Food on Social Media — Do we actually want to learn how to cook?
Why you won’t make that 5-layer cake you saw on YouTube.
By Kathrin Sulzbach
I did see a bubble,“ my sister shouts at the laptop sitting on the overcrowded kitchen table. She is replaying a scene from a YouTube tutorial for a chocolate éclair cake whilst frantically stirring pastry cream on the stove. The laptop, unsurprisingly, gives no speech of reassurance nor does the curly brown-haired video host Carolina Gelen. “This is exhausting,” my sister keeps complaining to me. I laugh, but I am not just being sadistic. There is a reason why I made her, a baking novice, recreate an advanced cake with three classic pâtisserie components.
There are 479 million #food hashtags on Instagram that show everything from fancily plated gourmet sushi to blurry pictures of greasy egg-fried rice that someone had for dinner last night. Upon opening YouTube we are being bombarded with videos that promise the ultimate banana bread recipe, eating shows, so-called “mukbangs”, where we can watch people eat whilst talking to an invisible camera, and cooking challenges in which a poor individual has to make dinner with coffee beans. Meanwhile, numerous viral food trends such as cloud bread and salmon rice bowl have emerged from TikTok and there has even been a Wikipedia page dedicated to them.
Evidently, the attraction of food on social media is undeniable. But why is this the case and how useful is this content? Who really puts their newly acquired knowledge on how to lacto-ferment cucumbers to use and are the instructions given to us any good?
Hungry hunters and gatherers lost in the digital age
Let´s go back in time. About 12.000 years ago we were hunters and gatherers and life was tough. Finding and consuming calorie-dense foods was essential for our survival and foraging often took hours of time. When we finally laid eyes on a fruit-bearing plant our brains were rejoicing. We quickly associated seeing calorie-dense food with pleasurable, life-sustaining consumption.
When we see food today it is often on a screen. Yet, we reap the same biological rewards by simply looking at a picture of ice cream, because we expect to eat it. In fact, we almost are. Studies have shown that viewing food pictures activates brain regions involved in taste perception. Which means that when we look at dripping scoops of Chunky Monkey our brain imagines sweet banana, toasty walnuts and chocolatey fudge. The result? “Visual hunger”, the desire to view beautiful images of food. With modern technology constantly enabling this hunger, this is just one of the reasons why food media has become increasingly successful.
Carli Ratcliff, digital content specialist and Le Cordon Bleu instructor, explains that while we are primally driven by hunger, food also holds a universal connection for us. To this day we still come together around food just as our ancestors used to gather around the fire. “So, while we have an in-built physiological need to eat, there´s also an emotional need to eat together, which is why people are so interested in food content even if they´re unaware of that,” she concludes.
Newsiness matters but make it “short”, please
In 2021 YouTube introduced “shorts” with great success. These 15-second to 2.5-minute long videos had already been firmly established on TikTok and Instagram and they struck the chord that is our declining attention span. From now on, instead of immediately skipping ahead to the next video, we finished the “short” (and then watched the next one).
“There´s a constant appetite for the new. Gen Z in particular are a very experience-driven generation,” says Ratcliff. And while we persistently claim that we don´t have time we continue to find ourselves glued to our phones, our screen time displaying a scandalous number each and every week.
With a daily average of 5 hours and 39 minutes, I feel the need to defend myself. After all, I predominantly use my phone for “organisational purposes” like e-mail, calendar and notes! Still, there is no doubt I spend too much time on YouTube. So why do I keep coming back for more?
I tap on the iconic red play button to open the app and watch someone make a layer cake: disembodied hands mix a vanilla cake batter, fill cake pans, place them in the oven and turn out three perfect rounds onto a rack. The layers are horizontally halved with long strokes of a bread knife, stacked with cream cheese frosting and iced all over. A dark chocolate drip, buttercream rosettes and purple sprinkles are added for decoration. The entire process takes 53 seconds.
“I know that cake decoration videos are very popular and I´ve asked some younger people why they watch them,” says Ratcliff. “They tell me, ´I find it so therapeutic, it´s so beautiful to watch the transformation of the cake.’ It´s almost meditative to them.”
