I consider myself, for the most part, to be an above-average home cook. I can braise and make a perfect bearnaise and most of the time, I don’t even burn the food that I serve. But sometimes, even the most well-established home cook can have a colossal screw-up, and they generally present themselves as deceptively easy tasks that go terribly awry, like setting a pot of boiling pasta on fire (done it) or turning a grilled cheese sandwich into straight-up carbon (yup, that too).
But those at-home screw-ups are infinitely worse when you’re following a very specific set of directions and using pre-measured ingredients. Over the past few weeks, I have been testing food delivery services, the companies that send you a box of pre-selected meals and all the ingredients you need to make them. On the surface, these recipes are completely idiot-proof, the culinary equivalent of putting together a jigsaw puzzle meant for kindergarteners.
Which probably means that I entered into this grand experience a little too cocky. After writing my own recipes and executing those written by others pretty damn well since my early 20s, I assumed that there was nothing in these boxes, seemingly cultivated for people who don’t have a lot of culinary knowledge, that could stump me. When I first opened that neatly-wrapped little box of prepared ingredients, I just knew that I was going to make the best box dinner that anyone had ever made in the history of on-demand, organically-minded meal delivery services.
The recipe I had chosen was paella, a dish that is deceptively difficult. The ingredients included dry-cured chorizo, plump fresh shrimp, green peas, and arborio rice. I cast aside the tiny packet of sodium-filled stock concentrate in favor of my own rich, homemade chicken stock, assuming that it would be the key to making this paella much more interesting. Of course, as any meddling home cook would, I couldn’t resist adding in a few ingredients of my own—a few more strands of saffron infused into the chicken stock, a little fresh serrano pepper for heat.
If you’ve ever made paella before, you know the most crucial part of the dish is that delicious, golden-crispy-brown crust that forms on the bottom, known as soccarat. It is at once rich, infused with the flavor of the stock and spices, and crispy-crunchy. Without that soccarat, you’ve only got a pile of rice with some protein and veg, a sort of Spanish fried rice, if you will. As such, I aggressively pursued that crisp crust, to disastrous results.
Once the liquid had rendered away from the skillet that I’d used—who the hell owns a paella pan these days?—I started to see the little indications that the soccarat was forming. Around the edges of the pan, the rice had begun to crisp to that perfect golden brown, but a quick stir indicated that the middle of the pan hadn’t quite gotten there yet. I added a little more of my rich, saffron-infused stock, and cranked up the heat. My crappy apartment range isn’t particularly reliable to heat evenly through the middle, which means that higher heating temperatures are pretty much par for the course.
And still, that soccarat refused to form. I cranked up the heat a little higher, still just above medium-high, and waited. Within a matter of seconds, the undercooked, still soupy rice had turned directly into a blackened, burned mess. The perfume of burning rice filled the apartment, but I assured myself that it would just add a little smokiness to my dish. I pulled the skillet off of the flame, set it aside to cool for a moment, and prepared the rest of my dinner.
When I went back to that skillet to serve the paella, I realized that the entire bottom half had stuck like blackened glue to the bottom of what was supposed to be an anonized, non-stick skillet. Not even Thor’s hammer itself could have pried those blackened grains away from the bottom of the skillet, much less my pitiful attempts at scraping them away with a spatula. I salvaged the very top of the dish, where the plump shrimp had cooked to a perfect translucense, and hoped for the best. In the meantime, I left the skillet soaking in a (probably caustic) mixture of scouring powder and Fabuloso, the Latin American cleaning powerhouse that can practically peel paint away from adjacent walls.
Sitting down to my dinner, I realized that the smoky flavor had more than just permeated the dish, it had completely taken it over. It was sort of like eating paella that had been cooked directly on top of burning wood coals, with plenty of disgusting ash mixed right in. I powered through the shrimp and a few bites of chorizo before ultimately tossing the rest of the pan into the trash. I decided to have a peanut butter and jelly sandwich instead, a recipe I was sure that I couldn’t fuck up.
But then, there was still the matter of that damn skillet. After soaking for a few hours in the aforementioned caustic chemical nightmare, it still was entirely coated in a black film. Any time I tried to use a scouring pad or sponge to pry it away, the nonstick coating flaked away like old skin. Eventually, I decided to put it back on the stove with some boiling water, which still couldn’t remove the stains, even after about 15 minutes on high heat.
At that point, I was totally defeated, and threw the skillet into the trash in the most grandiose of fashions. It still hadn’t occurred to me just yet that I might have underestimated this recipe, only that the delivery box company who shall not be named had sent me a faulty kit. But then I searched Instagram, and found gorgeous plates of paella from people who had managed to follow the directions without ruining one of their favorite pieces of cookware.
There is nothing more defeating than knowing that you’ve royally screwed up a recipe that is supposed to be idiot-proof, but there is also a very important lesson to be learned here. Cooking isn’t exactly something that can be done on auto-pilot, even if most of the work is done for you. When you’re making any dish, especially something as involved as paella, there still has to be a pretty intense attention to detail, one that I’d completely neglected in favor of assuming that my dinner would just magically come together because it had been sent to me in a neat, clean package with explicit instructions.
Fortunately, the rest of my experiments with delivery dinners have been remarkably successful, and I have the paella to thank for that. Even if I think that those pita burgers are going to be too easy to pay much attention to, I know that I’ve got to measure those ingredients properly and cook them correctly if want the recipe to turn out correctly. And perhaps more importantly, it was a humbling reminder that even people who are generally pretty good in the kitchen—chefs included—are capable of royally screwing up.
Amy McCarthy is Paste’s Assistant Food Editor. She’s still pretty pissed about losing that skillet.