By S. Irene Virbila
Los Angeles Times Restaurant Critic
December 15, 2012
You can use your iPhone or iPad to watch movies, listen to music, text and surf the Internet. But special, surprisingly inexpensive apps make them nifty environments for learning or upgrading cooking skills.
I've bought or borrowed quite a few culinary apps — some terrific, some boring, some duds. The best are full-on apps, with hours of video included. Others are more like enhanced books, but even those include tricks such as dumping all the ingredients for a recipe into a shopping basket with the click of a button. Or setting a timer as you begin each step. Glossaries, basics, maps, special tips: all included.
The amount of content shoved into one app varies, though. Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything app presents an astonishing 2,000 recipes from his bestselling cookbooks, with new content added frequently, while Baking With Dorie focuses on 25 recipes in great depth and with myriad detailed videos.
The iPad's larger screen is ideally suited for learning techniques via video (unfortunately, although there are a few apps that have been adapted for Androids, the selection is not nearly as wide). I would love to see an app version of Paula Wolfert's masterful "Moroccan Cooking," complete with video on making warka (the dough used in bistila), bouncing a ball of dough off the pan. Sometimes a picture really is worth a thousand words.
Despite the usual snarky comments that anything more than $1.99 is too expensive, these apps by and large are a bargain compared with a traditional cookbook, especially considering that you're pretty much buying a personal tutor to get you through the rough spots. And they're entirely portable.
ITunesU also offers a rare opportunity to sit in on classes in molecular gastronomy and the science of food at Harvard University. It's an amazing time if you have the discipline to learn on your own.
Here are half a dozen of the best culinary apps I've found.
Easy as Pie featuring Evan Kleiman
I love this app from Evan Kleiman of KCRW-FM's "Good Food." From the first view of Kleiman sprinkling flour on a board or gleefully smashing up graham crackers with her rolling pin for a crust, you know you're in the hands of someone who loves to bake pies. And as your pie coach, she's going to take the scary away and put the fun back into baking, holding your hand all the way. No strict school marm, she offers up the elements — crust, filling, topping — which you can put together any way you like.
With pie baking, it's not enough to just read through a recipe: You need to see the motion of rolling out a crust, say, or cutting butter into flour and play it back again and again until you've got it. That's the beauty of short videos. So, if you've always dreamed of making banana cream pie, high hat apple pie (which Kleiman considers the über pie) or a svelte lemon curd meringue, here's your chance. She really does make it seem easy as pie through 20 recipes. If you didn't have the chance to learn pie baking at your grandmother's knee, this is the next best thing.
For iPhone, iPod Touch and iPad, $2.99, from Clear-Media, 109 MB.
Baking With Dorie
That would be Dorie Greenspan, who has written a slew of cookbooks and baking books and is now proprietor of Beurre et Sel, a cookie bakery in New York. Gorgeously produced, this app is a primer on baking from one of our best bakers. The videos zoom in close, so you can see the exact texture of the dough or how she rolls out puff pastry. Re-watching each step is easy. Follow her through each recipe before you begin and the steps will stick in your mind.
Each recipe includes buttons that open to info on tools, how to measure out flour, whatever's relevant. The format, photography and concept of this app break new ground. Use it like a traditional cookbook, follow step-by-step with video instructions or zoom in on a detailed overview of each of the 25 recipes. I only wish that Greenspan had chosen fewer middle-of-the-road recipes. I'm not going to make cinnamon squares or pumpkin muffins or granola grabbers (though someone else might). I'd love to see her do a French baking app that includes not only the tarte Tatin she demonstrates in this app but also goes on to much more — macarons, financier, éclairs, etc.
For iPad, $7.99, from Culinate, 492 MB. Individual recipe lessons, $.99.
Mario Batali Cooks!
Mario Batali gets serious (and uncharacteristically concise) with this app introducing his favorite Italian dishes. Calm and authoritative, he walks you through each recipe with a short video, with written step-by-step instructions below. None of the dishes is very complicated. Ingredients are readily available. And most dishes are quick to make. (A few don't even require cooking.) The selection may not jazz accomplished Italian cooks, but here are expert renditions of classics such as arancine, cacio e pepe, grilled tuna and saltimbocca. It's fun to watch Batali's moves preparing trenette al pesto from Liguria, stirring the pasta as it cooks and then tossing it like a salad with the pesto and blanched potatoes and green beans, shaving Parmigiano over and adding a squirt of gold-green olive oil. For his sweet-and-sour baby onions, pay attention to how dark the cipolline get, the way he turns them, the way they sizzle in the pan.
