The quiet ascendency of New York Times Cooking
8 min read

The quiet ascendency of New York Times Cooking

The Times’ Cooking app has more subscribers than most newspapers and nary a competitor in sight.
The quiet ascendency of New York Times Cooking

A song to read by: “Come Back and Love Me <3,” by Hinds

What I’m reading: “The Longing for Less,” by Kyle Chayka

Recipe for success

One of the most commonly asked questions in human history has to be: “What should we eat?” I ask it multiple times a day, as do billions of others across the world. People have always asked that question, and they will always ask that question.

And while we have not yet found a way to fully automate away either the desire or need to prepare food for ourselves, we have grown quite comfortable using technology to make the task a little less daunting.

In the world of software design, this presents a staggering opportunity. For starters, the total addressable market for a product that helps people feed themselves is, well, everyone. And because the problem of hunger is biological, it is non-negotiable: one way or another, it has to be answered.

The app that helps solve this problem, then, is of incredible importance and represents gob-smacking value. And increasingly, for me and for millions of others, the app that does this is New York Times Cooking.

To get an idea of just how many people use The Times’ Cooking app, we have to do a little napkin math.

In November, The Times itself reported that it had “more than 6 million” digital subscribers, of which 4.7 million pay for the core news product, with the rest subscribing to Cooking or Crossword. This means that between the two of them, Cooking and Crossword represent at least 1.3 million subscribers. This number jives with one that the Press Gazette reported back in June, when it said the Times had 1.1 million subscribers to its non-news digital products, a category composed of cooking, crossword, and audio offerings.

In the first quarter of 2019, The Times also stated in an earnings report that its Crossword product had surpassed 500,000 subscribers, growing 100,000 from the year previous. Assuming a similar growth, that puts the crossword at around 700,000 subscribers today, leaving The Times Cooking app to represent the remaining 600,000 or so non-news digital subscribers.

For context, The Times has 6.5 million total subscribers, a number that leads the competition by a healthy margin. Again according to the Press Gazette, The Wall Street Journal has at least 2.2 million subscribers; Gannett, which represents USA Today as well as hundreds of other newspapers, has at least 863,000; The Los Angeles Times has at least 227,000; and The Boston Globe has at least 205,000.

These numbers are likely a little outdated, but they paint a clear enough picture: The New York Times Cooking app has more subscribers than most of the largest newspapers in the country.

Plus, the metrics I’ve mentioned only count subscribers, even though whole households and some group texts (!) might make do with just one subscription. On top of that: Every digital subscription to The New York Times comes with Cooking, so all 6 million Times readers could be using the Cooking app. It’s a safe extrapolation, then, to assume that the app has far more than 600,000 monthly users — many, many times more.

How the team behind this app built it, what made it such a success, and what lies in store for its future are all questions I would love to ask. Unfortunately, I was unable to arrange any interviews with Times Cooking staff in time for this piece — I guess for some reason it’s been a busy week?

I was, however, able to crowdsource some feedback from more than a dozen users of the app and I, as you might imagine, also have some thoughts.

Quality ingredients

As I argued for Nieman Lab, the distinction between journalist and influencer/creator is quickly blurring. This is especially true in food media, where cooks become writers, writers become talent, and talent becomes a force unto its own. While you could pull the thread of this phenomenon back to Julia Child and beyond, the first digital media company to translate this idea into success on social platforms was Bon Appétit. (More on them later.)

In recent years, New York Times Cooking began poaching or borrowing many of the faces that helped make Bon Appétit famous, adding to their already-legendary roster a cadre of on-the-rise faces. While Times Cooking of yore was the domain of Melissa Bell, Dorie Greenspan, and Mark Bittman, its newest figures come from the hippest corners of the food media universe.

On the Times Cooking YouTube channel, recent videos feature Andrea Lea (of Binging with Babish fame), Sohla El-Waylly, Claire Saffitz, Priya Krishna, Samin Nosrat, Ina Garten, Yewande Komolafe, J. Kenji López-Alt, and Yotam Ottolenghi, to name just a few. They supplement these food media celebrities with others in their stable, including Alison Roman (RIP), Sam Sifton, Julia Moskin, Tejal Rao, and Julia Moskin.

Just as The Times proper has made a habit of hiring away its competition — which I wrote about previously — the strategy of Times Cooking seems to be quite similar. The contracts differ, as many of these cheflebrities are free agents rather than employees of the paper, but clout is clout. The food media phenoms bring their followers to The Times Cooking, Times Cooking reciprocates, and both grow larger in the process.

As a result, in a food media landscape dominated by Instagram reach, YouTube views, and recipe downloads, The Times has become the de facto king-and-queen maker. Even its recipes, such as two from She Who Must Not Be Named (Alison), go viral. One, from early last year, was so ubiquitous that it was simply referred to as “The Stew.”

As in all things digital, size begets size. The same compounding advantage The Times enjoys as a news product it has as a cooking app, meaning its dominance will only grow more entrenched — especially because it has no one to challenge it.

A la carte

In many of the “Godzilla” movies, viewers find themselves rooting for Godzilla because he is the only thing that can stop an even worse monster from destroying the planet. In the world of food media, for the last decade those two titans were The Times Cooking and Bon Appétit.

While Bon Appétit always led in all things trendy — Alicia Kennedy, a great food writer and generous giver of colorful quotes, recently lampooned The Times’ “Hudson Valley cabin vibe” — its tech in recent years has failed to keep pace with The Times’ increasingly sophisticated platform.

