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Grain of salt: Grandma didn’t test every recipe among the millions posted and blogged online

By Ike DeLorenzo
Globe Correspondent / May 18, 2011

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Every week, 50 new cookbooks are published in the United States. Food blogs number up to 30,000 (definitions here are fuzzy). We have hundreds of recipe apps for tablet and mobile devices. And all the while, Google is responding to about 7,000 recipe searches every second (that’s 10 million a day). Recipes have never been so available, so numerous, and sadly for the cook, often unreliable.

Summoned anywhere, recipes are on every glowing screen: smartphone, iPad, computer, Nintendo 3DS. It’s the new information morsel to be tweeted, community-discussed, Facebook-liked, and (eventually) prepared in the kitchen. Websites are the greatest source, with Allrecipes.com the world’s most visited food-oriented site (13 million visitors in March, according to Compete.com). Foodnetwork.com is second (10 million). Other sites include Cooks.com (7 million), Food.com (4.5 million), and Epicurious.com (2 million). Among the top 20 are corporations pushing their own products, such as Bettycrocker.com, Kraftbrands.com, and Campbellskitchen.com. Slashfood.com (1 million), an edgy site that peppered recipes with food scandal and gossip, was absorbed by the Huffington Post last month.

Until now, Google searches for recipes worked like any other search: type in keywords and pick a site. In the same way a distracted bull might suddenly turn its attention on hapless Pamplona tourists, Google has taken notice of the recipes sites. In February, the company added “Recipe View,’’ which appears in searches now. The results page changes in a way that keeps you there longer noticing ads, and winds up reducing the number of possible destination sites. The effect is to shift the center of gravity from the cooking sites, books, and blogs to Google itself. This appears to give Google more control over which sites get all-important search traffic, which can account for as much as 70 percent of visitors. “Recipe-related searches are 1 percent of all searches, so it’s an important kind of search for us to get right,’’ a Google spokesman said.

Faster than you can type “split pea soup’’ (really, it auto-completes at ‘‘p’’), Google parses through all sites that contain such a recipe, and presents a grid of boxes for the dish’s ingredients: red pepper, marjoram, pork, celery, etc. As you check them off, some recipes (and sites) disappear. Click on another criterion, like prep time or calories, and it excludes more. A side effect: Recipes that claim impossibly short prep times and low calories get more readers.

The intent would seem to be to help cook dinner that night. But so many recipes are not trustworthy. Consider Cooks.com’s recipes for corn chowder that involve evaporated milk, creamed corn, and Ritz crackers, which bloggers decry as a failure. Others fail more subtly, say, instructing us to stir corn bread batter so long that it does not rise in the oven.

Some sites allow members to grade recipes with a star system. “Sites that attract a community of skilled home chefs, like Epicurious, will have more reliable ratings,’’ says Jack Bishop, on the staff at America’s Test Kitchen. The Brookline-based company tests its recipes up to 70 times and is not open to online comments.

Epicurious.com, run by Condé Nast, features recipes from Bon Appetit and the former Gourmet magazine. And many famed food blogs (SimplyRecipes, Smitten Kitchen) offer thoughtful recipes and photography from obsessive authors. But sites that squander budgets on things like cooking and curating score fewer visitors. A lot fewer. Search optimization matters more.

Remember the good old days, when you trusted your go-to books? Dan Barber, chef-owner of the celebrated Blue Hill restaurants in New York, was a senior at Tufts University in 1992 and used a copy of Wolfgang Puck’s “Adventures in the Kitchen’’ to run a campus catering business. “I still know every recipe by heart,’’ Barber told a group of Tufts students earlier this month. “By the time I graduated, all the pages were falling out.’’

Ah, the days of tattered paper. The self-instruction of tomorrow’s cooks is on a more uncertain track. Alix Boulud, 21, a senior and founder of the Tufts Culinary Society, and daughter of celebrated restaurateur Daniel Boulud, has one word for how today’s students find recipes: “Online.’’ As to which they prefer, she says, “People just use the first match that shows up on Google.’’

The technology staff at the well-financed Allrecipes.com has been spectacularly good at getting high Google placement for searches (like “split pea soup’’), regardless of visitor ratings. Allrecipes’ staggeringly large database is said to come from anonymous contributors with names like “Love’’ and “RunnerGirl’’ in a social networking-style setting of mutual praise. RunnerGirl’s boiled hot dogs with cheddar gets a perfect five stars, and top billing on the home page: “When the kids need a break from sandwiches, why not send them with a hot hot dog to warm their bellies!’’ exclaims a testimonial. Fast prep times cause page views for recipes to rise, and, in a feedback loop reminiscent of automated stock trading, Google ranks the recipe ever higher.

The unvarying trend: Short popular recipes, some verging on mere assembly, are selected for us in searches. Oddly, recipes are becoming commoditized even as we enjoy the trend of rejecting commodity foods for artisanal ones. It may be time to hold the recipes we use to the same high standard as the ingredients. A smaller quantity from a known, responsible source is the best option.

Ike DeLorenzo can be reached at ike@theideassection.com.