition to a satisfying meal, connected cooks can also reap another reward from their labors: recognition. Appetizing food photos on Facebook reliably earn “likes” for account holders and winners of Food52’s weekly recipe contests are reviewed by the experts and spotlighted on the homepage.
“It’s not enough just to cook dinner anymore,” says Ms. Lapine. “Everyone needs to share what they’ve made. And everyone is a food photographer now. Having smart devices in the kitchen while we’re creating is kind of part of the process.”
But the incentives transcend the amateur’s distant dream of food-world stardom. Before she passed away, the screenwriter Nora Ephron shared recipes on the Food52 site anonymously under the pen name mrsp, suggesting that camaraderie and community are what many home cooks may be after. After all, food is just another medium of telling stories. Consult Jenny Rosenstrach’s fantastic blog, now book, Dinner: A Love Story, if you’re still skeptical.