As the digital age seeps into the kitchen, it’s time to reconsider whether too many cooks spoil the broth.
Crowd-sourcing recipes — corralling a group of strangers on the Internet to create and edit a bank of recipes — is gaining popularity.
The idea is that a thousand cooks can come up with a better recipe than any single chef.
Some cooks argue that the collective process strips recipes of their personality and their provenance. But backers believe they are creating a new authority for cooking.
“Food is untapped,” said Barnaby Dorfman, a former Amazon.com executive who a year ago started Foodista.com, one of a handful of recipe sites that let anyone make additions or changes. “We’re just starting to get into a phase of truly leveraging the Web as a medium for recipes and cooking knowledge.”
These sites are still young, and not as complete or reliable as a good cook might hope. But you can already get an idea of how they work.
Take, for example, a tabouleh recipe posted by someone called “Shiftyenomis” on the recipe section of Wikia, a separate company started by the Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales. At some point, an anonymous user changed the amount of bulgur wheat. Then “Blacksteallion” changed it back.
“Rloperena” jumped in, changing it again. Commenting that too much parsley can make the salad unpleasant, she reduced it to four cups from seven. She also added cucumber and green chili, and better directions for soaking the wheat. That was in August. No one has challenged her yet. (To make this even more confusing, readers should note that a search for “tabbouleh” will produce an entirely different recipe.)
The recipe wiki, one of 50,000 communities, or topic areas, on Wikia.com, already has 40,000 recipes and lots of information about ingredients and techniques. Since it begin in 2005, it has been one of the fastest-growing areas on Wikia.com, jumping 60 percent in traffic since January.
Like Foodista.com, it has strong backing from investors, including Amazon. The site has 6.5 million unique visitors a month in the United States. For users, being part of the community is more valuable than any individual recipe. Allowing some stranger to mess with a recipe is no big deal.
“As long as the original is up there, I don’t have a problem with people adding to it,” said Jo Stougaard, who runs the blog mylastbite.com. “We all tweak recipes.” Stougaard contributes regularly to Foodista, which in turns drives traffic to her site.
Malicious vandalism is a constant worry. Substituting body fluids for ingredients is a favorite prank. A mix of staffers and volunteers police sites to catch bad edits. I tested this, adding “one small plastic car” to the ingredient list for barbecued pork on both Foodista.com and Recipe Wiki.
Two days later I got a kind slap on the wrist from Danny at Wikia.com: “If you’re new to wikis, I know how tempting it is to try out something silly and see what happens. It’s not a big deal; I took the plastic car out, so now the BBQ Pork is going to have to call for a taxi if it wants to get anywhere. :)”
At Foodista.com, the car was taken out of the recipe later, but with no visible record of who changed it or when.
Still, anyone who has used Wikipedia understands the value of information that can be collectively massaged by a wide circle of people. But are recipes the same as, say, the history of Seattle or the properties of copper?
“Our idea is that there is this notion of a dish which is a culturally shared idea of a recipe,” Dorfman said. And people think recipes vary more than they really do. He makes his point with apple pie. Stop a hundred people and ask what goes into an apple pie and you’ll get a predictable list of flour, apples, cinnamon and sugar. Even the variations, like whether to use butter or lard in the crust, aren’t really that different.
The advantage, lovers of the wiki model say, goes beyond the chance for the collective opinion of a crowd to create a recipe. At its best, a wiki site is like being able to call up your really smart friend who can cook every dish imaginable and knows its history.
It’s too soon to tell whether any of the new sites will overtake Epicurious, arguably the most popular source for recipes online. The site’s 27,000 recipes come largely from the test kitchens of Bon Appetit and Gourmet magazines, but they are rated by users. Some have hundreds of comments by cooks with varying levels of skill and dedication to following the recipe. The site also has about 114,000 recipes submitted by users, all of which can be rated by the masses.
For many cooks, recipes are too unique to be tampered with. The creators of a Food52.com, a new cooking site that straddles the line between cookbooks and crowd-sourcing, say wikis can lead to voiceless recipes and an industrial approach to cooking.
“We felt like there was a middle ground between the old media, top-down approach and the completely opened-ended, voiceless mass recipes you get on these big databases,” said Amanda Hesser, a former editor at The New York Times. She developed Food52.com with Merrill Stubbs.
The Food52.com goal is to create a bank of well-curated recipes from good cooks who submit recipes on a theme, like beef salad or end-of-summer cocktails, and then vote for the best.
To make an informed choice, people can cook the recipes themselves and watch Hesser and Stubbs test them in a series of videos. At the end of the year, the best recipes will become a book.
Jennifer Hess, a food blogger from Providence, R.I., was an early Food52 member. Her smoky pork burger with fennel and cabbage slaw won the “Your Best Grilled Pork Recipe” contest.
Even for those steeped in crowd-sourcing culture, cooking can get personal. Nicole Willson, an experienced wiki administrator who has worked on recipe sites, sometimes just improvises a stir-fry or goes traditional.
“Sometimes,” she said, “it’s easier to get out a cookbook.”
SMOKY PORK BURGERS WITH CABBAGE AND FENNEL SLAW
Adapted from a Food52.com submission by Jennifer Hess
Time: About 30 minutes, plus one hour’s chilling
2 tablespoons fennel seed
1/2 cup finely diced onion
3 small garlic cloves, minced
1/2 teaspoon kosher or sea salt
2 teaspoons smoked Spanish paprika
1 pound ground pork, preferably sirloin
1 cup minced bacon, (about 3 thick strips, slightly frozen before chopping)
4 soft burger rolls or sandwich buns
2 tablespoons sherry vinegar
1 teaspoon apple cider vinegar
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1/2 teaspoon kosher or sea salt
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1 cup shredded fennel bulb, plus chopped fronds
1 1/2 cup shredded red cabbage.
1. To cook burgers: Prepare a grill.
2. Gently toast fennel seeds in a dry skillet until aromatic.
3. In a large bowl, combine fennel seeds, onion, garlic, salt and smoked paprika.
4. Add pork and bacon. Toss gently until well mixed, without overworking meat.
5. Divide into four portions and shape into patties. Place on a plate or platter and chill for at least one hour.
6. Cook burgers for about 6 minutes on hot side of grill. After 3 minutes, flip and cook 3 more minutes, then move to cool part of grill for 3 more minutes. Burgers can also be fried in a pan over medium-high heat for about 3 minutes on each side. Let burgers rest for a few minutes, tented with foil, before serving.
7. To prepare slaw: Whisk vinegars, mustard and salt in a bowl until salt is dissolved. Add oil and whisk until emulsified.
8. Place fennel bulb and cabbage into bowl and toss to combine with dressing. Add fennel fronds and toss again just before serving.
9. Place burgers on toasted or lightly grilled buns and top each with a little slaw.
Yield: Four burgers.