Modern Life

Why home cooks still print recipes

For both practical and personal reasons, paper is one of our favorite tools in the kitchen.

By Jennifer V. Cole — December 13, 2018

Today, when nearly every recipe you can imagine has been digitized and stored in your favorite app or the cloud, home cooks continue to print them out and buy or use cookbooks in the kitchen. In fact, almost every food website or cooking blog includes a prominent print button. But why? Sure, no one wants to make their phone or tablet prey to a grease splatter or flour-coated fingers, and you might have to touch your phone a lot during a lengthy recipe to refer back. But it’s more than that. Turns out we still want the tangible, the tactile, the visual when we seek out the perfectly spiced gingerbread recipe or even just want to dress up our normal Thursday night chicken. After all the online searching, we still hit “print.”  

People over 35 are more likely to print out a recipe, according to a 2015 study from Google, Kraft Foods and mcgarrybowen, and 41% of 25- to 34-year-olds cooks also use recipes on paper.  When you print, you can see ingredients, directions, and images all at the same time, instead of having to scroll or tab. Additionally, a well-used recipe or a beautiful image in a cookbook can transport us to memories of childhood or the flavors of a well-remembered vacation. If you’re one of the many recipe printers out there, you’re in good company.

“When you have a piece of paper in your hand that you can jot notes on, that picks up spills and food stains — those marks become battle scars and bragging rights.”

Chef Sean Brock

Putting it down on paper

Hunter Lewis, editor-in-chief of Food & Wine, sees that all the time on his website.“The number one action on our digital recipe pages is ‘print’.” He likens a digital recipe to a single — what you’re in the mood for at the moment and how much time you have to invest — and his magazine to an album, full of context and narrative to tell a story.

His readers who come online to search for recipes are trying to solve a problem. “A great majority of cooks are finding recipes online because they have something in mind that they want to make. Or they have certain ingredients in their pantry that they want to use, and type that list into a search engine,” Lewis says. But the magazine’s online users still translate their searches to print.

Overall, the digital world is most definitely not leaving printing behind. HP has developed voice-activated printing skills for its printers such as the HP Tango that work with Amazon Alexa and other smart home assistants. Now Amazon has connected various skills so multiple tasks can be completed in the same conversation, such as searching for and printing out recipes. These skill connections seamlessly allow HP and Allrecipes magazine to print your road map to dinner. You simply ask Alexa to search for the recipe of the day or for a specific recipe like spaghetti carbonara, and then have the digital assistant print it out.

“Paper is a practical choice in the kitchen and it’s not a surprise to me that using a printed recipe is the choice for so many of our community,” says Jennifer Darling, editor-in-chief of Allrecipes. “It eliminates concerns about damaging a mobile device and it’s easy to read from beginning to end without scrolling or dealing with the auto-lock feature.” And 46% of the Allrecipes audience use the “print and pass along” method to share recipes with friends and family (email is the top choice at 55%, Facebook comes in third at 36%). Their home cooks overwhelmingly prefer printing as a way to organize their recipes, three times more than creating an online recipe box.

For all-digital brands, such as Food52, printing also makes up a considerable portion of their members’ experience. Merrill Stubbs, the site’s co-founder and president, says that printing recipes can be an invaluable tool for cooks, especially around the holidays when you have multiple recipes going at once. For Thanksgiving, she cooked for 11 people, and had an ambitious menu. She used the site’s Automagic Thanksgiving Menu Maker to create the run-of-show — to see the whole dinner easily at a glance. But when it came time to cook, she printed out each recipe and placed it in the serving dish she planned to use.

“This allowed people who were helping me to jump in at any point. We didn’t have to share a single computer and shift from tab to tab,” she says. “You could get grease on [the paper], make a mess of it, make notes — there’s a time and a place for an ultimately disposable version of the recipe in front of you.”  The site averages 5,500 recipe prints per day — during Thanksgiving week, that number jumped to 8,000.

“The printed page is where practicality intersects with romance in the kitchen.”

Kerry Diamond, editor and founder of Cherry Bombe

Getting emotional

But cooking isn’t always simply about getting food on the table. Sometimes it’s a gesture of care and affection — or even an escape. Paper recipes root us in a moment and remove us from distractions. “Many of us cook to get away from the evils of modern life. Cooking can be like meditation. And when you’re in the middle of a recipe, a text, or email snaps you out of it,” says Edward Lee, chef and owner of 610 Magnolia in Louisville and Succotash in Washington, DC, and author of Buttermilk Graffiti.

There’s also a romance to connecting with the food you are preparing by handling the recipe, marking it up with notes or with accidental drippings. “Cooking is very sensual, from touching the vegetables to taking a knife in your hands to slice a beautiful piece of fish,” says Lee. “And part of that tactile experience is holding a piece of paper or a book that has a recipe in it.”

Kerry Diamond, editor and founder of Cherry Bombe magazine, says, “People love to print recipes for the same reason they love cookbooks.” Cookbooks buck the general decline in book publishing, with sales on the rise. Last year, Americans bought nearly 18 million cookbooks, and for the first six months of 2018, sales were 21% higher year on year. “Some of it comes down to old-school behavior, and some of it is pure practicality,” says Diamond, in reference to printing versus the mess of cooking with your phone. For her, “the printed page is where practicality intersects with romance in the kitchen,” and she finds a printed recipe, even one originally from the digital realm, feels more dependable to her than something she can easily scroll past.

Chef Sean Brock, champion of the heirloom Southern larder and cuisine, echoes that sentiment. “Cooking is about evoking emotions and connections,” he says. “When you have a piece of paper in your hand that you can jot notes on, that picks up spills and food stains — those marks become battle scars and bragging rights. It’s like ‘look how used this is.’ It makes the recipe your own and carries your own story forward. Those marks on a well-used recipe are a visual representation of someone’s love for a dish.”

Pietro Karras

It tells a story

The splatters and spills on a recipe are so evocative that Nashville-based food writers Jennifer Justus, Cindy Wall, and Erin Byers Murray created an art exhibit in 2015 called “Dirty Pages” showcasing beloved recipes of 18 women, with each recipe revealing years of wear and tear in the kitchen as well as the stories behind them. “When people talk about their favorite recipes, they never start with the actual recipe,” says Justus. “They talk about their aunt who made it, her cancer, how a certain dish keeps her memory alive, and so on.” That exhibit resonated deeply and spoke so clearly to our intrinsic connection to food and the printed page that it now lives permanently at the Southern Food & Beverage Museum in New Orleans.

After all, a recipe on paper doesn’t just protect our devices from the chaos of the kitchen. It gives us an in-hand totem that merges our stories with those who preceded us and those who will follow. You don’t tab through your grandmother’s browser history; you thumb through her well-worn recipe box.

“There’s something nostalgic, more authoritative and a lot less messy about having something on paper,” says Diamond. “And you’re never going to feel bad about picking up a piece of paper with dough fingers.”


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