How To Fail At Cooking

The biggest deterrent to home cooking, as with so many things in life, is the fear of failure. Well, get over it. You’re going to mess up, and you’re going to do it in front of people. This is what I did last weekend, P’neers. Kitchen failure can strike at any time, at anything from a major holiday to a little get together with a friend or two. While the scale of the emotion may differ, the feeling of shame and embarrassment is the same. What to do?

First off, you should avoid the rookie mistake (that I totally made) of not doing a dress rehearsal. If you’re going to make food for an audience, you should have made that dish at least once before show time. That way, any mistakes that you’re predisposed to making will have been made when you (and possibly a long-suffering SO) were the only one there to see it.

If you haven’t the time or inclination to do a dry run, then at least take a good hard look at the recipe ahead of time. Make sure you not only have all the ingredients (a no-brainer) but also have ready any tools or small appliances that you may need. You don’t want to be fumbling for your food processor or grater at the last minute while your friends/loved ones are watching. And judging.

OK, so you didn’t do the dry run, and something’s going wrong with your meal. Your next move is performing some quick first aid. I can’t tell you exactly what to do, here, since I don’t know how you’ve messed up. But there are a few standbys, like adding some flour to a too-thin sauce. Or throwing undercooked ingredients back in the pan/oven. Adding a bit of salt or seasoning can do wonders for a bland dish. Don’t make any drastic moves; any small thing you can do to put a band aid on that boo-boo would be a good idea.

Now it’s time to “˜fess up to your victims guests. The art of a good mea culpa is to just address it quickly and move on. If you dwell on it for too long, you’ll accomplish more than making yourself look desperate. You’ll also repeatedly call attention to the bad qualities of a dish that probably isn’t as dreadful as you fear. So just say once: “Sorry, the _____ is a little _______.” It’s like Bad Cook Mad Libs!

Of course, you can deflect at least some of the focus off the failed dish by making sure you have bang-up sides and dessert. In my case, I made a pasta sauce that failed mildly on multiple levels (texture, quantity, and flavor. I rock). It was unsatisfying, if inoffensive, but my friends were happy to augment the lackluster pasta dish with some caprese salad with fresh (seriously, still warm) mozzarella and just-picked basil from my windowsill basil plant. I also made some amazing cookies for dessert, so by the time the coffee came around, the meh-velous pasta was mostly forgotten.

Once you’ve had this humbling experience, you’re unlikely to suffer it again anytime soon. I for one will never again tape a magazine recipe on the kitchen wall minutes before my friends arrive. So, if we all agree to do better in the future, do any of you mind sharing your biggest kitchen mistakes with the rest of us? You can get the ball rolling by checking out Selena’s Fail Bread from January.

Photo: Getty

10 replies on “How To Fail At Cooking”

Fortunately, I wasn’t serving this to anyone, but my roommate and I attempted to make homemade corn tortillas once. Long story short, it developed into a sort of mushy, very fried, cheesy polenta dish. Once it was clear the corn flour had no intention of becoming a tortilla at any point in time, it was fun to just mess with it.

I’ve never had any major cooking fails when I have dinner parties, but it’s a rare occasion that when my friends come I have a fully prepared meal and a fresh cocktail dress or whatever you’re supposed to do. Generally, I’ll be splattered in sauce and the kitchen will be full of smoke. But the food is good, so who cares?

Things I’ve tried multiple times and still suck at: Cake!

The overarching reason that I’ll be a lifelong Team Pie member is that I just cannot. do. cake. Cupcakes, muffins, layer cakes, even basic yellow cake defeats me. (From scratch, mind- mixes don’t count.)

One of my more ignominious cakes was one I forced my siblings to make with me in our early teens after pissing off our parents. It was tough and dry and we used caster sugar instead of icing sugar (why?!?) and it all slid off the cake over the course of the evening.

I can make a beautiful dinner, I can make you an alright cheesecake, I can make you a glorious assortment of pies, cookies and bars, but god help me, I cannot do cake.

What’s funny is, I’m a 100% pie person, but I can bake any type of cake. I can do your simple icebox or custard-y pies (key lime, lemon, cheesecake), but I am horrible at fruit pies, and god, I do love a good home-made berry pie. It fills me with woe that I can make any cake under the sun, but none of them are as good to me as a warm piece of fruity pie.

I am also a Team Pie-er who’s better at making cakes. My problem is not the filling, but the crust. I’m a mess with pastry dough. I don’t know what it is about pastry dough, but I cannot seem to master it. My fillings are deliciously mouth-watering and fabulous (screw modesty; they’re delicious), but the crusts!!! Woe is me. We should join forces, @xfafafabulous. Together we can make a superpie.

I love cooking, but definitely fail sometimes! I do usually only make tried-and-true recipes when people are over, but once in a while I’ll get creative with a stir-fry to hilariously terrible results.

It’s all good. There’s ice-cream in the freezer.

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