In Which I Need a New Relationship with My Recipe Collection

For years, I have collected recipes. I have a handful of scribbled notes transcribed on scratch paper while on the phone with my mom who would read me the very few family recipes we have. I cut out recipes from magazines. If it is a borrowed magazine, I photocopy it. If there was a dish I read about on a blog or a website, I print it out. Then, when Pinterest came along, my YUm! (yes, capitalized U, as well, because I mistyped and have yet to go fix it….) board was one of the first to be created. I also own many, many cookbooks, which, to my defence, I do cook from most of them.

the cookbook section of my bookshelf wall
the cookbook section of my bookshelf wall

Recently, I have become interested in minimalism and reading about it and de-cluttering. Although I haven’t made the plunge to apply those principles to my home, my closet or (omg. so. much. stuff) in the garage, I know that for sure, my recipe organization needs a cleanup.

I know I’m not alone in my recipe hoarding, but I like to think that compared to most, my recipes are uber organized. Yet, this highly organized system has always been my excuse, that I didn’t need to get rid of things and I didn’t need to purge. My thousands of pages weren’t just in a pile, they were organized, and therefore should be exempt from any de-cluttering projects. Behold: the binders.

the recipe binders: 3, 4" binders A-Z
the recipe binders: 3, 4″ binders A-Z

Instead of filing pages under the usual designations like “soups, meat, desserts,”, etc., I’ve gone one step (maybe leap?) beyond. My recipes are organized by ingredients, in 3, 4″ binders with alphabet tabs. And each of those tabs have tabs of ingredients.the B section

Now before you start calling me crazy, let me explain. When I was first learning to cook with local, seasonal food, I was getting overwhelmed with having to look through the index of countless books and stacks of notes in order to find something that used up all the kale/carrots/tomatoes/squash/whatever the food of the week was. So I decided to put all my cut-out pages together in a binder, but sort them by the seasonal ingredient. For example, a cut out for a pasta dish with zucchini and carrots would be stored under “Squash, summer”, and then listed on the binder paper that I kept behind the squash tab. I would THEN go to the carrot tab, and write “Pasta with zucchini & carrot, see zucchini”. If I made something from a cookbook I owned, I would record that: “Chicken with tomatoes and kale, see blah blah book, pg. your insane”.

winter squash section

Over the years, I’ve collected lots and lots of recipes, and this system has worked well for me. However, now it is time for a change. For example, I have 7 recipes for tomato soup. I have 8 recipes for chai (which I DON’T EVEN DRINK ANYMORE!!!)  There are a handful of recipes that I go back to, like spicy roasted squash with lentils and goat cheese (from Smitten Kitchen), but most of these dishes were only made once, or totally forgotten about and ignored once they were filed away. I also came to dread adding new things to the binder, because of its laborious process- which is why I also stacks of torn out pages in my craft room. I simply don’t care or want to keep these binders up.

one of (several) piles of cutouts
one of (several) piles of cutouts

Since these binder’s inception, I am more confident in my cooking. I now know how to adapt most recipes to what’s currently in season. My cooking style and homekeeping philosophy has also evolved, and I no longer feel pressure to put a different dish on the table every night.I rarely follow recipes step by step, but use them as inspiration. I put a higher value on a dish that will only dirty one pan over a dish that uses a new technique. I don’t need 7 different versions of tomato soup. What I want now, is easy access to that damn tomato soup recipe (which, by the way, is from Deborah Madison’s Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone) that I love!

So this is my project for the next few months: go though these binders, pull out what I regularly make or can see making in the immediate future (Martha Stewart’s Beets and Yogurt with Pickled Rose Petals?….yeah, not so much), and creating a well-organized collection of recipes that I turn to regularly.

recipe binders

Now wish me Godspeed, I’m off to the purging! I’ll keep you updated on the project, and how I decided to organize my new life with recipes. If you have a favorite way of organizing your recipes, please leave me a comment, I’d love to hear about it!

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9 thoughts on “In Which I Need a New Relationship with My Recipe Collection

  1. Oh my! I think I broke out in a cold sweat reading this! I have (had?) a similar problem. Well, really, the problem DOES still exist (too many books, cut-outs, file folders, etc.). I’ve started digitizing them on my tablet, so that every time I get to sort through (panic through?) the mess to find a treasured recipe, I simply take a snapshot of it while it’s out, then assign tags (ingredients, author, ‘recipe,’ etc.) to the photo so I can find it more easily later. Most of my ‘Go-to’s’ are already filed in this way. Super easy.

  2. Best of luck! We’ve had a multi stage downsizing of our recipes. We have to do it annually it seems like, as DH loves cooking (and is blessedly talented) so people gift him cookbooks…but he doesn’t cook from recipes.
    First step: move every 6-12 months for a few years. When you have to pack and carry boxes up and down three flights of stairs, you really take a second look at things. You also let go of things you haven’t opened since three moves ago.
    Step two: break the used book store habit (we were going nearly weekly and as a result having to buy another bookshelf every few months.)
    Step three: sell back many many many books because you’re moving into a house half the size of the one you’ve lived in for two years straight. (Two years!)
    4: if a book isn’t a general reference (Joy of Cooking, for example) and you only like one recipe in it, find the recipe online (it’s out there) and pin it.
    5: You only really need one general reference cookbook
    6: Let go of the cuisine driven cookbooks full of things you want to try. The internet has a star-based review system that will help you know which recipes are actually good and which are just filler.
    7: The clippings and copies…You didn’t like your mom’s whatever dish anyway. You never got around to trying that biscotti recipe and don’t really like biscotti. Your grandma’s pumpkin bread stays put. Actually, you might want three copies of that and her stuffing, just in case.

  3. I have had the same problem with too many cookbooks. One thing that I noticed is that I always go back to the same few cookbooks and rarely open the others. I did a similar purge last year and my new rule for cookbooks is that I check them out at the library. If and only if I would ACTUALLY make 10 recipes in the book, I allow myself to buy the book to add to my collection, which means I have bought very few books in the last couple of years. I love to get inspiration from flipping through books but then I just return them to the library. Saves me money and helps clutter!

    1. Checking them out from the library first is a great system! I try to do that as well, but when new books come out I feel the “must have” pull and get sucked in by the shiny displays at the book store 😦

  4. I love cooking and as a result occasionally get a cookbook (usually BBQ) as a gift, that I just can’t bring myself to throw away even though I’ve never cooked anything in it. Perhaps a re-gift is in order… I like that you write down recipes in books you like in your organizational notes. I’m frequently asked to re make a dish from months ago, and can’t remember in which of my 15 books, it’s located. My clipped recipes are kept in a big binder with plastic page covers to keep them clean but they are organized the old fashioned way.

    Regarding throwing recipes away… When my mom passed away years ago, I inherited a box of recipes some of which I had not eaten since my teen years. Some of them my mom did not necessarily like but I am glad they were saved for me to make for my kids. Just a little “food for thought”

    Thanks for sharing your recipe experience !

  5. That’s a good idea. I too have a problem with organizing my recipes – nothing seems to work. I’ll probably try organizing by “seasons” and see if that works. I’d also like to make a big index card with the names of favourite recipes, cookbook and page number on it. That way I won’t spend hours flipping through books trying to find something.

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