And indeed it is. Neuroscience suggests that when we watch someone perform an action we have the same neurological response as when performing that action ourselves. So when you see someone bake an elaborate cake your brain relates to the activity. “You did that,” it seems to whisper. “In under a minute. Well done.” It´s an ultra-satisfying escape from our stressful lives without the extension of actual effort on our behalf.
Then there is a different illusion. “If the videos are shorter you also think you need less time for the dish,” says my sister. It´s true: short videos often show a streamlined or even glamourized version of cooking. No fiddling with garlic´s papery skins, no burnt nuts setting off the fire alarm, no doing the dishes. It´s smooth sailing — until we try it ourselves.
Julius Henne, co-owner of the sourdough bakery “Brotique” in Stuttgart, Germany, takes an optimistic stance. He explains that with sourdough bread baking it´s the technique that matters most which, unfortunately, can´t be taught in a minute. “On the other hand, these videos can easily reach a large number of people that normally wouldn´t be interested in cooking. So while some disappointment may be inevitable, it’s still better if people try. Some might leave it at one failed attempt, others will want to figure out the issue and watch another, more detailed video.”
Carli Ratcliff agrees. “The opportunity for food content definitely outweighs the danger of failing. You can introduce a whole new world of food experiences on TikTok that are valuable for someone. I mean how many kids have ever had wakame or salmon before the salmon rice bowl trend on TikTok? There’s an awareness there that didn´t exist just six months ago and that’s really intriguing.”
Influencers and their (un)helpful influence on food
When we watch food videos it´s often because of the people in them. We like the content creators we watch. More than that, we think of them as friends. According to studies continued exposure to a media personality can cause a “parasocial relationship”, the illusion of intimate friendship.
Yet, not all of food content creators are food experts. “Usually, when celebrities publish a cookbook it´s to sell to their existing audience, more so than to sell to someone that wants to buy a cookbook. It´s celebrity-driven rather than food-driven, which is very different to the celebrity chefs who have made a name for themselves around their expertise. The person buying the Paris Hilton cookbook has no interest in Rick Stein, we know that,” says Ratcliff.
So no, we are not necessarily interested in someone´s elaborate demonstration of how to cook soup, we often just want to watch the person that´s making it.
However, when I see Paris Hilton asking what a “tong” is on her very own Netflix show “Cooking With Paris” I wonder who should even be allowed to create food content.
“Anyone,” replies Henne without hesitation. “Newcomers are always refreshing because they have a different perspective. It´s just natural that some information on social media is not one hundred per cent right. It might even cause people to question more.”
Still, I am not entirely convinced. There just doesn’t seem to be any culinary value in some of the food content out there. Too often I have come across videos of people sitting in their cars, reviewing chicken nuggets and apple pie pockets from Mcdonald's to their audience. Somehow, incredibly, it works. It´s not uncommon for those videos to rake in millions of views.
“I want to hate this kind of content, but I don’t,” says Ratcliff. Her perplexing attitude is quickly followed up by an explanation. She tells me that when the fast-food style Starbucks started to become popular 15 to 20 years ago, something started to shift. The very same coffeehouse chain that was known for its caramel and pumpkin-spiced lattes eventually sparked a broader interest in coffee culture. It´s Ratcliffe´s hope that food content will have the same effect on younger generations by making them more interested in cooking. She says: “Food on social media, even in the form of entertainment, has enormous potential to influence people’s daily lives and their food habits.”
The rise above entertainment: How food on social media can educate us.
I´ll admit there are different reasons for consuming food content on social media. We are not solely hunger-driven, inattentive, escapism-seeking individuals. We also want to learn and be inspired.
But can social media teach us how to cook? “Yes, definitely,” says Ratcliff. “YouTube is a great platform to learn about techniques. I am not sure if the 15-second videos on TikTok will make you a great chef, but Instagram is really great for instructional texts and progress pictures that show the various stages of cooking.”
“You have to make whatever you are watching,” adds Henne. “We often think that we´ve understood the process after watching a video, but by doing it ourselves we have to watch the scenes repeatedly, which makes them more memorable and we also encounter problems that are usually not shown in the video.”
A chaotic trial
At last, I decided to put social media´s helpfulness to the test — and I am lucky. It doesn´t take any persuasion to make my sister recreate a chocolate éclair cake tutorial by Carolina Gelen on the Food52 YouTube Channel. The choice is deliberate. Carolina has an easy-going, laid-back personality and an incredibly soothing voice. The cake on the other hand is a more difficult affair.
