To YouTube or Not to YouTube

By / Food / September 14th, 2009 / 2

An Experiment in Online DIY Cooking Demos

Dinner hour approaching. Arrival of guests imminent. Normally at such moments, I’d be furiously flipping through the pages of a grease-stained cookbook. Or attempting to decode chicken scratched recipe notes I took off the Food Network. Tonight, however, a new brand of madness: I’ve got my laptop on the bar, frantically clicking between tabs in an attempt to simultaneously follow three online cooking demos. I’m trying to pause the palak paneer video to see why the host’s masala is brown and mine is still red but my hands are slippery from cooking and sweat and my mouse won’t click. At last it clicks, but it’s the wrong tab and I end up looking at a video for the highly dubious potato salad I’d just put together an hour ago, involving a number of unorthodox ingredients, e.g. pickle juice. Though the host assures me his is the best potato salad recipe in the world, I have my doubts. Apart from the fact that he’s wearing an apron that says World’s Greatest Chef, what credentials does he actually have? I pour myself another glass of wine and pray.

Alright. So perhaps it was a mistake to rely entirely on YouTube cooking show recipes for a summer party. But like any committed food harlot, I’m always on the lookout for new ways of exchanging ideas about cooking. And I was curious, terribly curious, about the growing phenomenon in DIY online cooking demos, which according to Julia Powell in an April 2009 article in Food and Wine Magazine, may well be the new food blog.

{loadposition contentad} Type in the word “cooking” on YouTube and you get over 280,000 hits: a virtual labyrinth of cooking demos, curiosities, and spoofs. It’s all there: from old clips of Julia Child making Steak Diane to anonymous German women soberly sieving spaetzle to instructions on how to make meth. But perhaps the most interesting and exciting phenomenon is the amateur cooking show. Hosts run the gamut from 93-year-old Sicilian great-grandmothers to quirky Korean housewives to a cooking show with a dog for a host. Camera work is often shoddy. Recipes are as random and idiosyncratic as the hosts. Many are questionable. Most are unintentionally hilarious. Certainly, they’re all a welcome departure from the bleached teeth and warring egos of the Food Network. But are they useful? Do they provide a viable alternative to cookbooks and foodie magazines? Could I actually rely on YouTube for good recipes? Would YouTube make my life easier in the kitchen? (Certainly the pause/replay function was tempting.) I decided to try a few recipes from a variety of shows and find out. To up the ante, I’d invite a few friends over to taste the fruits of my labour.

For my first YouTube cooking attempt, I opted to ease my way in. I began with a simple mango ice cream recipe from a popular YouTube show called Show Me the Curry, hosted by Hetal Jannu and Anuja Balasubramanian, two smiling Indian women from Frisco, Texas. Given that the recipe called for only three ingredients, offered precise quantities and involved no complicated machinery, it was a breeze to follow. So simple that I could actually follow the recipe along with the women on the video, a novelty I quite enjoyed. And I loved the pause/replay function. Of course, I had my reservations ingredients-wise (cool whip, mango pulp and condensed milk?). But three hours later, I had a bona fide dessert that closely resembled the one in the video. A little cloying in its sweetness, but palatable and perfect for summer. And it was easy. I was hooked and ready for more.

Making popular YouTube cooking personality DedeMed’s “BEST HUMMUS RECIPE!!!” was a disappointment. I thought for sure I’d struck YouTube gold by finding what, according to Dede, is the, “Most Popular and Talked About Hummus Recipe on the Internet J.” I quickly learned that such declarations on YouTube, particularly when expressed in caps, and ensconced in smiley faces and exclamation marks, don’t mean much. Though I found I could follow this recipe fairly easily (I had to use the pause/playback feature a few times more than was comfortable), when Dede called for mint leaves, yogurt and canned chickpeas, I guessed that the result might be unfortunate. And it was. Despite rave reviews and this demo’s 225,000 hits, I had to remember YouTube, like the entire Internet, is ultimately a gamble.

