“Failure is always an option is a phrase I came up and put on early crew hats as a Christmas gift early in the show. It’s not just a joke. It’s actually the cornerstone of our approach to the scientific method.” – Adam Savage, Mythbusters (sound).
I’ve been on a huge Mythbusters kick lately. I love their approach to pretty much everything, but especially when it comes to failure. Between the main five myth testers on the show, I would guess they have almost fifty years of crazy science experience and yet they still get stuff wrong all the time.
Last Sunday, I watched an episode of Mythbusters on Netflix and then went into the kitchen to try out a few recipes. Both were complete and utter failures.
I thought I heard Adam Savage sitting on my shoulder saying, “Any result is a result!”
True story Adam, but when I fail in the kitchen, I go hungry!
Why Failure is Important
When you are talking about a skill set that is a broad as “cooking” or even more broad “science”, experimentation is the key to learning. You can’t just read recipes all day and browse Pinterest boards and become a fabulous cook.
You have to get dirty.
Even if you’ve read a million dough recipes, you’ll never really know how to tell if dough is kneaded correctly unless you try it and end up with a few hockey pucks. The best way to learn how to make a good macaroni and cheese sauce is to burn one or two and then you’ll get it right.
Of course, this is hard to handle on any given night. Even if you know you might not nail 100% of every recipe you make, you still have to eat 100% of the days. Even if you know that you’re learning something you most likely still want to eat something.
That’s why it’s important to prepare.
Preparing for Failure
If you are cooking a lot, or even just learning, it’s always a good idea to have a few quick dishes on hand that you know you can pull out in the event of a catastrophe. These dishes should be surefire winners that you can nail every time and have ready at the drop of a hat.
This insures that if your triple layer flambeed whatchamacallit burns to a crisp, your family and your ego will survive to fight another day.
For me, these are the things that I always try to have on hand in the case of a massive recipe failure, which happens in my kitchen at least once a week.
Quesadillas – I usually have some tortillas, cheese, and salsa on hand. If I’m lucky, I’ll also have some leftover stuff that can be used as filling, but a can of black beans will do the trick also. It takes less than ten minutes to toss one together and they are pretty hard to mess up.
Frozen Soup – If you are a soup maker, double the next recipe you make and freeze it. If you find yourself in a recipe failure situation, you can just thaw it and dinner is served.
Big Salad – We usually have an assortment of random veggies in the fridge and if I have a recipe fail I’ll sometimes use it as an excuse to use some of the veggies in a big salad. I just chop up everything and stick it on a plate. Maybe I’ll bake some garlic bread if I’m not feeling too defeated.
Of course, there is always the option of phoning in some help also. I’m sure many restaurants in your area would love to come to your rescue!
Why Failure isn’t FAILURE
Any time you fail in the kitchen, it’s important to remember that failing once at one recipe isn’t really failing. You’re learning how to make that dish not right. Once you make something not right enough times, then you’ll eventually make it right and nobody will remember how many times you failed at it!
You will then be the expert at that dish and you can tell people why X, Y, and Z won’t work.
This is true in the kitchen and in life, people.
The Importance of Quick Wins
I think a lot of people know this about cooking. Many people know that they will fail at recipes, but it’s still a huge blow to the confidence. I’ll be the first to admit that it stings.
That’s why I think it’s really important to get some quick wins under your belt before you go big.
I’m sure Adam Savage’s first experiment was not a rocket car. It was probably turning a potato into a light bulb and I bet he NAILED IT.
Once you get a few quick wins under your belt, your confidence will be up and a failure or two won’t crush you.
Four Recipes I Fail at Repeatedly
No matter what, there will always be those nagging recipes that you just have trouble with no matter what.
For the Mythbusters, it seems to be rocket-related items.
For me, these are the things that I fail at most commonly.
1) Hard Boiled Eggs – Okay. It’s not that I can’t cook a hard-boiled egg, but I have a hard time cooking them perfectly with consistency. No matter how many different techniques I try, I’m never sure that my eggs will come out okay until I’m peeling them. I’d say I get it right about 80% of the time.
2) Soft Boiled Eggs – Shoot me in the thumbs I hate these. I will never willingly make them again after my great Eggsperiment.
3) Croissants – I think I’ve tried them three times over the years and I’ve never ended up with anything that at all resembled a croissant. I call them Croiss-aints, because they ain’t gonna happen in my kitchen.
4) Baked Fries – I had a friend challenge me a while ago to perfect baked sweet potato fries. After spending about a day of my life trying various methods, I’ve determined that it’s pretty hard to get it consistently right. Not impossible, but hard. I just fry them. Whatever.