A text message comes in from a friend asking what banana bread recipe she should make and my gut response is to direct her to LMGTFY.com—until I realize that Googling "best banana bread recipe" will still yield over 4 million loaves claiming to be just that.
In this maelstrom of recipes that all market themselves as exactly what you're looking for, it can feel like there's no way to know which way is up and which way is down. Which recipe will yield something tender and cakey versus dry and bland? Does softened butter versus melted butter make a difference? How about the number of eggs? Or their temperature?
So I searched for six loaves, every one of which has "best" in its title, and then took them at their word, just as my friend might do if she slogged through Google for a recipe.
Here they are:
Side by side, Food52's Bestest Banana Bread from Baking, Cook's Illustrated's The Best Banana Bread, Bon Appétit's BA's Best Banana Bread, the blog Baked by an Introvert's Best Ever Banana Bread (Pinned over 25,000 times), Taste of Home's Best-Ever Banana Bread, and Martha Stewart's The Best Banana Bread looked different and, in what will surprise no one, they tasted different, too. They certainly weren't all the best. In our blind taste test, two loaves received no votes at all.
How did we get to this place, where a word that is intended to narrow down the options, to skim the truly great from the mediocre, is no longer a good-enough descriptor? And when—if ever—can we still trust it?
We're in what Eben Thurston, currently the Director of S.E.O. (Search Engine Optimization) at Fareportal, calls an S.E.O. echo chamber. Because of the sheer number of search results for "banana bread," the playing field is extremely competitive. By throwing "best" into the title tag (a piece of HTML that's critical to SEO) and the headline, Thurston explained, websites can enter a smaller pool, with fewer direct competitors. And while more specific keywords ("best banana bread recipe" as compared to "banana bread recipe" as compared to "banana bread") attract a smaller volume of searchers, those searchers are more specific in their desires and may be more likely to "convert" (that is, click).
In other words, we lookers are using the word "best" to narrow in on great recipes in an overcrowded landscape; websites are tagging with the word "best" because we're searching for it. That leaves us running in a circle, hungry hamsters on a wheel.
"A smaller blogger who does any amount of S.E.O. research and is trying to work with Google," Thurston said, would look at a keyword data tool and see that "best banana bread" is a top-searched keyword with more room for entry than the vaster, wilder "banana bread."
Andie Mitchell has been blogging for over six years and avoids the superlative "best" in her recipe titles even though there's "a lot of pressure to call something that." While it's "attention grabbing and definitive, and that’s helpful in a sea of millions of recipes," the gravity of the word scares her. Still, she pays attention to S.E.O. when naming nonetheless: "I’ve gotten a lot wiser about how crucial it is to name my recipes with keywords and keyword phrases that people are searching for," she wrote to me. She uses Google AdWords Keyword Planner to compare how many people are searching for the phrase with how many results it yields.
When I asked Deb Perelman, who has made Smitten Kitchen an incredibly successful blog over the course of ten years, for her thoughts on why superlatives like best and easiest exist and with such frequency, she wrote back, "It's all S.E.O., right?"
But it's not just smaller bloggers who are concerned with S.E.O. when it comes to naming recipes (and recipe collections): In a time when nearly every major food publication must be concerned with print and web, it's everyone—and best is everywhere. (We didn't include Food & Wine's best banana breads, for example.)
According to Tina Ujlaki, F&W's Executive Food Editor, recipes were not titled with best (and its superlative brethren: ultimate, easiest, fastest, perfect) "until it became necessary for S.E.O. purposes."
In print, "the best" has been historically viewed, according to food stylist and recipe developer Susan Spungen, as a "a cop-out." In her twelve years as the founding Editorial Director for food and entertaining at Martha Stewart Living magazine, she thought of "the best" as a naming convention to be avoided (and one that she was never tempted to use). And in Sarah Copeland's three-plus years as Real Simple's Food Director, she says that never once did they call a recipe the best in the magazine.
Today's web landscape—where search page real estate is extremely valuable—is a different animal. The current Real Simple Food Director Dawn Perry, who has also worked as a food editor at Bon Appétit and Martha Stewart Living, explained to me that many of the recipe collections on the website will be called "the best" (like 12 Best Slow Cooker Recipes) even if the recipe titles themselves do not include the superlative. "Those are not the most-searched or the most highly-rated: Those are the twelve recipes with the best pictures." It's a common S.E.O. practice, one that's oftentimes behind the scenes at Food52, as well.
