The latest gizmo for adventurous home chefs is something millions of us already use every day: a handheld computer. That's right. You may think of your iPhone or Nintendo DS as just a phone or gaming device, respectively, but both have speedy processors and lovely displays that make them nifty interactive cookbooks. Even T-Mobile's Google phone has a video cooking program that makes recipes on paper feel as flat as day-old pancakes.
Sure, old-fashioned cookbooks are nice to look at, but they eat up too much counter space and can't compete with the ever expanding trove of recipes online. And getting recipes off websites like Epicurious and food blogs like Simply Recipes and 101 Cookbooks can leave you with a haphazard pile of printouts. The solution? Handheld devices not only let you browse hundreds of recipes on the go but also create electronic shopping lists you can easily tote to the store. And if perchance your handheld falls into the cookie batter (as mine did), you can wipe it clean with a sponge. (See the 50 best inventions of 2008.)
Of the three handhelds with cooking applications, the iPhone has the biggest selection of recipes. With more than 30 cooking programs to choose from in Apple's App Store, you can zero in on anything from Crock-Pot specials to vegan treats. I clicked on one app, Post Imagineering's no-frills Christmas recipes, which downloaded to my phone in seconds for 99¢. And though the thumbprint cookies I made from it got rave reviews, it was mildly annoying to have to tap the screen every few minutes to get it out of power-save mode while I mixed, beat and rolled my cookie dough. (See the Top 10 iPhone applications.)
I didn't have to do as much tapping on the Nintendo DS's $20 Personal Trainer: Cooking title, which responded to voice commands like "Continue" and "Last step." But the device mistook the sound of potatoes being chopped (for a tasty gratin) for a voice command and kept politely asking, "Excuse me?" and "What was that?"
The biggest disappointment, however, was the DS program from hunky celebri-chef Jamie Oliver. His $30 What's Cooking? felt half-baked. While I loved listening to Oliver's British accent and pondering his inspired recipes, he only briefly introduces the dishes and does not talk you through their preparation, which you have to read about onscreen instead. And the brownies came out literally half-baked--I had to leave them in an extra 10 minutes to get them to merely gooey. But they tasted great.
My favorite cooking app ended up being a free one for the Google phone called Cooking Capsules. Each of the six dishes comes with an excellent how-to video, a grocery list and clear instructions. As with the DS titles, you can check off each item on your shopping list as you put it in your grocery cart. And a slider lets you adjust quantities for more or fewer people. I made halibut steamed in parchment paper, and it came out perfectly.
If, on the other hand, you'd rather just play at cooking with a handheld, Majesco's Cooking Mama and Cake Mania games for the DS let you try your hand at new recipes--minus the dirty dishes and, of course, the tastings.