You're walking the aisles at your favorite supermarket, perusing the products on sale and wondering what you'd make with a particular ingredient. The answer could be as near as your pocket if you've downloaded one of the impressive cooking apps now available for Apple and Android smartphones.
A good place to start is Epicurious, a free app with more than 25,000 recipes drawn from publisher Conde Nast's collection, which includes Gourmet and Bon Appétit magazines and select cookbooks and chefs' contributions to the popular website of the same name. You can browse by category (American Classics, Kid-Friendly Mains, I Can Barely Cook, I Cook Like a Pro, etc.), but the heart of the app is sophisticated search capability.
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You can combine a variety of listed search categories, including main ingredient, meal/course, cuisine, dietary considerations and restrictions, dish type, and season or occasion. As you add or remove criteria, you get a running count of the number of matching recipes available. Or, if you prefer, you can type in search words or phrases.
With the Android version, you can even speak the search phrase out loud: We tried everything from "Country Captain Chicken" to "Fish Taco" to "Beef Stroganoff" and the results were right every time.
Recipe displays include user rankings, photos and reviews (which often include hints for recipe tweaks that worked for other cooks). When you find a recipe you like, you can tag it as a favorite, add the ingredients to a shopping list or email it to yourself or others.
Another free app that's definitely worth trying is BigOven, which draws on an extraordinary 170,000-recipe database. This is a more democratic foodie resource: Anyone can upload a recipe to the BigOven site that fuels the app. As a result, you're going to find a lot more prefab ingredients such as canned tomato soup and Bisquick here than at Epicurious — not that there's anything wrong with that. The app may lack graphic polish, but you can be pretty sure you'll find a recipe for just about any dish you can think of here, and the user-rating system does a good job separating the winners from the losers.
Like Epicurious, BigOven recipe listings include ratings and reviews, and recipe emailing for registered users. If you want to create an automatic shopping list, though, you'll need to pony up $16 annually for the BigOven Pro upgrade, which also adds nutritional information and removes ads from the app display.
AllRecipes.com Dinner Spinner
Another app based on a user-submitted-recipes megasite is AllRecipes.com Dinner Spinner, free for Apple and Android owners. The "spinner" part of the app is kind of gimmicky. There are three rows like a slot machine across the page: one for dish type, one for ingredients and one for cooking time. By shaking the phone or pressing an on-screen button, you can spin a random combination. Fortunately, you can also choose your three criteria manually, so finding a chicken dish that's ready in 20 minutes or less, for example, becomes feasible.
There's also a more traditional search option, including a useful collection of dietary requirement filters, user ratings and the option to save favorites and email recipes. The free app doesn't have an automatic shopping list feature — that requires an upgrade to the $2.99 Pro version, which also expands the number of included recipes and enhances the search system.
How to Cook Everything Essentials
For many of us, Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything is the all-purpose bible that the Joy of Cooking was to previous generations. And, as the Apple folk like to say, there's an (iPhone/iPod/iPad-only) app for that. The free version, called How to Cook Everything Essentials, is limited to 102 recipes, making it a nice way to kick the tires. If you're a serious chef, you'll want the $1.99 full app with 2,000 recipes and all the bells and whistles enabled. These include themed collections (Top 100 Make-Ahead Recipes, 22 Whole-Meal Soups, etc.), detailed explanations of techniques and ingredients, and a listing of users' favorite dishes from the collection.
Finally, our favorite mad scientists of the kitchen have a sort-of-free iPhone app that's worth a look. The creators of Cook's Illustrated magazine and the popular PBS cooking shows America's Test Kitchen and Cook's Country, go through exhaustive experimentation, exploring numerous ingredient and cooking technique combinations to come up with optimized recipes that work very well, even for cooks with average ability.
They've created a Cook's Illustrated app with 50 kitchen-tested favorites, along with videos for each recipe, a customizable shopping list feature, email and Facebook sharing, and taste test results for dozens of supermarket ingredients. Of course, 50 recipes won't take you very far, but if they whet your appetite, you can sign up for access to the full catalog, available via CooksIllustrated.com or via the app, for $35 a year. We figure $3 a month is a reasonable price for this level of expert assistance.