You could say Alison Roman has a knack for developing recipes that will break the internet.
In the fall of 2017, Roman, a food writer, released her first cookbook, Dining In: Highly Cookable Recipes, which included a recipe for chocolate chip cookies with a twist: They were chocolate chunk shortbread cookies with flaky sea salt on top. The cookie recipe was published on Eater and the New York Times and Smitten Kitchen. Soon, you could hardly scroll through your Instagram feed without seeing at least one photo of what had been dubbed #TheCookies from a friend who had made them. Bon Appétit proclaimed that “EVERYONE” was making the cookies.
About a year later, Roman hit viral success again, this time with a spiced chickpea stew with coconut and turmeric published in her column in the New York Times. Once again, the recipe went viral on Instagram and developed its own hashtag, created by fans: #TheStew.
The social media-viral recipe is a relatively new phenomenon, accelerated by the ascension of Instagram. But what is it about certain recipes that make them become so popular that people can simply refer to them as “the stew” and “the cookies” in conversation and others know immediately which recipe they’re talking about? Why did the chickpea stew, specifically, become such a sensation? What is it that made this recipe resonate with so many thousands of social media users?
I talked to Roman and other food writers and recipe developers to try to answer those questions. There’s a confluence of factors at play. Roman’s easy recipes resonate with millennials and young adults, many of whom are starting to cook at home more; some are even learning to cook for the first time. At the same time, Instagram has turned cooking into a more social experience. And the recipes this new generation of home cooks wants are simple, accessible, cheap, and restaurant-quality. These viral recipes aren’t just making a splash because they look beautiful and get likes on Instagram — they’re representative of a broader shift toward the Instagram generation spending more time cooking at home.
Millennials’ love of dining at restaurants is well-documented. But home cooking is more cost-effective than eating out, and millennials, who face mounting student loan debt, are forced to be conscious of every dollar. So when they do cook at home, they want to make the type of food they could get at a restaurant — at a much lower cost. A 2017 study found that millennials are changing grocery trends because they prefer fresher, healthier foods and love organic produce.
“I think that people are cooking more because it’s a cheaper form of entertainment almost,” Roman said. “Restaurants are expensive, especially in major cities. Every time I go out, I’m just like, holy shit! I cannot believe how expensive this is … you’re just like, damn, for chicken and a salad and a glass of wine, I just spent $60. But what if you made that chicken at home? You could do all of that for maybe $8 a person!”
Adam Rapoport, the editor-in-chief of Bon Appétit, said his team saw this need for simple, high-quality recipes for a generation of young adults who were learning to cook for the first time. So in 2017, they launched Basically, a new vertical dedicated to easy, educational recipes, with millennials as their target audience.
“There’s this generation of people in their 20s who are incredibly food-knowledgeable, incredibly passionate about food, and they’re going out all the time, they’re following food Instagrammers, they’re sharing their meals on Instagram, but they might not know how to cook,” Rapoport said. “They love to eat, but they might not know how to cook — and our intention was to start a site that teaches them. Because we know they’re engaged online, we have their attention, let’s give them some skills.”
Roman has a huge following on Instagram — 182,000 followers and growing — and her simple, high-quality recipes have particularly struck a chord with this millennial, Instagram-happy generation. But her recipes also appeal to cooks of any age, which is perhaps what helps make them so popular. Sam Sifton, the editor of NYT Cooking, told me, “There is a sort of younger audience flocking to Alison, which is fantastic, and they may in fact be a little less seasoned in the kitchen.” But at the same time, he said, “My mom loves Alison, and my mom is the most experienced cook I know!”
It also happens that as millennials age, they’re staying in more — and documenting it on social media. Media brands like Forever35 and Girls’ Night In have built a social conversation around being a homebody. This is, to be fair, less of a statement about a generation than a natural byproduct of growing up. The 20-somethings who once used to Instagram their eggs Benedict and bottomless mimosas at brunch are now 30-somethings — and they’re sharing the pork shoulder they slow-roasted all day or the lemon pound cake they baked. It’s no surprise that they’ve got the restaurant industry worried — restaurant sales have been declining for the past three years, and a 2017 Merrill Lynch study found that millennials were part of the cause.
