We've just released the Bread Baking App for iPhone/Pod/Touch

In the headlong rush to turn everything into an app, we have created amazing apps (shazam is truly amazing) and ridiculous apps (won’t name names).

The publishers of cookbooks and chefs are among them.  Some publishers (S&S, my last publisher) are not entering the market; smaller more agile ones are (Chronicle, by chance publishing my next book).

But what makes a valuable app? Since teaming up with Will Turnage, VP of technology and invention for the digital media firm R/GA, I’ve been creating apps for the iPad and smartphones and so have been thinking about how to proceed.  They take a lot of time and work and so far, return on investment is spotty (except in the games department).

My goal is to create only apps that take unique advantage of the technology available.  Therefore, I won’t build an app that does what something else does just as well.  I won’t create a bunch of recipes.  Books are great at this, computers and google, too.  Books are great at showing gorgeous or informative food.  TVs and computers are great at presenting video.  Apps that allow you to create grocery lists are of no interest to me—pen and paper is faster and easier.

But what if an app could generate a recipe based on the tools I have in my kitchen, the way I measure (metric or Imperial weights, or volume measures), or how many servings I needed.  Recipes that changed with the touch of a button, just for me.

This is what the Ratio app does (iPhone app & Droid app), and this is what the Bread Baking Basics app does. Eager to put the large face of the iPad to use, we built the bread app for that (we’re working on a sausage app, one that will basically allow you to build any kind of sausage you want). But so many people asked for a smart phone version, we built one for the iPhone/iPod/iTouch, just out this week (we’re at work on one for Android).

And I’ve just signed a contract with sideways.com to create a Ratio app for iPad.  It will do all the computing that the smart phone apps have but it will include voluminous photography (something books can’t do), will enable users to create their own ratios, and publish variations on ratios available to everyone who has the app. It will be called the Ratio Network, for that reason.  We may have video, it depends. Any other suggestions?

One of the coolest apps I’ve seen is … I’m going to hold off on that till next week, with a guest post, even I’m jealous of this one.

Visions of the future are tantalizing. Apps that, using bluetooth devices to transmit measurements from scales and thermometer to apps in useful ways is on the horizon.

So I’m curious.  I’d love to hear comments about what you’d like to see in a cooking app, or what you find most valuable in an app?


If you liked this post on iTouch Bread App, check out these other links:

© 2011 Michael Ruhlman. Photo © 2011 Donna Turner-Ruhlman. All rights reserved



43 Wonderful responses to “What makes a great cooking app?”

  • Jen

    I don’t own a smartphone or an iPad (although I’d like an iPad, I can’t squeeze it into my budget). I’ve toyed with apps on others’ iPhones, and to be honest, I wouldn’t find it helpful for cooking (or grocery shopping, for that matter). The screen is small (I realize that an iPad’s screen is bigger), and I would have to stop and squint, or zoom and fiddle to read something (my visual acuity leaves something to be desired). For me, it is easier to just print out a recipe from my customized recipe program on my computer, in a font that is readable from anywhere in my (small) kitchen. That way, all I have to do is glance up if I need to double-check an ingredient or step. It’s also easier for me to annotate a recipe, not having to worry about my gunky hands messing up an iPhone.

  • paul kobulnicky

    One that would transform the iPad/smartphne into the kitchen tool or ingredient that I just happen to need at the moment and don’t have in the kitchen. Other than that, apps in the kitchen are way low on my priority list.

  • Michael

    I have a lot of apps on my Android phone, but none for cooking. I do know from a few previous bad decisions that it’s pretty hard to deal with a touch screen when your hands are wet or covered with flour which to my mind makes any cooking app inconvenient.

  • Natalie Sztern

    Personally I don’t ever think of taking my Ipad into the kitchen to cook with. As a younger person I obviously used cookbooks so probably younger and inexperienced cooks might use their very expensive Ipad in such a way.
    Interactive cooking is what I love about my Ipad especially through Youtube. ie not just reading an app but watching it is what I would use any cooking app for.

    I never take my Ipad into the kitchen. Cooking for me is done via memory and experience and sense.