I routinely bemoaned this to my friends. If I cooked for someone and they made the mistake of asking where I got the recipe, that was all the opportunity I needed to launch into a well-oiled spiel about how much I loved Bon Appétit, despite how hard they made it to love them.

While The Times Cooking was perfecting an app tailor-made for home cooks, Bon Appétit was doubling down on its editorial, its beautiful photography, its sexy recipes. And while I loved the creativity of what Bon Appétit brought to the table, when it came time to decide what was for dinner, I increasingly turned to The Times Cooking app.

As years passed, it became more apparent Bon Appétit had ceded the utility use-case to The Times. Bon Appétit would set the trends, and have their good-natured video hosts play them out on their popular YouTube channels, but it was The Times that you turned to when you needed to eat.

Then this summer, when Bon Appétit melted down into racist microaggressions and appalling pay disparity — Adam Rapoport was always cringey when he appeared in the videos! — the battle was lost. With their reputation up in smoke and without any pragmatic appeal to home cooks, the only competitor to The Times Cooking vanished. Bon Appétit was gone, and now it was left to the viewers to determine whether The Times Cooking was Godzilla or his evil antagonist.

A roiling boil

While Bon Appétit shot itself in the foot, its eventual demise was all but certain. It had no answer to The Times’ Cooking app, whose streamlined design and utility makes it far more valuable than cooking entertainment could ever be.

Its standout features are, first, aesthetic: Sleek structure, frictionless use, beautiful photography, easy-to-read text, and a host of intuitive features. Many users cited the app’s Recipe Box feature, a tool that lets users bookmark recipes they like and add them to their collection, as its most helpful offering.

That feature alone hooked me on the app, as it meant I no longer had to flip through my mental Rolodex, remember a recipe I had once cooked, google some string of words to locate it online, and then try to read instructions from a buggy browser while cooking. Instead, I simply hopped onto The Times Cooking app and scrolled through a series of recipes I had already pre-screened for myself.

Kerrie Vila, a good friend, talented cook, and former classmate of mine at Northwestern, said that her family’s shared Recipe Box acts as a kind of cloud storage for nostalgia.

“If I'm in San Francisco and craving a recipe from childhood, I can type in ‘chicken soup’ and see 30 suggestions, but I can see the one my mom and I have saved, which is probably the one she has been cooking for years and what I was looking for,” said Vila.

For others, different features stick out. Artist Andrew Wilson says that the “Learn to Cook” section helps him understand why a recipe works, rather than just how. Writer Anushna Patel appreciates that recipes can be sorted into customizable folders, allowing for more efficient access. She also lauded its Grocery List feature, though others were less enthused. And for journalist Melinda Fakuade, it’s simply the wide variety of recipes that keep her interest piqued.

Another common refrain was praise for the comments section, whose reputation has become so iconic that it spawned its own Instagram account, @nytimescookingcomments. While the Instagram account highlights the humor of the commenters, I almost always check a recipe’s comments to see if some group consensus has been reached about possible improvements to the recipe. Either way, The Times Cooking comments are a shining example of how an opted-in community with a shared interest can create an atmosphere that is almost as compelling as the product itself.

Burnt edges

Most of the users I spoke with offered the same critique of the app: its discovery could be better. I agree, as I have rarely had any luck searching for a recipe on the platform. The app does offer a “recommended” section based on user history, and its suggestions have improved the more I use the app (duh).

But in the process of finding new recipes, one does not always want the familiar — that’s what the Recipe Box is for. And outside of editor suggestions — both in Sam Sifton’s wildly popular newsletter and on the app itself — there are few ways of stumbling onto a good new recipe.

My favorite recipe-discovery mechanism was actually on Saveur, of all places, years ago. Its site offered a feature where users could narrow their recipe search results by checking boxes of various criteria — meal, cuisine, season, diet, etc. — and then it would surface recipes that met those criteria.

The Times offers a feature similar to this after you have already performed a search, but even then it offers far fewer criteria than Saveur did. Discovery — and search, specifically — are a perpetual design challenge. Saveur’s solution was to present curious users with randomness within set parameters, a mix of intentionality and mystery that led me to a lot of my favorite recipes.

Other respondents mentioned gripes with the Collections feature, mostly because if you accidentally bookmark an entire collection of recipes — which can include anywhere between 5 - 60 recipes — you have to manually un-bookmark them to remove them from your Recipe Box.

Takeaway to go

Like The New York Times proper, its Cooking cousin has quietly set the stage for dominance in the years to come. With a rotating cast of food-media celebrities, an utter lack of serious competitors, a sophisticated app that gets stickier with each use, and the nearly unlimited resources of The New York Times Company at its back, it’s hard to imagine where its vulnerabilities lie.

Still, anything associated with The New York Times will always have some element of politicization, and those Hudson Valley cabin vibes” certainly aren’t for everyone. The app, its recipes, and its aesthetic are never going to be universally appealing, which leaves the door open for competitors. But until something better comes along, you can find me cooking this.

Some good readin’

— The entrepreneurship revolution is coming to college sports. (Business Insider)

— The best take I’ve read so far on the “It’s moderation if I agree with it, censorship if I don’t” conundrum. (Pirate Wires)

— This piece about eugenics and Down Syndrome, which is actually about decoupling the value of a person from their economic output. (The Atlantic)

— Hunter Harris’s newsletter is as funny as I hoped it would be and then some. (Hung Up)

— Consider this my formal admission that yes I have finally subscribed to Stratechery and yes, everyone was right, it is good. Here’s Ben Thompson on — seriously, what else? — deplatforming, free speech, technology, etc. (Stratechery)

Cover image: “Mound of Butter,” by Antoine Vollon