Tuesday October 22, 2013
Failure is Definitely an Option
I’ve heard it said that there are no bad cooks, only bad recipes. Now, I’m all about encouraging folks to find a great recipe, tie on an apron and jump in, but that philosophy doesn’t hold true anymore than saying there’re no bad actors, only bad scripts. Crappy source material doesn’t help in either case, but “perfect” recipes can’t guarantee success anymore than Shakespeare can hand out Oscars after every high school rendition of Romeo and Juliet.
However well written, no amount of detail can bridge the gap between instruction and incarnation. Recipes have to be enacted, and that’s a You Thing. If cooking fantastically required nothing more than a fantastic recipe, restaurants could just grab a few copies of The French Laundry and start cramming names into the reservation books.
Being a good cook isn’t an innate quality repressed by bad recipes, it’s a skill to cultivate like any other. Saying there are no bad cooks makes failure synonymous with bad recipes. It seems empowering, yet actively discourages people from the sort of self reflection that defines a good cook in the first place.
Take a look at the reviews on any epicurious recipe and you’ll spot the philosophical difference between good cooks and bad cooks right away. Faced with failure, good cooks ask questions and bad cooks sling accusations. If you buy into the idea that there are no bad cooks, why ask questions— the recipe failed you. That approach turns success into this random thing you stumbled upon after plowing through however many bad recipes it takes to find a “good” one. The hours spent along the way get chalked up as wasted time.
Yet scientists have recently discovered that attempting something over and over until you get it right is a contributing factor to a mysterious process known as learning. Good recipes help avoid needless trial and error, but it’s important to acknowledge that not all trial and error is needless. Baking in particular involves a considerable amount of technique and muscle memory, from kneading a dough to crumb coating a cake; failure is necessary and vital to mastering those techniques.
I’m not saying that all recipes deserve your trust, or that you shouldn’t ditch the ones that feel fishy, only that becoming a good cook has more to do with how you fail a recipe than how recipes fail you. Ask questions, consider your technique, try to understand what went wrong, and give yourself permission to be a beginner when trying something new.
P. S — On the topic of good versus bad recipes, I have at last finished the fifteen month marathon known as writing a cookbook, and will start posting new recipes again next week (including the above gingerbread ice cream).
39 comments and counting
Oct 23, 2013 · 8:15 AM
Puzzling out the answers to baking questions is awesome fun, and often ends up becoming an expedition reminiscent of visiting Wikipedia: I start out trying to figure out why my Macarons have hollows (incidentally how I found your blog), follow on to learn how the proteins in egg whites are manipulated in baking, get side-tracked into learning the differences between various meringue recipes, and finally end up trying to discover why Swiss Meringue Buttercream doesn’t send my taste buds into a frenzy. It’s great, and I find that the journey of discovery is one of the main attractions to baking for me.
That said, sometimes I find it’s actually pretty difficult to figure out what (or who) is at fault when a recipe goes badly, particularly since I often have to translate recipes from arbitrary measurements into metric first (what’s a “scant cup”? Which country’s cup? An official cup or a teacup? How much less than a full cup?). It becomes even trickier when I discover things like the difference in flavour of butter in Australia and America (Sweet Cream) to Europe (Cultured, stronger flavour); surely those differences would impact the primary flavour of things like European buttercream recipes, but it’s hard to know if or how I should compensate.
So there’s a lot of knowledge required to translate a good recipe into local measurements/ingredients, and a lot of knowledge required to translate the usable recipe into the end result. Given that, it can be pretty challenging to figure out exactly what happened when a baking expedition goes unexpectedly brilliantly or poorly, but I think that’s half the fun
Unrelated, that ice cream looks magnificent. I’ve yet to make an ice cream based on a vanilla crème anglaise that I felt was worth eating, but I have a feeling that gingerbread ice cream could reignite my interest in making frozen desserts
Oct 23, 2013 · 9:56 AM
Hi Bruce. Clearly, you get an A++ in being a good baker! Having to translate a recipe to weight will definitely complicate things, especially if you’re unclear how the ingredients were measured in the first place (a “dip and sweep” cup of flour can be about 5 to 6 ounces, while a “spoon and level” is more like 4.5). Throw in the international factor and you’ve got some Sherlock Holmes level mysteries to solve.
