This Was the Decade We All Became Home Chefs. We Have the Internet to Thank for That.

An era when simple, unfussy recipes reigned.

Mother Jones Illustration

On New Year’s Eve in 2009, I found myself hunched over a food mill, a kitchen contraption that’s part-strainer, part-masher, and used to turn soft food solids into a liquid. I was on Step 14 of (what felt like 14,000 steps of) a French short rib recipe, inspired by a brief Julia Child revival brought on by Nora Ephron’s 2009 movie, Julie & Julia

The food mill can be a testy tool, especially in the hands of an amateur home cook like me. As I shoved carrots, potatoes, and celery remains into the mesh basket, juice splattered everywhere, the food mill jammed, and what emerged had the unappetizing texture of half-digested stew. I don’t think I even served the glop that was supposed to have been a finely sieved sauce with our meal.

Ten years later, the food mill still has its place. Bon Appétit even recommended using one for its Thanksgiving mashed potato recipe this year. But this time around, the mill wasn’t a required step—and the chefs recommending it admitted to their own struggles with the tool. Carla Lalli Music, Bon Appétit’s food director, filmed herself futzing with a less-than-ideal food mill and complaining to her fellow test kitchen chef, Molly Baz, about how annoying her appliance was. “Do you think the faster you go, the harder they work, or is that not how it goes?” Baz said, laughing at her co-host. When I watched it all these years later, I felt relieved—even the pros have a hard time with this!

The way we cook and feed ourselves has changed a lot over the past decade. After a downward turn at the end of the 20th century, home cooking is on the rise, particularly among college-educated men and, to a lesser extent, women. The chefs we’ve deemed our culinary heroes are those who have championed simple recipes with high-quality ingredients who deliver those recipes with a relatable flair. People who would never have considered themselves home cooks in the aughts are now posting photos of their most recent homemade sourdough loaf to Instagram. For much of this, we have the internet to thank.

Where was home cooking at the dawn of this decade? Kristen Miglore, creative director of Food52, recalls an obsession with smoked paprika. Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat author Samin Nosrat remembers the rapid rise of the “sustainable butcher,” whose storefronts in the Bay Area, Nosrat reports, have mostly closed. But the heaviest influence came from a restaurant renaissance ignited in the mid-aughts, then swept across nearly every midsize American city, transforming low-rent neighborhoods into culinary destinations. As writer Kevin Alexander details in his 2019 book, Burn the Ice, a new generation of chefs emerged in that era, delivering deceptively technical dishes. Picture the early days of New York chef David Chang’s Momofuku empire: Diners, perched on hard stools and under shabby lighting, slurped noodles from a complex broth that had taken Chang several days to make.

“A lot of what we were trying to do in those early years was to capture the genius, the technical know-how, and the ingredient inspiration we were getting from eating out and figure out how to make it home-cook friendly,” Bon Appétit’s Music says. “The catch, though, is that it was almost impossible to do that.”

Over the last 10 years, Bon Appétit has moved away from the professional chef–centered spreads and hewed more closely to what Music describes as “home cooks, making recipes accessible for other home cooks.” The attempts to replicate restaurant recipes have been replaced with an homage to their flavors. Instead of asking a supermarket butcher to slice up a bunch of marrow bones to imitate Chang’s ramen broth, for example, a recipe might ask the home chef to add some of the dish’s signature spices, like star anise and coriander, to a store-bought chicken broth—in other words, tap into the flavor profile with ingredients available at local grocery stores and the appliances found in most home kitchens. Music points to a 2014 summer recipe series she did with New York chef Carlo Mirarchi as an embodiment of the trend: only a few seasonal ingredients, a good knife, and a grill were required.

In the second half of the decade, Bon Appétit began pairing those simpler recipes with a legion of wildly popular YouTube shows such as Gourmet Makes, in which contributing food editor Claire Saffitz recreates mass-produced favorites like Twinkies, and From the Test Kitchen, where Music and the rest of the BA staff bring the magazine’s recipes to life. The videos demonstrated not only how to make those recipes, but also the humanity of the chefs behind them.

In one memorable episode of From the Test Kitchen, Music repeatedly burns potato buns as she shows how to make one of the magazine’s burger recipes. “It wasn’t like a pointed strategy to do this, but we realized that our audience really liked it when we showed our mistakes,” Music says. “I get a lot of DMs from people saying they feel like we gave them permission to not do it perfectly.” One need look no further than our obsession with The Great British Bake Off and the attendant rise in homemade bread to know that seeing relatable people fail at baking only seems to increase its popularity.

