A few months ago, a decidedly unsexy, 1970s-era diet food began flying off supermarket shelves. Nearly overnight, cottage cheese was as trendy as Barbie pink.

Cooking videos have never been more persuasive, more inescapable, more addictive, more entertaining. And they’ve never been a more powerful driver of popular culture.



Videos on TikTok with the #foodtok hashtag have been viewed more than 64 billion times. But cooking videos are not only an unavoidable part of being online — they’ve also infiltrated physical spaces. TikTok-esque cooking videos air on large vertical screens on New York City subways and on iPad-size displays in the back of cabs, in the lobby of the Department of Motor Vehicles and the waiting room at the doctor’s office. They are everywhere.

TikTok may be the look of today, but cooking videos have captured our attention for decades, shaping how we eat along the way.

TikTok arrived in the United States, but Covid lockdowns in 2020 supercharged its use, as many Americans stuck at home began scrolling the app’s algorithm-driven, hyper-personalized “For You” feed.

TikTok transformed videos into interactive two-way conversations with tools like Stitch and Duet, which allow you to combine other people’s clips with videos of your own.

All of this benefited every category of video on TikTok — but especially cooking videos. While television shows guided viewers through the entire cooking process and Instagram brimmed with stylish photos of the final dish, on TikTok, people could have both, said Sunny Xun Liu, a research scientist at the Stanford Social Media Lab.

“It changes the whole hourlong cooking process into 15 seconds, 30 seconds, 45 seconds of entertainment — consumable pieces,” she said. “The product and process become one video that is entertaining, appealing and satisfying. That is what makes these videos so engaging.”

Today, there isn’t just one way to make a successful cooking video. What matters most is not creating a delicious, foolproof recipe, but grabbing someone’s attention immediately.

On TikTok, three styles of video define the genre.

In this 33-second video, you are looking at 46 fast-cut clips that ranges from 0.2 second to 3.4 seconds long.

Story time:

“I

have

a

distinct

memory

of

my

grandmother

pounding

plantain

to

make

fufu.

Just

plantain,

boiled

and

pounded,

in

what

we

call

a

mata

until

smooth

and

creamy.

That

mata

is

shaped

differently

than

this

one

that

I

borrowed

from

my

Garifuna

friend

here

in

Denver.

But

when

I

found

out

that

she

used

hers

to

make

the

same

dish

that

we

did,

I

smiled,

knowing

that

our

ancestors,

not

knowing

if

they

would

ever

taste

the

sweetness

of

their

homeland

ever

again,

held

on

to

their

food,

and

their

culture

so

that

someday

their

descendants

would

know

where

they

came

from.”

Beef, Bacon and Velveeta Biscuit Pie

Are these videos still teaching us how to cook? It depends on your perspective.

The pressure to assemble a picture-perfect dinner is certainly less intense on TikTok than on, say, the Food Network. But the quality of a recipe doesn’t matter as much on TikTok.

“People now want to buy into the human behind the camera rather than just the recipe,” said Ahmad Alzahabi, who runs the TikTok account @thegoldenbalance.

But TikTok’s algorithm doesn’t reward originality, diversity or complexity. The thing that trending recipes — like Baked By Melissa’s green goddess salad dressing, or cottage cheese ice cream, or butter boards — have in common is that they’re “low-cost and easy to execute,” said Ms. Liu, the social media research scientist.

That’s the catch of going viral: The lowest common denominator will always prevail at the expense of innovation and individuality.

Cooking is such a personal, deeply human activity. But the evolution of cooking videos represents a broader shift: Algorithms and artificial intelligence increasingly drive everyday behaviors and can stifle creativity.

This can be discouraging to the very people whose videos we can’t stop watching.

“It is democratizing but also narrowing the field down in a sense that you’ll just see the same trend,” said Ms. Vasavada of the @milkandcardamom account. “I don’t want to see 100 versions of feta pasta.”

Cooking videos began with a clear aim: to educate. If that’s still the goal, they’re not as effective, said Mr. Gara, the former BuzzFeed producer.

“We had a really cheesy but earnest desire to help people learn how to cook in some way and eat things that tasted good,” he said. “We got so far away from that.”