Cooking, like cats, is one of the many things that has massively benefited from the internet attached nature of modern life. It’s undoubtedly true that the UK loves to cook, our television channels are filled with endless programmes like Masterchef (the professionals, Australia, USA, junior and regular), Great British Bake Off, Great British Menu, Nigella at her table, Nigel Slater in his garden, Jamie Oliver by the seaside and Rick Stein, as embarks around the planet on some new arbitrarily conceived culinary adventure.

If you take this national culinary obsession and combine it with the internet you get recipes, thousands and thousands of them.

The internet is filled with new, old, different (etc.) recipes, which is a good thing, to some extent. Broadening culinary horizons and encouraging people to cook fresh homemade food is certainly a positive. The internet has the influence of Jamie Oliver’s Ministry of Food to the power of ten (a programme where Jamie went into people’s homes to get them cooking) while having the benefit of being more convenient and accessible. The internet has the potential to complete Oliver’s food and health crusade, while he plows on with cookbooks littered with ever more absurd cooking constraints. Indeed, a friend of mine received the new five ingredient cookbook and said, “It’s good, but you just kind of want a few more ingredients”.

The Problem

Unfortunately though, the internet doesn’t have the same level of responsibility as Jamie Oliver.

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The combination of the free, quality control-less space of the internet and recipes mean, that a lot of the recipes are not good. This might seem like an obvious point, however, some of these recipes carry a certain level of authoritarian weight with them. Many would not doubt a recipe because it’s Nigel Slater’s garden soup or Rick Stein’s moules marinere when in fact, it’s highly likely that they’ve never been anywhere near their own recipes. And if they have, they work when they cook them, because they are chefs.

A bad recipe can be detrimental to a person’s cooking by putting them off a dish, ingredient or the process altogether. An unfortunate outcome, given that the new ‘national obsession’ should be a great source of joy, improved mental and physical health for the country. And while no one is going to be permanently affected by a tasteless, boring, disgusting or disastrous (safely cooked and prepared) meal, I do think that there is a level of integrity, for which, chefs and publications sharing recipes are responsible for.

Clearly, not everyone is to blame but I would use the example of a recipe recently shared on The Independent online, from the Very Lazy website.

Very Lazy are a company that provide chopped ingredients and pastes in tubes and jars, they are very good. It’s a good way to get people using crucial ingredients that often seem like an afterthought and can be time consuming to prepare, such as garlic, chilli and ginger. This aside, The Recipe is not good. In theory, I can understand a 7 minute recipe for Laksa, giving exposure to a great Malaysian dish while using much of their own range seems like a strong idea. Unfortunately, this is undermined by the result. I am certain that this recipe would result in a tasteless and insipid, bland imitation of what a Laksa should be which is a spicy, fragrant, warming broth, accompanied by fresh herbs, noodles, appropriate garnishes and often prawns. And it doesn’t have to be complicated. Ironically, a good (for a Western palette) laska can be prepared using a pre made paste bought from a supermarket. I suppose it is just a coincidence that Very lazy don’t sell this and it was left off the recipe.

Indeed, this is another aspect where a combination of factors could be contributing to a poor recipe. Either a lack of integrity, which seems a bit strong, overbearing business mindedness, more likely, or simply bad food knowledge are contributing to this situation. It is a fantastic marketing tool for food product companies to sell their range with an accompanying recipe and I am not saying that it should be outlawed, however, like most things it must be done responsibly. Waitrose do it with mixed results, and while they do make it understandably impossible to complete the recipe without buying their own products, they seem to be trying to move beyond simply being a supplier and gaining some table-ward clout. William Sitwell editing their food magazine is emblematic of this.

Is there an answer?

The Problem is multifaceted and many would rightly argue that you can never really control the internet. Rather, I would suggest we do not take for granted the wonderful opportunity that we have, being able to use the internet as a great platform to share creative and innovative food ideas and new ways of cooking things. Or every single brussel sprout recipe we can think of before realising many people just do not like them. And while the internet is not regulated, companies and celebrity chefs are and should be further. With the wonders of scores of employees, test kitchens and editors a recipe book should never come out wrong. Ultimately, a recipe induces the lemming effect to the same extent as a GPS, people will blindly follow them, and this should not be exploited.

This might seem slightly over the top, after all it’s just food, but we have expressed an interest, and without culinary culture as deeply ingrained in our society as that of other countries, there are precautions we should be taking. As Marco Pierre-White put it in an interview with William Sitwell “A tree without roots is just a piece of wood”, which is a typically strong statement from him, however, he does acknowledge our excellent produce, the brilliance of apple crumble and the genius of Yorkshire pudding. Which he admits the French could never have come up with, in typical PW fashion he likes to pay homage as much as he does torment. So in some ways, the foundations are there for English food, we are making good wine and cheese- the measure, for many, of a country’s culinary prowess.

I think, and I know much of the country does too, that food is important. It is a potential social, political, cultural and international moot point and it’s exciting to be living in a country which is now so enthralled by it. Online recipes work as the entrance point for this enthrallment and as a result they should, quite simply, be better. After all, they are a fantastic tool to learn the fundamentals of cooking.