Bringing Technology to the Kitchen
A computer is handy for a cook FOR the kitchen in streaming cooking shows or tutorials off of youtube. It's a great resource for new recipes or for your old family recipes as well.
But a computer hasn't been handy to have IN the kitchen. A keyboard to fill with debris and spills, same for the mouse. And where do you put the monitor? Not to mention all the cables.
Now with smartphones and tablets, you have some options to help you out smoothly and seamlessly.
It would be nice to have a stand to angle the tablet or phone for your viewing convenience. Most tablets and phones have specialized docks and stands that would work, but may not be best in the kitchen. An inexpensive picture stand will do the job as well. If you want to get the device up out of the way of spills and knocks, there are mounts for tablets for cars and many of these are easily adaptable to install beneath a cabinet. I have a RAMMount in my truck that would work quite well for under cabinet mounting too. I would only need a second screw-in bracket as the arm and tablet clip I would re-use from the truck mount.
Be smart about where you use or mount your device as you don't want to ruin it with heat from a stove, or toaster. Or steam from a coffeemaker and so on. Heat and steam rise, and will collect under your cabinets somewhat so keep an eye on things in all cases.
If you're worried about spills or fine powders, you can put your device inside a clear plastic bag. Put the opening towards the bottom. This way spills will slip off, but you can slide your hand up inside the bag to use the capacitive screen as the bag would otherwise interfere with touch sensing.
Lastly, you should consider extending or disabling the screen sleep option for kitchen use. Turning the screen on after every ingredient addition or step is a hassle and you'll probably have messy hands at some point and wouldn't want to touch the device then anyway.
If you like software for managing your personal recipes, it would be ideal if you could use your desktop computer for typing, and managing recipes, but then access those recipes from your phone. I'm not aware of a PC/smartphone recipe tool that does this well yet where the syncing is done in the background. With Mastercook, for example, you can use Mastercook on your PC, and the use a compatible smartphone app such as My Cookbook that can read Mastercook files as well as a few other formats. I don't use Mastercook nor My Cookbook, so this is not an endorsement of them, just an example.
That's a good solution for software although you have to manually move files between the phone and pc. If you're open to plain text files, there are some tools that will synchronize your files for you automatically. Dropbox, for example, is just a folder on your computer that syncs to Dropbox servers. Install Dropbox on your phone or tablet and that same folder is now available on your phone. GoogleDrive, Skydrive are a few other similar services. I've not tried it, but theoretically, you could use your Dropbox folder for your Mastercook file location. Then it would sync automatically to your phone's Dropbox. I suspect however that the android app doesn't let you choose the folder location for the files you want to import.
A similar idea, but more focused on notes are programs like Evernote. This is like a notebook and you add text files or pictures or most anything really, and it will sync up with your other installations of Evernote. I use evernote for lots of little notes, quotes, links, ideas and even some recipes.
Evernote has a Food plugin, but it is more of a food diary function than a recipe tool. This plugin has since been discontinued (ed note).
I'm not a fan of the recipe software I've tried. It's been clunky to import files and export files and you get tied to a file format that might not be supported in the future. I've found that just plain text files have worked well for me and I impose structure on the files with directories. The built in desktop search features work pretty well for turning up recipes quickly on particular topics. And text files work on all computer operating systems are compatible with all hardware and are endlessly versatile.
You can help out your searches if you are consistent with naming or terminology as you create recipes, notes or files, but there are some other tricks you can use
Tagging your Content
Most recipe software lets you search on ingredients in your recipes. But they also support tags quite often. Tags are custom search words you add to your recipes to help you find and use them in ways that work for you.
You can create keywords and input them in the tagging feature in your software or Evernote. If you use text files like me, just put them at the end of the text file, but it's best if you prepend a character to the front of them that makes them unique from every other occurence of that term in your recipes. So you might add some ethnicity tags like Chinese, Italian, and French. But those terms show up other places so instead type them as maybe ^french or &chinese. Including a character tag in front of the term makes it distinct from all other occurences and then you search with the character tag and your word together. You can also add tags like desserts, holidays, principal ingredients, techniques and so on.
It helps to keep a master index with all the tags you'll use. Just as a small example, it could like like this:
Cuisine Regions or styles
Look through the index of one of your favorite cookbooks and you'll get a feel for what tags would be useful to you. Of course, a recipe might have many tags. Sichuan Pork could be tagged with chinese,pork, stirfry, spicy and probably a few others as well.
Some more thoughts on using Evernote
Evernote can directly import a whole folder full of text files right into a single notebook, automatically populating Evernote with your text file recipes. It won't automatically tag them, but it's a good way to move your content if Evernote is interesting to you. As many cookbook apps will export to text files or Mastercook format, that's a way you could add them to Evernote easily.
Each recipe should be it's own note. Then you can put notes into notebooks and stacks for futher organization and heirarchy. Then, you can create a stack of notebooks. Your stack might just be your cookbooks. Or you might have individual stacks for different cuisines or courses depending how you use your recipes. You've only got the note, notebook and stack for grouping similar items so use the tagging feature judiciously at the note level to tie recipes together in other ways if you need more organization.