In the final years of the decade, chef and cookbook author Alison Roman channeled that combination of simplicity and relatability into something viral. Her recipes for “The Cookies” and “The Stew”— reliant on that familiar combination of good ingredients and minimal technique—earned their own hashtags as devotees circulated their (mostly successful) attempts across social media. Roman cultivated a massive online following and published two of the decade’s buzziest cookbooks, 2017’s Dining In and 2019’s Nothing Fancy

“People tell me, ‘I didn’t think I could do it, but I trusted you and I did it and it worked,'” Roman says about why her recipes resonate. “And that’s because the recipes work. They look like how they do in the pictures, and that goes a really long way.”

The internet’s influence has not been solely reserved for the pros. If the aughts saw the rise in the food blog, the 2010s perfected it, and websites like Food52 gave a platform to home cooks who wanted to learn from each another. “We’ve seen more and more interest in shorter and more impactful ingredient lists,” Food52’s Kristen Miglore tells me; she counts a 3-ingredient oatmeal cookie with brown sugar and tahini among her favorites.

Of course, dabbling in each of these trends requires time and money. When I asked New York Times food writer Mark Bittman about cooking trends of the decade, he equated the pursuit of home cooking with other hobbies of the monied class, like knitting or hiking. But somehow, as Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat author Nosrat tells me, the internet and its allies—Netflix and YouTube—have invited people who never saw themselves as chefs into the fold. (Netflix turned Nosrat’s 2017 hit cookbook into a four-part miniseries that, again, returned to themes of simplicity.)

“There’s a kind of terrible side where you might look through and see other people posting stuff, receive all this fancy food, and you feel alienated by that, either because you feel like you could never afford that or you could never make that yourself,” Nosrat says. “But I also think for some people, it’s inspiring, and so it is the thing that makes them want to try something.”

Sociologists Joslyn Brenton and Sinikka Elliott, two of the authors of Pressure Cooker: Why Home Cooking Won’t Solve Our Problems and What We Can Do About It, tell me that food blogs have normalized a lot of the pressure families feel in preparing and serving meals for their families.

“We’re bombarded with messages about how important home cooking is,” Elliott says, explaining that much of the rhetoric around DIY cuisine assumes a certain amount of free time and affluence. But the upshot, Brenton adds, is that “one of the trends I see is the mom bloggers who are starting to really call out these high expectations and how unrealistic they are.”

Miglore also found that the narratives about food—where a recipe came from and why it’s important in a cultural sense—has become a key part of the community. “Our audience loves stories that are longer and more personal and reflect a greater diversity of food and life experiences,” Miglore says. Some of the most popular columns on the site are My Family Recipe, a personal essay series written by Food52 members, and Table for One, a column that celebrates cooking and eating alone.

For all of the good the internet has delivered, some of the chefs I spoke with remain fearful that the digital world could subsume cooking, which is “an act of self-care” that gives people permission to take a break from screens, and that—Miglore says—is “as good as any meditation app.”

“[Cooking and eating] certainly have the power to take us out of that imaginary digital world we spend so much of our day in and place us right into a tactile, sensual sort of present moment,” Nosrat says. “Something I really worry about is that’s not going to hold true for people for whom the internet is such a powerful force in their lives.”

Image credits: BonAppetit.com; @alisonroman/Instagram; Simon and Schuster; Getty

FACT:

Mother Jones was founded as a nonprofit in 1976 because we knew corporations and the wealthy wouldn't fund the type of hard-hitting journalism we set out to do.

Today, reader support makes up about two-thirds of our budget, allows us to dig deep on stories that matter, and lets us keep our reporting free for everyone. If you value what you get from Mother Jones, please join us with a tax-deductible donation today so we can keep on doing the type of journalism 2020 demands.

FACT:

Mother Jones was founded as a nonprofit in 1976 because we knew corporations and the wealthy wouldn't fund the type of hard-hitting journalism we set out to do.

Today, reader support makes up about two-thirds of our budget, allows us to dig deep on stories that matter, and lets us keep our reporting free for everyone. If you value what you get from Mother Jones, please join us with a tax-deductible donation today so we can keep on doing the type of journalism 2020 demands.

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our newsletters

Subscribe and we'll send Mother Jones straight to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate

We have a new comment system! We are now using Coral, from Vox Media, for comments on all new articles. We'd love your feedback.