Bowls and hands; hands and bowls. Hands lovingly molding ground beef into a meatball, or lining bacon (always bacon!) into the wells of a muffin tin, or smashing graham crackers in a bag for a s’mores-inspired crust. And hands, pulling apart that cheesy spinach dip mozzarella stick for the oozy money shot. The recipe videos are labeled “literally the best thing ever,” “too damn good,” and “amazing as life.” And they are (literally?) all over your Facebook feed.
They come from BuzzFeed Tasty and a cadre of also-rans: TipHero, 12 Tomatoes, LittleThings, Cooking Panda, and Get in My Belly, among others. And, increasingly, they’re coming from more established food media brands, like Bon Appetit, Saveur, Food & Wine, and — yep — The Washington Post. They’re quietly mesmerizing, and perfect for mobile. It’s like watching a trailer for your dinner.
And as you watch more of them, trends emerge. The videos, all shot from directly overhead, alternate between fast and slow motion, never show more than the cook’s hands, and annotate each step in bold typography. They use jangly, royalty-free music, but work just as well without sound. They typically last only a minute or less, to capture fickle attention spans — and to take advantage of Facebook’s autoplay setting.
They feature approachable weeknight recipes, are light on technique and number of ingredients, and thereby heavy on processed foods. Premade pizza dough, frozen tater tots and canned crescent rolls make frequent appearances. Foods are stuffed inside other foods, then frequently described as a “bomb.” Cheese is a major player. There is healthful food, but many of the popular recipes appeal to our nostalgia for childhood comforts, with variations on mac and cheese, brownies, pizza and tacos. There are crazy mash-ups like pierogi lasagna, mozzarella stick waffles, and cinnamon roll apple pie. Not to mention straight-up junk food, like — shudder — Peeps grilled cheese. And don’t forget the rainbow sprinkles.
In the case of the Tasty videos, they all end with the phrase “Ohhh yesss.” That came out of a shoot where one producer was trying to get the perfect shot of an egg dish. “The yolk is pierced, it dribbles down, he couldn’t help himself and he said, ‘Ohhh yesss,’” said Andrew Gauthier, executive producer for BuzzFeed Motion Pictures. “We started adding it as a joke, internally. But then we decided, that’s the perfect principle for us.”
The formula has become such a fixture on social media that it is ripe for parody. Forbes shot a recipe-style video for a feature, “How Do You Make a Billionaire?” that featured all kind of non-edibles such as underpants and electrical wiring being lovingly stirred in a bowl with a wooden spoon. (The Washington Post itself becomes an ingredient in one segment about its owner, Jeff Bezos.) Clickhole, the Onion’s parody of BuzzFeed, cooked up a recipe video for “Warm Egg Near Blue Square,” which requires cooks to, among other steps, place an egg in their grandfather’s mouth, soak a baguette in “room temperature spider water” for three months (“No moonlight,” the video helpfully points out), and “Turn egg towards Jerusalem while coughing.”
And recently, on April Fool’s Day, James Beard Award-winning website Food52 tackled the ubiquity of these videos with its own demonstration of Tasty’s Bacon Chicken Guacamole Bombs. “I don’t even know what bombs are!” narrates Kristen Miglore. “Scoop out some avocados, smash it with some stuff.”
Miglore, Food52’s creative director, is fascinated and a little weirded out by what she calls “junk food Mad Libs” in these videos: “They could take a bunch of Post-It notes and write down everyone’s favorite junk food, and move them around on a white board, and there you have your content strategy.”
As an example, she pointed to a BuzzFeed Tasty cheese-stuffed burger dog, which is made by rolling ground beef around a stick of cheddar cheese. “There is no improvement on a hamburger by just making it in the shape of a hot dog,” she said. “It’s very strange to watch.”
At the same time, Miglore admits to being “a little envious” when she first saw a Tasty video. “I loved that you could see every single step of the recipe so fast. It was democratizing, in a way, to see the entire cooking process from start to finish, as opposed to a stand-and-stir TV show.”
Gauthier won’t call it a formula, but there’s an undeniable template to the videos that’s easy to emulate. Get in My Belly launched in November with Tasty-esque Facebook videos, led by Brandon Cotter, a digital entrepreneur in Dallas with an interest in food. His producers use recipes they find elsewhere on the Web, or source from family and friends. The page is still growing, with nearly 650,000 likes on Facebook, and its most popular recipe to date has been a S’mores brownie.
“Our focus is, we’re just like you,” said Cotter. “We’re going to help you learn to make some things that are so easy, you don’t need a chef to help you learn.”
But that also means new recipe videos, even from established brands, might give you a creeping sense of deja vu. “No one’s going to remember where it came from if it looks like all the other videos on their Facebook feed,” Miglore said. “It just becomes harder and harder to have something distinct take off.”
And when these videos take off, they really take off. Tasty’s most-viewed recipe, for mozzarella-stuffed slow-cooker meatballs, has been viewed 154 million times. Its Facebook page has nearly 50 million likes, and Tasty’s brand saw a 30 percent increase in engagement in March, reports SocialTimes. (Tasty is one of three recipe video makers to land on the month’s top 10 list.) And BuzzFeed has launched four international Tasty sites as well as a sub-brand, Tasty Jr., which features kid-friendly recipes for families to cook together. There’s also a vertical called Nifty, which replicates the formula with DIY arts and crafts.
Have we hit peak hands-and-bowls? “Even if there are SO MANY recipes on the Internet now that it’s hard to know where to start, I think people will always want recipes,” Emily Fleischaker, former creative director of BuzzFeed’s lifestyle team, said in an email. That doesn’t mean the video style of the moment won’t change. “There could be something new with more mixed media, more inspired by the Snapchat behaviors of drawing on photos and incorporating emoji and stickers and stuff.” Tastemade is one site that’s expanding the genre into short, quirky, beautifully-filmed shows.
Likes and shares are one thing. Do the videos actually get anybody to cook? The Tasty folks say yes. “People uploading images of themselves in the comments [section of a recipe] saying they made it is really important,” said Gauthier. Tasty staffers feel gratified when they “look in the comments and people say things like, ‘I’ve never been interested in cooking before, and now I am.’”
To Miglore, that’s the real magic. Even though she misses seeing actual personalities in front of the camera, and even if the videos now border on cliches, they are showing people, at a glance, that cooking something isn’t all that difficult or time-consuming. Even if it is a cheese-stuffed pizza pretzel, or a chicken Dorito casserole, or a chicken bacon guacamole bomb. Which, Miglore admitted, “actually tasted pretty good.”