What Screwing Up In The Kitchen Teaches The Home Cook

Failure is the foundation of culinary success

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If you have ever, to use a sports metaphor, outkicked your coverage in the kitchen, you know exactly what it feels like to be a foodie failure. Staring at all your friends’ perfect Instagrams of perfect pasta and home-canned jams while standing in the middle of your own flour-coated nightmare doesn’t do much to inspire you to try again. If you’ve really dedicated yourself to being a great home cook—the kind worthy of Instagram!—screwing up in the kitchen has a much deeper effect than the frustration of having to dump it all in the trash and order pizza.

Instead, it creeps into your psyche. Maybe you’re not as good as you think you are. Maybe your friends just flatter you and then pick up fast food on the way home from your dinner parties. It’s easy to feel like a culinary fraud, especially if you spend any amount of time in nice restaurants. The chefs at fine dining establishment effortlessly turn out flaky pie crusts and perfect chicken liver mousses, while yours look like something out of a horror film, no matter how many recipes you’ve read or YouTube videos you’ve watched on the subject.

There is real shame in not knowing how to cook something, especially if you fancy yourself a culinary mind. If you’ve never made fresh pasta or tried to pickle something at home, it’s almost as if you’ve failed to unlock the top tiers of the imaginary “Cooking Achievement” badge, the ones that might mean you have some real chops. If you have tried to make those things—typically only found in four-star kitchens or your Grandma’s house—only to end up with a useless pile of dough or a harrowing near-miss with botulism, it’s a particularly nasty blow.

When we fail in the kitchen, we feel like failures at life. Cooking is a skill that “adults” are supposed to know how to do, even in this era of on-demand mobile phone food delivery and meal preparation services that take all the thinking and guesswork out of making dinner. But we’re not particularly set up for success, either. Unless you’ve paid for a pricey culinary education, your first foray into the food world was likely replicating something from Food Network, or if you’re particularly lucky, your high school cooking class.

This stands in pretty sharp contrast to the trajectory of professional chefs. In culinary school, chefs work tirelessly to perfect the basics—stocks, mother sauces, the correct way to dice an onion—and then move on to more complicated tasks once they’ve fully mastered the fundamentals. When you’re cooking at home, you’re bombarded with thousands, perhaps millions, of fancy recipes from across the globe in cookbooks, passed down from family, in the pages of magazines, even locally-created DIY food zines.

Many of these recipes assume a pretty basic level of skill. If the recipe calls for mirepoix, it assumes that you know how to prepare the mirepoix in the correct proportion and dice size. When asked to make a roux, the recipe rarely bothers to tell you whether or not you should caramelize the butter and flour to a light, golden hue, or a more assertive dark brown. As such, we are all left to tinker and try to perfectly execute the basic components of a recipe without really understanding them.

The first time you try to make a roux, for example, is indicative of the process. Inevitably, you will scorch the flour or fail to perfectly incorporate the flour, resulting in a lumpy, glue-y mess. Perhaps you don’t realize that you’ve done anything wrong—why would you?—and you proceed to make the bechamel or the demi-glace. It, of course, tastes terrible, and your ineptitude is to blame. If your experience is particularly bad, maybe you don’t ever try it again, but in most cases, the type of people who enjoy cooking tend to be the type of people who also enjoy solving problems.

And so you research. You watch 19 videos on YouTube of cooks perfectly (and tediously) whisking roux. Perhaps you realize where you’ve gone wrong, too much flour or too little butter or not enough browning. Or maybe you’re just the type of learner that absorbs information visually, and needed to get your eye on the whisking technique to perfect this particular skill. Perhaps you have a scientific mind, and needed to know why the browning of the proteins is important. Either way, when you step back in front of the saucepan, that second roux is better.

In the kitchen, practice makes perfect, as horribly cliche as that adage may be. But what also makes perfect is knowledge, and that comes almost exclusively through failure. No matter how many cookbooks you read or recipes you try, you’re not going to know what is good, what looks right, until you’ve seen what looks objectively wrong. Fucking up gives the home cook a foundation, a place to start from, a place to grow.

No doubt, it is frustrating to scrape an entire batch of bechamel sauce made with a $7 carton of organic heavy cream directly into the trash. But if you’ve never tried to turn butter, flour, milk, and cheese into the silky, rich heaven that is bechamel sauce, frankly, you should expect failure. They don’t call it a mother sauce for no reason—it gives birth to the rest of the cuisine, for sure, but it can be a real mother to master if you don’t understand the process.

Too frequently, especially in the kitchen, we don’t understand the processes that make food delicious. We don’t know why placing starchy root vegetables into a 400-degree oven produces infinitely more delicious results than steaming those same vegetables whole. Often, the information that we do have turns out to be incorrect, like searing steak to “seal in the juices” or adding olive oil to pasta to keep it form sticking. When we fuck up, we expose the process to ourselves, and in turn, expose ourselves to deeper understanding.

And sure, that may sound a little woo-woo for a crowd that spends most of their time calculating sous vide temperatures an exact tenth of a degree or obsessing over perfectly-proportioned flavor profiles. It is entirely true that you cannot divorce the art of cooking from its scientific foundations, any chef will tell you that. As much as we are passionate about cooking, we’ll never be any good at it if we refuse to understand the very real scientific rules that govern how we experience and develop flavors.

It is also true that you typically shouldn’t set out to fail in the kitchen. Sometimes, though, it can be a beneficial exercise, especially when incorporated into your regular cooking routine. Perhaps you’re pretty sure that you’ve not developed the kitchen skills to create perfectly fluffy gnocchi just yet, but you learned how to make pierogi from your grandma as a kid. The fundamentals of pierogi and gnocchi are pretty similar, which means that you can make small adjustments to the dough in the beginning, and experiment with this unfamiliar Italian pasta-dumpling-thing. Cut a few gnocchi, drop them into boiling water. If they taste like crap, use the rest of your prepared potatoes for pierogi, and figure out how where you went wrong while you eat your delicious Polish dumplings.

Even more simply, set aside a carrot or onion and work on getting a perfectly even dice to improve your knife skills. They may end up looking like you hacked them to death in the beginning, but you’ll eventually get the hang of it, and you can always save those screwed-up carrots and onions for making stock (another essential skill) later. If you don’t have the time to take a few hours (or weeks, or days) master a specific skill that you’ve been dying to try, learning technique in bits and pieces can be equally beneficial.

You will likely fail a great deal in this pursuit, but each and every individual failure has something to teach the home cook, even if they’re just trying to be really good at a few dishes or have no desire to ever end up in a professional setting. Every time you screw up, make an effort to figure out exactly why you’ve screwed up, and you’ll find that your cooking skills are progressing much more quickly than when you were spending all that time poring over recipes and food blogs. You may move along slowly, depending on how skilled you are, and that’s entirely okay. There’s no timeline for becoming a really great cook.

Most exciting, though, are those times when your failures result in something that is truly delicious. It may happen rarely, but sometimes your intended result (perfect apple pie filling, beautifully roasted chicken) can be reinvented into something that just might become your new favorite (homemade chai-spiced applesauce, chicken salad with fruits and nuts). Many times, though, you’ll just end up dumping it all in the trash. As long as you try again, and maybe again and again, your fuck-ups will ultimately result in some pretty delicious successes.

Amy McCarthy has screwed up in the kitchen a lot, and isn’t afraid to admit it.

Messy burner photo by Iwan Gabovitch CC BY

Burned muffin photo by dahon CC BY-ND

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