Copeland suspects that this best arms race coincided, at least partially, with the rise of aggregators like Allrecipes: "When a home cook, someone who had been told their cake had been the best cake ever at all their block parties" could upload a recipe and call it "the best," even if it was just for a personal annotation, it "became sort of this, well, if she says hers is the best, how will ours get any traffic if ours isn't also the best? Competition for online traffic and S.E.O. has really made a lot of people—professionals and amateur cooks and bakers—start to throw that term around."
At Food & Wine, Ujlaki recalls being "given a whole host of descriptors, language that [the S.E.O. team] felt was obviously going to be the most successful for us to use because it's certainly not how we would normally speak and certainly not how we would characterize or sell our recipes."
For food publications born on the internet (rather than branches off magazine trees), S.E.O.-conscious titles are not as alien-feeling. In the words of Serious Eats' Managing Culinary Director (and The Food Lab author) J. Kenji López-Alt, "you almost always want to include some sort of descriptive adjective—best, foolproof, quick and easy" to make your recipes stand out in the search results.
But while this proliferation of the “best” recipes might be, in the words of Ujlaki of Food & Wine, a “phenomenon born of S.E.O.,” it might not be born of an understanding of SEO that’s necessarily accurate.
“I would tell you right off the bat the Best Headline is not a formula for good S.E.O.,” Brian Lam, who runs The Wirecutter and The Sweethome, websites that rate gadgets and home gear for people who don’t want to spend a lot of time looking, wrote to me in an email. “It's not that simple.” Ultimately, “we [at The Wirecutter] don’t really pay attention to S.E.O.,” he said. “We just do awesome work and Google recognizes that because that is their job and they do it well.”
What does that mean? That out of the thousands of recipes on the web tagged "best banana bread," only a handful are published by sites deemed authorities—in Lam's words, doing "awesome work"—in the eyes of Google.
"These," Thurston said, "will typically outrank everyone else, even other websites that claim [their own recipe] to be the best." Websites with more backlinks (that is, referrals from other sites) and more powerful domains (like AllRecipes.com and Food.com) are ranked more highly in search results (with Google giving them, as Thurston said, "extra credit"). A newborn blog, even if it calls its banana bread the "best healthy, fast, and easy banana bread recipe, in the world, of all time" cannot compete.
There is no best magic wand.
And yet we continue to wave it. For fear that if everyone else is waving it, we might as well, too. It's a default modifier that, because everyone is using, no one cannot.
But "best" is especially relevant to dishes so classic you've already seen and tasted many versions: It's a way for publications to publish iconic recipes that feel neither redundant or contrived.
"We'll do pumpkin pie, but only if it's the best pumpkin pie in the entire world." That's a response Erin McDowell, a food stylist, recipe developer, and frequent Food52 contributor, might receive from a client if she's pitching a recipe that doesn't introduce a new twist or ingredient or technique. Posing a recipe as the very best, she thinks, is "a way that a publication can publish recipes that are more basic, because does the world need another pumpkin pie recipe? They do if it’s the world’s best."
But who judges whether something is "the world's best"? Since the superlative is so widely applied across publications and blogs of all calibers, and with no consistency, it can be hard to know: The amount of research and testing conducted, the number of tasters consulted (teams of editors; a group of reader-volunteers; one writer)—all of that differs widely from source to source.
Ujlaki of Food & Wine recalls putting her foot down every single time she was encouraged to give a recipe a click-worthy name. "We would only deploy that superlative if we really, really felt it." It's this sort of editorial discretion—and the knowledge that using "best" puts that publication's reputation on the line—that frequently determines which recipes receive the title. The BA's Best project at Bon Appétit, which is a collection of essential recipes to master, was pulled together from staff polls, cookbook research, expert and chef consultation, and test kitchen experimentation.
At other sites, testing may be more methodical and scientific. When López-Alt at Serious Eats calls something the best, he told me, "it means I've looked at the competition out there and I'm confident in saying that this version is better in some way."
Similarly, Cook's Illustrated—which has built its brand on "the best recipe," publishing a book by that name in 1999—employs a highly specific, highly scientific method. In the early days, they used to "throw those superlatives around loosely" without outlining the specific qualities by which to measure a "best cookie," Executive Food Editor Keith Dresser told me. But now, they're more careful to use specific descriptors that define C.I.'s version of that Platonic cookie so that you're not disappointed if a recipe gives you something with a snap when you're looking for a chew.
For Dresser, fulfilling that specific promise comes down to testing methodology that begins with a five-recipe test, in which an editor pulls examples of the dish that run the range from simple to complicated, supermarket ingredients to mail-order; they then cook, evaluate, splice, and fuse until they’ve got a working recipe. That recipe, along with an explanation of the particular result the team is trying to achieve, is then sent out to reader-volunteers as part of a survey process; the testers’ responses allow the Cook’s Illustrated team to refine the recipe while managing readers' expectations.
