Cooking With Confidence
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Musings

Failure is Always An Option

by Nick

“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.

The same should go if you’re just getting started in the kitchen. Maybe find a grilled cheese recipe, a soup, a salad, or something pretty straightforward.

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.

 Have you had any recipe failures recently? What did you learn? Leave a comment!

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33 comments on “Failure is Always An Option

  1. I make my own taco seasoning, and I just put each ingredient into the sizzling pan of meat as it is almost done cooking. Last time I made tacos, when I went to thicken the sauce, I pulled out the baking powder instead of the cornstarch. I mixed it with a little cool water, and I poured it into the pan. When it foamed, I was a little surprised… and then I looked on the counter and realized what I had done. The worst part is, we ate it anyway. It didn’t taste very good, but my husband sure is a good sport!

        1. Ohhh, I thought I was the only one who grabbed cinnamon instead of cumin!! Chili tasted ehhh, not too many complaints from the family!

  2. I fail in the kitchen all the time. But I did once make croissants and they were perfect. I had an episode of Julia Child on my dvr (from PBS!) so I sat and watched her make them (several times) and I wrote down every step. That’s probably not helpful to you…but if you can find that episode, you’ll be able to make perfect croissants!

  3. I tried cooking jicamas last night (in a curry). They just would not soften!! I wish I had googled that information before I started. They stayed crunchy — which I personally don’t mind, but DH and DS hated.
    Lesson learnt: don’t waste fuel on cooking jicamas. Slaws and salads are the way to go.

  4. When I clean our stove top off, I take the little knobs off to clean under them. If I’m not careful and I don’t put them back in the right spot, this can cause some confusion about turning the electric burner to “high” instead of “low” when I use the stove after. This has caused scorched rice / a ruined pot / failed dinner twice now….
    One additional backup for failure: Live within walking distance of some restaurants.

  5. I fail often, but we tend to try and eat it anyway, my husband is an awesome sport like that. The thing I consistently fail at? Mac and cheese; it doesn’t matter how careful I am, how vigorously I stir, etc., my homemade version of mac’n’cheese is going to be grainy and disgusting. So, I never make it homemade anymore, because that’s a pretty expensive dish to screw up.

    Try this method for hard boiled eggs, it’s never failed me: http://www.goodegg.com/boiledegg.html

    And for croissants, they just recently had an episode on America’s Test Kitchens where they made them, and it didn’t seem to hard. Have you tried that one yet?

      1. I hope it helps! I always like to try and return the favor to bloggers who’ve been especially helpful to me, and goodness knows I’ve gotten a lot of ideas and tips from here! :-)

  6. For me it’s biscuits. No matter how gentle I am with the dough, they are never light – always dense and a little doughy. Lucky for me, I love a dense and doughy biscuit, but am not happy about putting them on the table for anyone else to eat.

  7. Your egg cups over the weekend reminded me: I just can’t seem to get hashbrowns right! My potatoes always seem to oxidize or something, as they turn really purply-brown while I am drying them out and cooking them in the fry pan. Ideas?

    My variation on the hard-boiled eggs recipe linked above: Eggs, water, reach a rolling boil and turn off the heat. Let stand for 13 minutes. Remove to ice bath.

    1. Do you soak them first Bill? Soaking them in water for a few minutes solved all my purple issues. Just remember to dry them off before cooking them.

    2. I love making hash-browns! I always rinse them and then toss them in a little olive oil, salt pepper and red pepper flakes. I then throw them in a warm pan and cover them so the moisture steams them, stirring on occasion. After they are soft, I take the lid off and let them brown and get crunchy on the outside. Soft inside, crunchy outside. My daughter then insists I layer them with cheese and we eat immediately! YUM!

  8. The only true failure is not trying in the first place. My favorite cooking confidence booster is to make a pan of brownies (using a recipe that has never failed me) before I tackle a complicated dish for the first time.

