By nature, humans are planners and dreamers. We compartmentalize the information we take in, what we see, hear, and feel, and compare and categorize it. It seems only natural that we look at what we don’t have and wish for it; that “the grass is always greener.” It is this sense of aspiration and the escape from reality that draws me most to food GIFs. I look forward to my few minutes before bed spent watching skilled experts prepare dishes that I don’t have the time or energy to create. I let myself believe, if only for a few moments, that someday I might actually expertly braid a chocolate swirl babka or execute the perfect mirror glaze on a multi-tier cake. I am lulled into false sense of ease and confidence in my own cooking and baking abilities and I feel almost superhuman.
My fascination with food GIFs began one summer while I was visiting my younger sister and her boyfriend in New York City. It was one of my first nights there and we had ventured out into a summer deluge to go to a hip ramen place. (I should mention that my sister and her boyfriend are foodies and we had been working our way through NYC one acclaimed restaurant at a time.) The plan had been to walk to ice cream after, but the rain made that option much less appealing. We needed a plan B, so we decided we would order the ice cream when we got home and have it delivered. As we waited for the ice cream man, we sat on the inflatable mattress that filled their entire living room, and my sister scrolled through her Pinterest account. Sped-up videos of food preparation flew across her screen. This was a foreign concept to me; I had to know what this was! She explained to me that they were “food GIFs” and that she liked to watch them at night before bed. “Haven’t you seen the mirror glaze videos?” she asked me. No, I hadn’t. Naturally, she pulled one up on her phone. I was mesmerized by the elegance with which the baker glazed this cake, but the best part was that there were so many more GIFs to be seen! We clicked from one video to the next, making our way into a GIF-watching black hole. By the time the ice cream man arrived, my mouth was watering and I was hooked. As I watched more and more videos, these GIFs worked their way into my daily routine.
In fact, as my husband and I were discussing the cake for this article, made from a recipe in a GIF (with a soft g, like a j), my husband interrupted my description. “You mean, GIF,” he interjected, emphasizing the hard g. Friends, this was no question; this was a statement of fact. He had thrown down the gauntlet, and being a first grade teacher, I was certain that my phonics-based pronunciation was correct. We both picked up our phones to wiki-deliberate. As I delved into the web, I discovered that this was not only a source of contention in my household, but worldwide. The pronunciation of the three letter abbreviation for a Graphics Interchange Format has caused much debate. Even the creator of the file format, Steve Wilhite, has been questioned and ridiculed for his pronunciation which uses a soft g, like the peanut butter. However, opponents argue that it is not pronounced a “Jraphics” Interchange Format and therefore the abbreviation should not have a soft g either. Apparently zealots on both side of this argument have been fighting for the cause since the GIF’s creation in 1987 and there is no sign that an end is in sight. Instead, Oxford English Dictionary remains neutral, stating that both pronunciations are acceptable. So, while my argument with my husband was not completely quelled, at least I was in good company.
I read on, collecting more information about food GIFs. As I mentioned above, GIF stands for Graphics Interchange Format and is a type of file, like PDF. Because they are a file format, they can be graphics of different things; the GIFs I watch are short, sped up videos of food being prepared. You can expect that almost any food GIF will: open with a quick shot of the finished product and cut to dicing, chopping, chiffonading, being sure to skip the less than engaging steps like dishwashing; give you a split second to see each ingredient being added; be filmed with a birds eye view, looking down on the induction burner, stand mixer or blender with which the meal will be prepared; and end with a cheeky little show of forks and spoons diving into the dish. These GIFs have become wildly popular with several different companies. Tasty, owned by BuzzFeed, Tastemade, and Food Network are the three GIF makers that I watch the most consistently. The food GIF business is getting so big, though, that individual bakers and chefs have ventured out on their own, starting their own Instagram accounts with videos of them baking and cooking. A food GIF is essentially a suped up, stripped down cooking show—our world moves so fast, who has time to listen to the host of the show or even watch a whole half-hour episode? There is no need to wonder anymore; all you need to do is watch a food GIF.
The first recipe that inspired me to recreate a food Gif was the Tasty The Ultimate Chocolate Cake GIF. Full disclosure, I have done a lot of baking, but never made anything that claimed to be the “ultimate.” I’m not sure if I had impossibly high or extremely low standards because of this, but either way, I was determined to find out whether or not a recipe from a GIF would live up to the hype.
After putting it off for a few weeks, I finally chose to buckle down and make this daunting, 16 ingredient recipe. It was 5:00 pm on a Tuesday and I was feeling ambitious, so I headed to the neighborhood market to buy what seemed to me like specialty ingredients for a chocolate cake. As I dashed around the store, one thing became very clear: it was going to be a late night of cake baking.
It was 10:00 pm when I started baking and I was not pleased with the number of times I had to pause and rewind the GIF to follow the recipe. This was the first lesson I learned while making this cake: when watching a Tasty food GIF, click on the link that says “Make It.” It will take you to the Tasty website where the instructions are actually written out. I wish I would have known this; it would have saved me 45 minutes of mixing, playing, rewinding, playing, adding an ingredient, mixing. Alas, I did not, so I continued on with my tedious process. Sixteen ingredients later, I was finally done mixing; flour and powdered sugar were all over the counter, I was left with half a chocolate stout that neither me nor my husband was going to drink, and I still had to wait another 35 minutes for the cakes to come out of the oven! This is when I decided that this was likely not a recipe I would make again, regardless of how good it turned out. Sixteen ingredients seemed an absurd amount to me, so while the cakes baked, I did some research.
