Here's the Secret to Organizing Your Recipes

Eat Your Books is the key to unlocking the contents of your cookbooks, using your food magazines, and saving online recipes (and your own) in one place.

A cookbook lays open on a kitchen island
Photo: Shutterstock

I live at the base of Cookbook Mountain. It's a teetering stack (OK, stacks — like a range the size of the Rockies) of volumes including spiral-bound Junior League collections, vintage recipe pamphlets, monographs on the glories of okra, and chef manifestos so weighty they could double as a duck press. There are cookbooks everywhere in my apartment, loosely categorized in a way that would make the librarian nuns of my Catholic school youth once again sentence me to scribbling the Dewey Decimal system on the chalkboard until Judgment Day. Would they think this chaos was a waste of perfectly useful and educational volumes, not to mention space that could have been used for I dunno, a sad clown painting collection or walking through my apartment without tripping? No way on earth I'd actually know what was in all those pages, let alone use them for their intended purpose, right?

This is where Eat Your Books comes in, much to the chagrin of the human and animals with whom I share living space, because this cookbook and recipe organizing system helps me justify the books' continued presence. I signed up for a lifetime charter membership in 2011 and it's one of the wisest investments I've ever made, because it's a master key to almost every one of the cookbooks swallowing up my home. The lifetime membership is no longer available (sorry, I just had to brag to reclaim a tiny bit of dignity), but for $30 a year, or $3 a month, users have unlimited access to Eat Your Books' unique indexing service, and their own personal library that they create and store on the site.

Here's how that works: Through the efforts of a small, dedicated staff of cookbook lovers and volunteers, nearly 161,000 volumes, as well as magazines, blogs, and websites, are included in the database — what the site calls the "library" — with recipes listed by title, author, ISBN, and mostly broken down by ingredients. The recipes themselves are not published on Eat Your Books, but a search for, say, "sun-dried tomatoes" will reveal the websites, magazines, and books where they can be found. A free member of EYB can use the search functionality and store up to five books on their personal virtual bookshelf, but a paid member can spend a little bit of time adding the books and magazines they own, so they can narrow the search to resources they actually have on hand.

Recently, as I was indeed searching for "sun-dried tomatoes" for a story, rather than strapping on my climbing gear and scaling the piles in my home in the hopes of finding a recipe in its pages, I ran the search on the 253 books I'd saved on EYB (a teeeeensy fraction of the actual mass I possess, please save me from myself) and knew exactly which ones I could grab. If I have a whim to make something with, say, lotus root on a random Wednesday, a half-second search shows I just need to aim for the shelf where all my copies of The Joy of Cooking sit, or the stack where Indian-ish is sandwiched in (sorry, Priya!). More often than not, the site will tell me exactly which page to flip to.

If I feel like using a recipe from a blog or website at large, EYB streamlines things by sharing a link (I find this tidier than a general Google search), and the option to save it to my bookshelf, which provides a less chaotic archiving method than my previous one of just emailing them to myself, or bookmarking, or saving on individual sites that I can never remember. The EYB Bookmarklet is a handy browser extension that enables users to save online recipe links (and other information such as a photo and ingredients, depending on the site) to their bookshelf with a click, and the "personal recipes" feature is a godsend for people who want to store their own full recipes in one single, searchable place without having to hunt down scribbled bits of paper or the clippings their Aunt Lenore mailed them a decade ago.

Depending on your financial situation, $30 a year may seem like either nothing or a lot, but what my initial cash bought me was my time back, and a way to actually use the books I've invested in. These books are (mostly) not in my home by accident; I collected them on purpose, and if it sounds as if I'm trying to justify the glut, maybe that's not entirely untrue. But I tell myself that I'm taking a cue from the sustainable food world here and using Eat Your Books as a way to eat the invaders. Mmmm … delicious invaders. I wonder if there's a recipe.

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