    I have had some cake failures (didn’t rise properly or did so unevenly) that I’ve turned around by crumbling the cake into dishes, covering it with frozen fruit and whipped cream for a treat that my guests didn’t know was a failure until I told them. And yes, I told them.

  9. My biggest failure was an attempt to pan fry breaded tilapia. It came out tasting like flour and just kind of soupy…the whole thing fell apart. Also, it’s not strictly a failure since they still taste good and get eaten without complaint, but I have never managed to get latkes to come out like the perfectly fluffy things my mom makes. They aren’t even the same animal. (I suppose I could just ask her, but…….)

  10. I have just started on whole food cooking and even trying some freezer cooking and it seems to be about 50-50 latley with everything. i made about 6 lasagnas which i have made a million times one was runny and watery, the other didn’t have enough sauce and the noodles on top crisped and the other just would not cook n we ended up with pizza and i had to reheat it the next day! Worst part is my husband who thinks hes a great cook but i have yet to see him make anything thats not grilled, always complains like crazy and tells me i should just stick to what i know… which honestly is about 6 things! If you don’t count all the processed stuff i have just bought in the past.

  11. I also have an egg problem…I can’t make poached no matter how many tutorials I try. I solved the hard-and-soft boiled problem with one of these….
    http://www.amazon.com/Norpro-Egg-Rite-Timer/dp/B00004UE75
    Maybe you’ve already tried it, but if not I highly recommend it. Since it is in the water instead of just timing, it can tell if your eggs are cooking faster or slower than usual. I’ve had really good luck with it and can now replace the poached eggs with soft boiled when I want an egg to break over grits or toast.

    1. I am always amazed that the cooking school inside of the specialty cooking store in my city offers egg poaching as a class, but it must be because so many decent cooks can’t pull it off. I think Smitten Kitchen’s instructions are pretty solid…

      1. Oh I can poach eggs like a beast. I would say I can get them right 95% of the time. Soft boiled is another thing…

  12. I can’t do hard-boiled eggs consistently on the stove either. So now? I steam them in my rice cooker. 2 cups of water, 21 minutes in steaming basket (measured from when you first start to heat the water). I assume you could do this in a steaming basket on the stove too, but I haven’t tried.

  13. I am very inconsistent with rice. My last batch was sticky but burned on the bottom. No wonder people have rice cookers.

  14. I hear you on eggs. I think it is actually partially due to nature. Older eggs are better for hardboiling, and I’m not sure what is best for softboiling, they’re just pesky. I can’t fry an egg properly to save my life. I still do it, but I break the yolk or forget to get the pan hot and I never can duplicate my Mom’s crispy-lace edged eggs. Still, they are such a natural delicacy when you get them right, you shouldn’t quit! Why is it the simple things that stump us? I need to read up on grilled cheese sandwiches. The last two I’ve made have been half burnt, half soggy. How is it possible for someone who is into cooking can’t figure out a thing most 10 year olds in America are permitted to cook without supervision? Whenever we have guests I tell my husband that I can always order pizza if I ruin the meal. Fortunately, most of the ruined meals only happen when it is the two of us.

    1. The other time I ruin meals is when my mother-in-law is staying with us. This is no joke, something in the kitchen breaks, falls off the wall, and breaks multiple things, or I pull the handle off of my oven door, or I make blueberry muffins that resemble hockey pucks. And I have only been married 3 years, so this is a very high percentage return on kitchen disasters!

  15. I read this post and some of the comments, then walked downstairs to cook dinner and put cloves instead of chili powder in my fajitas!!!!

  16. Things I have learned recently from kitchen mistakes mostly have to do with preserving, because I’ve been making a million tiny little jars of jams and jellies as wedding favors:

    Reprocessing a batch sucks when you’re using tiny jars.

    Be patient with liquid pectin. It sets slower than when you use powdered, and sometimes you’re lucky and just when you think you’ll need to reprocess something else, it sets!

  17. My recent fail was thinking that Michelob Ultra Light Cider would be a good base for a pork shoulder injection. Apples and pork, right?

    Threw away a cooked 8 lb pork shoulder.

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