The Cooking App That Changed My Life
This is “I Can’t Live Without,” a column about the apps, gadgets, and services that make all the difference.
My mother is weirdly protective of her recipe box. The little handwritten cards can’t leave the kitchen, despite the fact that only a few of them are truly irreplaceable. I never understood why she would put so much stock in a tiny box of index cards, until I got my own.
My collection of recipes doesn’t live in a physical container, though: It’s in an app called Paprika. And while Paprika bills itself as a “recipe manager,” it’s far more than a simple list of dishes. It’s really more like a cookbook shelf, grocery list, personal assistant, and fancy calculator rolled into one, and it’s become one of the most important apps on my phone.
Growing up, I was a picky eater — I thrived on plain, ungarnished food, and would accept nothing even remotely unfamiliar. Anything with a sauce, salsa, or vegetable was immediately suspect, and to be avoided at all costs. I’m not sure I even ate fish until I was 15.
So my poor mother — who has a passion for experimenting in the kitchen — stuck to basic meals like grilled chicken and panfried pork chops to appease my fussy palate. Occasionally she’d try to introduce me to something new, to no avail. I still remember her convincing me to try guacamole, which I spit out in defiance before I even had a chance to taste it.
In a sick twist of fate, my horizons expanded quickly after I left my mother’s house and moved to California, where I discovered the wonderful worlds of pesto, Indian food, and — yes — avocado and cilantro mashed into a vibrant paste. I still wouldn’t call myself adventurous, but my days of eating for sustenance alone were certainly over.
Unfortunately, like most lazy college grads, I had no patience for grocery shopping or cooking. My only experience in the kitchen was grilling the simple meals from my youth, which were no longer satisfying to my more evolved taste buds. So, more often than not, I caved and ordered takeout instead.
Without it, my fridge would probably contain nothing but condiments and beer.
Occasionally, I’d make a big push toward adulthood — I’d gather recipes from the internet and say “this is the week I’m finally going to start cooking for myself” — only to get overwhelmed at the grocery store, or forget that one crucial ingredient, and return to the Buffalo Wild Wings next to my apartment instead.
I don’t remember how I first heard about Paprika, but it quickly became one of the most crucial apps in my arsenal. Without it, my fridge would probably contain nothing but condiments and beer.
When you first download Paprika (for $4.99 on iPhone and Android, or $29.99 for the desktop version on Windows and macOS), you begin with an empty database. But you can quickly import recipes from just about any website, building up a list of your favorite dishes in no time. You can also type them in manually, if you have some of Grandma’s old recipe cards socked away in your drawer.
You can use Paprika to plan your meals for the week. Just tap a button, and Paprika automatically generates a grocery list for you. It’ll intelligently merge ingredients together (two 3-clove garlic listings become one 6-clove grocery item), and let you scale recipes to different serving sizes in case you need double the amount of lasagna for your dinner party on Friday. I also have Paprika on my iPad, so I can follow along with the recipe in the kitchen — the app lets you cross off steps as you go, and it will detect timers in the recipe so you can start them with one tap. It can also keep track of what’s in your pantry and when it all expires.
In other words, Paprika streamlines my two least favorite chores: grocery shopping and cooking. It’s allowed me to make food that is twice as complex than I’m used to — like salmon with fennel and Pernod, stuffed acorn squash with barley, or ginger-miso striped bass in shiitake mushroom broth — with significantly less drudgery.
I don’t want to give Paprika sole credit for my metamorphosis. I also took a single cooking class with my wife, which gave both of us the confidence to make more complex dishes. And cooking with my wife certainly made the process more enjoyable. Still, Paprika is the glue that holds it all together. Instead of debating what to make for dinner based on what we have in the fridge, or deciding what to buy while we’re rolling through the grocery store with a bored toddler, everything runs on autopilot. We take 10 minutes to pick meals from our list at the beginning of the week, and everything else is a walk in the park. What used to be a chore at the end of a long afternoon became our decompression time, where we reconnect and talk about our days. If we didn’t have Paprika, I can only imagine the tiring “what should we eat?” arguments we’d have every evening.
It’s been seven years since we started planning our meals digitally, and Paprika is as crucial to our lives as it’s ever been. Now that we have kids, time and brainpower have become life’s most rare and precious resources, and when you’re mentally and physically exhausted from chasing around a 2-year-old all day, it’s nice to look forward to a killer dinner that doesn’t require much thought to execute.
I just hope my kids don’t turn out to be as picky as I was, because I’ve become rather accustomed to restaurant-quality food at home. Plus, my mom would never let me live it down.
Previously: Calm, the Meditation App That Actually Works