The disembodied voice called out from somewhere between the chopped onions and carrot peels: “Pour a good splash of olive oil in a high pan and place it over medium heat.”
I was making 15-bean soup for dinner, and I had help.
The mobile app SideChef was walking me through every step, telling me when to chop, when to stir, how long to wait. I swiped through each instruction page, presented with photos, how-to videos and “Start Timer” buttons that counted down the five minutes the carrots needed to soften in the pan.
Having your mobile device dictate cooking instructions in a GPS-like robot voice is just one more way home cooks are getting help in the kitchen. I was trying some of the most popular cooking apps to find out how they stack up against each other, and how they are most useful.
Some are better for the novice cook, people who would benefit from specific instructions on how to mince garlic. Others are best for those of us who feel completely frazzled every time we walk into a grocery store without a list. Most of them have an element of recipe sharing and storing.
Truthfully, I still use a lot of printed recipes and cookbooks in the kitchen. I find it easier to locate those tactile cooking instructions, and more handy to have during the actual cooking process. (For one thing, I don’t worry about sauce splatter getting all over a piece of paper the way I worry about it getting all over my iPhone.)
But it was nice to be able to download my favorite recipes from the internet, load them all into one app, and then create a grocery list based on those recipes in the same place. The organizer in me couldn’t get enough. And the cook in me loved the social spirit of the apps. On many of them, users can upload their own recipes and comment or rate the ones already on there.
Here are some cooking apps worthy of a download:
How to Cook Everything
($9.99; iOS and Android)
This app is based on former New York Times writer Mark Bittman’s book “How to Cook Everything,” a comprehensive guide to cooking, well, you know. It contains thousands of recipes, hundreds of how-to illustrations and categories like “Quick Dinners” and “Kitchen Basics.” Like a Betty Crocker cookbook from your grandma, it’s one of those apps that is essential to have on your digital shelf.
Best for: Beginners and cooks who want to hone their basic skills.
(Free; iOS and Android)
Recipes are front and center in this app, namely collecting and organizing your favorite ones on an easy-to-use “My Yums” page. Yummly pulls in recipes from around the internet, allowing you to search a variety of sites. It also serves up recipe recommendations based on taste and flavor preferences you fill out. With each recipe, you can easily add the ingredients to a shopping list. The app also displays ingredient count, calories and cook time. Yummly is appealing visually, with high-quality food photos on just about every recipe I encountered.
Best for: Cooks who are looking for a large variety of recipes.
Epicurious, one of the most popular cooking apps on the market, feels like one of the more polished options. With more than 35,000 recipes, it is a robust food experience. In addition to being able to browse recipes by categories (including relevant ones like “Spring Brunch,” “Passover Mains” and “Mother’s Day Dinner”), users can look up what is in season where they live and add items to a shopping list. One of the app’s most helpful features is its “Smart Timer,” which offers various cooking times for all different cuts of meats and beyond. When you click on the “Steak” category, five different cuts come up. Click on one of those, enter the amount of steak and the temperature you want it to cook to, and the app will set a timer for a certain amount of time. For 1 pound of rare flank steak, it ticked down from 6 minutes and 30 seconds.
Best for: Experienced home cooks who need inspiration.
Grilling: A Bon Appetit Manual
This niche app from Bon Appetit was one of the most attractive options, with clear, high-resolution photos accompanying every recipe. And with summer coming up, it is sure to come in handy. The recipes are more varied than you may think, with everything from spice rubs to agave margaritas to apricot rice pudding ice pops. It also has a section of menus, a unique feature that assembles a group of recipes along themes like “All-American Barbecue,” “Steak Night!” and “Middle Eastern Feast.” It’s a real help for cooks who want to put together a cohesive spread. Also, most recipes have a built-in “View Tips and Videos” button, which brings you to a separate page with tips for the recipe at hand.
(Bon Appetit’s other category-specific app is the Thanksgiving: A Bon Appetit Manual, and it’s worth a download come November. With more than 100 recipes, plus how-to videos and tips all in one place, it’s an asset on a busy cooking day.)
Best for: Those who can’t wait to heat up the charcoal for summer.
(Free; iOS, Android, Windows)
BigOven has thousands of recipes, plus the ability to make grocery lists and menu plans. The app encourages users to sign in and become members, but it’s not essential to simply view a recipe, which contains step-by-step instructions and photos. Members can rate recipes out of five stars, so if you’re curious about what other cooks think of a certain recipe, it’s apparent from the get-go via an icon at the top. You also can keep track of recipes you’ve made before. My favorite part of the app is a feature called “Add Recipe” that lets you add a recipe from around the internet, scan it in via a recipe printed on a piece of paper or type it in manually.
Best for: Cooks who have recipes collected online and on paper and want to store them all in one place.
Food Network in the Kitchen
(Free; iOS and Android)
This app based on the TV channel culls recipes from its celebrity chefs, including Rachael Ray and Alton Brown. It’s photo heavy and easy to navigate, though a little basic compared with some of the features found on other apps. You’re really just browsing recipes here – by most popular, themes like “Spring Entertaining” or Food Network chef (these are often accompanied by videos). The app also allows users to save favorite recipes, create grocery lists and use a built-in timer and unit converter.
Best for: Bobby Flay fans and cooks simply looking for recipes.
Allrecipes Video Cookbook
(Free; iOS and Windows)
True to its name, every recipe on this app is accompanied by a short, instructional cooking video. Users play a big role in this app, with recipes from home cooks and built-in user comments and ratings on each recipe. Nutrition facts are easy to find, too.
Allrecipes Dinner Spinner
(Free; iOS and Android)
This is a whimsical take on the cooking app, its signature feature being a “Dinner Spinner” that offers recipe suggestions based on your selections in the categories Dish Type, Ingredients and Ready In …. When I chose “Main Dish,” “cheese” and “20 minutes,” it came back with 300 suggestions including grilled cheese sandwiches and a pita pizza. Like the Allrecipes Video Cookbook app, these recipes are user-sourced and ranked and rated by other cooks.
Both are best for: Home cooks who like to know what other home cooks think of recipes.
(Free; iOS and Android)
SideChef is the app that talks back, with recipe dictation and a hands-free option that allows you to talk to the app if your hands are dirty. This was one of the most helpful features of any of the apps I tried; I didn’t realize how often I smudged chicken grease on my phone’s screen while scrolling through a list of ingredients. Each recipe allows you the option to swipe through each step as you go, pausing to play the dictation or watch a video. (The app looks particularly great on a tablet.) Timers are also helpfully built in to each page when necessary. Need to change the serving size of recipes? The app will adjust the ingredients automatically.
Best for: Those who prefer to listen to recipe instructions.