'It cuts out the faff': young people turn to TikTok for cooking tips

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Anna Spearing started baking when she was about eight or nine, making ginger biscuits in the family kitchen in Southampton and watching endless YouTube videos full of “really yummy ingredients”, in a period she refers to as “the simpler times”.

Now 15, she is still baking, though the recipes have become more diverse, and the videos snappier and much shorter. Having discovered TikTok, the social video-sharing platform used by all her friends, she now frequently cooks dishes based on its 60-second viral videos, soundtracked by earworm songs and edited at rat-a-tat speed.

Lockdown has sent her interest in cooking into overdrive, she says, “because it’s one of the only things left to do. [When her school was open] I barely cooked at all. Whereas now I cook supper twice a week, and I’ll bake two or three times a week, which I never would have been able to do before. I mean, it’s one of the things that brings joy nowadays.”

A one-pot tomato and feta pasta sauce that went viral on TikTok earlier this year.
A one-pot tomato and feta pasta sauce that went viral on TikTok earlier this year. Photograph: @feelgoodfoodie/TikTok

Among all the disadvantages heaped upon young people through this pandemic, many have discovered at least one unexpected blessing: a new interest in cookery sparked, in many cases, by TikTok.

Precise figures on the phenomenon are difficult to quantify, but the social network, which is still dominated by its Chinese audience and claims more than 1 billion active monthly users worldwide, has soared in popularity in the UK particularly over the past year, where it is downloaded more than a million times a month and is expected to reach 10 million users by the end of 2021. The largest group of these are aged 18-24, but many are much younger.

Highly addictive to its fans, and frequently baffling to those new to the platform, TikTok is based around short, jumpy videos which can be watched and shared, and thrives on viral memes. While dance and music trends tend to predominate, countless thousands of food videos are uploaded weekly, churned by its algorithm and served again and again to users who show any interest in the topic.

“It’s really easy to get sucked into it,” says 17-year-old Lois Turkington from Belfast, who also uses Snapchat and Instagram to chat to her friends, but for the long months stuck indoors has mostly relied on TikTok. “You’ll click on one link and then half an hour later, you’re still on it.”

She has also found herself turning to TikTok recipes for lunches and snacks, particularly while negotiating with her parents and siblings who are also using their kitchen. “They just cut out a lot of the faff, there aren’t all the extra bits. It just says, add this, add that, stick it in the oven. Instead of all the details that a recipe will go into.”

Iced Dalgona coffee, a fluffy whipped coffee that shot to popularity on the app.
Iced Dalgona coffee, a fluffy whipped coffee that shot to popularity on the app. Photograph: Jennifer Gauld/Getty Images/iStockphoto

As cooking has become more popular on the platform, so have some of the dishes, which often do particularly well if labelled as an ingenious “hack” or shortcut. A simple recipe for whipped, Korean-style coffee shot to instant popularity last year; more recent favourites on the platform have included an inventive way to fold a tortilla and a one-pot pasta sauce based on tomatoes and feta cheese.

One spectacular beneficiary of the surge of interest in cookery on the platform is Poppy O’Toole, who this time last year was a busy, Michelin-trained London chef with only a passing knowledge of TikTok. After losing her job due to lockdown, the 27-year-old “felt a bit lost”, and decided to record a few cookery videos from home to upload on to the network.

Poppy O’Toole
Poppy O’Toole Photograph: Linda Nylind/The Guardian

A clip on how to recreate McDonald’s hash browns on her feed @poppycooks got some press attention. “And then I did a video of some crispy cube potatoes I was having for dinner, and it got 100,000 views.

“That’s when I began to see what my audience wanted. Something like crispy potatoes – it has just rocketed. And that is how I’ve got to where I am today – because of the humble potato.” What she means is 1.4 million followers and a publishing deal with Bloomsbury for a cook book to be published later this year.

Many of her followers are young people who may have tried out the viral food hacks, but have found themselves falling in love with slightly more challenging cookery, says O’Toole. “Those trends like the [whipped] coffee, they’re good fun. But people need to be able to take away actual skills.

“So here’s a skill set to make it easier for you, and at the end of the day you can say, I made that, and it’s delicious, and show off.”

For siblings Emily and Dominic Bool, 15 and 13, who live with their British family in Zurich, cooking from TikTok is part of daily life; Emily likes making cakes, often basing her decoration on viral tips, while Dominic recently cooked the family steak and chips based on a recipe on the app.

Do they think TikTok has made cooking cool for people their age? “Definitely,” says Dominic. “Because when your parents tell you to cook, it’s kind of, you know … it feels like a big process. But if you are seeing a really pleasant video, it doesn’t seem so bad any more, not like you are being compelled to do it.”

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