Craft sourdough starters, elaborate babka and all-rules-defying pancake cereal have been saturating social media feeds for the past several months as people have sheltered in place during the COVID-19 pandemic. But don’t be fooled -- the experts at Land O’Lakes culinary center say one of the most positively reviewed recipe is actually pretty humble. It’s their small-batch recipe for traditional chocolate chip cookies, and it says a lot about what’s really going on in America’s kitchens right now.
“People are looking for really classic comforts. We’re not seeing the ‘twist’ on banana bread, for instance, or any of the crazy iterations that you can do,” says Kim Anderson.
Anderson leads up the culinary center, where the team develops recipes and tips for chefs working in the foodservice industry and for people cooking and baking at home. The major part of the team’s role is to represent and advocate for the end user of our products.
Like workplaces around the world, the test kitchen team was thrown a curve ball when shelter-in-place started. In addition to setting up offices from home, the culinary team quickly reacted to developing new content to meet consumers’ rapidly changing eating habits.
“Baking has grown a lot from a behavior standpoint — so has every other occasion that people use butter,” says Pete Griffin. Griffin works in marketing insights for Land O’Lakes dairy foods division and closely collaborates with Anderson’s team to analyze data sets that show how and what people are eating in this new normal.
One unprecedented statistic involves the shift in how frequently people are consuming meals made at home: In a typical year, Americans dine at home for 80% of their meals, versus 20% at restaurants. And since the beginning of the pandemic, that ratio has increased due to restaurant closings.
Griffin notes that the summer dining out numbers started to return to normal, but he estimates that people will shift away from restaurants once again due to a recessionary period. He says, “People will be focused more on meal solutions at home, to save money.”
The Culinary Center team has always considered the cost associated with family meal preparation. Now, it matters more than ever.
“We think about availability, seasonality and budgets when we create our recipes. We think about ingredients… If an ingredient is not easily available, we will offer a substitute or consider not putting it in our recipes,” says Ann Stuart, culinary center manager at Land O’Lakes.
Compared to typical periods, people are having a harder time finding the food items they want to buy in stock, which is another reason motivating them to make the most of what they’ve already purchased.
When the pandemic hit and people were having a hard time finding ingredients, experts from the culinary team filmed tutorials from their homes offering substitutions for ingredients like baking soda and eggs.
All the market insights underscore the real hurt that people are experiencing right now and the stress they’re under, perhaps taking on added responsibilities at home, coping with isolation, facing job loss — not to mention the threat of serious illness. These factors are contributing to people at home seeking small indulgences in comfort food relying on ingredients they still feel good about.
“During these difficult times, we’re proud to play a tangible role in bringing people some comfort,” says Catherine Fox, vice president of brand and marketing for Dairy Foods. “While people are rediscovering baking and passing the joy of family recipes down to the next generation, we also want them to feel good about where and from whom their food comes from.”
“Given the pandemic, consumers are concerned with knowing more about where their food comes from, its supply chain and how it was handled,” says Stuart.
It’s one area the Land O’Lakes culinary center has been invested in even before the pandemic: engaging more home cooks into the lives and stories of the farmers who own the Land O’Lakes cooperative and provide milk for the butter on grocery shelves. Recently, they’ve shared recipes from farmer-owners, like Apple Co-Jack Scones from the Frericks of Blue Diamond Dairy in Minnesota and the Westra’s Oatmeal Turtle Bars from Californian Westra Dairy.
Stuart, who has always been a fan of small-batch baking, had a hunch that people sheltering in place would want recipes that yielded smaller portions so they could bake to relieve stress but not end up with an overabundance baked goods. Enter, cookies — or anything quickly baked with minimal, inexpensive and reliable ingredients. The test kitchen shared its small-batch cupcakes and cookie recipes and similarly sized recipes for graduation season and Independence Day, hoping that families would still be celebrating, if on a smaller scale. (Plus, the mini batches stay fresh for single families to finish them while they’re still warm.)
The team believes the holiday season will mark an important time for newcomers to baking or people leveling up their creativity. They expect that many people who haven’t previously been in charge of the traditional family meals will use the time to level up their cooking and baking skills, experiment more and continue being creative with what’s in the pantry.
The culinary center crew is ready to arm home bakers, old and new, with the right information to increase their confidence and stay connected with their loved ones through food traditions.
Stuart adds, “There also might be more shipping cookies to family and friends across the country, so we’ll need to make recipes that account for that.”
Anderson has noticed that many of the people relying on Land O’Lakes test kitchen recipes are creating a new confidence — in themselves.
“Because they’re forced to do it, they’re saying, wow, I can do it. People who have never baked bread before, for instance, are just now dabbling in it and giving themselves that confidence,” Anderson says, adding, “We want to be there to help give guidance, probably in a more meaningful way than we have in the past.”