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Why this Melbourne Christian is fighting fake baking hacks

Ann Reardon spends her days debunking misinformation on YouTube channel How to Cook That. Picture: supplied

Elspeth Kernebone

27 May 2024

A chocolate balloon dog, a 2000-year-old Pompeii honey cake, the world’s smallest dessert, a magic chocolate lava cake. You might not associate these with a fight for truth.  

But on YouTube, a dedicated baker is fighting misinformation rife across the channel’s cooking and craft videos. 

She’s a big name in YouTube’s cooking world, with 4.95 million subscribers. And, she’s a Christian living in Melbourne. 

But, did you misread? We’re relaxing on YouTube watching baking videos. Why is a fight for truth involved?  

How to Cook That started as a website for Ann Reardon to share her elaborate recipes, often requested by family and friends. YouTube was just a storage site for large files for her then. A “YouTuber” didn’t exist, certainly not as a profession.  

But, it’s turned into Mrs Reardon’s job. And her channel has become a platform to fight misinformation and disinformation perpetuated in some baking and craft “hacks”.

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Many of these videos are produced by extremely popular channels, churning out content. Some are incorrect, but at worst will leave you with a mess and wasted food. 

But some videos suggest “hacks” that can be deadly. 

In one debunking Mrs Reardon exposes of the risks of “fractal woodburning” – a trend that saw people turn a microwave transformer into a wood-burning tool, exposing themselves to an 2000 volt electric current, enough to kill instantly.  

At the time Mrs Reardon made her video at least 34 people had died in America in fractal woodburning accidents. 

Trust and truth 

Mrs Reardon believes her faith has shaped the values of truthfulness and care for others which drive her work. It’s also helped her retain perspective in the high stress environment of YouTube content creation, serving a constantly changing algorithm. 

It’s striking how calm Mrs Reardon’s videos are, in the loud, high-energy world of YouTube. 

The set design is colourful, almost childlike, with block colours, and big biscuit-style bubble lettered How to Cook That background. 

Mrs Reardon’s language is simple, her tone is measured, and her voice is soft.  

In fact, until I asked, I wasn’t sure what age her main audience was. It’s material that could be enjoyed by a 10-year-old as much as a 30-year-old. 

But with her level, simple tone, Mrs Reardon walks viewers through methods to assess the reliability of claims. In many videos she sets out to test a claim with an experiment, controls for variables, and looks at the results. Or she walks viewers through the research and principles which will help them understand whether a hack is likely to work. 

For instance, in response to a video from channel Five Minute Crafts claiming that if you wrap a watermelon in concrete, you can keep it fresh in the cupboard for three months, Mrs Reardon does just that. And, she puts a control – an unwrapped watermelon – in the cupboard with it, as well as one in the fridge.  

Does it work? A later video reveals Mrs Reardon’s husband Dave – a frequent character – opening each. You can guess the rest. 

The claims Mrs Reardon tests are often sent by fans, who’ve seen a clip and wondered whether it will work. 

It’s a move away from the channel’s original purpose: to share baking videos. But with the increasing monetisation of YouTube content Mrs Reardon saw misinformation and disinformation proliferate, and was driven to respond.  

Big companies could produce content at a speed which the algorithm loved – which couldn’t be matched by smaller scale creators. 

The videos were attractive, but the content was unreliable. 

Mrs Reardon posted videos explaining what was happening, and why the algorithm promoted content like this. And, she started receiving videos in return.

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People went from asking “Have you seen this?” to “Will this work?”

“It went from people being unsure why anyone would put something fake up, to then understanding that, and then being totally confused about what they could trust and couldn’t trust,” Mrs Reardon said. 

“Not knowing: ‘Does this work, doesn’t this work. Is this fake, isn’t this fake’.  

“I think we’ve moved from everybody trusted everything, to now everybody distrusts everything. How do I know who to trust is more the issue?” 

Mrs Reardon believes the key to building trust with an audience is always telling the truth. In her videos, she walks viewers through her testing process, to help them see what actually happens when you try some of the dubious hacks. 

Often Mrs Reardon will identify how a hack has been faked by its creators, breaking down the possible camera and editing tricks that make it look real. 

Baking success 

The channel’s ascent to popularity began the week Instagram launched video. By coincidence, Mrs Reardon had just released a video of the “Instagram dessert”, a normal-looking cake which, when cut, revealed an Instagram logo on every slice. It was picked up by news sites to use with their stories, and the channel grew from there. 

It’s easy to see what attracted viewers to the channel, then baking-focused. 

Mrs Reardon’s creations are spectacular. In her 500 plus videos, she makes everything from a Minecraft cake village; to dollhouse-sized doughnuts, wedding cake and apple pie; or a 3D Winnie The Pooh Cake; and balloon sugar bowls. 

(Mrs Reardon’s complex sweet treats date in part from her time as a youth worker. With a very low budget for the ministry, she would make events special by cooking as though they were at a restaurant). 

Her cake rescues document her taking cake fails posted on the internet, recreating the failed cake, and then bringing it together in an alternative format. Her advice is practical, achievable and kind. As a viewer, it’s satisfying watching a mess form into a tidy cake.  

Or her 200-year-old recipe videos take viewers through recreation of historic desserts, with historic ingredients and techniques, and document her family’s reactions. Trifle made with gelatin derived from the juice of roasted chickens*, is “very strange” and “not very pleasant”. Medieval doughnuts are “delicious”.

Why does it matter? 

Now it’s obvious why a deadly “craft hack” like fractal woodburning needs debunking. But what of the smaller scale hacks that just won’t work? Why does it matter if people proceed through life thinking beating icecream and icing sugar should produce “icecream frosting”? 

Again, it comes back to care for her viewers – seeing them as people whose time, money and ingredients are as valuable as hers. And, Mrs Reardon believes that uncorrected, the fake hacks can affect children’s confidence and nutrition over their lifetime. 

“I always had people commenting on some of the recipes we debunked saying ‘I tried that recipe’. And it’ll be kids saying they tried that recipe, it failed, and now their parents have told them they can’t cook any more. 

“That makes a difference to kids’ lives. If they’re trying things and then failing at it, and then now they’re not allowed to cook. That’s completely different to if their childhood memories are and things are working, and they’re getting praised by people in the family going, ‘That’s yummy, you did really well.’” 

Where Mrs Reardon’s calm and method stand out on YouTube, her faith also helps her gain perspective on the high-stress world of YouTubing. There’s the criticism that comes with being a public figure – often in the comments section. And there’s the uncertainty of success. It’s not like a normal job, with a regular income, and a regular manager. 

Even now, the introduction of YouTube shorts is having a huge effect on the platform. Where once YouTube pushed content creators for longer, high quality content, it’s flipped the strategy to push for TikTok-like videos. This puts creators under a huge amount of stress. 

Whereas for Mrs Reardon, yes it’s her job, but it’s not that big a deal. 

Read more: Tanya’s journey from pumping iron to the priesthood

“You’re basically working for a robot algorithm which changes its mind every second about what it wants, doesn’t tell you what it wants, and will pay you according to whether you meet what it wants or not,” Mrs Reardon said. 

“You also, as with anybody with a public-facing job cop comments and criticism from all over the world. 

“On that personal level, having that relationship with God, knowing there’s more to life than your work, there’s more to life than your money, there’s more to life than what other people say about you. I don’t know how people cope with that level of stress without that.” 

*The chicken juices are a substitute for the traditional, but unavailable, cows feet. 

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