A minute is not a lot of time to learn how to cook. That’s how long your typical TikTok user has to make a video — four 15-second clips strung together to get your point across. The point of the platform is the short attention span, the way you can reveal a trick or a joke or, in this case, a complete meal. Click on the #cooking or #recipe hashtags on TikTok, not to mention things like #15secondchef, and there are thousands upon thousands of people bringing you into their kitchens, teaching you how to make whatever they like to eat.
Social media has obviously been conducive to cooking instruction, as well as a way for chefs to promote themselves, find new audiences, and transition from chef to celebrity chef. But TikTok still feels like the wilderness of social media. You can search via hashtag, user, or song (it did start as a music app, after all), and follow users you like, but so much of it feels like wading through the internet’s psyche, and stumbling upon weird and wonderful gems. Because of its ad hoc vibe, this is not necessarily the place to flex your professional filming setup. Instead, it’s for teens to make Flamin’ Hot Cheetos mac & cheese, for parents to make silly videos with their kids, and for some people to make fun of the entire concept of learning to cook from a video on an app.
We’ve spent a lot of time watching TikTok recipe videos (so. many. mug cakes.), and now, a break down of what makes a compelling version:
1. Keep it short.
Jessie Sayhey, a 30-something student and parent living in Arizona, started posting cooking videos when she went back to college. “My heavy school schedule left me with little to no time do make TikTok videos and have fun on the app, so I decided to start filming myself making my family dinner,” she said. “It was simple to me, I had to eat, and I also wanted to play on TikTok.” Now, she has almost 184k fans, and one thing she never wants to do is make them wait. “There are some TikTok cooks out there that will post a series of videos while they make their food and the last video will show you the finished product,” she says, which builds suspense but also can bore people, who have tons of shorter videos available to them. “I want [viewers] to have easy access to my recipes and have the ability to save just one video.”
2. Make it weird.
TikTok is first and foremost for entertainment, and that takes many faces. Since many of the videos are filmed in home kitchens, there’s none of the shine of a professionally shot video. Ingredients are poured from store-brand bags and measured with plastic spoons, all under at-home kitchen lighting. The slick production of the overhead, Tasty-esque recipe videos are best left for YouTube and Instagram.
A lot of TikTok recipe videos have some element of aggressiveness, humor, or sloppiness. Users like Sayhey or @mpgevns use weird voices or throw their ingredients around. Others showcase the warped, overhead lighting of suburban kitchens, the ingredients poured straight from the box or imprecisely scooped out. Some utilize the editing power of TikTok to make them look like stop-motion animation, or to make it look like the chef has waved their hand and a pile of onions has been instantly chopped. One user, Kat Curtis, makes her entire schtick about combining two foods you probably wouldn’t think to combine, like Dorito Avocado Toast, or Takis dipped in mayonnaise. Another made bologna roses in pepper stems. Truly go wild.
3. Pay attention to sound.
Part of what makes those Chinese men cooking in the wilderness so soothing is the sounds of babbling brooks and soft breezes paired with those of meat sizzling in a wok. TikTok grew out of Musical.ly, an app where users could create short lip-sync videos, and using music and sound in the videos is still a huge part of what makes them successful. The tags #ASMRchallenge and #ASMRcooking highlight the sounds of stock poured into a pot, a knife slicing through an apple, or spices popping. There’s even an entire song, “asmr” by user spence, that sets the sounds of cooking to a beat, which has inspired a TikTok dance craze that has barely anything to do with cooking.
Even if ASMR isn’t your thing, adding a good soundtrack to a video instead of your personal narration can help make it more dynamic, especially if you cook to the beat.
4. It doesn’t even need to be very instructional.
“Messing up does well,” says Sayhey. “I’ve burned an entire meal, but the recipe still did really well because the viewers got to see me happily fail, and smile about it.” Lots of recipe videos on TikTok don’t include ingredient amounts or oven temperatures, and some are straight-up parodies of the entire genre.
Still, watching someone else cook, even if you don’t know exactly what they’re doing, can be both entertaining and educational. And according to Sayhey, “TikTok is all about doing things your way,” instead of trying to fit into a preconceived aesthetic. So make something weird or comforting or chopped to the beat of Britney’s “Work Bitch.” There are no rules.