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False information on the internet is hiding the truth about onions

Google changed the search results on how long it takes to caramelize onions after Tom Scocca's recent blog post. Sean Gallup/Getty Images

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Tom Scocca has made it his personal mission to bring truth to the internet when it comes to caramelizing onions. Frustrated by recipes grossly understating the amount of time necessary for onions to turn brown and soft in a pan, he wrote a blog post for Slate in 2012 to correct the record. But recent developments prompted him to revisit the issue in a piece for Gizmodo headlined “Google’s algorithm is lying to you about onions and blaming me for it.” He talked with Marketplace host Kai Ryssdal about what happened. Below is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Kai Ryssdal: Tell me about caramelized onions, man, because honestly, it’s probably one of the biggest lies in cooking, right?

Tom Scocca: It is! About five years ago, I finally reached my boiling point about this fact. I was reading a recipe in the New York Times — and it wasn’t even a recipe that I meant to cook. I think it was a recipe for some savory scones, but it said that if you chopped up your onions, and you threw them in a pan, and you cooked them for five minutes, and then you cooked it for five minutes more, you would have golden brown, sweet caramelized onions to put in your scones. And I said, “No, you won’t. You won’t be anywhere near it.” [It takes] most of an hour, 45 minutes, an hour depending on how hard you do it. And I had seen things like this over and over again, so I wrote an article for Slate about it where I actually tried to cook caramelized onions as fast as I could and on high heat. I got it done in like 29 minutes. But it was miserable. You’re just starting like crazy to get it done. So I wrote about this, about how all these recipes always lie about how long it’s going to take.

Ryssdal: Exactly. So, you write about it in Slate, and now here comes this piece in Gizmodo headlined “Google’s algorithm is lying to you about onions and blaming me for it.” Tell me about that.

Scocca: Right. So, I wrote the Slate piece, and it was actually sort of a success. It got the New York Times to change its approach to writing about onions. I kept hearing from people who had thought they were bad cooks and then learned that in fact they had just been following bad recipes. And so I put this down as a little bit of progress against the darkness of falsehood.

Ryssdal: But then, you noticed —

Scocca: Yeah. So, I read these articles that were coming out in the last week or two about how Google has this new feature that’s supposed to give you the one true answer to a question you type in. Instead of just feeding you a list of things, it pops out in a big box and tells you what the one true answer is. And the problem is that people discovered that if you ask it if Barack Obama is planning a coup d’etat against the U.S. government, it says “Yes, he is.” If you ask it, “Is MSG poisonous,” it says, “It certainly is.” Because bad information that people passionately believe has a way of rising to the top. So, when I saw this, I thought about the onions again, and I thought about how this was a false thing that there was a lot of information about. So, I typed in “How long does it take to caramelize onions?” and I was shocked by what I got. Not only did it have the wrong information, but it had the wrong information because it was citing my piece.

Ryssdal: Now, we should say, that in the days, what, week or so since this post was published, Google has in fact changed the search results, right? So, you’ve changed two things: You’ve changed the New York Times and you’ve changed Google.

Scocca: Right. Unfortunately, it’s not that it’s not really that uplifting, because I am assuming that this required some manual intervention on their part. Because what happened was, its automated information sniffing system just went in, found this article that I guess people had pointed to as something about how long it takes to do this, and then it saw that at the top of the piece, it talks about taking five minutes, and then taking five minutes more, which should mean 10 minutes. But Google just said, “Oh, it takes five minutes.” So, a piece that was meant to debunk bad information ended up bunking it instead.

Ryssdal: Boy, I’ve never heard that — “bunking it.” So, do you still deal with caramelized onions, or do you just skip recipes with caramelized onions in them?

Scocca: I throw them in the Crock-Pot overnight.

Ryssdal: Oh, that’s so smart.

Scocca: They become a little juicy, and you might need to dry them out in the pan a bit before you actually use them, but it’s a lot faster.

Ryssdal: Tom Scocca is a special projects desk guy at Gizmodo. Tom, thanks very much.

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