    Unfortunately I read so much on the internet when I have my Ipad and am fiddling around with it I go more towards the visual videos of cooking. For instance I have the Mario Batali app and I am fascinated with watching Mario Batali cook his recipes from his app…this allows me not just to read the recipe but to remember it as well because I see him cooking it. From that app alone I have been able to re-create from memory two of his fabulous dishes.

  • Natalie Sztern

    Also I should tell you, and I don’t know who of your readers fall into this category, that my Ipad sits in my car; so when I have a lonely lunch at the mall or am waiting in a Doctor’s office I take my Ipad. It only finds its way into the house when I need to charge it periodically

    At home I use my computer and it sits in my home office.

  • Mike

    As someone that hasn’t written a program from scratch in 10 years but is well versed in technology matters; why are you focusing your apps on a product that is owned by ~5% of the US population?

    I would guess that the relative ease in making a “pretty” app on these products would be a major factor but when there are 12 million iPads (in 2010) in a country with 307 million people I would think that limiting your potential customer base to that small of a subset of your already limited customer space (how many of those 12 million do you think actually want to make food?) would be brought up at some point.

    • ruhlman

      excellent question, re small number of devices. first answer is because it’s fun. second, I’m interested in innovation rather than recipes or same old books. third, ipad and tablets are the future, expected to grow by a factor of ten each year. apply your reasoning to television in the late 1940s. if we can produce useful products with low overhead, me, will, and donna, a small company of three, it could create a good foundation for future growth, no?

  • RTaylor

    I find Ratio to be indispensable in the kitchen, as my daughter is celiac, and there is no easier way to convert a recipe to gluten-free than by weight. We also use it when there’s only one egg, for example, as it does the math, which I usually can’t in my head.

    We also make a lot of use of Mr Bittman’s How to Cook Everything on the iPad- smaller than the book, it is hyperlinked and searchable, which is where an app version of a cookbook can really shine. That app also has built in timers, which strikes me as brilliant.

    As to other things we’d like to see, my daughter really wants an app that does what the Flavour Bible does: you enter / search for an ingredient and it suggests pairings.

    As to the comment above about floury hands, I have an app on my lappy that lets you advance steps using voice commands (sous chef), and that would be a huge addition to any e-device for the kitchen. Simple ‘next’ and ‘back’, maybe ‘start’ and ‘end’ for timers… nothing too complicated, and nothing that requires extensive training.

    I find the added value in apps to be in searchabilty, hyperlinking, and portability more than in added eye candy, and I personally won’t buy an app just because it has video content.

    • Mantonat

      I was just thinking of an app that would let you talk to a recipe and it would talk back to you. I really hate cooking from recipes because I constantly have to run back and forth between the book/laptop and the stove/pantry/cutting board. Even doing mise en place from a recipe sucks because I can only remember a few things on list at a time. If I could just call out “carrots, check!” and the recipe would respond “2 stalks celery!”, then I could just gather everything at once. I could also get something going on the stove and shout “how long do I simmer this red wine?” and the recipe could respond “until it’s reduced by half, bonehead! I can’t tell you how many minutes because I don’t know how hot your burners run!”

    • ruhlman

      great comments, thanks. i’m going to be including a gluten free ratio to the bread app soon. do you have one you love? the new ratio network for ipad will allow you to generate your own ratios

      thanks for all your comments

  • Victoria

    Based on the comments you made regarding high end Christmas gifts for the cook on you list, I recently got the iPad2 to use mostly in the kitchen. I chose the smallest WiFi-only one because I wanted to make sure that for me it isn’t redundant since I have the 11-inch MacAir, which is small enough to drag around and even use in the car. But the MacAir is not handy for reading in bed, and now that I have a little portable stand made by Arkon for the iPad, the computer is not as convenient in the kitchen where I am worried about splashing liquid on the keyboard.

    First of all, I have my own blog, which I started so I could easily access my own recipes either from my apartment in NYC or my house in upstate NY, wherever I happen to be. I like to click my own links to go directly from recipe to recipe. I especially like how easy it is to find what I am looking for without having to open a loose-leaf book, which I either had to carry with me from place to place or worry about keeping one in each place up to date.

