The Digital Kitchen: Apps and Online Services To Make You a Better Cook

A tablet, computer, and smartphone are becoming helpful kitchen tools. Photo: Angela Johnston
A tablet, computer, and smartphone are becoming helpful kitchen tools. Photo: Angela Johnston

In the Bay Area there are countless apps that have food delivered to your doorstep in minutes as well as meal delivery apps that make it easy to never lift a frying-pan again. But what if you want to become a better cook-- without shelling out thousands of dollars for culinary school? There are, obviously, apps for that too. Here’s a sample of four cooking apps and online services that do more than just provide recipes.

SideChef

SideChef breaks a recipe down, step-by-step with photos and simple directions. Photo: SideChef
SideChef breaks a recipe down, step-by-step with photos and simple directions. Photo: SideChef

SideChef guides wanna-be-chefs through a recipe step-by-step. This app got its start through a successful Kickstarter campaign back in 2013. It features over 1,000 different recipes submitted by food bloggers, other users, and a few partner chefs. You can search for your next meal by region (American to Thai, German to Japanese), type of dish (appetizer, seafood, dessert, brunch, etc) the time it takes to cook, and many other different tags. One of SideChef’s best features is its voice command option. When selected, the app will dictate each step to you; when you want to move on, you simply say, “next.” No more smearing butter and sauce all over your iPad. There’s also a handy self-timer on the app, and a way to send ingredient lists by text or email. If you’re already a talented home cook, you can create your own recipes to share on SideChef. I appreciated the interactive glossary of terms reminding me with a simple video the difference between chop, dice and slice.

There is room for improvement, however. The search bar doesn’t always yield the most accurate results. I was craving a blackberry pie, but when I searched for it, the top four results were a quiche Lorraine, sun-dried tomato and feta quiche, apple pie fries, and a pierogi with feta tomato and white wine sauce. There are blackberry desserts, and other berry pies, which should’ve showed up. Also, some of the recipes don’t have any photos. It would’ve been nice to see step-by-step photos of the chopped kale salad I was making.

SideChef made the iOS list of top ten apps within a week of its release, and it’s currently free for the iPad, iPhone and Android.

Salted

Cooking alongside one of the Salted videos in the Italian cooking course. Photo: Angela Johnston
Cooking alongside one of the Salted videos in the Italian cooking course. Photo: Angela Johnston

If SideChef is trying to be your kitchen sidekick for a date-night dinner, the new online service Salted is more like a digital cooking school. Salted works with about 50 75 (updated 3/23) chefs to provide video tutorials and courses to help you master certain cuisines and kitchen skills. There’s everything from a “How To Cook Bootcamp” to a skill class on “How to Break Down an Entire Goat.” I landed somewhere in the middle, and took a course on traditional Italian cooking, taught by four different chefs who work in Italian restaurants around the country. There are also knife skills courses, courses on how to use a rolling pin, how to make butter and pasta from scratch, how to temper oil, and many others.

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The Italian cooking course starts with fundamentals like: how to use garlic and how to make the perfect pasta sauce. The course then progresses to recipes like: how to make the perfect meatball, risotto, and chicken parmesan.

Each lesson has a video as well as written instructions which are also linked to corresponding timecodes in the video. You can watch the whole video or jump to these points as you work your way through the recipe. The chefs explain the technical and scientific processes of each step and offer very helpful tips. For instance, I discovered a quick way to mince garlic: simply peel the clove, put a bit of salt on your cutting board, dice the clove on top and rub the pieces of garlic and salt together with the broad side of your knife. The salt helps cut the garlic and within minutes I had a garlic paste.

There are other perks too, like a chef hotline where you can send urgent questions to Salted’s culinary team. The response time, they say, will be under 30 minutes. However, nowadays most kitchen questions are also answerable by a quick Google search. Also, Salted is a paid service. There’s a free 30-day trial but you begin paying almost $10 per month afterwards. For that money, the photos on the website could be better (some were snapped in poor lighting) and the videos could provide even more detail. While I was following a video on how to make chicken parmesan, I was told to “butterfly” a chicken breast, but I had to stop the video and search on Google to figure out how to correctly perform that task.

Salted is only available online, and not as an app for your tablet or smartphone.

America’s Test Kitchen: Cook’s Illustrated

The Cook’s Illustrated iPad app is very similar to the magazine, but with extra features. Photo: Angela Johnston
The Cook’s Illustrated iPad app is very similar to the magazine, but with extra features. Photo: Angela Johnston

I’ve been using America’s Test Kitchen and Cook’s Illustrated recipes for years, so I was excited to discover they also had an iPad app. The app is simply a digital version of the magazine, with extra features helpful to a home cook looking to improve his or her skills. The photos, at first, appear black and white, but slowly turn color. Each master recipe also has a video attached to it, which guides you step-by-step through the cooking process. I was ambitious and tried to make the Mu Shu Pork and pancakes from scratch, a recipe in the March/April edition of Cook’s Illustrated. The video was helpful, but when I got to a difficult spot, I found myself replaying certain spots over and over again. Then, I discovered the special “cooking mode slideshow” that broke the recipe down into individual slides and color photos for every step. The instructions were accurate, and the dish turned out well, but the specialized steps it took me almost 2 hours to prepare. I should’ve signed up for America’s Test Kitchen's Cooking School, which offers similar courses to Salted, as well as skill-testing review sections and equipment reviews.

The Cook’s Illustrated app is available for iOS. You can download the iPad app for free, but you have to choose to pay for a monthly subscription, or buy each magazine individually. The iPhone app is free, but only features 50 recipes. America’s Test Kitchen Cooking School has a free 14-day trial. Otherwise, it costs 19.95 per month or $179.95 per year.

ChefSteps

ChefSteps highlights difficult recipes, like how to create balls of flavor using the spherification technique. Photo: ChefSteps
ChefSteps highlights difficult recipes, like how to create balls of flavor using the spherification technique. Photo: ChefSteps

ChefSteps is definitely one of the most elite cooking-school apps out there. Based in Seattle’s Pike Place Market, the recipes and courses range from topics like how to make a black pepper soufflé and how to get your chicken liver paté just right, to how to make sous-vide pork belly (http://www.chefsteps.com/activities/sous-vide-pork-belly). The photos are beautiful, and the videos are non-narrated, you follow them by reading basic subtitles. You have to pay for most ChefSteps classes, and they range from $5 to $18. There are some classes you can take for free, like one on the “three fundamental techniques of spherification," a modernist technique that can be used to turn any flavorful liquid into spheres, but the average home cook won’t have the materials or ingredients in their pantry (you need things like sodium alginate or calcium lactate gluconate).

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ChefsSteps courses can be viewed online, and free app is also available for iOS and Android.

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