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If there's one kind of book that you'd think might be safe - somewhat safe, at least - from the digital revolution, it's the cookbook. It's hard to imagine how any digital book could duplicate the lush look of these books, filled as they are with pictures of enticing dishes. And they're the perfect gift for the cook on anyone's list, which is why they're a mainstay of publishing at this time of year.

In this final installment of our series on the future of books, NPR's Lynn Neary has this report on how the cookbook is faring in the age of the app.

LYNN NEARY: A couple of years ago, Will Schwalbe left a perfectly good job in traditional publishing to start cookstr.com, a website where you can find recipes from well-known cooks and well-loved cookbooks. But even though he's gone over to the digital side, Schwalbe doesn't think the traditional cookbook is in any danger. He likes to tell this story about visiting a friend with a house in the country.

Mr. WILL SCHWALBE (Cookstr.com): He had ordered I would say easily four or five hundred dollars' worth of cookbooks online and had them sent to his beautiful country house. And we were there and it was time to make something for dinner and he said let me go online and get a recipe. It wasn't one as opposed to the other. He loved the cookbooks - he read them, he used them for inspiration -but when he needed to find a specific recipe, that's when he went online.

NEARY: In fact, cooks and cookbook lovers have a lot of choices these days when they want to search for a recipe. Jessica Goodman, associate publisher at John Wiley and Sons, says the digital options just keep growing.

Ms. JESSICA GOODMAN (John Wiley and Sons): You can have a traditional e-book, which would be taking the print book and putting it on an e-reader device like a Nook, like a Kindle. Then you can have an enhanced e-book, which allows you to put in some videos and you can embed them right in there. And then you can have a mobile app, which allows you to take content and sort of take it out of sequence so that you can search, you can browse, that sort of thing.

NEARY: Apps that can be used with smart phones and tablet devices like the iPad are the newest entry to the field. Their popularity is growing, says Goodman, because cookbooks, like Wiley's best-selling "How to Cook Everything" by Mark Bittman, aren't easy to lug around.

Ms. GOODMAN: It's a big book. It's about five pounds and over a thousand pages, but I imagine that the typical consumer would love to have this cookbook with them at all times. So we imagined a "How to Cook Everything" mobile app on the go.

NEARY: Well-known chef and MORNING EDITION regular Nigella Lawson has her own app: Nigella Quick Collection. Lawson thinks cooking apps are best used outside the kitchen.

Ms. NIGELLA LAWSON (Chef): What interested me most is the idea of people are very busy. They're maybe on the bus on the way back from work, and it's what am I going to cook tonight? I've got to maybe call in and go to a shop and get it. So it's really to help you shop. What an app possibly is the least useful for is to help you cook in the kitchen, because you don't necessarily want to have a phone or any similar device right where you're spluttering with a pan.

NEARY: Don't tell that to Gwynne Kostin, a working mom who cooks most nights for her husband and two teenage sons.

Ms. GWYNNE KOSTIN: So I've got my smoked paprika, some pepper and some salt in here, and we're kind of quasi-mixing it around.

(Soundbite of mixing)

NEARY: Kostin deftly negotiates the space in her small kitchen. This is not one of those fancy kitchens with granite countertops and stainless steel appliances. In fact, Kostin doesn't even have a dishwasher - but she does have an iPad.

Ms. KOSTIN: So I can just go through and then there's all these crazy applications that you download on this. And the one that I'm going to be using today is called Epicurious.

NEARY: Kostin began cooking with what was once considered a sort of cook's bible: "The Joy of Cooking." From books she moved to magazines. Then she began searching websites and printing out recipes she found online. Once she got wireless connection, she brought her laptop into the kitchen with her. So when apps became available, Kostin was naturally an early adopter, first downloading them to her smart phone and then to her iPad.

Ms. KOSTIN: So I just tap on that and it comes up. And it's got a very cool interface. It allows you to search for things based upon the ingredients. So this way I can find new recipes. That's how I found the recipe I'm cooking today, which is the quick chicken paella with sugar snap peas.

NEARY: Kostin doesn't like to cook the same thing over and over again, so she's always looking for new recipes. She uses apps on her iPhone to shop and get ideas, then switches over to the iPad for cooking. She still has a couple of her favorite cookbooks sitting on top of the refrigerator. But...

Ms. KOSTIN: Primarily I'm using apps. So I'm still using these. And some of it's nostalgia, some of it's convenience. But as I said, when I'm looking for something new, I'm not going here to these tomes for something new.

NEARY: Kostin may preach the merits of apps with the zeal of a convert, but even she acknowledges there's one obvious drawback.

Ms. KOSTIN: But here we're coming to the point where this is one of the downsides of the apps. Which is, as you can see, I'm getting smoky paprika all over my hands, 'cause you have to handle the chicken, and when you have to go and touch the application, it could get goopy.

NEARY: The solution, says Kostin? Lots of paper towels and frequent hand-washing.

Ms. KOSTIN: So I'm adding oil and the chicken thighs to the skillet and cook until browned. That's easy to do. Skin side down...

(Soundbite of sizzling)

NEARY: There's no question, says Will Schwalbe, that more and more people are using mobile devices to access the Internet. So the app is likely to be a big part of the cookbook future. But, he says, dirty hands are not necessarily the only problem that comes with using apps.

Mr. SCHWALBE: I think there's an inherent flaw in thousands or tens of thousands of individual cookbooks as apps. And the flaw is that the more you have, the harder it is to use them.

NEARY: OK, so maybe 1,000 apps is more than anyone's ever going to want.

Mr. SCHWALBE: So, say, for example, you have five or six different cookbook apps and you want to search for a kid-friendly recipe, or a one-pot meal, or something that's gluten-free or something for your vegan aunt. And you would then, as it's set up now, probably need to search each app individually, according to whatever criteria that app had. And in fact, most of the recipes in those apps wouldn't have been tagged with any of those terms.

NEARY: What Schwalbe envisions for the future is similar to cookstr.com. He calls the website a collective, where chefs and publishers allow their work to be used in return for a share of the revenue. The site features recipes from some 400 chefs, including Julia Child, James Beard and Jamie Oliver. Schwalbe thinks a similar arrangement could be made to develop a super app.

Mr. SCHWALBE: And so when you want to do the kind of browsing, you might go to your physical bookshelf or to individual apps. But when you really want to find something, the experience will enable you to search everything at once powerfully.

NEARY: Whatever else the future may bring, the traditional cookbook is still likely to be part of it, because cooking is about so much more than just finding the right recipe.

Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington.

GONYEA: And for links to download the cooking apps mentioned in Lynn's story, or to hear her previous two reports in this series, visit NPR.org.

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