    I like to use the iPad in the kitchen to access the blog recipes I actually use, which are yours and Molly’s (Orangette) and Luisa’s (The Wednesday Chef).

    I would be interested in an App that would convert American to Imperial as well as to Metric measurements and convert F to C (both ways, of course). I have a number of English cookbooks, and converting the measurements is not a metric conversion. I have English Pyrex measuring cups, which help. Believe it or not, the German oven I use in the City only has C, not F, so I am always using my Droid phone to convert the degrees I need!

    I have your Ratio chart (the one signed by you and Donna) framed upstate, but I just checked this second and see that you have adapted Ratio for the iPad. I thought it was just for the iPhone, so I will download it tonight when I get home.

    I recently downloaded a new App that has gotten excellent reviews. It does, however, happen to relate to a cookbook that is not among my favorites, so I will not name it here. I think it will be interesting to see how an App made from a cookbook works as opposed to just downloading a cookbook to Kindle and accessing it on the iPad. I think special Apps will be the wave of the future for iPad, and I think they will be common.

    The one cookbook I wish were available in Kindle is The Zuni Cafe Cookbook, because I would like to always have the ability to access it either on my iPad or my Droid or my computer. I could read it backwards and forwards continually!

  • Chappy

    Well, personally, I think the best app is a scale. Of course, this is the whole reason behind Ratio, but I’m fairly decent at doing the math in my head, so the precision of the scale can’t be beat. I think GourmetSlueth has a nice calculator to turn nearly any volume of food into a weight, but it is incredibly clunky for a smartphone. Maybe the Ratio app is integrated with a GourmetSlueth type database of foods?

  • jamy

    I use my iphone in the kitchen all the time. When I find recipes, I clip them to evernote, then synch them up with iphone version. It’s a lot easier than dragging the computer into the kitchen. To keep it clean, if I think ahead, I stick the phone in a clear plastic bag. Touch screen still works fine.

    A handy feature is to have a screen light “lock” as part of the app so you don’t have to change the overall settings in order to keep the screen lit if you are staying on one page for an extended time.

    I haven’t used the ratio app, but it seems like it leverages the virtues of the device by allowing calculations on the fly. I’m still using pen and paper if I need to halve a recipe.

  • Gail Steffen

    I take my iPad into the kitchen regularly for recipes and searching. Just place it in a gallon size ziploc and zip it up and it is protected from flying ingredients and still reads the heat signature of your finger… works like a charm!!

  • John Beatty

    I happen to like my grocery list app, because I’m forgetful and I always carry my phone. I can quickly add things to my list as I remember I need them, wherever I am and I always have the list with me, even if I didn’t plan on going to the store while I was out doing something else.

    Cooking apps, on the other hand, I’m not into so much. I will occasionally take my netbook in the kitchen if I don’t want to print a recipe from the internet the first time I use it and if I need to scale something I have on paper, I do all the math and write it down in pencil before I start cooking.

    • J.W. Hamner

      I agree with you about grocery list apps and would add that they (or at least the one I use) allow you to share a grocery list among several people… so if my girlfriend buys milk on the way home from teaching, I won’t do the same on the way home from work. Much better than pen and paper.

      Otherwise I want to have access to recipes when I’m at the store or farmer’s market. I would consider paying for Bittman’s HTCE app for knowing what else to buy when I find some perfect veggie I wasn’t expecting… or the Seafood Watch to know what to buy from the fishmonger… but I can’t see wanting to use my smart phone in the kitchen except to check email.

      To me, cooking apps are all about grocery shopping.

      I really like the book Ratio, but can’t really comprehend wanting an app for it.

