I cooked 7 internet-famous recipes in 7 days, and now I just want a salad
What makes a recipe go viral? I let the internet pick my menu for a week and it was…brown.
Internet of Yum digs into all the things that make us drool while we’re checking our feeds.
The internet is where cooks and chefs alike get famous now, and it’s no different for the food itself. Our parents and grandparents used to pass around magazine cutouts and recipe cards. We then moved onto email chains and now we have timelines full of friends making that one chickpea coconut thing, 19-year-old strangers creating novelty breakfasts, and fictional characters making staple dishes look so new, romantic, and damn tasty that we all rush online to find out how to make it.
I do the majority of the cooking for my partner and me, mostly to get out of washing dishes, but also because I am a person who devours new cookbooks on the couch like novels and thinks bottled salad dressing should have a warning label on it like cigarettes that says THIS WOULD COST YOU 32 CENTS TO MAKE AT HOME AND WOULD TASTE WAY BETTER.
But I also get into cooking ruts, and while I’m very lucky to be safe, employed, and working from home during the coronavirus pandemic, six weeks of working at the dining table had worn away at my enthusiasm to stand up, turn around and start prepping dinner at the counter two feet away at the end of every day. I felt guilty for ordering food in, even when I told myself it was right to support local restaurants doing their best In These Times as much as they could. And I wanted to try some new things — so where better to start than the recipes the internet loves the most?
I sifted through my browser bookmarks and googled “most viral recipes.” I googled it again, but with Thanksgiving sides and gushing profiles of “viral recipe queen” Alison Roman excluded (not because of the Chrissy Teigen Twitter drama, which they clearly both want to move past, but simply because that’s what comes up the most when you search “viral recipes” in 2020), and asked Mashable staffers on Slack the most internet-famous recipes they could think of from the past decade that weren’t that absurd Dalgona coffee thing. Through this highly unscientific process, I came up with a list of seven recipes that have taken over some corner of the web for one reason or another, whether they dominated for a week, or for years.
- Caramelised shallot pasta — I had to have at least one Alison Roman recipe, and this had to be it. It’s just that good, and that ubiquitous. (And The Stew is overrated.) I’d made it before, sue me! I wanted a gentle start to the week!
- Best-ever crispy roast potatoes — This technique went viral in a TikTok earlier in the year, but was actually developed by Serious Eats’ glorious kitchen nerd J. Kenji Lopez-Alt. The TikTok appeal? That crispiness is ASMR for carb connoisseurs.
- Instant Pot Butter Chicken — Home cook Urvashi Pitre’s keto-friendly pressure cooker shortcut to the Punjabi favourite won her internet fame, an IP-approved cookbook, and legions of fans.
- Ram-don — The infamous noodle dish with fancy steak, hastily assembled in an iconic scene in Bong Joon-Ho’s Parasite, is actually a classic cheap snack known as jjagapuri (two popular kinds of Korean instant noodle mixed together), with the steak as a delicious symbol of wealth inequality. There’s no official recipe, but I stuck with the general internet consensus: Nongshim chapaghetti, Nongshim neoguri ramyun, and good-quality steak. (I don’t live in a stunning modernist mansion but I can afford to split a nice slab of Australian wagyu between the two of us, though I drew the line at stir-frying it in cubes.)
- Pancake “cereal” — I felt I needed at least one slightly silly viral thing, and this was everywhere the week I planned this. Four days later people had apparently moved onto “waffle cereal” and now “ donut cereal,” which both sound way more intense.
- No-Knead Bread — You’re all sick of sourdough, right? The New York Times says this Jim Lahey technique is one of its most popular recipes ever, and while it’s dead simple and supposedly forgiving, I made it years ago and am haunted by the misshapen, just-OK loaf I produced.
- Hair Dryer Chicken — I remember the day this took over Twitter a few years ago thanks to a tweet by New Yorker food writer Helen Rosner. As she explains, drying the chicken skin out with cold fridge air then cool blasts from your literal hair dryer is just the latest iteration in the long quest for the crispiest roast chicken skin. It’s also just funny.
So after a week of letting the internet pick my menu, what did I learn?
You don’t get clicks with salad
I discovered there’s basically no such thing as a viral dish that has green vegetables in it. I had to eat my rainbow as best I could during breakfast and lunch, because come dinnertime, it was brown, brown, brown. (And yellow, and some red, and a few decorative herbs.) Of course, there was nothing stopping me making a side salad for any of these meals, except my own laziness, but that’s not my point. Recipes that go viral tend to be comfort food, junk food, jazzed-up packaged food, or ambitious projects — and none of those criteria really apply to roasted brussels sprouts or chopped salads, as delicious as those things can be. Healthy, veg-forward dishes that start popping up on Instagram and Pinterest, from “Buddha bowls” to zoodles, tend to be more of a trend, a technique, or a preparation, rather than a specific recipe.
That’s not to say that the right recipe couldn’t get millions of people obsessed with perfecting a dish that’s mainly lettuce or that lets carrots shine, that’s satisfying and craveable and inventive. But on an internet largely dominated by American food culture, those tend to get buried under a load of ranch dip, stretchy cheese, and chicken. So much chicken.
So much chicken
Yes, I made two chicken recipes. Look, I love chicken. And it’s arguably the most approachable, affordable, and versatile meat in many places, if not always the most forgiving. From the shot-from-above Tex Mex and ranch-dip monstrosities of the internet to the most classic roasted or stewed bird you can conjure, promising people an easier, newer, healthier, or more delicious way to prepare and devour the humble chicken is a fast-track to eyeballs on your content. Heck, I found my go-to whole-roast method, Thomas Keller’s, via a Buzzfeed bracket of iconic recipes.
