For many cooks, "recipe collection" is defined as a pile of cookbooks, magazines, yellowed news clippings, computer printouts, and spattered notecards that requires patient sifting and the eye of a seasoned Quidditch player.
Occasionally, the searcher discovers – as this reporter did in December – that she's inadvertently recycled the copy of Better Homes and Gardens containing the prized recipe for beef tenderloin stuffed with goat cheese that was supposed to be the main course for Christmas dinner. Unfortunately, so has her mother.
Doris Walker, a massage therapist in Homer, N.Y., who loves cooking so much that she occasionally teaches a course on it, had a collection that would have baffled forensic investigators. "My recipes come from way back when I was a child. They were handwritten who-knows-when by who-knows-who." says Ms. Walker." They had water stains, food stains...."
To protect the recipes from further damage, Walker mailed the whole collection to Pam Sultzman, a professional recipe organizer in Charlotte, N.C. Ms. Sultzman retyped all the recipes – no matter how "illegible," Walker says – laminated them, and sorted them into previously agreed-upon categories. Now, her collection is contained in one box in her kitchen. "It's even alphabetized," says Walker, who sends Sultzman any new recipes she collects every six months to keep the pile of paper from mushrooming anew. "Now, if someone wants a recipe for apple strudel, I can find it."
While organizing recipes may seem like a frill in this economy, Walker argues that a tight budget is actually a reason to get motivated. "With the economy, you prefer to have a meal in your house rather than going out or spending money buying sandwiches all the time," says Walker, who believes that people will cook more often and more efficiently if their kitchens are organized. She has memories of her grandmother doing all the cooking when she was a child." Get your kids involved – it can be a family affair."
Sultzman came to her career in a way that will be familiar to many these days: She was laid off in 2004. "I had some time on my hands. I did my own recipe collection, because it was a mess," says Sultzman, who has worked as a geological technician and in the banking industry. Reorganizing her collection took about three weeks. "Whenever I got it finished, it looked pretty nice. I thought, 'Well, other people might want theirs done.'"
If you've reached the point where finding the recipe can take almost as long as whipping up the meal – and hiring a pro isn't currently an option – Sultzman has a few pointers. "Take your time," she says. Do a little bit each day so that you don't wear yourself out and give up.
She prefers boxes to binders, because it's easier to add recipes after the initial reorganization. It's important, she says, to laminate the clean copies to protect them from cooking spills. Another point is to choose enough categories – such as 30-minute meals, main dishes, holidays, picnics, potluck, breakfasts, children's recipes, etc.
For the more digitally inclined, an online service, Pixily (www.pixily.com), will scan all your documents, including recipes. (All food stains will be preserved for posterity.) It offers several plans. In one, you can send in 50 documents a month in a prepaid envelope. If a friend e-mails you a recipe or you find one while searching online, just e-mail it to your account, says Prasad Thammineni, cofounder and CEO of Pixily.
To organize them in the online storage Pixily provides, you can either do a general search, say for "chicken," or label your recipes with as many different categories as you wish. So, a sloppy Joe recipe could be labeled under "slow-cooker meals," "budget dinners," "main dishes," and "ground beef."
"My wife and I are both cooks," says Mr. Thammineni, who is always asking himself at the grocery store, "What do I need?" Pixily provides iPhone interface so that "you can look at the entire recipe while you're in the store, buy all your ingredients right there."
However you choose to get organized, Sultzman says, do track down your family's heirloom recipes. "I didn't have the chance to get my grandmother's – they were all in her head," she says. The best way is to make the recipe with the relative, so that he or she can translate "a pinch of this" or "dash of that" into specific measurements.
"I can't stress enough," Sultzman says, "it's so important to get your grandmother's recipes or your aunt's recipes." For her, the recipe with the most childhood associations "was my grandmother's chocolate pie. We had that every time we went to her house. Luckily, that was the one recipe that I got. Every time I make it, it brings back memories."
Memories are precisely what brought Judy Bastian of Cornelius, N.C., to Sultzman. "I had Pam do a family cookbook for me," says the project manager for Wachovia Bank. "I have seven brothers. I had them all send pictures and favorite recipes to Pam." The memory cookbooks, which were dedicated to a relative who had passed on, were given to every family member as Christmas presents.
"We have recipes that go back generations," says Ms. Bastian. Family heirlooms include her dad's fried rice and a "burnt sugar cake" recipe that dates to the 1930s.The most prized, though, may be her mother's homemade egg noodles. "My granddaughter now helps to make them. It's a lost art. Nothing beats homemade egg noodles."