 


 

Of course, sometimes a gamble pays off. My attempt, for instance, at a potato salad recipe from a rotund North Carolina man whose only credentials were an apron that said World’s Greatest Chef. Dave of DaveCanCook never offers quantities for what he claims is the best potato salad recipe in the world. Nor does he specify the type of potatoes. And I had to freeze-frame and count the eggs in Dave’s pot in order to know the correct amount. His ingredients, too, were highly questionable: Pickle juice? Raw white onion? French’s mustard? And then there was his method: combine potatoes with sauce when both are fridge cold? Really? Really. All the way through, I had my reservations. I winced and cursed at every turn. But the end result, I must say, was good. Truly good. And easy. The confidence I’d lost after the hummus incident had been restored.

It was going well. Thus far, apart from having to pause/replay more times than I wanted to, I’d had little stress following along with the videos even as I was cooking. Then I tried to make a number of main dishes at once.

Now I’ve always felt that there has been a rather unforgiveable dearth of Indian food cooking on the Food Network. And the thing is, it really is the sort of food where I, for one, would greatly benefit from a little visual instruction. So I thought, why not take advantage of the vast number of Indian cooking demos on YouTube?

I’ll admit I may have been too ambitious. And perhaps, in my flustered state, I didn’t follow the instructions to the T. All I know is the disaster that ensued when I attempted to make naan (Manjula’s kitchen), Palak Paneer (Show me the Curry) and Spicy Chicken Scandal (Show me the Curry) was a wine-soaked blur at best. One hour later, my laptop was speckled with flour and turmeric. I was flipping between tabs, hurling obscenities at the “Show me the Curry” women whom I had praised earlier and cursing Manjula for not specifying one’s need for a baking stone before she started. I was desperately trying (and failing) to get my wet hands to work the mouse, and in the process, burning both my masalas. The results: a perfumy, burnt spinach. Tough kidney-shaped dinner rolls. And a pot of over-cooked chicken swimming in a watery brown sludge. None of my dishes looked anywhere close to the finished products I had glimpsed on the screen. Maybe it was YouTube’s fault. Maybe it was mine. The truth, I think, was somewhere in between.

With my guests on their way, I needed a drink. I had sworn to rely entirely on YouTube for all recipes, including cocktails — a vow that, at this point, I deeply regretted. Thank heaven, aside from one clip of a soused British man drunkenly demonstrating how to muddle mint and lime in a zombie glass with a shoehorn, the majority of mojito videos I saw were easy to follow and the results were successful.

 


 

The best thing about relying on YouTube for cooking instruction is that if a dish does fall flat, you can always blame it on the medium. “Not bad, you know, for a YouTube recipe,” became my mantra throughout the evening whenever I saw someone about to sample the ill-fated Indian dishes — an evening wherein people mainly drank, ate potato salad and complimented the ice cream. Friends, thank heaven, are forgiving.

As I write this on a spice-splattered laptop — exhausted, frustrated, hung over and swearing I’ll never cook again (my usual post-party declaration) — I have no regrets regarding my experiment. The Internet is, after all, a grab bag, a hodge-podge of the good, the bad the ugly and the online DIY cooking demo is no exception. And that’s the beauty of it. Though the recipes aren’t always top-notch, the idiosyncratic hosts are always fun to watch. Offering an element of the unexpected and the homespun that’s decidedly lacking in the Food Network. Though 93-year-old YouTube cooking star Clara Cannuciari isn’t the easiest cook to follow, simply watching this Sicilian great-grandmother cook and talk about her experiences during the great depression is fascinating. And therein lies the pickle: the most watchable and endearing YouTube cooking shows are often the least useful to the pragmatic cook. (You simply must see Cooking with Dog).

Not that there aren’t some practical benefits. The pause/replay feature is a blessing to the flustered cook. The brilliant thing about YouTube is that many of the people who post demos actually read and respond to viewer commentary and questions. So the recipe is constantly evolving, gathering new dimension and clarity, as more people watch it. This collaborative, free-for-all aspect of YouTube is perhaps its best feature.

Would I use it again? Probably. Sure, I had failures and frustrations, but I’ve had just as many in the kitchen following cookbooks or Food Network recipes. When it comes to replicating a dish — from a cookbook or otherwise — your success will largely depend on your intuition and your ability to make something your own. If I’d taken a little more time to study the recipes, no doubt I would have been more successful. One thing, however: I’ll never ever bring my laptop into the kitchen with me again. Next time, I’ll just take notes.

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