Chicken twice in one week (four times if you count leftovers for lunch) was fine with me, though. Butter chicken and what Australians affectionately call “roast chook” are classics for a reason, and both recipes went viral because they were versions of classics that people found intriguing for their own reasons. The full hair-dryer chicken recipe won’t replace Keller’s in my rotation, but I’ll be using its long fridge-drying session and my Parlux 3500 to get that crispy skin without using paper towels. And while I didn’t love Pitre’s butter chicken more than the cheap-and-cheerful family restaurant one I can get around the corner, making it made me realise what an idiot I was for not cooking this most basic of favourites at home more often. (And for owning a spice grinder and never making my own garam masala before. It took five minutes and makes the packaged stuff smell like the dust under your fridge.)
If you google “chicken recipe” you get 1,090,000,000 results. You’ve gotta narrow them down somehow, and virality is one measure that’s worth a shot.
There’s more than one kind of viral
No, I’m not making a tone-deaf joke. There’s casual foodie viral, intense foodie viral, pop culture viral, Instagram viral, all the places where those cross over. Sometimes it’s a specific technique that works like magic to help home cooks skip that one step that’s always made attempting something seem like too much work, or improves a classic. Sometimes, like in the case of ram-don, or ratatouille, or a pantry pasta so good you could serve it to Scarlett Johansson, a single piece of media can expose a whole new audience to a dish that’s a staple for one food culture. Sometimes it’s just fun, or outrageous. Hair dryer chicken? Expensive steak with instant noodles?? A bowl full of teeny baby pancakes???
In most cases, the recipes I tried delivered on the central promise that made them blow up. The pasta is flavoursome and might actually sell you on melting anchovies into stuff. The potatoes were audibly crisp and tasty (except the ones I cut too small and burned). The ram-don/jjagapuri was delicious, comforting, and extravagant. The cereal was cute as heck. The butter chicken was easy and quick, though the simplification came at a bit of a flavour cost. The hair dryer helped crisp the chicken skin beautifully, and the bread… well, at least I didn’t have to knead it.
Know your strengths (and your weaknesses)
Just because ~everybody~ is making bread or stew or tiny pancakes, doesn’t mean that one recipe is going to be the magic formula that overcomes your own foibles in the kitchen.
My no-knead bread did not turn out well: It was less than lofty, and a little gummy. It browned nicely, and worked fine smeared with a bit of butter and dipped into chicken sauce or soup! It was, technically, bread! But I don’t make a lot of bread because I know I don’t have the patience, not to mention the ability to read the recipe and follow it exactly at least the first time you try it no you can’t just eyeball the yeast measurement for pete’s sake. This also applies to the comments, which on New York Times’ Cooking are a mix of petty drama, useful tweak suggestions, and petty drama about tweak suggestions. If I’d read the comments I would have remembered that when I first made the bread about six years ago, I’d found one commenter’s suggestion of doing the second rise in a bowl helped enormously with getting a non-blobfish-shaped loaf into my Dutch oven.
I’ll do it again, because I’m stubborn and I want the bragging rights without having to try and keep a sourdough starter alive for a week first.
Trying new things: It’s good!
So you “can’t” make bread, or don’t like anchovies, or always click out of recipes with long lists of ingredients you don’t have, or already have a go-to technique for all the classics, or don’t want to be jumping on cutesy internet trends, or are scandalised by the idea of eating a nice steak with instant noodles.
To you I say: If thousands or hundreds of thousands of people are making a recipe, or at least clicking on one, there might be something to it. Things that are popular aren’t always good, and cooks with hundreds of thousands of Instagram followers can be wrong. But even if you don’t have the luxury of cooking for fun or out of curiosity very often, recipes that go viral are a good starting point to try something new.
If you try a new recipe for something you’ve cooked a million times, you can go back to your favourite with a tiny bit more knowledge. Sometimes a more complicated recipe can be worth it, and sometimes you’re absolutely not using nine different pots to make roast potatoes or chopsticks to individually flip 79 button-sized pancakes, no matter how good they are. It is not sacrilege to serve an expensive ingredient alongside a cheap one if it’s delicious. (This is not my sole takeaway from Parasite, the movie, just “ram-don” with steak, the dish.) Pancake cereal is dirt cheap to make, fun to look at, and tastes just as good, plus you can eat it from a bowl on the couch without pouring maple syrup in your lap.
You’ll feel less alone
Alison Roman’s recipes, and the “hive” or “empire” that’s formed around them, aren’t just a huge thing on the internet because they’re tasty and accessible. They’re like any viral recipe or idea: a snowball that collects more and more people as it rolls around the internet, becoming bigger and more visible as more people see it and join in. Roman has been especially savvy at rolling up those people and making the snowball bigger, not to mention Instagram-friendly. But Pitre’s blog, the NYT Cooking section, TikTok, even Bong Joon-Ho, accidentally: They’ve all created spaces where community forms around food, as it’s always done.
I felt like I was having a shared experience when I cooked these things: I hit the same bumps described in four-year-old comments, had the same doubts halfway through, the same delight or disappointment at the finished product. And the few things I did post about drew replies from friends: Hey, you did That Thing! It looks great! (Slices of the single best steak I’ve ever cooked at home did, in fact, look great draped across mounds of glossy instant noodles. Shocker.)
When you cave and say “OK, fine! I’ll cook The Thing I Saw On The Internet!” you’re joining a community — whether you post a photo of it or not.
It’s OK to say “Fuck it”
I love cooking, but it is work, and you don’t need to introduce novelty or complexity every night of the week. Make buttered noodles or congee on full autopilot three nights in a row. Order a pizza, wash your hands, and tip your delivery person as generously as you can afford. Things are hard enough as it is.
But when you’re feeling it, go ahead and bring the hair dryer into the kitchen.
Originally published at https://mashable.com