Roman, who at 33 is a millennial herself, agrees: “When I was 28, I was out almost every night of the week. I was cooking at home almost never. Maybe I’m old, and now I just want to be home all the time. I think there’s a lot of reasons people choose to stay home and cook; I think it’s money, I think it’s social, I think it’s people feeling exhausted, and I think it’s fun!”
“The recipes that do go viral have to be perceived as cookable,” said Rapoport. “If you look at the cookies or the stew, people see those and they think, oh, I can do that. I can cook that. … That’s imperative, that the recipe seems like something the home cook can make.”
Roman thinks that’s a big factor in why her chickpea stew was such a hit: It requires minimal prep work (chopping an onion, garlic, and some ginger). The key ingredients are two cans of chickpeas and two cans of coconut milk. It has a very short active cooking time; once the initial sautéing is done, you let it simmer for half an hour.
“I think it’s accessibility. Is this ingredient hard to find? Is this technique hard to achieve? Those are questions that I ask myself when I’m writing any recipe.” Roman said.
Samin Nosrat, a cook, writer, and teacher who wrote the popular cookbook Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat and hosts a Netflix show by the same name, told me one of her most popular recipes ever was buttermilk-marinated roast chicken, which requires only three ingredients: a whole chicken, salt, and buttermilk. It’s a three-ingredient recipe that doesn’t require any chopping, sautéing, or prep work. For people who are intimidated by the idea of roasting a chicken, it’s almost impossible to mess up.
“As a recipe writer, you have to think: What is something that is actually achievable? Or if it is more complicated, then the payoff has to be much bigger. It has to be way more attractive, or really exciting-looking,” Nosrat added.
Another key to viral success is ingredients that won’t intimidate the beginner cook. Many newer home cooks, Roman said, are nervous about meat, chicken, and fish, afraid that they’ll under- or overcook it or otherwise mess it up. She said she can tell when a recipe she’s published will not go viral.
“It’s never going to be a fish. It might be a chicken, but probably not.” Her first New York Times column featured a one-skillet chicken thigh recipe with kale, lemon, and white beans, and while some loved it, it still didn’t go viral: “It’s still not going to be as popular because you have people that are afraid to cook chicken, you have vegetarians. … You’re eliminating an audience just by sheer virtue of the fact that it’s chicken.”
Not every recipe will be an internet sensation, and Roman is okay with that. Recently, she worked on a recipe for a whole fish, and she knew it wouldn’t go viral. “I’m not thinking, ‘This is going to take the internet by storm.’ This one is more of an educational thing.”
Those more advanced recipes like that whole fish (which published shortly after Roman and I spoke and, indeed, did not go Instagram-viral) are aimed at the experienced home cook who wants to learn a new skill or technique. “You’re going to have some recipes that are more of a gateway, you’re going to have some recipes that are more educational, you’re going to have recipes that are crowd-pleasers, recipes that are a bit more creative,” Roman said. “They all serve a purpose.”
Chickpeas are pretty fail-proof, though, so cooks of any skill level can try it, she said. “Even if you don’t really know how to cook, you’re probably going to have success with it because there’s nothing to under- or overcook. … It’s a pretty safe recipe.”
Modern home cooking has been, generally, a solo activity. But social media transformed it into a social experience by connecting home cooks to each other: A 2015 Google study found that 59 percent of 25- to 34-year-olds bring their smartphone or tablet with them into the kitchen when they cook. Social media helps home cooks find a community, cooking and discussing the same recipes together.
Instagram is a key place for millennials to find recipe ideas as well. The Google study also found that 31 percent of millennials say choosing what to cook was the least enjoyable part of the cooking process. If you see a recipe on Instagram because your friend was cooking it, that solves the what-to-cook dilemma for you.
