Life Hacks

How the Term "Food Hack" Went Completely Out of Control

September 26, 2016

Hack: Using a vegetable peeler instead of a cheese knife to shave cheese.
Not a hack:

One of "28 Brilliant Food Hacks That Will Make You a Kitchen Genius." Photo by FoodBeast

Hack: Using a power drill to peel an apple (while not an effective hack, a hack it is).
Not a hack:

On the list of "47 Kitchen and Food Hacks That Will Change Your Life." Photo by Chowhound

Hack: Using Doritos as kindling.
Not a hack:

Earned a spot among "40 Creative Food Hacks That Will Change the Way You Cook." Photo by Buzzfeed

We're searching for food hacks a lot more than we were in 2011 (the chart below shows the number of Google searches for "hacks" in the food and drink category over the last five years), but judging from the "hacks" listed above, we must be having a much harder time finding them.

Photo by Google Trends

The definition of "hack" is confused, at best, utterly polluted and completely disheveled at worst. We've overused it and dragged it through the mud. And we at Food52 are as guilty as the rest; we've probably driven you hack crazy. (Oh, look: We have a whole topic page dedicated to kitchen hacks—they'll change your life!; home hacks, too.) Media companies see that people are searching for hacks and so, in order to benefit from the search frequency, they (I mean, we) title more and more articles with the word. It's a vicious, chicken-or-egg cycle: You, searchers, stop looking for hacks; we, media companies, will stop claiming that everything under the sky is one—and consequently making it even harder to find any at all. ...Deal?

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We've taken something fun and potentially helpful and turned it into something annoying and worthy of a big eye roll.

Where did we go wrong?

Food hacks spawned from "life hacks," which, according to Know Your Meme, originated back in 2003 with technology journalist Danny O’Brien (called the "father of life hacks"). He was interested in "secret software"—programmers' personal shortcuts—and, in O'Brien's words, the "way of cutting through an apparently complex system with a really simple, non-obvious fix." From programming, life hacks expanded to "tricks, skills or shortcuts that are meant to increase a person’s productivity or efficiency in their everyday lives."

Let's agree on what good hacks should do: Hacks should solve (or purport to solve) a tangible problem, to make the task at hand either possible or easier. Hacks are creative for the purpose of utility and resourcefulness. Hacks don't promise to transform your state of being; they promise to make a fix in the moment.

If you don't have a steamer but you need to steam broccoli, for example, using a fine-mesh sieve as a makeshift basket over a pot of simmering water is a hack. Replacing lye with baked baking soda is also a hack—a way to avoid working with a corrosive and potentially dangerous ingredient. Melting chocolate with a hairdryer is a hack for when you don't have a double-boiler but need gentle heat.

Hacks are often a way of cutting through an apparently complex system with a really simple, non-obvious fix.
Danny O'Brien, The Father of Life Hacks

But refusing to bring dip to a tailgate? Not a hack. A hack shouldn't be a catch-all term for a tip or a trick or a piece of advice. Because it just leaves us scratching our heads, looking for a smart solution and instead finding an extremely hard way to eat an apple that's sure to leave a mess and make life stickier, not easier.

None of this addresses the question of whether hacks—true or false—even function. Can you refuse to make the dip at a tailgate? Can an apple-peanut butter Tower of Pisa defy the laws of physics? That's an issue for another time.

While we're at it, let's also agree to stop calling hacks "life-changing." In order to change your life, you'll likely need a lot more than a hack.

Which "hacks" do you stand by? And which have let you down? Tell us in the comments!

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • David Walimaki
    David Walimaki
  • CLK
  • HalfPint
  • Smaug
  • Elizabeth Clauser
    Elizabeth Clauser
I used to work at Food52. I'm probably the person who picked all of the cookie dough out of the cookie dough ice cream.


David W. October 2, 2016
To me...a HACK is somebody trying to break into my computer, into my personal information.
What YOU call a hack is merely a TIP! Helpful advice!

Maybe your websites should STOP making me think you are trying to HACK my computer, and just tell me tips and advice?
HACK has a negative connotation, tips and advice have a POSITIVE connotation.
CLK September 30, 2016
Again, thank you. I have recently stopped reading things that have the word hack in them.
Google U. September 30, 2016
Me too. I am sick of the word and don't care what it means.
HalfPint September 26, 2016
Thank you. I thought I was going crazy, or worse becoming elitist because most of the 'hacks' I've seen weren't all that interesting or as 'life changing' as proclaimed.
Smaug September 26, 2016
Save the English language; shoot your computer.
Elizabeth C. September 26, 2016
I just wanted to say THANK YOU for pointing out that tips, advice, etc., are not hacks. That's been driving me crazy! I started refusing to read any story or click bait that uses the word hack to save my sanity.