You can integrate your physical cookbooks and ecookbooks in interesting ways with your recipe notes. Because Evernote can include pictures, movies, or audio files along with text, you can take a picture of your cookbooks index pages and keep them in evernote. This lets you scan through your cookbooks on a tablet, phone or pc even if you're away from your physical cookbooks. So you can look through your indexes on your commute home and know which cookbook to open when you come in through the door.
Evernote has the ability to search for words within pdf, photos and so on. It's not perfect, but is a handy feature to help your searches.
Mastercook and many other tools will attempt to import a recipe from the web automatically. They do an OK job of it. For a text file user, a simple copy and paste does the job as well.
A phone or tablet makes for a handy tool for copying down a recipe quickly. It's a pocket photocopier or scanner in many ways. As smartphones come with decent cameras, you can snap a picture of a recipe from that magazine at the dentist's office and then transcribe it later. With 3 megapixel cameras, I've not had much success in getting useful text on a whole page. ON smaller portions of a page, it does work. 5 megapixel or more cameras can take a whole page image that is quite readable.
One of the key issues in getting a good text image is strong light. So make sure your flash is set to go off. That can be a little obtrusive to people around you though, so you might move over by a window to use the sunlight. Or carry a small flashlight. There are many high quality LED lights that will fit on your keys such as the widely available Photon Microlight or it's many copies. I know some women who keep an inexpensive clip light like these http://www.countycomm.com/aressoled.html clipped at the top of their purse or backpack to light up the insides at night as needed.
At this point, you have some choices for what you want to do with your recipe image. You can keep it as a readable image. You can manually transcribe the recipe into your recipe management system. You can load it into an Optical Character Recognition (OCR). If you have a scanner, you probably have some lightweight OCR software that came with it. There are some freeware tools and some you can purchase as well. FreeOCR is probably the best freebie at this time for a Windows PC.
Some OCR handles columns better than others. I've usually had better luck OCRing colums one by one rather than all at once. You'll probably have to correct some of the fractions in the OCR recipe as that's the most difficult bits to recognize. It's worth verifying all the numbers in the OCR recipe while you still have the original image for referencing.
Phones and tablets don't have the hardware or battery life to support OCR. There are some tools that load the image to a server for processing and give you the results. They're not great quality yet.
If you're using Evernote or a similar program, you can take the picture right into Evernote, add some relevant tags and you're good to go. Evernote will use its servers to try to OCR the image for keywords at least making the image searchable with text searches even though you don't get the raw text for your own use.
Book and ebook Management
Pros and home cooks alike tend to amass a collection of cookbooks and magazines. An index and location tool would be helpful to us just like in a library.
For physical books, I like the Android app Book Catalogue. A free app, it uses the tablet or phone's camera to image the barcode/ISBN off your books and then automatically populate the fields such as title, publisher, date and other pertinent book information. It also includes a cover image. If your book doesn't have a barcode, you can manually type in the 10 digit ISBN code and it will still do the rest automatically. Very convenient and quick. You'll get to set a rating from 1-5 stars, including half stars; a shelf location note of your own devising, such as Baking Shelf, or French shelf, or whatever; as well as other notes, perhaps favorite recipe names and their page numbers.
I've had quite good success with the app getting the right information and cover image with books back into the late 60s. You'll occasionally have to adapt some SBNs to ISBNs and a few I had to add completely by hand as they were small community books or too old for ISBN. You can add your own cover image from the camera on your tablet or phone too if you want.
It supports import or export functions as well as Comma Separated Values so you can take the data into other applications or massage it Excel if you like.
You can then search through your books with a system much like browsing amazon or your local library's computerized catalogue. It will also manage and track lending books.
As to managing magazines, this is another time I'd rely on Evernote. At one point, I went back through my Bon Appetit magazines with a pair of scissors and cut out the recipes I wanted to keep and recycled the rest of the magazine. Now, I'd just go back through with my smartphone camera and take pictures of the relevant recipes and let Evernote handle the organizing and searching. Non-destructive to the magazines and more useful for you.
For ebooks, I've found Calibre a valuable tool on my PC. It works with multiple ebook formats as well as pdfs. It will do much of the same work as Book Catalogue but for ebooks. You can add cover images if you're missing them, change formats to or from .mobi, .lit, .epub and so on (though the book has to be DRM free for this-- DO NOT PIRATE BOOKS).
One thing Calibre does that I really like is it creates a directory hierarchy by author for all your ebooks. So even if you don't like Calibre for much else, it creates an organized structure of your books that you can easily re-use even without Calibre. However, depending how you add your books to Calibre, this can create duplicate files, so clean up your files as you go.
Calibre works with most e-book readers, and even phones and tablets so you can push content on to the device if you want to use Calibre in the way you'd use itunes on an ipod.
And like Book Catalogue, Calibre imports and exports the data so you could combine the two together into a single database if you so choose. I've not attempted this so have no pointers on doing so.
People want to access their content on their handheld devices. So it's not just about the internet, but also your local network at your home, even if it's just wifi. I'm just learning how to do some of these things and I'll write about them then.
But there's more to come.