Or, on the other side of the spectrum, "the best" can be community-determined—like on AllRecipes, where anyone can peruse the ratings for the Best Brownies—and to varying degrees: Good Housekeeping chose to develop an Ultimate Potato Salad that was creamy rather than vinegary after polling their Facebook audience. But other times, said Associate Food Editor Sherry Rujikarn, "the decision to bill something as 'the best' or 'ultimate' or 'easiest ever' comes very late in the process because of what one of our top editors wants to turn into a cover line."
Most of Food52's "best recipes" are born from our contests, titled with the model "Your Best X, Y, or Z." These recipes are submitted by users (hence "your best"), then tested by other users and by recipe testers, which makes for a hybrid community-spawned, test kitchen-verified sort of system.
And then there are bloggers and recipe developers who work independently. Some of them might be adding "best" to their titles strategically, in order to garner more page views; others might believe, after hours and hours of hard work, that their version is the best. Are these recipes more or less likely to live up to their names when they're almost certainly tested and tasted by a smaller group?
As Spungen sees it, many bloggers are "working in isolation, all by themselves" where "they don't really have a whole lot to go on. They might be more inclined to rely on a convention that a more experienced journalist would not." Or, as Perry said, "you think you like one chocolate until you have it next to another chocolate"—that is, it takes experience and training and practice, she explained, to know when a recipe is special.
But then again, our testers found that the top search result for "best sweet potato fries"—a recipe not developed by a professional—worked incredibly well.
Does the fact that anyone can publish a banana bread recipe online and call it "the best" make the word meaningless?
Most who work on the content-production side (developing and naming and marketing the recipes) and most who have a role on the content-consumption side (making and eating them) know that this is true. "It should all be the best," said Spungen. "I'm always trying to come up with the best version; if you're really doing your job, you'd just call everything 'best.'" (Or, in the words of Deb Perelman, "And what, I was otherwise going through the effort of sharing a decidedly mediocre recipe for buttermilk biscuits?")
And still... as meaningless as "best" has become in this time of recipe saturation, it's consistently clickable on a psychological level, vapid and heavy at once. “Rationality doesn’t factor into what you’re going to click," said López-Alt. "You don’t think for more than half a second. You scan down the list of links quickly and pick the one that’s most interesting." And why wouldn’t that be the recipe that says it’s the best? Why would you choose anything else?
Perhaps our skepticism of the word has, ironically, given rise to a different sort of importance—not because we believe a recipe that claims to be the best actually will be, but because we’re so sure it can't possibly be.
“I’m drawn to it because I’m skeptical of it,” Nora Singley, food stylist, recipe developer, and culinary producer, told me. "When you label something as the best or the ultimate," Rujikarn of Good Housekeeping explained, "you just know you're setting yourself up for some criticism or backlash, but we still do it because it's a catchy way to title something and I think being a little provocative is okay when it comes to potato salad."
You're wondering which of these best breads won our informal office taste-test. Which of "the best" really was?
Ali Slagle spit out Food52's best, detecting "a terrible spice" (the only one in there? cinnamon) and preferred Martha Stewart's, which Kenzi Wilbur thought was so detestable that she tried to convince others to vote against it.
In the end, the Cook's Illustrated's and Baked by an Introvert's loaves got zero votes; Martha Stewart's got four; Taste of Home's got seven; Food52's got eight; and the squattest, squishiest, homeliest loaf, Bon Appétit's, got twelve. (Even our own C.O.O. Bridget Williams, deciding between Food52's and Bon Appétit's, picked our "competitor's" bread.)
And yet when Dawn Perry, the recipe developer who worked on BA's Best Banana Bread (which includes mascarpone and dark brown sugar and was created by cherry-picking the best qualities from fourteen of the staff's favorite recipes), made a loaf recently, her thought was, "I might still make some changes to this."
"The BA's Best recipes that I've worked on, I'm totally confident that they are delicious. Can I say with confidence that these taste good? Yes. Can I say with confidence that these will be your favorite? No, because that changes."
Perry's recommendation for choosing a recipe in the age of information onslaught is simple, with no S.E.O. or title tags or headline analytics involved: "Steer clear of any recipe that doesn't call for salt, best or not best."
Beyond that, personal best might have to be best enough.
Correction: This article first appeared calling MyRecipes a recipe aggregator; it has been corrected to Allrecipes.com.