Stuck in a cooking rut? With more recipes available than ever online, somehow it feels harder to find exciting recipes worth cooking. I share my favorite sources of inspiration to discover new dishes, reconnect with roots, and cook for a crowd. Yum! Let’s dive in.
Humans have written recipes for thousands of years, according to this New York Times story. Babylonian tablets etched recipes with instructions on how to cook meats and vegetables. Does stag, gazelle, and a bird called tarru make you salivate? We can glean inspiration from Babylonian cuisine as we discover their ancient love of onions, garlic, and leeks. They even jotted recipes for stews, which “were often thickened with grains, milk, beer or animal blood.”
Where do I find good recipes?
Despite the abundance of recipes online these days, it feels — surprisingly — harder than ever to find recipes that inspire me. The number of choices can be overwhelming. It’s harder to find reliable cooking inspiration because of the noise.
The recent social upheaval and physical isolation added new barriers to collecting cooking inspiration because we’re not having Sunday night dinner with friends or family. Nor are we loitering around restaurants — one of the most common wells of ideas for home cooks.
All week I’ve been thinking about where to find cooking inspiration. Especially because “inspiration” depends on my mood, the occasion I’m cooking for, and how much time I have.
This post is designed to help you discover new sources of cooking inspiration and uncover secret tools right under your nose. Let’s tackle the issue of finding great recipes in 2 parts:
- Part 1: How to recognize a great recipe. You’ll discover the clues that indicate whether the recipe author is sharing a reliable, well-tested recipe.
- Part 2: Where to find cooking inspiration (this post). This is subjective. But I’ll share my favorite sources to give you a jump start.
When you’re in a rut
Do you get into the habit of cooking only your favorite recipes from a handful of cookbooks? Here is where I turn when I’m tired of eating the same thing and don’t know what else to make.
If you’re a visual person, use Pinterest as a discovery tool to inspire your cooking. You can search for ingredients like “chicken wings” and “pie crust” or names of dishes like “Niçoise salad” and “lamb and prune tajine” on Pinterest. Then descend down the visual rabbit hole for half an hour. You’ll emerged inspired.
Recipe swipe file
Since high school, I’ve kept a recipe journal where I glue food magazine clippings and hand-written notes. Flipping through it today, I discovered new-to-me dishes like “Rabo de Toro”, and ambitious-yet-appetizing recipes like “Zucchini and Sweet Potatoes Latkes” (I can’t believe how neat my handwriting was back then.)
Dedicate a notebook for your recipe swipe file and begin collecting. It can be analog or digital.
When you’re desperate to get dinner going
Search by ingredients
Flick through your pantry and fridge to see what ingredients you have on hand. Then enter your ingredients into tools like Supercook’s recipe search by ingredient, Allrecipes’ ingredient search, Eat Your Books (review by Wired), RecipeLand’s search with and without ingredients (old school but works), Bigoven’s advanced search using the “includes” feature, and Epicurious’ ingredients search.
These tools spit out recipes and ideas based on the ingredients available. Because I’m wary of crowd-sourced recipe sites, I would use the search tool to discover inspiration for a dish. Then I would use search engines to look for a reputable recipe and follow the best practices recipe criteria to decide which recipe to cook from.
When I’m in a rush, I don’t like to waste a lot of time browsing for recipes. That’s why I turn to Bing for recipe searches (I can’t believe I’m recommending a Microsoft product 😯). I like how clean the Bing interface is for recipe searches. Where it shines is the Bing compare function. You can see how 4 recipes match up before picking which to go with.
If you’re digging around your kitchen desperately looking for ideas, ask Alexa or Google Home for help. Tell Alexa what ingredients you have in your pantry and hear what she offers you.
When you’re reconnecting with your roots
My dad has become my tofu recipe hunter. He loves to send me videos of fried tofu and tofu desserts. When I’m homesick and wondering how to make a dish from an aunty I’ve lost touch with, I go on Wechat and ask my cousins to help me track it down.
Once I have the recipe, it ends up in my Swipe File.
I may have invited myself over to dinner at my friend’s homes knowing that I usually come away with a dish or two to try.
If you’re looking for a dish but don’t remember what it’s called, pose the question on social media. Your community on Facebook and Instagram knows what you’re talking about thanks to your shared history. Once you have a name for the recipe, you can search for it using search engines.
I’ll even glance into Wechat to see what’s trending. My cousins like to post photos of what they’re cooking. Sometimes the photos will remind me of dishes from my childhood that I haven’t tasted for years.
Niche cuisine food blogs
I grew up in a Thai grocery store in Auckland. I spent a lot of time with a Malaysian nanny and at a Taiwanese Buddhist temple built inside my mum’s friend’s house. Thus, when I browse British and Asian food blogs, an overwhelming wave of nostalgia hits me. I could spot mi goreng, Thai fish cakes, or banana and bacon pancakes and feel the pang of homesickness.
That’s why I follow certain niche food blogs to recreate my favorite childhood dishes. My favorites for Asian and Kiwi food include:
- The Woks of Life
- Omnivore’s Cookbook
- China Sichuan Food
- Rasa Malaysia
- Lady And Pups
- She Simmers
- Edmonds Cooking (for recipes from the Edmonds cookbook)
You can find niche food blogs by looking for specific recipes, like fish head Asam laksa, and checking out the blog’s look and recipes. Then sign up for the blog’s email newsletter to remind you to come back. This works whether your childhood cuisine is Italian, French, Indian, or Mexican.