I flipped through ten or twelve of my baking books looking at all the different recipes for chocolate cake, counting the number of ingredients. When I averaged them out, most recipes called for about ten ingredients, many of them much more commonplace than chocolate stout beer. I also began to notice that I was reading these recipes very differently than I had approached the GIF recipe. I was looking at these recipes from a bigger picture view. This hadn’t been possible when cooking from the GIF recipe because of the video format: I could only see what was on the screen in that second; I couldn’t look at the list of ingredients in one fell swoop. This was the biggest difference. When using the GIF to make the cake, I didn’t know there was an option to see the full list of ingredients. It seemed to take ten times as long to get the list of ingredients from a video than from a written list.
Another missing piece was the description of exactly what I was looking for in each step. Traditional recipes have certain benchmarks that are added into the directions. Details like, “cream the butter and sugar until pale in color and fluffy, about 2 minutes,” were missing. I found myself using my schema of cake-baking to fill in the gaps while making the GIF recipe; there was no amount of time given for each step of mixing both cake and frosting. As an experienced baker, I know that it is important not to overmix the batter or it will develop too much gluten and your mixture will become thick and gummy while your cake becomes dense.
While I pondered the usefulness and practicality of GIF recipes, I started to think about my classroom of students and their learning styles. As a teacher, it is important to act out or model what we are about to do so that kids, especially those who learn visually, can see what they are expected to do rather than just hearing the directions. Maybe these recipes do have a place, they could be very useful accompaniments to standard written recipes. I thought about the times that I have looked up a Youtube video of how to do something when there wasn’t a clear description in the directions I was reading, from baking and knitting to housework.
At 5:00 pm the next evening, having let the cakes cool overnight for easier assembly, I ventured back into the world of cake-making. I had let it slip to some friends that I was baking this cake and had been asked to bring it to a dinner party that night. With not much time to spare, I figured I would quickly get the cakes out of their pans, whip up the chocolate buttercream, and frost the cake as beautifully as the baker in the GIF. Instead, my cake turned into a Pinterest fail . . . The cakes stuck to the pans and came out with uneven edges. On top of that, one of the layers was so moist that it broke in half. I quickly glued it back together with buttercream, which whipped up nicely at first but was so impossibly thick that it began to tear away at the cake, leaving even bigger holes. When I finally got all of the layers stacked, it looked like a naked cake created by the loser of Kids Baking Champion . . . on the first week. I didn’t even bother trying to frost the outside. This was the old-, overweight-, wrinkly-dude-at-the-beach of naked cakes. It was most certainly not a looker, but was it a taster?
Fast forward a few hours to the dinner party . . . When dessert came around, the consensus was that the crumb of the cake was good, very tender; I had not overmixed despite the lack of instructions in the video. The flavor was excellently chocolatey and it was a very moist cake. However, the buttercream, which had crusted over while waiting to be eaten, was too thick and sweet and it coated the mouth almost like a thick peanut butter. Guests had eaten the cake from in between the layers of frosting, leaving an empty E shape of brown frosting matter on their plates.
Ultimately, the cake was delicious, so I couldn’t claim that this recipe was completely bunk, but I still had some reservations about recommending this GIF. So while I would suggest this recipe on flavor alone, there are a few caveats. The first is that it does call for a lot of ingredients; if you are looking for a quick cake to whip up in under and hour, this is not the one. However, if you have some time on your hands and have the ingredients in stock, go for it! You won’t be disappointed in the taste department. The second piece of advice I would give is that the crumb is too fine and the cake too moist for this to be a stacking cake. Should you make this recipe, go with a single-layer, two at the most. Trust me, it might not be as tall, but it will look a lot neater and won’t be as likely to crack. Third, definitely choose a different frosting recipe to top this cake. (Or don’t even use a frosting at all, the cake is certainly moist enough!) The consistency of the frosting in this GIF stands directly opposed to that of the cake: the frosting is thick and gummy while the cake is light and fluffy. In my opinion, frostings should also be fluffy, especially on such a delicate cake. The fourth conclusion I came to summed up my thoughts on the most pragmatic approach to using GIFs: when recreating a recipe from a Tasty GIF, click on the “Make It” link. Your life will be so much easier. The only reasons I could find to continually watch the video are: one, if you are looking to see how something in the recipe is done, like alternating wet and dry ingredients for example, and two, if you have a freakishly accurate visual memory and can retain all of the information presented in the video after just one or two views.
Finally: watching a GIF is just that. You are watching someone else, who is likely a professional, make something. It appears simple and effortless when the person executing the recipe has a plethora of experience. But baking this cake as a novice or even a semi-seasoned baker is not as advertised in the video. It takes much longer than the three and a half minutes it takes for the video to play. Be prepared for your end product to bare no resemblance to the cake in the video.
Food GIFs are excellent escapes from reality, but not much more; they do not show a realistic presentation of cooking, especially cake-baking. Anyone can appear to make a cake with ease if they have multiple chances and shots to mix in ingredients without creating an explosion of flour all over the counter. In reality, however, most people aren’t creating multiple batches of the same recipe and they don’t have the time to repeat a step until it is completed with 100% accuracy and grace. Regular people, like you and me, will likely never live up to the idealist presentation of a recipe in a food GIF. We are bound to compare our product with this unreal standard we have seen in a video and our real version can’t compete with a fantasy. Food GIFs are fun to watch and no doubt entertaining, but they should not be mistaken for an accurate portrayal of baking or cooking in real life. So don’t count GIFs out; they hold their entertainment value. But resist the urge to consider them a measure of success when you recreate the recipe.