We meet up in my kitchen on a Thursday afternoon and settle down at the wooden table. Overly ambitious, it immediately becomes clear that she will compensate for her lack of baking expertise with stubborn determination. She begins by watching the 16-minute video front-to-back. “I don´t have this kind of attention,” she declares, her eyes fixed on the screen hardly blinking once.
She starts with the pastry cream (I tipped her off because it has to chill for hours) and everything runs smoothly until she takes the mixture to the stove to thicken it. Carolina warns to never stop stirring so as to not get sweet scrambled eggs but also emphasizes the importance of bringing the pastry cream to a boil. A slight contradiction, since bubbles only appear when you stop stirring for a few seconds. My sister is whisking for a very long time until she realizes this and her pastry cream ends up a little too thick. She tastes it and smiles proudly. “It´s good.”
She moves on to the pâte à choux… and almost burns the flour paste. As she transfers the cooled paste to the stand-mixer I silently scrub the browned film on the bottom of the pan with steel wool. She slowly adds the eggs and, characteristically for pâte à choux, the mixture temporarily disintegrates into clumps. She is deeply unsettled. This was not shown in the video. Against all hope, she keeps going and the mass comes back together, silky and smooth. She is triumphant. Meanwhile, Carolina makes her opinion on her own choux pastry known by singing “beauuu-tiiii-fuul”.
By now smugness has fully set in. My sister has been very successful so far and her attitude shows. “Ganache. That´s easy. Just three ingredients. Nothing can go wrong, right?“ She heats the chocolate and cream in the microwave as instructed, then stirs to emulsify and frowns. The texture of the ganache is split and grainy. She replays the scene in which Carolina reveals her teenage crime of throwing away ganache that only appeared broken because her chocolate hadn´t melted entirely. My sister pauses the video and bends over the bowl in front of her to analyse its content. There are no unmelted pieces to be found. Being the staunch chocolate purist my sister is, she picked 74% cocoa chocolate, which is too high in fat for the ganache. She wasn´t told.
By the time she assembles the cake, she has convinced herself that the chocolate ganache is perfectly fine (it´s not). She gingerly stacks the layers, then gets mad at Carolina when she tells her that the cake has to chill before serving. “Patience,” I mutter. She rolls her eyes at me.
As she cuts into the cake the following day her face is glowing. Her pastry cream is a little too thick and the ganache is not quite as smooth, but no one cares. It´s delicious. “I am really proud of myself and my baking skills have definitely improved,” she says. “I did things I’ve never done before.” There is a meaningful pause, then… “I heated flour,” she says with the air of someone who just discovered fire. We burst out laughing. Then I ask her the final question.
“Would you make this cake again?”
“Yes, definitely,” she says. I bite my lip to suppress a smile. Just the day before her answer had been very different. “I’m also more open to trying new things now because I’ve proven to myself that I can learn.“
She cuts more pieces of cake, sets them onto plates and hands them out ceremoniously to our family sitting in the living room. All hiccups are forgotten and despite her initial vow to never do this again she now can´t stop talking. “I would like to do this again. We can do this again, right?” She is almost excessively keen. “I bake and you watch me.” She laughs.
We join our family on the wide sofa. My sister starts to tell my mum about her day at work, my dad is talking soccer with my grandpa. Everyone is engaged in animated conversation as I´m still quietly pondering the practicality of food content on social media. I look down at my plate and the half-eaten piece of cake stares back at me, pointing me to a simple conclusion.
While a lot of pictures or videos may be skippable, my sister´s success in front of me proves that there is great value to be found, too. So yes, we can become better chefs by consuming food content online. We just have to briefly detach ourselves from our screens, roll up our sleeves and make some cake.
Kathrin Sulzbach currently resides in Frankfurt, Germany. While her original background is in marketing and media, her passion for food and literature has taken her on the journey to becoming a professional recipe developer and food writer. She is also passionate about singing, bagels and penguins
This article is the work of Le Cordon Bleu Online Learning 10-week Food Writing for Publication course participant Kathrin Sulzbach. Le Cordon Bleu is not responsible for the content and the opinion and view is that of the author. https://online.cordonbleu.edu/