How did you make that dish? It seems like a simple question. But the answer these days is more likely to be “I just Googled it on my phone” than “It’s from grandma’s recipe box.” But are we missing out on something by relying so heavily on the ephemeral?
Millennials, those darlings of the marketing world born roughly between 1982 and 2000, are obsessed with food. They talk about it, Tweet about it, and proudly post photos of their #cookingburns on Instagram. So it’s no surprise to learn that they are more likely than the rest of us to cook with their electronics at hand.
Google (along with mcgarrybowen and Kraft Foods) recently surveyed more than 500 people about their cooking habits. They found that while those of us over 35 are more likely to print out a recipe, 59 percent of 25- to 34-year-olds cook with either their smartphones or tablets handy.
And this reliance goes far beyond simply looking up recipes; it includes searching for ideas on what to cook and tips on how to prep something. This age group is not afraid to download apps and search for videos on the best way to chop an onion or how to seed a pomegranate.
“The tradition of recipe cards and newspapers is really outdated for Millennials,” says Megan Hartman, strategy director at Red Peak Youth, the Millennial brand strategy consulting unit of Red Peak. “Especially since there are so many aggregators,” she says. “There’s no need to keep a collection of cards or their mom[‘s recipes,] because they find answers really quickly on the Internet.”
Successful food companies are meeting Millennials in that space. For example, Kraft was one of the first out with a recipe app, iFood (now in version 4.0), which appeals to the young-adult generation because it has integrated Kraft products and coupons—but not only Kraft products and coupons, explains Hartman.
Rather than reinventing the wheel and creating their own apps for tablets and phones, other popular grocery brands like McCormick and Campbell’s Soup have partnered with existing recipe aggregators, such as Epicurious and food.com, Hartman notes.
Now of course, it’s not only Millenials. “Nearly all cooks these days, both casual and serious, look to the internet for recipes and cooking instruction. The sheer convenience of having countless free recipes (many in fact cribbed from cookbooks) available on your computer, tablet, and mobile phone is hard to compete with,” notes Chris McBride over on Medium in a recent post about how cookbooks should be marching into the Digital Age.
Yet despite this, cookbooks are still among the top-selling books that come out in old-fashioned paper and ink. Cookbooks are a $4-billion-a-year global business, with marketers outside of the U.S. and Europe seeing double-digit increases in sales last year, according to Beijing cookbook fair founder Edward Cointreau.
The truth is, Millennials do buy actual cookbooks, but maybe not to cook from.
“They’re going to the Internet for recipes, but they’re still buying cookbooks for aspirational living,” says Cathy Barrow, a Washington, D.C. food writer, blogger, cooking instructor, and as of last year, author of an honest-to-God cookbook called Mrs. Wheelbarrow’s Practical Pantry.
Barrow, who is not a Millennial, says lots of young people buy her book to learn about home preserving—a skill rarely passed on to them from their parents, who were too busy running them to soccer matches to cook.
She also provides creative recipes for what to do with all those jars of jam.
Millennials now make up the largest group of the U.S. population, and they are the most diverse population group ever, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
That may be why they are so willing to try new foods and new cooking techniques, says Hartman.
But it may also mean they don’t necessarily repeat and perfect recipes the way previous generations did.
While their interest in food is unprecedented, and their willingness to try things is novel, Barrow says when she started touring, she was surprised how many Millennials sought her out to discuss basics, like how to chop garlic.
Can online comment sections, YouTube videos, and Evernote fill in for Grandma’s practiced wisdom on how long to knead bread?
It’s possible, says Barrow. But, there’s no substitute for repetition. As she points out, The New York Times’ national editor and food guru Sam Sifton said recently in an article extolling the virtues of making homemade béarnaise sauce: “Cooking is—or ought to be—a practice, no different from yoga, video games or playing the piano.”
So maybe it’s time to say goodbye to the binders full of tattered and faded yellow scraps of newspaper recipe clippings I’ve held on to and cooked from and annotated all these years, but I’m not quite ready.
I keep my iPad on the kitchen counter now, though, just in case I need to Google how to make béarnaise.
April Fulton is not a Millennial, but finds them fascinating. She cooks a lot and is the senior blogger at The Plate. Follow her @fultonhere. Follow The Plate and all of National Geographic’s food coverage @NatGeoFood.