Creating a Master Index for a Cookbook Collection

January 23, 2013 at 9:18 pm | Posted in Book Blather, Nonfiction | 3 Comments

A dream of mine has come true. I’ve finally found a practical way to index my massive cookbook collection! I’m about 2/3 done, and only today did it occur to me that others might be interested in a project like this. (Humor me, okay?)

Up to now, I have had to rely on memory when I’ve wanted to look up a specific recipe. What book was it in again? This might not seem like a big deal in an ordinary kitchen. Combine 7 shelves in two bookcases with weekly dinner parties involving up to 20 people, and you can see why I wanted to get more organized.

I do have a sort of system in place for tracking recipes I have tried. I use one of four symbols to mark the page afterward. A recipe gets a check mark as a sign I’ve made it. It gets an X if I wouldn’t make it again. A star means it was good enough to make again, and a circled star means it should be in regular rotation. This system has helped a lot when I’m trying to recall which cornbread.

This still didn’t help with the problem of remembering which cookbook a recipe was in. It also didn’t provide a quick way to find our favorites. I tried using a blank book to write a few names, but I found this cumbersome. No way to alphabetize as I went, no search feature, no tags, etc.

I tried setting up a spreadsheet and typing in lists of recipe names, with columns for different ingredients. After about two hours I could see that this would take the rest of my life, with the added drawback that our computer is on the other side of the house from the kitchen.

Enter EverNote. I had made indexing my cookbooks a New Year’s goal, and I started searching for ways other people had done this. I stumbled across the fact that EverNote has OCR features. I thought, “It can’t be that simple, can it?” I loaded the app onto my iPhone (again – I had tried it and been unimpressed) and tested it out. Yes, it is that simple!

What I am doing is scanning each page of the index for each cookbook. I rename the ‘snapshot’ with the book’s name and the index page number. I put it in a folder marked ‘Recipe Indices.’ I tag it with the book’s name, author names, and publication date. It sounds complicated, but once I got going I found I could tag everything in seconds.

Now, when I search for a term, EverNote returns all the pages with that word, with each instance highlighted in yellow. The other night I wanted to make a cassoulet recipe I first tried 18 months ago. Even though I was only halfway through indexing, the correct book came up in seconds. That’s part of why I haven’t bothered creating tags for recipe categories like ‘Thai’ or ‘soup’ – I figure those terms will have been indexed already.

The other thing I’m doing is scanning all those recipes with a star, as I come across them. EverNote also uses a star to mark favorites. So far I have 50. It’s like a mini travel cookbook. I no longer have to worry about wandering the grocery store wondering what to cook. If I feel a sudden craving, I can check the recipe and make sure I have all the ingredients in the cart. One day I’m sure my phone will also have a complete inventory of what’s in my pantry, too, so I quit overbuying. I have so much molasses right now the ATF is investigating me as a bootlegger. But I digress.

EverNote has two additional features I haven’t used yet: web clipping and handwriting recognition. When I’m done with the current phase of my project, I can find out if my handwriting is legible on my collection of recipe cards. (Yep. Books are only part of my hoard). As I move to a more electronic system, I can add recipes I’ve discovered online.

Possibly the most interesting finding has been that I had never used 40% of the cookbooks on my shelf. I didn’t count how many more had only one recipe checked off; I’m afraid that would have been too revealing. I went through and rigorously culled books I was sure I could let go. One guideline that helped was to cut off anything more than 10 years old, although I made the exception of a few reliable restaurant cookbooks I use regularly. Another, easier guideline was to flip through books I recalled harboring a failed recipe or two. I started with 128 and now I’m down to 82, including my handwritten recipe journal.

Why not just buy the e-book versions of my favorite cookbooks? Believe me, I wish this was a viable option. Not all of them are available in electronic format. Each recipe in an e-book spreads across multiple screens. There is no way I know of to search multiple indices at once. It might be easier to use e-cookbooks on a tablet, and I’ll find out once I get one, but for now I like my system better.

If you have a system for organizing your recipes, or ideas for using EverNote to improve my project, I’d love to hear from you in the comments!


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