  • Mantonat

    I have a vision for an all-in-one “food lifestyle manager” that would be based on your budget and income, health and fitness level, food preferences, and food availability in your geographical area. It would start by accessing your budget spreadsheet to determine how much money you have to spend on food every month. It would then upload data from a digital scale and combine it with your own input about your physical activity level and health goals to determine your caloric intake needs. Next, it would build a database of your food preferences and dietary needs/restrictions. It could base this on your input, input from grocery lists and restaurant orders, “likes” or “dislikes” of food and recipe articles you have read and rated online, etc. Finally, it would build shopping lists based on recipes it finds or creates based on all of the above. It could spit out a list of meals for a week that would fit your budget, your preferences, your health needs, and your overall lifestyle. You would probably also need to maintain an online calendar so that the app could pick appropriate meals for you to cook depending on how busy you are. It could also pick restaurants that would fit your budget and could track your location to minimize travel time to stores and restaurants. Finally, you could give it financial access so that, upon your approval, it would purchase food items online based on the best available prices. Some items could be shipped to you, or grocery stores could have compatible software that would receive your order so that they could have everything bagged and ready for you to pick up. It could have built-in reminders so that, say on a Sunday afternoon, it would give you a message like “since you don’t have anything else scheduled, why don’t you make that batch of soup you were planning to take for lunches this week?”
    How easy would that be?

  • Tags

    How about an app you record what you bought and an individual identifier that’s printed on it (like those unintelligible codes on a can, for instance). The app timestamps it and when you type the code into the app later, it tells you when you bought it.

    After all, isn’t storage a game changer when it comes to cooking?

  • Brad Barnett

    Interactive flow charts. Example. You want to get from A to B with a dish. Maybe you can’t get their directly because of some limitation…say time, equipment, or product availability. An interactive flow chart could be helpful. More specifically, Maybe a flow chart can be designed around what you actually have on hand…or built around the goal of troubleshooting of a particular dish…or simply customizing a dish and automatically adjusting the preparation to accommodate the change.

    I’m an Airline Pilot. We have thick manuals with nothing but flow charts in them on board the flight deck. They’re there to help solve problems. Almost always it begins with a type of condition…a yellow caution light has illuminated let’s say. The flow charts assist the pilot with reaching the proper solution. First you identify the problem, then the flow charts ask you pertainent questions for more detailed information all the while leading the reader along a path that variates depending upon the info the reader supplies it.

    I was specifically thinking about your book charcuterie. How many emails or phone calls do either yourself or Polcyn receive regarding those recepies, techniques, and processes? I would guess a lot. You already have a wealth of info that could be translated into a flow chart. I know I’d buy it, but then again, I had duck tongue hot pot for lunch….what was that return on investment thing again?

    • ruhlman

      i like this idea, and will has often talked about tring to figure out a way to create an app that would combine disperate recipes and come up with a game plan so that all receipes were intermeshed so that you had the most efficient game plan as possible.

  • Chef Philip Geneman

    I have android which is very useful for a lot of things. I do not have one for cooking. It could be a great tool, it would be handy, however you would have to be very careful not mess it up. the plastic bag trick may work great! so that you can use the touch screen while also it works to keep it safe from messing up your phone or Ipad.

    thanks Michael

  • Mike

    What I’d like to see in an app is what a book can’t do. So the scaling you have in the ratio app is nice (although its missing some obvious conversions that home cooks need such as tsp and Tbl, nor can you enter 1 yolk into the hollandaise app). Most important to me, the novice cook, would be video. Books can have nice pictures, but a 20-second clip of someone actually kneading dough or whatever is better than a set of pictures.

    To be even more general, what I’d really liketo have is a CIA-trained chef experienced in teaching cooking to novices standing in the kitchen with me and giving advice. It’s preposterous to imagine an app doing that, of course, but on the other hand an app allows going farther than just a book so it can provide a subset of this. So imagine an app talking to you; you’re doing the basic bread recipe and it asks out loud “would you like to learn about substituting some whole wheat flour?”. You answer, and if you do want to then it goes on to explain. Or an app could ask “how soon do you need the bread? (and gives some time frames)” If you need it as quick as possible that’s one recipe, but if you can wait overnite it suggests a poolish, and offers to explain why you’d want to do so.

    A user that just wants an app that scales recipes can get that, but someone looking for a more complete experience could get an app that starts them off making a simple white flour recipe, then the next time remembers they have done so and offers to teach them the next step.

