How Today’s Cooks Preserve Their Recipes
There’s no wrong way to keep grandma’s cooking notes close.
There’s something timeless about a passed-down recipe, whether it’s from someone who’s no longer here, or someone who feels far away. It’s a physical object, just like any other memento or heirloom, but it lives in the past as well as the future. That loved one is saying, “Here’s something to remember me by,” but also, “Nourish yourself with this meal, right now.”
It’s funny how we go about preserving these keepsakes. Pre-internet we might have gone through the trouble of laminating our handwritten index cards to protect them from spillage. Now, we face a very modern predicament: Cooking along to a TikTok and restarting the loop from the beginning each time you miss something. The ephemerality of virtual recipes spurs us to wonder how we can record our favorite meals now and for generations to come.
I’m ashamed to reveal my haphazard recipe-tracking process. I’ll usually remember the words I googled when I first searched it (something like, “baked oats no egg,” because I was out of eggs). I’ll type those exact keywords into the search bar and click on the link that comes up purple, or says, “You visited this page 27 times.”
This vexes my mother, who relies quite heavily on physical recipes. She keeps a grease-stained manila folder labeled “RECIPES” in black Sharpie. It’s filled with everything from hand-written notes to faded printouts from MarthaStewart.com. Whenever I introduce her to my latest food fixation, she begs me to write the instructions down. She knows a link will only get lost.
Not too long ago, I sifted through that folder and stumbled upon an index card that made my heart swell. It was actually written by me. The recipe was for kruschiki, a Polish dessert of deep-fried bow ties covered in powdered sugar that my family always made at Christmastime. The name was written phonetically, like “croschiqui,” and featured the kind of handwriting I copied from all the popular girls at school (IYKYK). It was like looking at a relic of a previous self—simultaneously jarring and endearing.
Perhaps hand-written recipes are a lost art. Some cooks go off of vibes, while others rely on their Notes app to jot things down. The need to save a recipe for a future you, let alone a future generation, no longer feels urgent when the answer to any cooking questions can be googled.
“Now that more and more people are cooking from the internet, I do mourn the fact that people don’t collect their favorite recipes in a physical form anymore,” says Justine Doiron, the creator behind @Justine_Snacks, a recipe account with 2 million followers on TikTok. “It feels like you either remember the site, or you save it to something like Pinterest. I miss the idea of having a recipe box. To me, that’s something so personal and nostalgic, especially when those recipes get referenced over and over and later passed down.”
Doiron has one worn recipe that she holds onto—a newspaper clipping for pumpkin bread that’s been in her family for years. “By now I’ve changed the recipe in a few different ways, but I go back to the clipping for the nostalgia of it,” she says. “I have a photo of it on my phone, and I think it’s so funny how a whole recipe could be whittled down into just four sentences and a list of ingredients.”
“Hand-written recipes can bring people together across generations,” says Angie Rito, co-founder of New York City’s Don Angie. At her restaurant, Rito and husband Scott Tacinelli honor the recipes of their respective Italian American families. They incorporate Angie’s grandmother’s red sauce—a simple combination of olive oil, garlic, puréed tomatoes, and basil—in their famous pinwheel lasagna and use her method of dehydrating herbs to sneak house-dried oregano into various dishes.
However, these approaches are solely replicated from memory. “My grandmother never wrote recipes down, and to this day, I truly regret not spending more time asking her questions about her cooking and recording the information,” Rito says. “Though any time anyone in the family asked her how she did things, she tended to leave information out, and we never knew if that was intentional!”
Deb Perelman, the seasoned blogger behind Smitten Kitchen and author of Smitten Kitchen Keepers, adds, “So many comments on my site are from people who’ve been trying to learn how to make a lost family recipe that was never written down and feel sad they can never get it right.” For her, though, original recipes are not to be messed with—they’re there for guidance alone. “Writing on a really old recipe card makes me feel like I’m writing in a book. Also, to be realistic, any notes I take will require far more room than the margin of an index card.”
It’s puzzling how our disinterest in the safeguarding of recipes doesn’t seem to correlate with how much we prioritize the recipes in and of themselves. We still seem to care, perhaps a little too much, about the specificity of measurements and steps—in a way that Angie’s grandmother did not. Perelman might not work on paper, but she’s adamant about precision. “I’ve worked really hard to get the salt and sugar and steps exactly how I like them best, so I don’t want to make it another way,” she says. Doiron adds, “I think writing everything down as you do it is so important, even if it only lives in the Notes app on your phone.”
Perelman regularly updates one document that would be approximately 75 pages long if she were to print it out. “There are earnest attempts at organization along the way—either a month or season—but mostly it’s a messy heap,” she says. “I find what I’m looking for through word searches, i.e. ‘honeynut’ for the random squash idea I jotted down last fall.” Doiron keeps a similar document. “There’s no chance of it crashing—unlike my website,” she says.
“My grandmother never wrote recipes down…I truly regret not spending more time asking her questions about her cooking.”
Luckily, for Perelman and the owners of Don Angie, they can rely on their own cookbooks to pass down physical recipes to their kids, but they all agree that, beyond the books, they should work on a better system of filing away their recipes for future use. When it comes to advising a new generation of recipe developers, Rito says, “If they don’t want to get on board with writing recipes down, maybe they can take time to make videos of older family members preparing recipes and record them that way.”
Doiron adds, “We live in the information era, and although everything is a google away, I do think there is a lot of value in mixing old-school with new-school. My advice would be to cook from as many different sources as you can—it’s the best way to find the best things.”
Perhaps there’s an even bigger question, which is: With a diversity of recipes at our fingertips, is there a declining motivation to develop our own? And if we went through the trouble, would we be more inclined to write them down and hold them sacred? It’s possible that, instead, we’ve mastered the art of combining, remixing, and making recipes distinctly our own.
I like to think that when it comes to documenting our creations, not all hope is lost. To hear “This was my grandmother’s recipe” still holds a lot of power—even if, deep down, I suspect it came from the back of an old-school Betty Crocker mix. Maybe we’ll bequeath our Pinterest passwords in our wills. Or, a trend favoring the analog will have us handwriting our recipes in some pastiche, cottagecore way. We’ll figure it out in whatever ways we see fit.