Four times a week, New York Times food editor Sam Sifton writes his cooking newsletter to some three million people around the world.

“It’s a practice, almost in the religious sense of the word. Buddhists sit, I write newsletters,” Mr. Sifton said to a rapt audience at the Harbor View Hotel in Edgartown Thursday afternoon.

Cook the Vineyard editor and author Susie Middleton led the wide-ranging, insightful and often funny conversation titled All the Food That’s Fit to Eat. The event was sponsored by the Vineyard Gazette Media Group as part of this weekend’s Martha’s Vineyard Food & Wine Festival.

Mr. Sifton’s newsletter is just part of his work as editor of NYT Cooking, the subscription-only service he founded that also includes a database of the newspaper’s extensive recipe archive, how-to guides and cooking videos.

Before launching NYT Cooking, Mr. Sifton was the national editor, restaurant critic and culture editor at the New York Times. He is also a columnist for the newspaper’s Sunday magazine.

While only the digital age could have produced NYT Cooking, it has a strictly analog predecessor, created by a man who was the paper’s food editor long before Mr. Sifton was born.

Craig Claiborne’s The New York Times Cookbook, published in 1961, was “a national bestseller at a time when the New York Times was not a national newspaper” and has proved its staying power, Mr. Sifton told the audience.

“I kept running into that cookbook in people’s kitchens,” he said. “So when the chance came to transform the dead article assets of these recipes that we had online into a searchable database, I had a hunch that we might be able to capture that lightning in a bottle a second time—although not a bottle, a phone,” Mr. Sifton added, as the audience laughed.

Online is also where NYT Cooking readers will find a brand-new recipe first, Mr. Sifton said.

“I love [print] dearly, but that’s literally the last place it shows up,” he said.

Still, Mr. Sifton said, “in some ways, the most important thing we do is print the paper and send it out.”

Audience members applauded heartily as he added, “The notion that there is a boat coming here every morning with our newspaper on it, I love that and I will love that until the day I die.”

When choosing recipes to publish on NYT Cooking, Mr. Sifton has to keep a number of things in mind.

“You don’t have to cook with the seasons, but you’re kind of a jerk if you don’t,” he said.

On the other hand, with many of his readers in Australia, Mr. Sifton can’t rely too heavily on “seasonal” recipes. When North Americans are eating summer salads, people in the Southern Hemisphere want hearty stews, he said.

Fortunately, Mr. Sifton said, today’s online retailers can supply home cooks with almost any ingredient, however exotic.

“The idea that you can’t find an ingredient or a condiment or an herb is no longer the case,” he said.

Asked by Ms. Middleton how his news experience has influenced his food work, Mr. Sifton began with his stint as culture editor.

“It’s my belief that restaurant criticism is a form of culture criticism, no different from dance criticism or literary criticism, architecture criticism or the like,” he said.

Thinking as a news editor, on the other hand, he sees a “desire to use cooking and recipes as a way of understanding the world in which we live.”

Writing his email newsletter four times a week “allows me to really think almost every day about our users, and what they are thinking about,” which isn’t always cooking, Mr. Sifton said.

“We don’t eat food in a vacuum,” he said. “When the news is bad, when a terrible thing has happened in the world, our [readership] numbers go up.”

Part of the increase comes from people taking refuge from distressing news, but Mr. Sifton said that for others, “it’s about bringing succor to loved ones, so that at the end of a terrible day ... to gather together and to serve those people is a great thing to do and makes people feel better.”

Mr. Sifton also discussed his upcoming cookbook, See You on Sunday, a follow-up to his book Thanksgiving: How to Cook it Right. The new book is a call for family-style meals, with recipes that can easily be scaled up or down.

“By the way, it doesn’t have to be Sunday. This isn’t a Christian tract,” he said. “It’s an argument in favor of gathering with friends and family on a regular cadence. . . please, more often than just every Thanksgiving.”

For a list of remaining events, visit mvfoodandwine.com. Sign up for Sam Sifton's cooking newsletter here. Sign up for the Cook the Vineyard newsletter here.