This Sunday, Samin Nosrat wants to make lasagna with you—over Instagram. The acclaimed author of Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat and New York Times Cooking contributor penned an essay for the Times this week lamenting the loss of communal cooking and eating while abiding by social distancing measures. As someone who lives alone and cherishes opportunities to host dinner parties and share meals, quarantine has left Nosrat craving those gatherings and all their wonderful chaos.
Nosrat’s lasagna party is just one example of how NYT Cooking has embraced Instagram as a way to support home cooks during the pandemic. The publisher has expanded its strategy on the platform, releasing a daily recipe and leaning more heavily on Instagram’s Stories feature, where it sees the highest levels of audience engagement, according to NYT Cooking’s enterprise strategy editor Emily Fleischaker.
It starts with ensuring that the content shared on the platform is sensitive to the moment its audience is living in. “There is a lot of emotion around the act of cooking and eating and grocery shopping right now,” said Fleischaker. That includes everything from having a “grocery store strategy” to limiting trips or deliveries, preparing for shortages or price increases and cooking every meal at home while balancing work, caregiving duties or other responsibilities, she said.
Fleischaker said the team realized in mid-March the extent to which the pandemic would affect content—at which point they basically tore up their existing lineups and started over. “We’re really careful about our selection of recipes that we put in front of people,” she said. “We’re relying more on recipes with simple ingredients and simple preparations. And we’re providing a lot of guidance about how to substitute ingredients.”
The Times published a guide for what to substitute when you’re missing various ingredients, with suggestions broken down into different categories like spices, dairy, meat, seafood and produce. The article talks through the purpose of each ingredient, and how swapping it out for something more available might affect a recipe.
NYT Cooking has also been sharing more full recipes—one per day on Instagram, accessible without a subscription. And while that doesn’t do anything to directly boost revenue in the short term, NYT Cooking’s general manager Amanda Rottier said she hopes it gives followers a taste of what the publisher has to offer, encouraging subscriptions now or further down the road when the economy rebounds.
But on the business side of things, the publisher’s strategy for converting followers into paid subscribers hasn’t changed at all.
“We realized that we can serve a need for [our followers] in this moment,” said Rottier, and that’s been the motivator behind providing more free recipes and helpful, timely content for people who are having to cook at home more. “If that proves valuable enough for them to subscribe, great, but that’s not necessarily a shift from how we normally would do it,” she said. “It’s just more poignant right now.”
A lot of its content lately has been geared toward people who wouldn’t normally be seeking out recipes online, but now, with more time on their hands and all these meals to prepare, are cultivating a new interest in cooking. Traffic to cooking websites has spiked across the board over the past several weeks as a result, and social media feeds are suddenly filled with a hell of a lot more homemade bread.
In one attempt to inspire less experienced home cooks, NYT Cooking recruited the head of its video team, Scott Loitsch, to get in front of the camera and experiment with a no-knead bread recipe for the first time. He made his first loaf ever from quarantine—and found himself pretty impressed with the results. He also demonstrates a hack for setting up an iPhone camera on a ruler, to free both hands for cooking while recording.
In the recipe for Nosrat’s lasagna dinner, she’s listed several different ways to make the dish based on what might be available, and how ambitious a home cook you might be: homemade pasta or dried, homemade tomato sauce or store bought, fresh spinach or frozen.
“We spent so much time thinking [about] ‘How do we make this as accessible as possible for people who can’t find one thing or want to do it a different way?'” said Fleischaker.
And while it’s a time-intensive recipe, that’s part of the fun. Whether you make the lasagna—or even get dressed on Sunday—Nosrat’s inviting everyone to show up, on Instagram, to get as close as we currently can to a dinner party. “It won’t matter precisely how or where we shared this meal. It’ll matter only that we did,” she wrote.
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