    Or to put it in a nutshell, imagine you were teaching one of your children to cook bread and they’d never done so before. You would probably come up with a set of lessons. Why can’t an app do that?

  • Yvan Vande Velde

    Maybe usful when you develop an app.
    When I’m logged into a web app and I need to check what a page looks like to the public (in the logged-out state), I simply open a new Chrome window in Incognito mode. This will create a completely fresh browser session with no saved cookies, allowing you to see exactly what is publicly visible. The best part is, you can have both a normal browsing session and an Incognito browsing session open simultaneously. You can open an Incognito window really quickly using the shortcut keys:

    Mac OS X: ⌘-Shift-N
    Windows: Ctrl-Shift-N

  • Auntie Allyn

    Okay, that’s it . . . you’ve pushed me over the edge and I’m gonna have to buy an iPad! I have the Ratio book and even the printout that you did when the book came out initially, but it would be so convenient to have this information on an iPad!

  • mike taylor

    great app. cannot wait for the sausage iteration.. i am in my second year as a chef student @ George Brown College and this is extremely helpful to me. i start my chef residency term in sept. and am trying to get as much reference/cookbooks/recipes and food method crammed onto my wife’s ipad as possible.

  • Bob

    A knife skills app would be great, incorporating video that shows various cuts at different speeds. The user could mark themselves proficient, but always go back to review a less-frequently used technique.

    Otherwise, what tablet devices offer that books don’t is personality – that doesn’t always translate well into text (depends on who your writing partner is). A ‘Soul of a Chef’ app, featuring small vignettes … even along the lines of ‘____ Had Something To Say’ that inform as well as inspire would be nice.

  • chowstr

    I really like the approach you are taking with the Ratio and Bread Baking. I have the Ratio app on my phone and use it pretty regularly to improvise soups, sauces, doughs, batters, etc. with available ingredients. It has greatly increased my confidence (and success rate!) at making great food without recipes.
    Also, being somewhat of a geek by trade, I appreciate your efforts to introduce abstraction into cooking. An abstract dough is a “ratio” of flour, liquid, fat. A specific instantiation of a dough could be a combination of AP flour, whole wheat, butter, lard, milk water, as long as the basic ratio is fulfilled. (I just made a great 3:2:1 pie dough that used 3/4 AP flour and 1/4 masa harina for the flour component.) Bread baking is abstracted into a sequence of steps (mix, knead, rise, shape, rise, bake), that are common throughout all breads. Getting people to think in abstractions is the key to empowering them to experiment. It’s a lot easier to remember a few ratios and sequences, than 1000s of individual recipes. Producing concrete recipes from abstract concepts is much easier to present in app form than in book form. Bottom line, can’t wait for the sausage app!

  • Natalie Sztern

    I am right up there with Mike…and Bob; an app that can also be a course/class that gets downloaded with visuals. Why do I need a class on making sushi when I can attend it on my Ipad; watch it as much as I have to and then actually perform it in the steps of ‘my instructor’.

    I am a visual learner so my tendencies go towards this.

    Brad had an interesting thought vis-a-vis a flow chart except I am curious as to what kind of recipe would benefit from a flow chart or is it more a technique? How is this different than say, as I know it, a ‘substitution chart’ that used to be written on old cookbooks? BTW Brad I had to read your answer to my husband who had to explain to me a flow chart as it might relate to a recipe, so if I sound silly in my question it is an honest silly.

    • Brad Barnett

      You’re right Natalie, it is a convoluted concept. I hardly gave the idea much critical thought but somewhere in all of the confusing flow chart stuff is a useful idea. I like what MR said about a interweaving disparate recipes. That’s basically a googlesque, “living” cookbook on an iPad. What if flow charts started with simple questions and led the reader on from there? What if you wanted to have a dinner party and there was an interactive flowchart designed around that?

      “what do you feel like eating”
      “how much time do you want to spend”
      “Do any of the diners have any food allergy”
      “what primary ingredients do you have on hand”
      “how many diners are you planning on”
      On and on.

      Perhaps there could be substitution and wine pairing suggestions as well.

