Computers or Cookbooks in the Kitchen?

Should you be cooking from your computer or your cookbook? David and Renee offer their opinions. (And don’t forget to let us know which medium you prefer…)

An ipad with an artisan bread recipe and a artisan bread cookbook side by side in the debate of computers or cookbooks.

He Said:

Come into our kitchen and you’ll find cookbooks gracing it. About three dozen of them tucked away on two shelves along one side of the cooking island, their bindings perfectly even (thanks to a ruler I frequently nudge up against them). But they’re cooking eunuchs, nothing more than decoration, as if we were selling the house and wanted to convey subtley to potential buyers the domestic pleasures awaiting them in those pages. The motherlode of books are found far away from the UXBZ (unexploded bomb zone) of the kitchen: In CT, that would be my writing studio, and in NYC, the dining room. Plainly put: No sauces, tomato stains, or grease smudges will ever deface my books.

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So it’s curious that my laptop, which cost me three times my monthly mortgage, is what I bring into the kitchen when I cook.

For me, comprehensiveness trumps logic. I know I should keep the computer miles away from the stove and my preternatural clumsiness. (I won’t even eat near my computer during the day.) But I just can’t stay away from everything the Internet has to offer while cooking. It’s like having my own personal Schlesinger Library’s Culinary Collection in my kitchen.

Whether you like it or not, just about any recipe you want to make from just about any cookbook is online somewhere. (Me, I like it.) And I like having Leite Brain—what I call my laptop—handy because I rarely cook from just one recipe. I pull from three or four at once, and the last thing I want is piles of books on the counter. Plus I oftentimes cook from this blog but am curious how other sites and blogs whip up, say, gougeres or bavette, so I browse. And soon enough, I’m lost in that great, wonderful, frustrating worm hole of cyberspace. Along the way I pick up a few tips from Michael Ruhlman here, a video from Mark Bittman there, and sometimes even a new idea for tomorrow’s dinner.

Then comes the ritual of the printing of the recipes and the taping to the cabinets (something The One hates, because I once pulled off paint when ripping them down after a particularly frustrating dinner). After the kitchen is kitted out, the computer isn’t out of reach—I never know when I might need more info, want to catch up on the latest episode of “Desperate Housewives” while onions sauté, or reply to Momma Leite, who likes to e-mail during the early evening.

What can I say, I have cooking ADD.

Of course, Leite Brain’s being in the line of fire (sometimes literally) has prompted me to jury-rig it for safety. First, I never have it next to the stove, anymore. We won’t go there, but suffice it say that I have a new laptop. I also cover the keyboard and screen with plastic wrap—kind of a giant computer condom protecting it from all kinds of nasties.

Now, the one place I never hesitate to bring my beloved books is the bedroom. There I luxuriate in their words and pictures and sometimes even fall asleep with a pile at my feet. I don’t know what that says about me or my relationship, but we’re not going there, either.

David Leite's signature

She said:

If you could see the state of my cookbooks, you’d understand why I don’t take my laptop into the kitchen.

It’s not that I’m intentionally careless. Or that my cookbook collection is terribly mistreated. It’s that I’m not the type of cook who can maintain the books in just-off-the-shelf condition. I’m prone to what someone once described as “Seussian stacks” of teetering pots and pans everywhere when I cook. Chopping boards balance over the kitchen sink. All four burners blast at the same time. The narrow ledge outside my former Manhattan window oft doubled as a makeshift cooling rack. Guests have been known to duck and dive, but for me, there’s a rhythm, albeit an occasionally discordant one.

In the midst of this juggling act, whether I’m testing as many recipes as I can at once or simply making supper, there isn’t a lot of time to be prissy about things like splashes and drips and splotches. If there’s a lull in the cooking while something roasts or braises or marinates, fine, I’ll be careful. Otherwise, prissy attendance to Mr. Clean-like standards of cleanliness would just be one more thing to do while I’m juggling more important stuff.

Just ask David. The last time—and I do mean the last time—he loaned me a cookbook, I set it safely outside the kitchen. One stray, damp thumbprint was all it took to give away my tendency to get lost in the kitchen moment.¹ I wouldn’t dare take my electronics into that fray.

Nor would I want to, practicality aside. You know how they say to use your bedroom only for sleep and, well, you know? I feel the same about my kitchen. I don’t want to be tempted to read emails while my eggs slip tragically from perfectly sunnyside up—yolks runny, please—into hardened mediocrity. I don’t want to interrupt everything to post 137 self-deprecating characters and a photo about the incident. Laptop or iPhone as resource? Without a doubt. But not when I’m in the throes of cooking. I already did my homework, sussing out an ingredient substitutions or summoning an online explanation for a technique before I stand facing the stove. If something comes up in the moment, I’ll deal with it. When I’m in the kitchen, it’s time to cook. Anything else is a distraction and messes with my mojo.

So the closest my delicate, Meyer-lemon-averse Mac gets to the mess—and I to its distracting charms—is a schoolhouse chair just outside my galley kitchen. With the volume on Spotify cranked, I can ponder deep thoughts from “All Things Considered” or croon off-key to Ella while otherwise considering all things cooking-related.

Perhaps the most efficient use of technology in the kitchen for me? Probably to photocopy a recipe in order to keep a book out of harm’s way. Still, that wouldn’t be the same. I’m a sucker for the sentient pleasures of cooking from a book. Which sorta explains why my cookbooks are a mess in the first place. I need the soothing white space around the edge of the page in order to dance a duet with the ingredients in my imagination. I revel in those idle moments while waiting for a stock to burble so I can linger and lose myself in lyrically written headnotes by, among others, the late Judy Rodgers.

