The must-have cooking aid of the moment is not a machine that makes sorbets in seconds nor a blender that will deliver the silkiest soup you've ever tasted. It is the iPhone.
Cooking apps for the iPhone and iTouch have been selling like the hot cakes they provide recipes for, with cookery magazines, websites and, of course, celebrity chefs, including Jamie Oliver, Nigella Lawson and Martha Stewart all launching their own downloadable collections of recipes, menu inspirations and culinary tips.
But can downloads really replace our trusty cookbooks whose pictures we've pored (and sometimes poured) over and pages we've covered with hastily scribbled notes? We put our - eventually very sticky - iPhone through its paces to test five of the most popular - Jamie Oliver 20-Minute Meals, Nigella Quick Collection, Martha's Everyday Food, Epicurious and Dishy.
WINNER: Jamie Oliver 20-Minute Meals
Price: £4.99 (Dh29)
A slick, user-friendly app with 60 recipes that reflect the fresh, flavourful, no-fuss style of cooking that has won brand Oliver so many fans. The "meal in 20 minutes" boast is rather ambitious, though. In the case of a few recipes, each ingredient would need to be weighed and prepared prior to starting the timer, and even then you'd need to move with the speed and dexterity of a trained sushi chef in order to achieve your goal.
That is a minor quibble, however, and what's more important is that every dish I tried was very tasty and the steps - each one accompanied by a helpful photograph - were easy to follow.
Mid-recipe, Oliver himself will pop up and offer encouragement through voice prompts - although it must be said that when you've just bumped your head on the kitchen cupboard his chipper tone can infuriate rather than motivate.
The app provides a list of the equipment required for each recipe and an inventory of essential ingredients for the store cupboard and fridge. The videos are also well worth watching if you want to brush up on a few skills (knife-handling, for example, or how to cook the perfect steak).
Excellent for beginners or enthusiastic but nervous amateurs, but if you are an experienced cook looking to extend your repertoire and experiment with culinary techniques then this probably is not the app for you. If, however, you're in need of a confidence boost in the kitchen or a Jamie Oliver fan, it's well worth the money.
Nigella Quick Collection
Price: £4.99 (Dh28.60)
This app is as aesthetically pleasing as the domestic goddess herself. It is well designed and easy to navigate, the recipes are modern and inviting and the photographs sumptuously styled. Nigella Quick Collection is not intended for the creation of elaborate, three-course dinners, but rather to act as a helping hand to people who hanker for a tasty meal, but are time-starved and indecisive.
It is no coincidence that this app offers a few more recipes than Oliver's, though crucially only 10 were written specifically for it. If you are already familiar with the recipes in Feast, Forever Summer and the like, you may object to having to pay for them again. On the other hand, with a number of short videos offering quick tips, an interactive shopping list and customised emails to send to friends, the program has plenty of extras.
When following a recipe I found it irritating that the step-by-step guide would tell me to add the chicken stock/cheese/sugar without specifying the amount. This means that unless you are efficient enough to weigh out all the ingredients at the start, you will find yourself skipping back to the ingredients list at the beginning to verify quantities.
However, this annoyance was mitigated by the voice-control feature (a big selling point of this app). You can speak to the device and ask the recipe to skip forwards or backwards a step, thus eliminating the otherwise inevitable sticky-phone conclusion. This is certainly a handy download to have, but whether you love it or remain ambivalent will largely depend on your stance in the Nigella debate. Are you a fan of the twinset and purr style or do you find the come-hither stir grating?
Martha's Everyday Food
Price: £0.59 (Dh3)
Martha Stewart is as integral to American domestic life as Oreos and milk (or so the clichés lead us to believe). Her business empire includes a monthly magazine, numerous books, a daily television show and a home decor line, to name but a few elements of the ndeavours. Given all this, you can't help but feel slightly disappointed with her app. On the plus side, it does offer thousands of recipes (sourced from her magazine) and nutritional information is provided for each dish. There is also a "daily dinner selection", which is handy for instant inspiration.
In other ways, however, the app falls short: the instructions are often too brief and certain techniques could do with further explanation. Once you select a recipe the final dish is frequently pictured with an accompaniment, but no link is provided for that.
What irked me most of all, though, was that all the oven temperatures are given in Fahrenheit and the measurements in cups, meaning that valuable time had to be spent converting each recipe before cooking could commence.
While this program is perfectly functional, and Stewart devotees may disagree, I felt that it possessed neither the personable tone of Oliver's and Lawson's apps nor the advanced extras available on others.
Price: £2.99 (Dh17)
Lawson's might be the beautiful one, Oliver's the cool one, but Dishy is the brainy app. Created by the web designer James Carroll and his mother, it offers 95 "intelligent" recipes, which can be adapted to serve up to 12 people.
Dishy really comes into its own when you use it as a dinner party aid. Select a three-course meal (for example, griddled asparagus to start, roast lamb for main and lemon posset to finish). Dishy will then kindly recommend that you serve some vegetables with your lamb (dauphinoise potatoes? Roasted vegetables?) and calculate the total time it will take you to prepare and cook this feast, as well as giving you a timed schedule so you know exactly what you should be doing and when. It can also calculate the cooking time for joints of meat according to their weight.
Another rather nifty device is the built-in timer system. When the recipe instructs you to pop the potatoes in the oven for 10 minutes, do so then tap the timer and the countdown begins. A further bonus is that you can select your preferred measurement system (metric, imperial, Australian metric or cups) and means of gauging oven temperature (Celsius, Fahrenheit, gas mark).
My only criticism of this one is its dated feel. The pictures of the food have a retro, 1980s-cookbook look to them and the repertoire of recipes is a little passé (think cob salad, chilli con carne and steak and mushroom pie).
For an app that has such innovative touches, it seems a real shame that the scope of the food doesn't quite match up. Still, an excellent app offering solid, if largely unimaginative, dishes.
Epicurious is the bargain app. It is free to download and provides a whopping 25,000 recipes. Key "beef" into the search engine and it comes up with 1,323 recipes. Opt for "apple" and 786 different ideas are listed. Try to outfox the app and look for a recipe that uses both, and you're still left with nine to choose from.
Having access to such a variety of recipes is fantastic, but if you do choose to search by ingredient it's advisable to specify more than one, otherwise you end up wading through hundreds of choices.
The reader comments and ratings found at the bottom of most recipes are another bonus; it's great to be able to scan down and see what other people thought of the dish or whether they would recommend it. While the recipes are well explained, I found the program more complicated to use than some of the others, and once again it rankles that the measurements are given only in American cups. That said, the app offers a wealth of easy-to-follow recipes and is, of course, completely free.