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A cookbook devotee offers praise for the cooking video

I AM a cookbook obsessive. From a cold start around 20 years ago, when I first started cooking in earnest, I’ve amassed more than 100 books of recipes for cuisines from all over the world, from Armenian to Xian — I’m giving serious thought to ordering a Zanzibari cookbook, not least for alphabetical symmetry.

On my heaving shelves are books that specialize in a single technique, such as grilling; a single appliance, such as the slow cooker; a single animal, like the pig; a specific part of an animal, like bacon; a single fish, such as salmon; even a single condiment, salt. Also on my shelves are books about things most people won’t allow into their kitchen, like organs. And that’s not counting chefs’ autobiographies or books about food culture, food history, and the food business.

Here’s my dirty secret: It’s been at least a couple of years since I last used any of my books to actually cook something. That’s because during the COVID-19 lockdowns, I joined the legions who were turned on to cooking videos.

At the time, I felt a twinge of remorse at abandoning my first culinary love. There was shame, too, of opting for free rather than paid content, a variation of the trend that was destroying my own profession. If longtime devotees like me stopped adding to our collections, I wondered guiltily, might the art of writing cookbooks fade away?

I needn’t have worried. Cookbook sales spiked during the lockdowns as people with lots of time on their hands expanded their gastronomic range from sourdough to progressively more complex culinary experiments. More important, both trends have persisted past the pandemic: Cookbooks are still selling like, um, hotcakes, even as cooking videos are spawning a generation of influencers on TikTok and Instagram. There’s also a crossover both ways: Some influencers have parlayed their newfound fame to secure book rights, and well-established cookbook writers are producing videos on social media platforms to engage and expand their audiences. TikTok phenom B. Dyllan Hollis’ Baking Yesteryear is on course to be this summer’s top cookbook.

For the publishing industry, which seems in perpetual crisis, cookbooks are a rare bright spot. Francis Lam, editor-in-chief at Clarkson Potter, the Penguin Random House division that is a leader in the field, points out that cookbook sales have been climbing for several years, in tandem with the rise of food into the higher echelons of pop culture. “Food has a cachet now that used to belong exclusively to other art forms,” he tells me. “And as the emphasis in food culture grows, all forms of media around it grow too.”

Conceivably, then, cookbooks and videos could combine in a virtuous, mutually sustaining circle.

In some respects, that’s already happening. More and more cookbook writers are using online videos as a research resource. For her James Beard award-winning Feast: Food of the Islamic World, Anissa Helou says she watched four or five videos to refine each of her recipes. “I always cross-reference on YouTube,” she tells me. “It was very much part of my process for Feast.” Although she publishes beautiful photographs of her creations on Instagram, she hasn’t yet produced her own videos but intends to do so for her next book.

Anya von Bremzen, whose latest book is a meditation on national dishes from around the world, says watching cooking videos for 30 minutes is part of her bedtime routine: “I get 90% of my recipes from YouTube.”

When I first started collecting cookbooks, it was to try and catch up with my wife, Bipasha, a brilliant expert of the culinary arts who has been cooking since her early teens. Lacking her well-honed gifts of invention and inspiration, I needed information and instruction. Like many new cooks, I sought the safety net of detailed recipes, down to the specific measures for every ingredient and the number of minutes for every stage of the process.

But from the outset, there were frustrations. Some measurements were simply not specific enough: What is a “pinch” of salt? Some timings were too vague: When do you know your onions have “sweated” enough? Some recipes required cooking tools I’d never heard of: Mellon baller?! And many things were much harder to do than is suggested by the simplicity of the words — “slice onions fine” being only the most egregious example.

Cooking videos have helped allay these anxieties. Watching someone work through a recipe demystifies the process. I now have a pretty good idea when my onions have sweated enough, even if I may never muster the skill to slice them fine.

For a time, I binge-watched TV cooking shows of famous chefs whose books I had enjoyed — at the height of the lockdown in 2020, I gave up two full weeks to Nigella Lawson and Jamie Oliver. Then I discovered YouTube stars, people like Andrew Rea (of the Babish Culinary Universe) and Emily Kim (aka Maangchi), who built a huge following online and, in some instances, followed up their video success with more conventional cookbooks.

As my consumption of cooking videos has evolved, I find myself drawn to YouTube videos of regular people making their favorite dishes. They have not, and may never, acquire online fame or real-world book deals. Their lighting, sound, and editing skills may never be more than rudimentary. But they make up for this in approachability.

There is something profoundly reassuring in someone cooking in a kitchen very much like my own, using tools I have and displaying skills only slightly ahead of mine. I can see when they confront and overcome problems that have confounded me.

When trying something new, I now make a habit of watching five or six videos online, most of them by people I’ve never heard of, before trying my hand at it.

As videos proliferate from the millions to the tens and hundreds of millions, will cookbooks die out? Von Bremzen reckons they won’t. “A cookbook operates in a different cultural space from a video; it appeals to a different part of your brain,” she argues. “Why do people buy so many cookbooks when videos are around? They want a different kind of connection to the same thing.”

The sales figures suggest cookbooks are going to be around awhile yet. Some buyers want them to decorate a shelf or a kitchen. Others want them for inspiration. Many will continue to use them the way I used to: To actually cook from a printed recipe.

But will I ever add to my collection beyond the Zanzibari cookbook? Probably, as much out of habit as anything else. But when the mood takes me, I’m much more likely to reach for the iPad than for my bookshelves. — Bloomberg Opinion

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