A better recipe for digital cuisine

Imagine if instead of launching iTunes,(s aapl) Apple decided to sell and manage music as individual albums – each in its own separate app. You could play and sort and randomize songs within each album, but you couldn’t mix them with tracks from other albums. There would be no playlist, no sharing of music files, and no way of organizing your digital music collection beyond album titles. It sounds ridiculous, but this is exactly the treatment the humble recipe receives in the digital age.
While the Web and other digital technologies have greatly amplified our exposure to new foods and cuisines, how we store, organize, and sort that wealth of culinary data remains practically unchanged. Recipes are still largely isolated on the Web, either residing on Websites, trapped in e-cookbooks or buried within a plethora of cooking apps. They’re no different than the cookbooks sitting on my shelves or the hand-scrawled recipe cards in a recipe box – each self-contained and isolated from the recipes or recipe collections around them.
What’s needed is a standard recipe media format that can be shared between applications and the Web. Like the MP3 or ACC format used in music, a recipe needs to become a standardized digital good, one that can be bought, sold, shared, edited and annotated. A recipe file could be rights-protected or it could be DRM-free, but ultimately it would have to be readable by any recipe application, browser or e-book reader.

Testing the limits of today’s recipe tools

Last month, I experimented with creating a digital recipe library using a few of the most popular recipe aggregation apps and Web portals, but I found that piecing together all of the different recipes available online into a coherent collection was a practical impossibility. KeepRecipes, PaprikaMacGourmet, and numerous other services all scrape recipes from Webpages and turn them into neatly cataloged recipe files. While all of them can easily grab recipes from the most commonly sourced cooking sites such as the Food Network or Epicurious, they all fail to identify and capture recipes outside of those big food portals. Most cooking blogs – where a lot of truly innovative cooking resides – might as well not exist to those apps.
KeepRecipes co-founder Phil Michaelson said this is a universal problem for any recipe aggregation tool because there’s no standard format for recipe markup on the Web. KeepRecipes can’t grab a recipe if it can’t identify it as one or distinguish between the ingredients, measurements and directions sections on the page.
The big food sites are more easily deciphered because they have all adopted the recipe markup formats promoted by Google(s goog) and Facebook. Called hRecipe, the microformat provides a common language for search engines and other Websites to index and interpret recipe data. Recipe cataloging tools like KeepRecipes can just as easily use those markup tags to build recipe files, Michaelson said.
But there is some resistance to the widespread adoption of those formats. Michaelson said in an e-mail:

What we need is for more newspaper Websites, recipe bloggers, and recipe search engines to embrace these markup languages.  We also need less toolbars and iframes around recipe content that disrupt sharing and parsing of Webpages. We see resistance to adding technology (that is, a recipe markup language) that doesn’t have a clearly predictable [return on investment].  Everyone from Tumblr.com and WordPress.com (which power many recipe blogs) to TheKitchn.com would empower recipe authors to publish using a recipe markup format if they could estimate the ROI.

According to Michaelson, KeepRecipes tries hard to provide that financial incentive to bloggers and big food sites alike. It will only scrape a full recipe after a member visits the Website on which it’s posted. Because KeepRecipes is also a cooking community portal, allowing members to share dishes, particular recipes have the potential of going viral, driving curious cooks back to the dishes’ sources.
But ultimately the concept of a recipe aggregator stands in the face of whatever business model a recipe publisher is using. Whether you’re the Food Network, a cookbook author, or a small-time blogger, you want to get to paid, whether it’s through advertising revenues generated by page views, selling e-cookbooks and individual recipes, or just simple recognition. If you make it easier to traffic in recipes digitally, those business models are threatened.

There’s money to be made in digital food

That’s the beauty of recipe file format. Like any other digital media it can be rights protected. Sure, there will be lots of cases of infringement, but every other form of media faces the same problem, and it’s always been easier to steal a copyrighted recipe than it is to pirate a song or movie. Today you can cut and paste a recipe from a website into an email or document or grab it with a digital notepad service like Evernote.

Adjusting business models to accommodate new digital recipe media would be easy for some. If you buy a cookbook, the publisher should allow you to download the complete library of recipes into any recipe management app, just like many music distributors have begun to encourage the revival of vinyl by packaging an album’s digital tracks with the analog record. E-cookbook publishers should do the same.
For Web-based recipe collections, the model may be a bit more difficult. An online subscription-recipe service like Cook’s Illustrated could extend its business model to include recipe downloads, allowing you to access and store its entire library as long as you are a paying member, just as Rhapsody does for music media. The New York Times and Food & Wine could make free downloads conditional on print or digital subscriptions to their publications.
Sites that depend on advertising might have difficulty making those revenue schemes work, but there’s plenty they can do to bring customers back to their sites, whether through video tutorials or recommendation engines. A food site also could charge a nominal fee to download a recipe, say 25 cents, rather than read it through the browser. Social networking recipe sites like AllRecipes.com could use paid downloads of recipe files as a way to distribute revenues among its members, creating an everyman’s recipe store.

Long live the cookbook!

At GigaOM’s Roadmap conference in November, Inkling founder and CEO Matt MacInnis declared that digital cookbook is a far more useful tool than the traditional printed-and-bound cookbook, and he had a pretty good example to back up his claim. Inkling publishes the digital version of the The Professional Chef, the Culinary Institute of America’s classic teaching cookbook. The shelf version is an imposing tome, but Inkling has done plenty to make Pro Chef accessible to a wider audience by stuffing it into the iPad and optimizing the cookbook for a digital medium.
Inkling laces its electronic pages with more than 100 video tutorials and other multimedia. It makes the cookbook endlessly and easily searchable in ways a standard cookbook index is not. You can annotate and bookmark favorite recipes, rather than scrawl illegibly on or dog-ear a bound page.
But a digital cookbook is still a book – you have endless amounts of flexibility within the application or e-book itself, but it remains isolated in the digital ether. No one cooks from a single cookbook, and no cookbook can claim it holds every recipe a home chef would ever need. Though Inkling has created an extremely versatile and useful tool, I would argue that by sticking with the e-book format Inkling saddled it with needless limitations.

A truly useful cookbook can’t be treated like a novel or a textbook. A cookbook is a collection of individual recipes as much as it is a self-contained work, just an album is made up of individual songs. Publishers need to distribute the parts as well as the whole.
I’m not advocating the demise of the cookbook here — far from it. Mastering the Art of French Cooking is an exhaustive compendium of classic recipes, but it’s also an expression of the philosophical and culinary conviction of its principle author, Julia Child. Larousse Gastronomique is replete with recipes, but it’s more an encyclopedia of cuisine and technique than a true cookbook. If digitizing our cookbooks means atomizing the art and science of cuisine into hundreds of thousands of non-contextualized recipes, then we will have lost a huge resource.
That said, the practical side of cooking is just as – if not more — important than its art. Everyone must eat and most of us have little time to cook. The Internet and other digital technologies have given us access to countless new dishes and methods for cooking. Now those technologies  just need to provide us with a way to organize that vast quantity of information so we can actually get down to the business of cooking.
Cookbook/iPod image courtesy of Flickr user LizMarie_AK
Good Housekeeping Cookbook image courtesy of Flickr user Lori L. Stalteri