Recipe writers play a role in this social media ecosystem, too, and no one is better at it than Roman. “She works relentlessly hard at her social media and is really, really good at it, and has been from day one,” said Rapoport, who worked with Roman when she was at Bon Appétit earlier in her career. “She’s really creative about how she does her social; she answers everyone who makes her dishes, she tags them. It’s a lot of hard work. … That is an integral part of who she is as a recipe developer and a writer.”
Every time Roman publishes a new recipe, she shares it in her Instagram Stories with her now-182,000 followers. When the cookies first debuted, people who made them shared their photos on Instagram, tagging Roman. She began reposting their cookie photos to her Instagram Stories and tagging the users, thus highlighting these members of her audience.
The effect was twofold: One, it rewarded her audience and made other Instagram users want to post their photos so Roman would feature them. And two, watching the nonstop parade of user-generated cookie photos in Roman’s Instagram stories made it look like everyone was making these cookies, which in turn inspired more new home cooks to try the recipe themselves. The cookies first started getting social media buzz organically, but it was Roman’s savvy use of social media that pushed the conversation even further and helped to almost create a viral cycle — it kept people talking about the recipe.
“It comes back to the inherent concept of social media; the operative word there is social. You want to be able to connect with other users,” said Rapoport. “If you’re sharing their photos and their text and giving them a shoutout, that’s going to resonate. And the more you share, the more people are going to cook, and they want to be shared. It’s that interaction which fuels her success.”
One thing that’s inevitable with internet fame is backlash: “There was some contention around the cookies,” Roman said. “People were like, is this better? Is it worth it? People were kind of mad about the cookies! So I think a lot of people made it because it was a social conversation: People wanted to weigh in on whether or not they thought it was better, and try it for themselves, go up against other cookies — it was a whole thing.”
The stew, too, became so ubiquitous that it sparked backlash: A writer at Slate questioned if it was “actually that good,” suggesting that home cooks could improve the recipe by adding their own twists, and Roman responded in her Instagram Stories. But what the backlash really did was extend the life of the social conversation around the stew: The more people hear about it, the more they want to try the recipe so they can see what the fuss is about, and weigh in themselves.
Publishers work hard to promote a recipe that starts to go viral, too: When the chickpea stew, published in the New York Times, started taking off, Sifton said his team recognized the recipe’s potential and tried to keep promoting the recipe to reach more Times readers. “You can never predict what’s going to go viral,” he told me. “We just reap the rewards of it doing so, and try as much as possible to keep it up in the air and going and in front of as many people as we can get it in front of, because it is resonating.”
Aesthetics also likely played a role in the viral success of the cookies. They’re not the easiest to make; the recipe takes more steps than your average chocolate chip cookie: chilling the dough, rolling it into a log, coating it with an egg wash and Demerara sugar. But if you’re willing to put in an afternoon of effort, it pays off — the result is a pan full of cookies that are simultaneously delicious and highly Instagrammable, studded with giant chocolate chunks and flakes of Maldon sea salt.
What all this boils down to: Millennials love food, but they also love staying in and want to save money, so they’re cooking more — and then they’re documenting their creations on Instagram. By sharing on social media and spreading recipes to their friends, they help get the viral snowball rolling. But ease, healthfulness, quality ingredients, and taste are still of utmost importance in a recipe, and the most viral recipes are likely to have some combination of those elements.
So what do these viral recipe trends say about how we want to cook in 2019?
“I think people are just attracted to food that tastes good and looks beautiful, and is something they can be proud of and feel good about eating,” Roman said.
“People want simple food, and they want something that makes them feel good, emotionally, like they achieved something, as well as health-wise,” said Nosrat.
“I love the fact that recipes that people actually cook are going viral, as opposed to rainbow unicorn confetti cake,” Rapoport joked. He added, “This isn’t just eye candy — this is actual food, and people are making these dishes, and I think that’s amazing.”
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