Scott Jackson

Digital Recipe Formats Part 1: The Search For A Format

Recipes, Programming3 min read

The Problem

I've been looking for a way to store my recipes. I have a lot of cookbooks in a very small apartment. Through great trouble and expense I've been working to transform my library into ebooks and the like. However, recipes are a special kind of written material- merely transforming them into ebooks doesn't seem like it'd be the most efficient way of storing them. Better put, ebooks are at cross-purposes with the contemporary conception of recipe collections.


I think most people think "cookbook" when thinking about a collection of recipes but I don't think that's the way most people think about their own personal recipe collection. One's personal recipe collection may include unwritten things like:

  • Stuff you've just figured out how to make through trial and error
  • Recipes you picked up from family or friends that are simple enough not to be written down
  • Recipes based on written recipes but heavily modified. (Think: You had to make multiple substitutions once and it turned out great)

And written material such as:

  • Recipe Cards inherited or scavenged
  • Cookbook recipes
  • Recipes on blogs

A big problem with all of this is that it's inherently transient. The first three, unless passed around to others through an explicit "let's cook together and let me teach you how to make this" process, die with you. That sounds morbid but it's possibly even worse. They die when you forget how to make them; time passes, ingredients become unavailable in certain periods of your life, skills fade, dietary restrictions for you or the people you cook for eliminate large swaths of cuisine, and you simply don't cook something for long enough- you're effectively reverse-engineering it the next time you make it.

Written material is better, but still has its issues. Recipe cards are highly sought-after, especially the handwritten ones, but are extremely fragile. They're often very much non-archival-quality notecard paper and some random ballpoint ink, covered in splatters of ingredients, and pinned to cork or shoved in boxes or subjected to other abuses repeatedly. I'd also classify "printed recipes" as recipe cards here- inkjet or laser printer paper is way more fragile than a 4x3 notecard.

Blogs are probably worse than recipe cards. Links die, and it's on the order of five or ten years and not the fifty that it might require to destroy a recipe card. Running a website is expensive and labor-intensive for a great deal of people who eventually have changes in their profession or health that makes even keeping their site up too much of a chore. Or, as happened to one of my favorite pie crust recipes, the author explodes in popularity and takes their best recipes offline to charge real money for in their new cookbook series. Sure, you can always print a blog post, but then it becomes an extra-fragile recipe card.

Cookbooks probably have the highest staying power out of all of these (at least the commercially-printed ones- my in-laws have a vanity-printed plastic-spiral-bound notebook full of contributions that an enterprising family member solicited from the rest of the cooks), but still present a handful of problems.

  1. Cookbooks are very large and bulky for their utility. It's a very rare cookbook that contains more than a few recipes that actually become part of my repertoire, and I'm pretty sure most home cooks are the same. With very little exception, I don't think there's a cookbook out there that I can say I've made every recipe from.
  2. Cookbooks aren't intended to be a "recipe collection" necessarily. Cookbooks are very much a narrative from their authors that tell a culinary story. "Here's a full story of this type of cuisine." The Joy of Cooking (aka Joy) is probably one of the most multi-purpose cookbooks available for most American cooks but fundamentally tells a very specific story about technique, ingredients, and dishes from American home cooking. (Aside: If you're not American and you've always wanted to try what American home cooking tastes like, you should borrow or buy a copy of Joy and work through it.)
  3. Individual recipes are troublesome to separate from the rest of the book. Recipes can be photocopied or transcribed, at which point we're back to being a recipe card again, or entire books can be lent to others. Recipes in books are likely to be fiercely protected by copyrights and a strong publishing company enforcing them, so any copies have to be limited to personal use.

This is all to say that I want something that isn't necessarily offered by existing solutions. I want something:

  • Digitized: in a file that contains text
  • Human-readable: a person should be able to open a recipe in a text editor and follow it without special knowledge
  • Machine-readable: recipes should be parseable by some system that allows more intelligent functionality than merely "figure out how to display this text on the user's computer"
  • Shareable: recipes should be self-contained enough that they can be popped in an email or direct message attachment.

It turns out that many people have tried to solve this problem, so there's many different types of digitized recipe formats available:

This is, by no means, an exhaustive list, but enough to give some background.