When Recipes Go Wrong


When Recipes Go Wrong

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If you’ve ever experimented in the kitchen (with food), you’ve probably had that moment. You know the one I’m talking about. The moment where you look down at something on a plate or in a bowl and say, “WHERE DID I GO WRONG?!”

To anyone watching from outside the kitchen your cooking, on that day, looks like the food version of Double Dare. Your poor dinner guests are saying things under their breath like, “Did he just put sake and peanut butter in the salad dressing?”

And you did. Because you were flying by the seat of your freakin’ pants.

I lived this a few nights ago and, as expected, it resulted in a big time fail.


This all started when an overwhelming majority of you lovely readers voted for me to try and fix the Drunken Prawn Salad Disaster that Robin made on Top Chef last week. I knew I had some things stacked against me right away: 1) I wasn’t able to find prawns. Large shrimp would have to work. 2) I don’t have a grill. A grill pan would have to work.

Turns out neither of those things worked.

One of the problems I had with Robin’s dish on the show was that it seemed like it was all over the place. There was sausage and Romaine lettuce and crazy prawns. I thought I would simplify it (yea right) by marinating the shrimps in a sake marinade (which wasn’t too bad after all), and then serving them over some “grilled” bok choy and red peppers with a peanut sauce.

It was horrible.

Maybe the worst thing I’ve ever cooked. The shrimp were chewy and I should have de-shelled them. The veggies were soggy. The peanut sauce was awful. The best thing about the whole dish was the crispy baked wonton strips that I made as a garnish.

Looking back after the fallout, I decided that there were some clear signs of failure that I should have seen. So instead of posting some version of this recipe, I thought I would spell out some of these signs so maybe you can avoid them!

Signs that the meal you are making might suck

1) You’re using ingredients that you aren’t familiar with AND you have no recipe to follow. If either of these things is true you might be okay. If both are true, you are probably reaching a bit. For the above meal, my dressing wasn’t very good because I tried to use too many ingredients that I wasn’t familiar with and I had no recipe to guide me.

2) You’re kitchen exploded. By that I mean you’re disorganized. You have ten different bowls with stuff in them and strange bottles of weird ingredients all over the place.

I do my best cooking when I have everything laid out. For this meal, I was pulling stuff out on the fly and adding it to the dish. There was no plan.

3) You’re rushed! Sometimes it’s okay to be rushed in the kitchen. I have a number of meals that I’ve made so many times, I could probably make them blindfolded in a few minutes. But if you’re making something for the first time, add 15 or 30 minutes onto the prep time.

4) You’re over-confident. Don’t try to fake yourself into thinking you know what you don’t know. There is nothing more humbling than serving inedible food.

5) Your cat doesn’t want it. Ok. Maybe that’s just me. But my cat wants to at least smell everything I cook. It’s normally a constant battle to keep her out of the dish. On the above occasion, she stayed well on the other side of the room.

Ok. But what if it’s too late? What if you’re meal has already derailed and crashed into the mountain?

The best thing you can do is notice that the recipe is sucking before its done. That means that you might be able to salvage some of it. The best way to ensure this is to:

1) Taste as you go. This sounds simple but I fail to do it all the time. If you taste each individual piece of your dinner and everything tastes great by itself, it will most likely taste great together. If I would have done this, I would have been left with shrimp and wontons. That would have been better than what I served.

2) Be honest with yourself. If you taste it and it tastes bad, don’t convince yourself that it will taste better later. It probably won’t. There might be some exceptions to this rule, but not many. Don’t be afraid to start over on part of the dish.

But what if you’ve finished the dish?! What if you’ve served the whole thing and you take that first bite and realize all of your failures. What if your fiancée is giving you a look that says, “Honey, I love you, but if you and I were on Top Chef, and we were the last two competitors, I would win. And all I made was two glasses of water.”

What then?

First, admit defeat. Don’t try to pretend its good. That just makes it worse.

Second, do the dishes. If you made a bad meal, don’t make someone else clean up your stinky pots of FAIL.

Third, order pizza.

Seriously though, how do you deal with or prevent recipe failure?

13 Responses to “When Recipes Go Wrong” Leave a comment

  1. I agree about not rushing, and about dealing with too many ingredients that you aren't familiar with while not following a recipe.

    My disasters tend to occur when I'm cocky and trying to do something else along with cook. Like talk on the phone. Those would be the days I substitute 2 cups of sugar for 2 cups of salt. (Not literally, but close).

  2. I agree with "the projectivist" — the picture looks GREAT!

    I love that you post some of your "fails" too…it actually is really great insight and helpful for us novices!

  3. I generally don't experiment on friends. I am a great cook, and make wonderful food, but if I am creating something brand new, I generally limit it to those that I know love me and would be ok tossing an entire dish in the trash….

  4. well if it makes you feel any better?
    it looks quite nice.

    maybe you should have run it by the cat first though?
    in fact
    i think you should set out a choice of recipes
    each topped with a cat biscuit
    and whichever she eats first
    that’s the recipe you should make next.

    we’ll call it:
    Cat Recipe Roulette.

  5. Well… if a professional chef failed at this one, you had your cards stacked against you to begin with.

    Too bad, the picture looks delicious. But… if the cat sees shrimp and still retreats to the other side of the room.. you might want to take a taste or two to see what’s going on, lol!!

  6. Also, I should try making something similar… The ingredients would all work together well… I think your salad would be better served as more of a stir fry from the looks… then a nice peanut sauce would go well

  7. I've been there, luckily most of my food disasters happen when it's just me and my husband. He takes a couple of bites, grimaces, and tells me "it's fine." Then he doesn't finish and makes himself a sandwich. Guests get pizza most definitely.

  8. Haha I was going to say – that’s why pizza delivery was invented! I think it’s great to try new things and fly by the seat of your pants sometimes – it’s much better than being boring and cooking the same safe food every day!

  9. Usually it's my husband who tells me it sucks before I accept the responsibility of my failure, and then I usually cry.

    Yup, chick way to deal with if for sure…

  10. Great post. It’s always fun, and educational, reading about someone else’s failures in the kitchen. Even as a professional chef, I’ve had many a failure, some small and some spectacular.

  11. This was a riot – thank you for sharing! I usually try to make dessert, homemade bread or something else I know will turn out well when trying a new recipe as a conciliatory gesture should it not work out. I also keep homemade ravioli and tomato sauce on hand so if the recipe is a flop there's quick, real food available to replace it.

  12. This made me smile for so many reasons. I will always test a dish before I make it for guests and typically will follow it just as it’s written the first time. Those are pretty much a hard rules I live by. I will read and re-read recipes so something doesn’t sneak up on me, even if it’s a recipe I’m familiar with. I’ve been caught out on timing a few times when a recipe wasn’t written well. Nothing more annoying than an extra 35 minutes you didn’t plan for.

    When I know something is sucking or off, often times I’ll dial for dinner. I’m not willing to waste good ingredients on my ego. :)

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