“I know it’s a cliche, you learn so much more from the mistakes than from the successes. I’m like, I’ve made the mistakes, so you don’t have to.”
Even Claire Saffitz, one of YouTube’s most popular bakers, still gets nervous about a recipe’s results. “I don’t really get anxious, but sometimes there is that sort of tinge of, ‘Well, I hope this turns out.'” And that’s after two New York Times best-selling cookbooks, Dessert Person and What’s for Dessert (Clarkson Potter). “I’ve had a lot of recipes not turn out. I know it’s a cliche, you learn so much more from the mistakes than from the successes. I’m like, I’ve made the mistakes, so you don’t have to.” Which is why both books come at baking from different angles. “I wanted Dessert Person to be a general baking book with a lot of different degrees of difficulty. What’s for Dessert is definitely focused a lot more around simplicity.” After shooting to fame with her videos for Bon Appétit magazine, Saffitz now has shifted to creating her own content for her million-plus subscribers on YouTube. “It is a little bit of a funny thing to me that now I am on YouTube and that’s a primary part of what I do. So, when people ask me, what do you do? I say jokingly, ‘Oh, I’m a YouTuber, I guess.'”
Editor’s Note: This conversation has been edited and condensed for publication.
When you were a kid, did you ever foresee yourself becoming the go-to baker for the internet?
Not at all, not even remotely. I’m not in any way a natural performer. I don’t really like that feeling of being looked at or seen or watched or anything. So, it feels very unlikely that this is now what I find myself doing. I really approach it from a teaching angle. That is the part that I really, really love. Video is by far the best format for teaching people about baking. You can write the most precise recipe ever created and it’s still not going to be as descriptive as just showing someone how to do it. So that’s how I approach it. It is a little bit of a funny, strange thing to me that now I am on YouTube and that’s a primary part of what I do. So when people ask me, what do you do? I say jokingly, “Oh, I’m a YouTuber, I guess.” But I’ve really found this place and the community around it is so positive. I try to really demystify the process and make it less scary for people. I love that I get to do that. It’s just a little bit funny to me that I’m on the internet a lot.
You are, and I’m watching your videos from multiple perspectives, because I’ve got your video up while I’m making whatever you’re making. You’re on the TV, you’re on the phone.
I hear from people that they bake with the videos and that’s the whole point. It is such a visual medium and baking and cooking in general, it’s multi-sensory. It uses all of your senses—obviously taste, but smell and sight and touch. But visual is huge. I love that people use the video and bake along with them. And then some people just watch them because there’s a sense of stress relief or something soothing about them, which I also love. But the point is that it’s entertaining, but it’s also very practical information.
You did a video about macarons for the New York Times that I thought, oh, I’m never going to make this, but I loved watching it.
You know that that particular series is called “Try This at Home,” and it is geared toward more project type of baking. I fully expect that 90 percent of people who are watching are like, “I’m never gonna do that,” and that’s fine. I still think it’s interesting to see what the process looks like. But there are that passionate group of people who love a project, love to spend a Sunday in the kitchen or something. It’s really for them. I get that all the time. Like, I did a baguette recipe and it’s the same thing, go buy a baguette for a couple bucks. But if you love that exploration and being in the kitchen and that kind of thing, then it’s for you.
You have two amazing cookbooks. I own both of them. How do you decide the types of recipes you’ll include and how long does it take, especially developing recipes?
I’m so glad you have the books. I love hearing that. A cookbook is like an ultra-marathon, it is such a long process and it requires quite a bit of stamina, I think because you are just day in day out testing recipes and developing. And I think a baking book, in particular, even goes a layer deeper and is more intensive. Because it’s not just—and I don’t mean to be dismissive of salads—you’re just kind of assembling and you can test it quickly and you can test multiple versions or tweaks in rapid succession. With baking, you have to wait for it to bake and then wait for it to cool and then troubleshoot and then try again. That just takes longer to develop a lot of those types of recipes. So it is difficult.