      The cool thing is that a flow chart can be designed AROUND whatever the goal is. It may take any army of programmers and make zero financial sense for the developer but it would be cool…like that personal jet pack I was promised as a kid!

  • Tenina

    This is an interesting discussion, I too am involved with recipe app development for my work, and am very interested in this topic as a result. Have just been told that books are out of date by the powers that be…personally horrified by that concept. However, the fact that I will love books forever aside, I do love apps that allow me to have a shopping list, good step pictures if the recipe is difficult, and of course great results when I follow the recipe as written.
    Because I LOVE Ratio the book, and have the Ratio app, would love an easier version such as you mention Michael that would calculate my personal ideas into the Ratios necessary for success. At the moment, being a maths free zone, I still find it a challenge to work it out..and in metric as well.

  • RJP

    Mr. Ruhlman, I love the direction your taking apps. If I can make a suggestion, have your developer create an open specification for exchanging ratio-based recipes, one that would be supported by your apps and by other developers. I bet such a format would create a thriving exchange of recipes in a much better format than the old standby of list of ingredients, list of directions. People could post recipes in blogs and have a “download to Ratio App” button for those who want to use the recipe. I bet people would make facebook widgets to display them and allow users to adjust them.

    One of the things missing from recipe sharing on the internet is a common format. There are some out there, but there locked in to proprietary ownership and not flexible enough to handle ratio-based apps. If you had your developers create a good format and put your name behind it, I bet it would take off.

  • MJR

    I recently purchased an iPad and downloaded your bread making app. The price is right and it’s a valuable tool to have around. I’ve been in a bit of a bread making rut (boule – it’s really good though) and now branching out and experimenting. Read a newspaper, answer email, and a few seconds later decide which bread to make. It’s all right there. Nice work.

  • Kevin Kodama

    I always cook with my iPad and/or iPhone nearby…always googling stuff I can’t remember (“was that 7 minutes for a soft boiled egg, or 9?”) Would love to have a “Ruhlman notebook” app of helpful tips/rules of thumb-not recipes or ratios, just notes about whatever I happen to have in my fridge. “Asparagus tips..lets see what Ruhlman has done with these”

  • Bill J

    How about an app that will let you do the equivalent of adding notes in the margins so you have a retrievable record of what worked. what didn’t and what you would do differently next time?

    • wanderingtaoist

      You can actually do just that in the Ratio app. My recipes are full of notes of how I used e.g. cake dough, what went in and what should I watch out for next time. Very useful and can be edited on the next try.

  • Carolyn Z

    I too would like to be able to add ingredients, and see how you would recommend using them. This could be general in nature, perhaps different types of them. I would also want to add my ratios for those ingredients. I also like the notes feature in the current app, and would like to see that expanded. Thank you for opening up this conversation now that so many people own smart phones and tablets. And thanks for including the Android OS in the adventure.

  • Alex

    MR, I use apps a lot when cooking: ratio of course sometimes just instapaper or evernote to send a recipe from online to my iPhone or Kindle app to read elements of cooking. I’d love to see a cooking app that takes full advantage of the visual capabilities with videos and photos of techniques and stages of preparation. What does coating the back of a spoon look like? What does a well-browned roast look like pre-braise? How do I knead and form bread? Although, no matter how many times I watch Pepin debone a chicken with his bare hands I, might not be able to do it, I think some simple basic techniques would be great to catalog in slide shows or video.

  • Max

    At some point, will you revisit the Ratio application and update it for Android tablets? I love that app, and use it nigh daily, but the extra screen space would be awesome.

    Other than that, keep offering things for Android, please. You might want to look into Windows Phone as well, as I believe they are still looking for, and subsidizing to some extent, development of apps for the platform.

    Thanks again for offering all this stuff. Have and love the spoon, too. Poached eggs. Yum. YUM!

  • Michael

    I counted 49 cooking related apps on my iPad/iPhone, including Ratio and Bread Baking Basics.

    Most useful to me by far is Paprika, which holds all my recipes and notes.

    Teach Me Sushi is excellent.

    I’ll get back on what I’d like to see. Suffice to say, most developers are simply not taking advantage of the platform.