So you’ve managed to pull off planning the intimate at-home date or swanky dinner party you’ve always wanted ever since you started watching episodes of Mad Men on Netflix. You’ve cleaned your place, put together the right playlist to set the mood, and even managed a way to get those wrinkles out of that fancy outfit that’s gathered dust from hanging in your closet for so long.
Wait a second, back up. Do you even know anything about cooking?
Okay, so you’re less like Gordon Ramsay and more like the Swedish Chef in the kitchen. While you can’t go through culinary school between now and your big dinner, you can at least fake it ‘til you make it. There are great apps that are solely dedicated to the purpose of serving delicious food, and even better apps that will hold your hand through the entire process. Download a few of our recommendations below and they’ll take you from the grocery store all the way to the sexy after-dinner Moscato without an oven flare-up or overcooked protein in sight.
Unless you’re serving to vegetarians, your centerpiece will undoubtedly be some kind of protein. But the world of meat goes far beyond ground beef and boneless, skinless chicken breast—and it’s those prime cuts that will get you the requisite cool points when you serve your main course.
But if you don’t know the difference between a chuck and a round, feel free to cheat with Ask the Butcher. Not only does the app provide a handy breakdown of where each cut falls on select animals (including the ever-popular beef), but it also provides advice on how to prepare it. The app aids in deciding portion sizing relative to guests and shows the ideal way to cook each cut. Still confused? The app also includes a list of smart questions to ask a butcher, so you don’t get bogged down.
Any chef worth his whites will tell you that the most important element to a fantastic dish is high-quality ingredients. Perhaps unsurprisingly, that saying goes double for produce, which not only varies dramatically in taste, size and texture depending on whether or not it’s in season but also can be a real hassle to properly store them in a way that ensures freshness.
Harvest takes out all of the guesswork with a searchable database that lists all the tips and tricks by each individual fruit or vegetable. In addition to listing key characteristics for ripeness, the info card on the produce will indicate the best way to store it so your dinner isn’t full of mushy, mealy food.
After all of the ingredients are in hand, it’s easy to just toss them in the fridge or cupboard and forget about it. But there’s a hard lesson we all face at one point or another, lurking in that frigid appliance, that often results in dry-heaving after excising aggressively moldy cheese or drinking curdled milk. Food rots, and nothing will kill a fancy dinner faster than serving something well past its expiration date.
If you’re not the kind of person who can keep running tabs on each individual item in your fridge, but would like to prevent a mouthful of mold by maintaining due diligence, then FreshBox is a good place to start. After loading up your groceries, open the app and start inputting your goods into the system. FreshBox will act as a timer to gently remind you to eat the food that has a potential of sticking around past its expiration date, or throw out goods that already have.
Good food can turn into great food with the right wine. And if you don’t know your Sauvignon Blanc from a Pinot Noir, there’s a good chance you’ll feel adrift in a sea of unrecognizable labels at your nearest liquor store. Rather than reaching for a bottle of the old standby, opening up the free WineRatings+ app will bring you a quality bottle without tons of work.
Maintained by Wine Spectator, the freemium app’s simple interface helps users choose wines by their rating and price range, so you won’t get caught ogling a $120 bottle of wine unless you want to. Even better, each wine assessment comes with tasting notes, so you can get a great bottle and impress your guest with flavor insights straight from the experts.
Now onto using ingredients to make something both delicious and impressive. The Internet, by nature, is an absolutely infinite well of information, and if you’re unsure how fancy you really want to take your meal (or if you’re no longer wowed by what you initially planned to make), then it can be even more daunting. Luckily, that’s what vetted, curated, and reviewed recipe websites are for, and perhaps none have a better and more utility-focused presence than Epicurious.
Aside from being one of the oldest and most-used recipe curation websites on the Internet, Epicurious has the added benefit of some smart features that can help even the most clueless cook put together a cohesive menu. First go-to is the app’s Featured section, which highlights seasonal dishes and groups them into different occasions to spark inspiration. Second, there’s an ingredient-based search for the completely lost-at-sea, which searches by main ingredient and ranks by review.
When it comes to people who care about food, perhaps none of them are more sought after for opinions than New York Times columnist Mark Bittman. His fifteen-year-old book, How to Cook Everything has not only become a main staple on any at-home cook’s bookshelf, but it also has spawned a handful of specialized titles and, yes, it’s own iPad app.
What makes the How To Cook Everything app so helpful (and more than worth the price of $9.99) is its vast level of resources. The app include 2,000 simple recipes with extensive instructions and timers that help the most clueless of cooks, even providing step-by-step instructions during the tough bits. Never filleted a fish before? This app will show you how to make sure you don’t mangle your salmon, and then help you put it in the perfect dish.
If you’re the kind of cook that needs a strict timetable in order to execute a major meal (think brining pork while preparing the apple crumble overnight kind of multitasking), then Pepperplate will help you stay on track. Like a pocket-sized cooking micro-manager, the app is specifically designed to keep production of large-scale meals on course, so there’s no toiling in the kitchen when you should be enjoying yourself.
Pepperplate works on multiple levels, storing much-loved recipes while providing an easy way to schedule meals down to the minute. That way, a meal can be planned literally from start to finish with the app’s menu creator, and then executed via multiple timers to keep everything on track. In a lot of ways, Pepperplate helps home cooks think like restaurant chefs, focusing on timing dishes without sacrificing flavor or ease. Of course, all this helps for actual enjoyment of the dinner, which is the most important thing, after all.
Visual learners—you’re in luck. If the idea of following a recipe and trusting your gut to know when something is properly prepared feels like an insurmountable challenge, get ready to literally watch how it’s done. Appetites works like a cooking show on-demand, breaking down each recipe into small technique videos to give users the full view of how everything should look from start to finish.
There aren’t a vast amount of videos to choose from, so users may feel a little limited in their recipe choice. But Appetites can instill the confidence in just about any cook, and maybe even impart some lifelong skills along the way.
If the idea of video instructions on how to make recipes greatly appeals to you, then you can’t miss with The Video Cookbook and it’s after-dinner companion, The Video Cookbook Patisserie. Packing a little more professional flair, both apps will break down some seriously wow-worthy recipes into to the bare basics and teach kitchen skills in the process.
While both apps have freemium recipes (on top of the original app’s $5.99 price tag, to boot), the strength of the two lies in the way it teaches many of the same dishes that culinary schools rely on to hone their next generation of chefs. The recipes themselves look complicated, but the instructions actually build on each other in a way that make everything easy to follow. Even better, the dessert app teaches the development of a recipe such as a creme puff by breaking it down into multiple lessons: first you’ll make the choux pastry, then the two separate creams, then put it all together to make the dessert. Informative and full of great food, The Video Cookbook is a worthwhile splurge if you want to really go fancy.
Yes yes, we know you wanted to cook dinner. But you know, there’s always delivery. Just in case!