When you have a precise dish in mind
When I have a particular dish in mind, I search for it on Google. While I like Bing for recipe exploration and comparison, I find Google to be faster and more precise when I know exactly what I want. It also does a great job of surfacing the best quality content.
💡TIP: Check out page 2 and 3 of recipe search results. They’re often better than page 1 which is packed of websites savvy at SEO but may not have the best recipes.
Follow all-purpose, generalist food blogs that you trust. Remember to also routine visit niche food blogs that are sharing creative recipes you’ve never encountered.
- Smitten Kitchen: Rigorously tested recipes that work
- Omnivore’s Cookbook: Chinese food made with modern conveniences
- Serious Eats: Mostly for the baking because I like Stella Park’s explanations
- Simply Recipes: They have a broad range of recipes
- Macheesmo: Very approachable recipes and his personality is fun
- Leanne Brown’s Good and Cheap: Eating well on $4/day
- Use Real Butter: High-altitude cooking and baking
- Sustainable Cooks: Easy recipes, many focus on the Instant Pot
- Cook It Real Good: Approachable and healthy recipes with indulgent twists, many use an Air Fryer
- Dough Eyed: High-altitude baking and small-serving dessert recipes
- America’s Test Kitchen & Cook’s Illustrated: Well-tested recipes that can be a bit intimidating because of how much time and complexity they require. But bulletproof. I get Cook’s Illustrated at the library because of their paywall)
- New York Times Cooking: Solid and well tested with high-brow headnotes
- Subreddits focused on cooking:
- The Kitchn: Batch cooking recipes, meal planning inspiration, and coverage of vegetables only found at farmers markets
- Tasty: Mesmerizing hands-and-pans videos
- Binging with Babish: A fave with my friends who like his aesthetic and style. I like his basics series where he covers classic recipes focusing on the fundamentals
- Food52: Artistic photos with an impressive array of recipes from simple staples to exotic projects.
- Budget Bytes: A favorite among my FIRE friends who want to cook at home, slash their food budgets, and eat tasty food.
- The Woks of Life: Authentic Chinese recipes that remind me of home
- David Lebovitz: Reliable dessert and pastry recipes with educational tips to help you succeed.
- Jamie Oliver: Practical recipes that are accessible and easy to follow.
The advantage of food blogs is that they offer a source of inspiration that you could never find in traditional outlets. Because of the blog format, food blogs can be more experimental and innovative than a cookbook. But this comes with the disadvantage of shoddy recipes that may fail. That’s why I turn to cookbooks when I need to make a dish and I don’t have much margin for error.
When you want to get it right
Whether you’re a beginner or advanced cook, you know how important a well-tested recipe is. It’s even more critical for baking recipes because baking requires precision and accuracy whereas cooking is more forgiving. When the stakes are high, I turn to my cookbooks for inspiration and instruction to increase my chances of success.
Cookbooks are the best place to turn to if you don’t have an experienced cook offering you advice on how to make a particular dish. Most cookbooks have rigorously tested recipes, and the majority of cookbook authors have a demonstrated track record.
Because cookbook addiction is a real thing, I’ve turned to the library for borrowing cookbooks. As a workaround to buying too many cookbooks, I’ve started to explore the cookbook’s website, which usually has excerpts and a free recipe or two to pique my gastro desires. I add my favorites to my Swipe File and eventually purchase if I really love the recipes.
Alex has the classic cookbooks like America’s Test Kitchen cookbooks and the Joy of Cooking. A lot of my cookbooks are out of print, esoteric titles, or Chinese cookbooks that you can’t easily buy. Here are a few of my favorites:
- Eat Me by Kenny Shopsin
- Leave Me Alone With The Recipes by Cipe Pineles, Sarah Rich, Wendy MacNaughton, Debbie Millman, Maria Popova
- Mireille Guiliano’s books
- Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat by Samin Nosrat and Wendy MacNaughton
YouTube is a fantastic way to correctly learn cooking techniques. I routinely watch videos for learning knife and chopping techniques. This is the closest thing you can get to a free cooking class.
It helps you expand your skills considering the gamut of cuisines available. It’s amazing how many people produce high-quality cooking videos — even cooking shows — to share their love of cooking their cuisine with strangers on the Web.
If you’ve got the means, the time, and the interest, there’s no better way to learn than in-person. Ideally, you can shadow a friend or relative who can teach you the ins and outs of a dish. But many people, like us, no longer live near family. Having lived in Boulder for less than a year, I don’t have cooking friends. A paid cooking class is the next best thing.
When you’re hosting
Most home cooking recipes are not designed to feed more than a couple of people. If you’re hosting a party, search for recipes designed for feeding a crowd, batch cooking, or for hosting the holidays.
Because not all recipes scale up, you don’t want to double a recipe unless you’re sure it will work. Another approach is to cobble together many simple dishes that combine to feed a crowd.
Surprisingly, there aren’t many food blogs or cookbooks dedicated to feeding a large crowd. Here are a few resources for hosting Sunday supper and how I think about planning the menu:
- See You on Sunday by Sam Sifton
- A search for Easter, Thanksgiving, and Christmas meal plans and recipes
- Grilling recipes
- Pasta, rice, and stew recipes: These carby and soupy recipes are easy to scale up
- Dumplings, wontons, tacos, spring rolls, and pizza
- Breakfast recipes: Breakfast and brunch recipes can be easier to make for a huge crowd
When you need a laugh
- What The Fuck Should I Make For Dinner: Not a great database of recipes…but hilarious and a good start for inspiration.