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While most things around the country were closing in the spring of 2020, cabinet doors were being flung open. Suddenly, home cooks of all levels were tasked with answering, “What’s for dinner?”
With the world outside our doors suddenly off limits, it made sense that so many of us turned to cooking and baking as a way to regain a sense of control, of routine, of creativity, of accomplishment, and of nourishment — both literally and figuratively. Searches for sourdough, banana bread, pancakes, and lasagna jumped as people turned to their favorite comfort foods for a sense of normalcy.
As a culinary instructor, I found this dose of unexpected creative time to be a bright spot in a rather terrifying new world. Suddenly, I had time to commit to new and exciting projects. But while I relished the hours I could now spend in the kitchen, I found I missed the experience and community of cooking with others.
So, even though my pre-pandemic online cooking experience amounted to short snippets I shared on social media, I jumped at the chance to provide the same support and guidance in a digital space. And I wasn’t the only one who did.
Whether you took a Zoom cooking class to socialize, learn a new skill, or try to find the joy in food again, we’re looking back at a year of Zoom cooking classes to see how they’ve changed our approach to spending time in the kitchen.
As nearly everything shifted to the virtual world, those of us who were already sharing instructive videos and tips online quickly adapted. Soon, hundreds of online cooking classes, virtual demos, and events popped up, hosted by food bloggers, celebrity chefs, and culinary schools.
I began hosting live baking classes on Instagram, where anyone who wanted to could join me for a baking project. I’d share the recipe a few days in advance and then host the class using Instagram’s live feature. Joining in was free, but participants were encouraged to make voluntary charitable contributions to organizations supporting the restaurant industry, fighting hunger, or advocating for social justice.
Those first few virtual classes had their share of challenges. Managing a virtual classroom is hard, especially when the distractions of being at home prevail or an extra glass of wine is poured (or spilled).
Between technology pushed to its limits and students who were just really excited to socialize, it took time for all of us to adapt. I learned to pace my classes so students could cook along with me, slowing down to give them a chance to dig through drawers or pantries, and I was always extra prepared to help troubleshoot along the way.
After a summer spent in the kitchen and online, home cooks and instructors alike were more confident in their spaces, their technology, and themselves. Zoom cooking classes evolved to include more challenging and elaborate menus, some even with ingredients or tools shipped to participants in advance.
Projects and recipes that had once seemed impossible suddenly seemed more achievable. People who came to my basic biscuit bake-along early in the pandemic gained the confidence and the culinary skills to try making croissants with me just a few months later.
With dining limited to takeout, premade grocery meals, or meal kits, another challenge arose in kitchens around the country. There’s a big difference between planning dinner and cooking dinner, and the people tasked with doing both in their households (usually women, who were already seeing a disproportionate amount of pandemic-related household chores fall to them) were burned out.
Zoom cooking classes, with their set menus and fresh ideas, appealed to those who needed a break from their routine — people who were looking for a change or challenge or to make cooking fun again, guided by someone they trusted. Unlike in-person cooking classes, in which food needs to be eaten on-site or packaged up to reheat at home, online classes could be timed so that the class menu was dinner.
Being able to access online instruction from the comfort of their own kitchens helped people figure out what worked for them in their spaces, on their schedules and provided a place where successes and even failures could be shared and learned from.
The satisfaction that comes from successfully making something delicious or ambitious can be habit-forming and keep people coming back to the kitchen to learn even more.
The idea of taking a cooking class over Zoom is a lot more normal than it was a year ago, and that has opened up a ton of opportunities — both for culinary instructors, chefs, and restaurant workers and for anyone interested in honing their kitchen skills.
In fall 2020, I began teaching online with Skillpop (a pop-up learning company that pivoted to virtual instruction at the beginning of the pandemic). I still host the occasional “bake-along” on Instagram, but they’re not as frequent as they used to be.
While I do miss in-person instruction, teaching virtually has some undeniable advantages. I love that I can reach people all over the world and that even I can learn from anyone, anywhere. I love how affordable and accessible most classes are.
Virtual classes don’t need to account for the cost of ingredients, additional staff, and the space itself in the ticket price. And many virtual classes are recorded, so you can rewatch, pause, and rewind them at your leisure.
If you’re looking to learn a new skill, find satisfaction outside of work, or add variety to your dinner routine, a virtual cooking class might be for you. And if you haven’t had a chance to try one, I wouldn’t worry. From what I can tell, virtual cooking classes are here to stay.
Keep it local if you can: Check with your favorite restaurants (many are offering pickup ingredient kits to go with the Zoom classes), specialty food shops, or cooking schools to see if they’re offering virtual instruction. Don’t forget to check bakeries, specialty stores like wine and cheese shops, and even local farms.
If you’re looking for a class on something in particular, consider reaching out to your favorite chefs and bakers on Instagram. They might be open to teaching a private class or could direct you to their latest offerings. (Pro tip: Find a group of friends to take a class with you to help split the cost among multiple screens.)
Emily Trotochaud is a freelance culinary instructor living and working in Boston, MA. She’d like to use this time to remind you to salt your pasta water. You can follow her culinary adventures on instagram at @100daysofpasta.