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Recipe Web Sites

Even if the American home cook does not own a roomful of traditional cookbooks (as some indeed do), he or she has merely to log on to the Internet to access literally millions of recipes, either through search engines or through dedicated recipe web sites, many of which have their own intelligent search functions. An Internet search is a good method to find small specialty sites, for example a site put out by a local historical society or community organization that features recipes for regional dishes, often with important background information on the origins and history of the dish, variations, and serving customs. The large sites, of course, allow a great deal of choice, perhaps too much.

An American recipe site is one written in American English, written with the concerns of American cooks in mind. While most major recipe sites feature international cuisines, an American site will always devote a good portion of its space to distinctly American foods, and certainly to American taste preferences. The large Internet recipe sites may exist on their own and bring in revenue through advertising, or may be designed primarily to promote cooking magazines or food and lifestyle television offerings, though these sites may also host outside advertising. Food companies frequently develop and publicize recipes that promote the sale of their products. Restaurants, hotels and country inns use recipes on their web sites to attract people to the real thing. Some specialized sites even concentrate on giving users “secret” recipes based on the menus of major fast-food restaurants.

Whatever the structure, an American recipe site will be written using the distinctive American system of cooking measurements. Most world cuisines use metric weights for non-liquid ingredients and metric volumes for liquids. The United States uses its own system of volumetric measurements for most ingredients, weights for others, and sometimes expresses amounts in both, as in “one pint (8 ounces) of milk” or “four tablespoons (two ounces) of butter.” The liquid “ounces” in the first example and the solid “ounces” in the second have the same name, but reflect two different measurement systems. A solid “cup” of flour and a liquid “cup” of milk show a similar discrepancy.

All this can be confusing to non-Americans, but American cooks take it in stride. The fact that the world metric system makes eminent sense is meaningless to a cook raised with pounds and ounces, teaspoons and tablespoons, cups, pints, quarts, and the like.

The user of an Internet recipe site is faced with the problem of sifting through a huge corpus of data, of course, but the real problem lies in ascertaining the reliability and accuracy of any given recipe. The large recipe sites help deal with this difficulty in several ways. Most of them strive to express their recipes in standard, easy to understand form. They usually rate their recipes based on difficulty level, a handy feature for the cook who has limited time, or perhaps limited experience. Many sites also have professional chefs who screen or test the recipes. The best sites act as forums where users can relate their own positive or negative experiences with the recipes, or suggest ingredient substitutions or variations.

The best recipe sites give the user more than recipes. Some of the major sites feature short video segments that teach basic cooking techniques, or offer resources for learning more about the cultural context of the dish, or about effective ways to shop for quality ingredients. Sophisticated search capabilities can help the user find recipes that avoid food allergens, that fit a certain nutritional profile, or that use a particular ingredient the cook happens to have on hand. In addition to search, the best sites also let users browse through recipes using category listings that are intelligently cross-referenced; after all, many cooks appreciate suggestions for foods they might like to prepare, and a good browse gives them ideas. Most large sites will in addition feature a prominent section of recipes that are appropriate for the season, or that they judge will be particularly popular with users.