I’m grateful that I had a background already in food media. I had a really clear sense of the development process. But putting together a book is really different than working on recipes for a monthly food magazine, because you’re looking at the whole thing in its entirety. You’re looking at the balance of recipes, you’re looking at seasonality, you’re looking at difficulty level, and you’re trying to make sure that book has something for everyone, in a sense. I wanted Dessert Person to be a general baking book with a lot of different degrees of difficulty. What’s for Dessert, the second book, is definitely focused a lot more around simplicity. It is sort of a big jigsaw puzzle and each recipe is a piece; you’re trying to fit them together to make something that looks cohesive. And everything kind of relates to each other and there’s a conversation happening between the recipes and the chapters. So I had to do a lot of editing. It’s just something that you shape as you go along. It’s a collaborative process where your editor is helping give you feedback. It’s not just a collection of 100 recipes that you just put together; there has to really be something cohesive about it.
And the combo of the cookbook and the YouTube is actually perfect, because there is this element of, don’t be intimidated by this, you got this.
I absolutely still relate to the idea of being anxious in the kitchen. I remember those feelings for many, many, many years, as I was beginning my career and just even beginning as a hobbyist baker. There’s an anxiety that you’re going to waste ingredients, or something won’t turn out, or you promised someone that you’d bring something for some kind of event and now it’s ruined, that kind of thing. I still very much feel in touch with that feeling, even though I don’t particularly have that, just from years and years and years of experience. I don’t really get anxious, but sometimes there is that sort of tinge of, “Well, I hope this turns out.” I understand all those feelings, and I try to connect to that and then assuage them and try to reassure people that even if this bad thing happens, it’s not that bad.
Most people are so happy just to have someone else have made them something that they’re not going to notice the technical mistakes or anything like that. I really try to encourage people to take small risks and to do something that makes them feel a little bit uncomfortable, because when that thing does turn out, it’s like a triumph. It makes you feel so empowered. It’s kind of a metaphor for trying something out of your comfort zone. When that thing works, it’s really a confidence boost. I try to help people feel more confident in the kitchen by reassuring them and not just giving a straightforward set of steps for a recipe, but saying if this happens, don’t worry, you can fix it this way or giving those little road signs along the route to sort of slow down here or be careful, that kind of thing. Because I’ve made tons of mistakes, I’ve had a lot of recipes not turn out. I know it’s a cliche, you learn so much more from the mistakes than from the successes. So I’m like, I’ve made the mistakes so you don’t have to. That’s really how I look at my role. I’m here to be your guide, and to hopefully be a comfort and a reassuring presence.
With savory, it’s easy, you can taste as you go, but with baking that’s more difficult. I think that’s where a lot of stress comes from. But it’s also like, there’s sugar in it, is it really going to be all that bad?
I think that that’s right. I know this feeling of, well, I hope it’s good. I think, also, that comes from a place of exploration, because you want to try so many new recipes. But it’s a really good thing to build up a library or repertoire of recipes that you can make that are your go-to. And you build that by testing new recipes all the time.
I feel like I’m a pretty adequate baker, but I can’t do cookies. I always screw ’em up. You’re an expert at baking so many things, is there any one type of baked good that you enjoy baking most?
Good question. I don’t do a lot of fine decorating work. Generally, whether it’s royal icing on a sugar cookie, or buttercream flowers on a cake, it’s just kind of not my thing. Even though I will make recipes that have something elaborate, or they’re very technical, or there’s a lot of components, when it comes to presentation, I’d like things to look like it hasn’t been touched a million times, or that it’s not so fussy. To me, it’s like even if you’re going to put a lot of effort into it, I don’t want it to look like I put a lot of effort into it, I want to present it and have it be like, “Oh, look at this beautiful cake that I made that has this perfectly imperfect frosting swirls.” It’s just not something that I think I would ever really do, and as a result, I’m not very good at it. I’d rather put a couple of real flowers on a cake.
There’s definitely other types of pastry where I feel like I could use some more experience. There are certain types of breads that I’d love to really dive into. A lot of enriched yeasted things. The whole sourdough realm, I think there’s just so much to explore and to learn.
