Organizing the recipes: choosing categories

Thanks to Neven Mrgan, I recently discovered the cookbook Made in India: Recipes From an Indian Family Kitchen and its three ways of organizing recipes.

  • Standard table of contents, with entries such as starters and snacks, vegetables, meat, fish, sides, breads, desserts, etc.
  • Standard index, with entries such as cauliflower and cinnamon, followed by the recipes using those ingredients
  • Alternative contents, with categories such as midweek meals (30 minutes or so), cooking in advance, party food, and low-fat.

This got me thinking about all the many ways you might want to categorize recipes, including:

  • By meal: breakfast, lunch, dinner, snack
  • By meal course or type of dish: appetizer, main course, soup, salad, dessert, etc.
  • By main ingredient: chicken, fish, eggs, etc.
  • By dietary restrictions: gluten-free, vegetarian, vegan, nut-free, etc.
  • By holiday: Christmas, Lunar New Year, Passover, Thanksgiving, etc.
  • By preparation time: quick recipes vs. time-consuming ones
  • By status: untested vs. old favorites
  • By cooking method: outdoor grill, slow cooker, etc.
  • By source, such as your grandmother or Bon Appétit magazine
  • By part of the world outside of your own: Indian, Italian, Korean, Thai, etc.

And of course, you might want to subdivide these. Desserts might be subdivided into cakes, pies, etc. Indian recipes might be split by region within India. And you might want to know which recipes use a specific ingredient even if it isn’t the major one.

So how do you ensure you can find the recipes you want when they could be filed so many different ways? This is fairly easy if your recipes are stored on your computer, tablet, or smartphone — perhaps in an app such as Paprika or Evernote. Depending on the software you’re using, you can either add multiple tags or place the recipe into multiple categories. If you’re setting up your own categories or tags, it helps to consciously create a master list so you don’t wind up with unintended duplicates. Also, a master list can help ensure you don’t overlook a categorization you’re going to wish you had later.

Alternatively, your digital solution may just involve using the search function to find the recipes you want, such as the ones that use a specific ingredient that you happen to have on hand or all the gluten-free appetizers. Just be sure that each individual recipe includes the key words you’ll be using when you do your searches.

If you’re organizing in binders or recipe file boxes, though, you’ll need to choose a primary organizational scheme that serves you best, day to day. You can certainly combine two or more — for example, you may have one binder for untested recipes and one for those you know you like, with each binder having the same categories inside.

I concur with the contributor on the Chowhound website who wrote, in reply to a question about organizing recipes:

It really depends on how you think. I arranged my binder according to how I categorized each individual recipe in my head. For instance, my Chinese food section has all sorts of stuff that would otherwise cross several different categories (vegetable, main dish, pork, chicken, et al), but since I think of all those recipes as “Chinese”, then that’s where they go.

And for the secondary categories, you could decide to emulate the Made in India cookbook and create lists of recipes that fit into the secondary categories that are important to you. You could also make copies of a recipe page or card and file it in multiple places, but that can get cumbersome. For example, if you wanted to note something you changed when making a recipe, you’d need to note it in multiple places.

Finally, no matter how you categorize your recipes, you can always re-organize them if the categories you create don’t quite work for you. As with most organizing solutions, we often don’t get it exactly right on the first pass.

5 Comments for “Organizing the recipes: choosing categories”

  1. posted by Christy King on

    I organize my recipes in a series of Word documents, put together in a folder that I keep on Dropbox, so I can easily access the recipes on my phone while I’m at the grocery store and on my tablet while cooking. I modify most recipes quite a bit and found this simpler than trying to use an app.

  2. posted by Kyra Welsh on

    I organize my recipes in a wooden box, with the usual categories. Breads, breakfast, sides, etc. In my main dish section, I have them subdivided with divider cards into chicken, ground beef, other beef, pork chops, other pork, etc etc. and as for tested/untested, I use a blue highlighter. If it’s untested, no blue circle in the corner. If we love it, it gets a circle. If we don’t like it, it gets thrown away.

  3. posted by Kenneth in Virginia on

    I wouldn’t keep anything on an electronic device, much less a recipe. I do a lot of cooking at home and refer to recipes frequently, including those in cookbooks. The one I use most often is “The Settlement Cookbook.” I used to have a collection of printed out and hand-written recipes kept somewhere. But one Christmas my daughter gave me a loose leaf binder with some of the recipes already inside. That’s now where they all go. My wife also has a binder but she still has two small file boxes stuffed with recipes and clippings, unorganized and so full that the lids won’t close. But there’s also an unconscionable number of recipes taped inside a cabinet door, including the one for the hummingbird feeder.

    One of the handiest things I use in the kitchen when cooking something for which I have to refer to a recipe is a book holder with a clear Plexiglas cover that covers the book and holds it up at an angle.

  4. posted by Julie Stobbe on

    When I help my clients set up files, paper or electronic, I always try to explore what terms they use categorize things. It was very helpful to have the many category suggestions on ways to think about filing recipes to get people thinking. It can be as simple as slow cooker or crockpot, chicken or poultry, drinks or beverages, etc for a label that can make things simple to find or hard to find.

  5. posted by Caroline on

    I have a very old-school way of organizing recipes– a box of index cards. I use colored cards and each color represents a category.

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