They’re not just cookbooks. They’re scrapbooks of sorts. Telltale translucent stains from melted butter both grease and grace my mom’s decades-old binder of go-to recipes. I continue her legacy with a blemish here (a smear of cilantro that escaped from a Peppercorn-Coriander Root Flavor Paste) and a batter-splattered page there (the incomparable Laurie Colwin channeling Katherine Hepburn’s brownies in a decades-old issue of Gourmet). Though the almost-reformed perfectionist in me sometimes cringes, I don’t mind the splotches that shout out those memories, taking me back to memories of meals I’d never otherwise recall had those pages been seen onscreen. I don’t mind them at all. Originally published March 15, 2010.

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¹Okay, a single watery fingerprint would be fine. But I could tell which recipe she tested by looking at the side of the book. The page was so wavy, it looked like an EKG readout.—David 


Mein kinder: Do you bring your computer or cookbook into the kitchen? And why?

Tell us below in the comments.



  1. I bring both into the kitchen and, yes, I put my laptop ON THE GAS STOVE if I’m not using it. At least I did. Maybe I’ll rethink that, ha!
    I use the computer more than I’d like to simply because it’s so easy to find a recipe with a quick pecking of fingers on the keyboard. Lately I’ve been printing out the recipe and slipping it into a clear plastic sleeve and I’ve been embarrassingly amazed at how well this works. But cookbooks? Ah, cookbooks are my favorite medium from which to cook!
    I love cooking from cookbooks b/c as soon as I finish a recipe, I make a few notes, directly onto the page. I always date it and, let me tell you, to pull a cookbook out and find that in 1999 we thought those biscuits were the absolute best, or that in 1987 the Christmas Mornay was excellent but that we substituted broccoli for the asparagus and liked it much better…THAT is the gift and beauty of a cookbook. Notes and dates are written lovingly in my own or my husband’s handwriting. I treasure that. A typed note on the computer can never compare to a handwritten comment. I think of my cookbooks as an extension of myself and an important part of of our family’s history. i hope that generations beyond will treasure the notes and discover from them that I made Italian Cream cake every year for my husband’s birthday or that the key to strawberry freezer jam is to stir the berries and sugar much longer than stated so you don’t end up with a grainy, sugary mess and to cook the pectin and water up to a minute longer to ensure a thicker jam. Spots and smudges may happen now and then, and it doesn’t bother me one bit. It’s just part of the creative process…Cooking is love, not perfection.
    To take advantage of the best of both worlds, I’m starting to print out the recipes and compile them in a notebook, complete with handwritten notes and sourced so that I always know where it came from!

    1. Laughs. On occasion, Mary Ann, when I am testing a recipe for work I will take my computer into the kitchen and I do the exact same thing on my gas stove. (I thought twice but shrugged and did it anyways.) And I am completely enthralled with the how you take notes directly on the page. What a gift both to yourself and to others. And what an heirloom that will be someday. I can’t thank you enough for sharing this with us and others so that we can do the same. Yours in gratitude…

  2. My desk is at the end of my kitchen cabinets. So the lap top is right there. And I do occasionally pull up recipe’s for something I am making. Altho, I usually have the cook book on the stand in the kitchen. Now, I have given away many of my books. Many of them read and used, but in good shape. My personal recipes are in several binders and they catch most of the grief. And the books I use most are stained and written in to the point I would be embarrassed to give them to anyone. But, I guess they are like the much used and loved books my mother gave me 50 years ago. Full of over written and stained pages. What I like to do when trying something new off the internet, is print it out and then I can refer to the recipe and make changes as needed without messing up my desk or computer. Of course, I have many of the more used recipes so committed to memory that I don’t even bother with the file or book. Just go make it. Like Mom’s Devil’s Food Cake, or Molasses cookies. Or even my cake doughnut recipe. Made them so many times over the years, I don’t even have them written down anymore. The cards or paper got so beat up and stained they were illegible.

    1. Vincent, I love your combined approach which is organic and just follows whatever is happening for you in the moment. As you say, “just go make it.” Wishing you much happiness in the kitchen and in life…

  3. I have several hundred cookbooks and reference them often, but if I am using a recipe from the internet, I just set my iPad on a stand. Easy. Safe.

  4. After 40 years of buying cookbooks, I finally bid them farewell. I kept about a dozen that are more reference than others but let go off all the ones by celebrities, the Junior League, the latest fads and the ones about this or that wonder appliance of the year. Of course, I kept the ones from chefs that I have met (Paul Prudhomme, Jeff Smith) and the one my mom got when she was first married in 10950).

    I just find it easier to have a large tablet than a book. The internet put the kibosh on buying cookbooks.

    1. Bkhuna, I hear you. I still have a ton of cookbooks, but all new books are digital. I do dip SELECTIVELY into the Internet for recipes, but I have a small circle of websites/blogs I go to.

  5. I know this is an older post but I would be curious to see how many are using iPads in the kitchen in 2013. I use it a lot and ‘clip’ my recipes into Evernote. No more paint chipping on the walls 🙂 I still use my cookbooks for reference and also research vintage, especially Québec, to see how my grand mothers were cooking. Interesting to find hand written notes from my grand mothers and aunts and those vintage cookbooks. There is such a story behind those old cookbooks and I would be hard for me to just use iPads or computer. But I have to admit that doing dishes is more interesting watching Ricardo Larivée (a Québec cooking show) on my iPad than looking at my backyard.

    1. Helene, that’s a great question, and I toss it out to our readers. So tell us: how many of you use iPads when it comes to the kitchen? Personally, I have my iPad and iPhone with me all the time when cooking. Occasionally I’ll print out a recipe if I know that I want to make changes.

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