But I do feel like my real like core skill is in a lot of other kinds of pastry like pies, pie dough, anything with a flaky pastry. I feel very comfortable with that and it does feel very impressive. I like kind of impressing people with a flaky pie crust or a tart or that kind of thing. That really is my sweet spot, no pun intended.
There’s nothing better than a pie. Honestly, I would rather have pie than cake any day.
I agree. To me, it kind of depends on the mood and on the pie. And there’s a lot of not very good pies out there. But I was just testing some Thanksgiving recipes and made an apple pie and a pumpkin pie and a pecan pie. And I agree, it’s just the most satisfying contrast between the filling and the crust. I also love fruit desserts. So I love that pie is the perfect way to use up a lot of fruit.
How has social media, particularly YouTube, changed how you do what you do?
I think YouTube has been really complimentary to that more traditional path. I still feel like I have one foot in the more traditional media realm of magazines and publications, which is great, because I also love to write. I would never want to give up the part of my job that is writing because, of course, I have cookbooks, too.
I initially came to what I do now through a more formal education. I got a bachelor’s degree and I went to culinary school after that and then I even did a year of grad school where I was focusing on culinary history. I felt that maybe I would go a more academic route, but I really missed being in a kitchen and I didn’t want to only read and write about food for such a narrow audience. I was like, I want to do something a little bit more popular. And at the same time, I knew from culinary school and from my brief stint working in a restaurant that that wasn’t my career path either. That was too focused on output. It was too regimented.
Media became that perfect middle ground of I can still write, but I can still be in the kitchen. And as I came up through that traditional magazine route, I worked at Bon Appétit at Conde Nast, a big kind of legacy media company, [and] video became such an important component of what we did as a print magazine. I didn’t think that that was going to be where I would excel, but it just became sort of accidental. And now I think it’s really complimentary to all of these other things that I do in that media space. There are different audiences; the YouTube audience is definitely different than the New York Times audience. I love that I can reach different communities in those different ways. I wouldn’t want to only focus on one aspect of what I do. I think writing a cookbook and doing some recipe development for some other publications, plus YouTube, all of it kind of adds up to this really great balance of work. And from a practical standpoint, it’s fun to make the YouTube videos. I really love spending time with my two YouTube collaborators who I’ve been working with for so long and we have a good time. I call it Camp YouTube, because we’re spending all day together.
Because I’m sure you get a ton of questions, I need to know, what’s the most annoying question you get?
You know, it’s really funny. I have on more than one occasion, probably a handful of occasions, I have looked at comments or DMs that have said, “Claire, I have a question. I’m in the aisle of the grocery store. Which kind of chocolate should I buy?” And I’m just sort of like, I’m not like a hotline for baking. I’m looking at this question like two weeks after you sent it because, just for my own sanity and mental health, I don’t really do tons of reading of the comments or checking DMS, but I’m just like, there is no reasonable expectation that I would respond to your message in real time, so that that kind of question to me is a little bit naughty. But I actually love answering people’s baking questions. I just don’t have the bandwidth or the infrastructure to be able to field questions from all areas. A lot of times, I just get questions from friends and family where I am kind of like, you could have just Googled that. But I’m happy to answer it. I understand wanting to go to a sort of trusted source.
There have definitely been times I’ve texted our mutual friend, Jake Cohen, asking something about baking. And I always feel bad after.
Oh, don’t feel bad. I always tell people don’t feel bad. My sister’s a lawyer. I’ll text her with a legal question. It’s like, you just go to the expert. I totally understand that. If you got one in the family, why not use it?
Am I right in having seen your cookbook on And Just Like That?
Oh, my gosh, I’m so glad you brought this up. You were not mistaken. It was. I did get a heads up from the producers of the show. They ask permission to include a shot of the book in one of the episodes, and I had very little information about it. But I was also told please do not talk about this to anyone. And I didn’t know when it was going to come out. So, I hadn’t been watching but I had a little bit of an inkling that it was going to be [on the show]. And I don’t even know any of the characters because I haven’t watched the show yet. I’ve been meaning to sit down and figure out a way to watch the series so I can catch a glimpse of the book. It’s also just incredibly flattering that they chose it.