A guest post by Faith Kramer
Like many food writers ordered to shelter in place, I spend my days developing recipes. I’m doing so for my cooking column, which appears every other week in the j, Northern California’s Jewish Resource.
Once the quarantine began, it was time to adapt. Overnight we became a nation, if not a world, that wanted comfort food. Taste was still paramount, but I needed recipes that were emotionally nourishing, easy to source, economical and convenient to make, and still connected to my target audience.
Here are my 5 tips for developing recipes in the age of COVID-19:
1. Watch social media to see what people cook and what resources they turn to for recipes and guidance.
Many Facebook groups, Instagram and Twitter hashtags, Pinterest boards, TikTok videos and YouTube channels have sprung up with a focus on quarantine cooking. Even the comments are helpful.
I try to follow what the home cooks make, rather than the food professionals, so I focus on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. Just a few of the Facebook groups I’ve been following include KitchenQuarantine, Shelter in Place Cooking, and Cooking from Your Pantry. From Twitter and Instagram, I’ve checked the hashtag #quarantinecooking, among others.
I also check Amazon’s list of best-selling cookbooks to see what people want to cook.
2. Embrace new ways to get your recipes to readers.
Google searches for recipes peaked in early April in the U.S. but are still trending high. Take advantage of this unprecedented interest. Many cooks are looking for guidance. If they find a resource they connect with and trust, they seem to become loyal fans almost overnight.
A Facebook group sprung up around The Modern Jewish Baker, by Shannon Sarna. Within weeks it had 1,000 members, many of whom are just buying her cookbook now. Jamie Schler, author of Orange Appeal, created a free ebook, Isolation Baking, which resulted in close to 3000 downloads from Apple Books, plus an unknown additional number of pdf downloads and shares from other sources. Schler says she has seen increased sales of Orange Appeal and support of the French hotel she owns with her husband.
3. Beware the fad recipe.
Earlier during the pandemic, I spent too much time developing recipes for a column based on whipped coffee, a sensation on TikTok that rapidly spread to all forms of social media. By the time the column was in print, the recipes felt like old news. Now I try to spot coming trends rather than established ones, by not only checking social media and cookbook sales, but using tools like Google Trends to confirm hunches or spot new ones.
Both my current and future recipes take advantage of several trends. Inspired by cookbook sales, I’m using beans and other plant-based foods. I’m also working on recipes for for chicken kabobs, a rising trend according to Google. These all are also a good fit with my target audience.
4. Stop cooking with hard-to-get items.
Pay attention to what your target audience may experience in terms of shortages or issues in purchasing and storing fresh ingredients. Note the supply issues faced by cooking group members. Look online to see which virtual shelves are bare.
While grocery supply chains seem to have recovered somewhat, flour and yeast remain hard to find. Some Internet resources for spices and international ingredients have also had supply problems. Random issues also pop up. It took me three grocery deliveries over three weeks to assemble ingredients for a dessert. Stores were sold out of cream cheese.
Fresh produce is also challenging. Even when people can buy a full range of fruits and vegetables, perishability is an issue, since households may only shop once every week or two.
Shoppers who stocked up on bananas were almost immediately impacted, with in a bumper crop of banana bread recipe requests and photo shares. Google Trends shows banana bread peaking in late March, but it’s still a good 20 percent higher than searches before the quarantine.
Sometimes scarcity results in useful trends in recipe development, such as the yeast shortage giving rise to sourdough bread baking. Google Trends still shows a 200 percent increase in searches for sourdough recipes.
I’m reacting to these shortages by calling for cabbage when developing recipes. It stores well for weeks, instead of more perishable greens. I also offer alternatives such as canned items and multiple options for seasoning and spicing.
5. Step out of your comfort food zone.
I’ve seen growing desire from home cooks on social media to learn new cuisines or replicate favorite restaurant foods they miss. This is also shown in Google Trends, as searches have recovered from the deep dip in interest that many international cusines took earlier in the pandemic.
Other cooks are trying out new equipment — airfryers dominate Google searches — or learning new skills beyond challah and sourdough bread making.
What does this all mean for food writers who develop recipes?
My column is based on develping recipes for what is fresh, seasonal, tastes good, and fits into my scope as a Jewish food writer. Now I look at how I can adapt to also give readers recipes that work right now. Looking at trends, social media and cookbook sales doesn’t replace my palate or knowledge. But it adds other considerations to the recipes I write, and I will continue to pursue them as we enter the next phase and beyond.
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Faith Kramer is a freelance food writer, blogger, and recipe developer who writes a cooking column for the j., Northern California’s Jewish Resource. She is based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Contact her at clickblogappetit AT gmail DOT com.
(Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links. Top photo courtesy of unsplash and Pablo Lancaster Jones.)