You can search for recipes by region, course, season, quick meals, etc. Mario Batali Cooks! is a well-designed app, with no glitches. It's a great basic Italian cooking class from a star chef, but certainly not a definitive regional cookbook. The Veneto is represented by shaved fennel salad, sautéed greens and tricolore salad. No seafood! What's with that?
For iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch and Android. $9.99, from High Fine Labs Inc., 34.8 MB.
Bread Baking Basics With Michael Ruhlman
Stuck somewhere you can't find good bread? Whip out your iPhone and get a recipe and the how-to from chef's chef Michael Ruhlman, a longtime collaborator of Thomas Keller's, among other top chefs, and author of several highly regarded cookbooks. A master of precision, he has a highly original mind.
This app works in a unique way, generating bread recipes based on what you want to make and how your kitchen is equipped. Tap "Preferences" and select how you want to mix the dough (with a mixer or by hand) and how you want your units displayed (grams, ounces, cups). Tap the "Ingredients" button and choose the kind of bread you want to make and how many loaves, then tap "Step-by-Step" and, voilà, up pops "an illustrated personalized recipe for fabulous bread." Yes, but what can you make? A simple country loaf, ciabatta, sourdough baguette, whole-wheat boule, pizza dough and more. He's also added recipes for no-knead bread, which, if you haven't tried it, is the easiest way to get into baking bread. With that one under your belt, you'll want to try more — much more.
For iPhone, iPad and Kindle Fire, $1.99, from Ruhlman Enterprises, 12 MB.
How to Cook Everything
This is kind of amazing. One little app (more like an enhanced e-book) holds all of Mark Bittman's massive cookbook on your iPhone or iPad. The conventional book weighs about 41/2 pounds. Now, if you find yourself marooned on an island in Greece and want to know how to cook a whole fish or braise squid, or have a sudden urge to try a chocolate soufflé in the middle of the night, all you need is this app. Here, in one place, are about 2,000 recipes from the New York Times food columnist. I like that, unlike a regular book, this one can be updated, and he adds or highlights content weekly to feature seasonal recipes. Right now, it's holiday menus. Recipes are concise and clear, and you can refer to extensive sections on techniques, ingredients, equipment and the basics. The how-to section is illustrated with detailed drawings of each technique. No videos and very few photographs.
Check "Bittman's Picks" for the top 100 fast recipes or make-ahead recipes or vegetarian recipes. Users of the app get to vote on recipes too, so chances are the highest-ranking dishes are good bets. No. 1? Something called "boiled water."
For iPhone, $4.99 and iPad, $9.99, from Culinate, 27.8 MB. Also, Vegetarian How to Cook Everything.
This may be my favorite among these apps. A master cocktail course from two of New York's finest mixologists, Jim Meehan (PDT) and Joseph Schwartz (Little Branch). Speakeasy Cocktails offers concise and incisive information regarding top bartenders' tools and techniques, plus fun, quirky videos for those mixologist tricks hard to fathom from a book. I learned how to flame an orange, make a lemon twist and garnish an egg white-topped drink — and that an atomizer is the easiest way to apply potent ingredients with a light touch.
Start with the seven master drinks and then move on to cocktails based on each spirit, divided into "rediscovered classics" and "new standards." These guys are plugged into the neo-speak-easy generation of mix maestros from around the country, whom they've persuaded to divulge some of their best recipes. Buttons within each recipe take you directly to discourses on pieces of equipment, a bit of cocktail history or a video demonstrating muddling, say.
This is everything the budding amateur mixologist needs to know to delve into handcrafted cocktails — the best gear, how to stock your bar, how to make ice. $9.99 may seem steep for an app, but at most bars, that won't even buy you a cocktail. Plus, the app includes a world map of the best secret cocktail lounges. Brilliant.
For iPhone and iPad, $9.99, from Open Air Publishing, 386 MB; how-to guide and recipes also available individually, $4.99.
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