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Want to cook like Mario Batali? There's an app for that

Celebrity chef Mario Batali poses in his latest restaurant, Del Posto, in New York April 11, 2006.

BRENDAN MCDERMID/File Photo | Brendan McDermid / Reuters

Apple recently announced that it was moving into the textbook business, a move that most foodies likely ignored. They shouldn't. Apple tends to reinvent the industries it enters, such as mobile phones and music. And, when you drop the romance about food lit, a simple, painful truth emerges: Cookbooks are really just glorified textbooks.

If it hurts to read that, I can assure you it hurt me just as much to write it. I love cookbooks. I own hundreds of them, and I derive immense pleasure both from reading them and cooking from them, but a cookbook is really just a reference text with lots of gloss and polish. Don't believe me? Take this test: Ever read a cookbook cover to cover, word for word? I know I haven't. If we love them, we cookbook lovers randomly thumb through them, making a recipe here and there, drooling over photos and simply absorbing ideas. If we don't – like the majority of home cooks who simply want to get a meal on the table – a cookbook is just a bulky table of contents and an index that point to a lesson, albeit an edible one. You know, like a textbook.

And after a couple of months playing, reading and cooking from various food and cooking apps, I now realize that those functional cookbook users are best served by technology, not tradition.

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An app is like any other computer software, except it runs on smartphones and tablet devices, of which Apple's iPhone and iPad are the most common and, thus, offer the largest selection of apps. The benefit of the app over traditional paper and ink is the way it organizes and presents information. Whereas the static recipes in a traditional cookbook contain a list of ingredients, a set of instructions and maybe a photo, the recipes in well-executed apps are immersive media experiences in which users can configure the content they consume.

One of my favourite apps, Baking with Dorie, offers four ways to view each recipe: as a traditional list of ingredients and instructions; as a series of step-by-step videos hosted by Dorie Greenspan; as a "SpinView" in which the user can rotate through the steps with the flick of a finger; and, using something called "CulinView," as a complete reimagining of the recipe format as a flow diagram. At any point in time, videos of each step (and of basic techniques, such as how to measure flour) are a finger tap away. As if that weren't convenient enough, this app, like most cooking apps, includes the ability to add custom notes to each preparation, a built-in timer for each step of every recipe and a function to build and e-mail ingredient shopping lists. It is ruthlessly efficient.

I absorbed this lesson recently when I had to make treats for a party. I didn't want to linger over the pages of a book or my stove, so I turned to my iPad and located recipes for Fudgy Bourbon Balls from the Food52 Holiday Recipe & Survival Guide and sablés (French shortbread cookies) from Ms. Greenspan's app. Apps are textbooks on steroids: The ultimate amalgam of convenience and study tools, they allow users to quickly locate appropriate recipes, review relevant techniques, assemble requisite ingredients and map out a cooking plan.

I'm not alone in this realization. Inkling, a California-based electronic textbook publisher, digitizes textbooks in a variety of academic disciplines, but it has also made one foray into more conventional territory: a lineup of cooking apps, including a digital version of the prestigious Culinary Institute of America's textbook, The Professional Chef. Though most apps sell for anywhere from $4.99 to $9.99, The Professional Chef sells for $49.99, a discount from the regular $75 hardcover (but slightly more than the price on websites such as, where the hardcover version retails for around $42).

Browsing this 1,232-page text on my iPad convinced me of the genius of cooking apps. I soon found myself scanning new techniques and becoming mesmerized by detailed videos of each process. Who knew laminated doughs (folded pastries, like croissants) could be so fascinating? When I finally set my iPad down, I envied the students who will get to study from something as elegant and enjoyable as that textbook. I suddenly found myself a lot more eager to witness the revolution in cookbooks that's only just begun.


The Professional Chef ($49.99, iPad) Turns the Culinary Institute of America's unwieldy yet essential kitchen textbook into an informative escape.

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Baking with Dorie ($7.99, iPad) The selection of baked treats is short, but this app from award-winning cookbook author Dorie Greenspan offers revolutionary recipe formats and tasty rewards.

How to Cook Everything ($9.99, iPad; $4.99, iPhone) Like the book on which it's based, Mark Bittman's app is a meal-saver for kitchen newbies.

Mario Batali Cooks! ($9.99, iPhone and iPad; $4.99, Android) The famous red-headed chef brings his customary polish to the regional cuisines of Italy.

Speakeasy Cocktails ($9.99, iPad) Jim Meehan and Joseph Schwartz, two of New York's top bartenders, have created the quintessential digital encyclopedia for tipplers eager to make sublime drinks, be they simple or sophisticated.

Seafood Watch (Free, iPad, iPhone, Android) Worried that your sushi is destroying our oceans? Evaluate your choices using this free app from the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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