Actually, what prompted this post was indeed macarons! I hear from so many people saying, “I tried 5 or 6 recipes with no success, then made yours and they were perfect!” But having 5 or 6 rounds of macaron practice under one’s belt is a HUGE advantage, and I’m sure if I’d been their first-ever macaron recipe things would have gone differently. The difference wasn’t me (I don’t think), but that they’ve made meringue before, they’ve practiced macaronage, they’ve handled a piping bag, they’ve gotten to know their oven. Those factors are much bigger than the differences between my recipe and the others. Or so I tell myself!
Oct 23, 2013 · 10:18 AM
This is exactly what I feel like having read a lot of guides for macarons on various blogs.
Most people seem to try once or twice and get frustrated. I have so far made 4 batches hand-whisking the meringue. And well its getting better
Just try again, and again and again. If everything fails, you can always blame it on the oven
Glad to hear that your book is coming along well and very excited for some new recipes! (although I have to try a bunch of others from your box before)
Oct 23, 2013 · 10:29 AM
Steeeellllllla….I love you.
· Sweetie · www.sweetiesuniquetreats.com
Oct 23, 2013 · 10:46 AM
Funny, the first time I made macarons was with your recipe and I had no experience, and they came out so perfectly — so I assumed your recipe was perfect (which it is). But then my next few were not as good. That was very useful; clearly it was not the recipe, it was something I was doing.
Oct 23, 2013 · 11:04 AM
I even find myself saying the same thing when reassuring people who claim they “can’t cook” or “can’t bake” – OF COURSE YOU CAN! ANYONE CAN! … but it’s so true that the success of doing so rests entirely in the hands of the chef-to-be.
They have to WANT to succeed, they have to WANT to try, and above all, they have to be willing to look at every recipe, every single attempt at cooking, as a learning experience. Take in what worked, what didn’t, and draw from their past experiences (successes and failures alike).
I often joke about my “baking intuition” with things like how long to beat a batter, how long to bake something, etc… but this “intuition” isn’t something you’re born with, it’s something you learn very gradually over a long period of time.
Wonderful post, can’t wait for the book, and CAN’T WAIT FOR NEW POSTS!
· natalie · wee-eats.com
Oct 23, 2013 · 11:28 AM
Yay! The book is done! I’m so excited to buy it! You rock!
· Sarah · citrusspicebakery.blogspot.com
Oct 23, 2013 · 11:43 AM
I’ve tried taking my failed recipes and turning them into something else, albeit fast.
some were successful most not, but this is how you learn and grow.
it’s hard for me to see you failing though; you are so talented.
glad to see you back!
· vanillasugarblog · vanillasugarblog.com
Oct 23, 2013 · 12:00 PM
I’ve never particularly had a problem with macaroons, but the first few times I made something with yeast everything went horribly, horribly, wrong. I like to think I’m a decent baker and I know I’m about as stubborn as they come, so I’ve taken it as a challenge. I’m getting better—I make a mean yeast cake but I’ve still to master oh-so-basic bread—but if I’d thrown the towel in right away or chalked it all up to the recipe I would never have improved my technique and knowledge of how to use yeast and what dough should look/feel like the way that I have.
On a different note, that ice cream looks fantastic! One of the few things that I like better than frozen custard is good spicy gingerbread, so I eagerly await the recipe!
Oct 23, 2013 · 12:13 PM
I really REALLY loved this post – It is kind-of “tough love” for us who have self confidence issues in the kitchen (LoL) …I don’t blame the recipe persay, but I do need to stop doubting it was me, and just try again. I want to actually thank you a ton for this post – it has given me a push to stop making excuses, and just note that we learn from our failures. Thanks so much Stella, as you can tell you have a huge fan-base and I think I speak for everyone when I say we appreciate you taking the time out of your (busy as hell) schedule I’m sure to write these posts.
Oct 23, 2013 · 12:43 PM
Funny, I found your blog looking for macaron help like so many others and I could never get them right. Then, I finally landed on a recipe/technique/temp elsewhere that worked for my cheaper-than-cheap oven (the oven’s fault, natch). Now that I’ve got 50 or so batches under my belt, I can come back to your ratios and figure out what to manipulate so I can use your suggested recipes and variations. Many, many thanks for so much hard work, experimentation and explanation. I am waiting patiently for the first cookbook I’ll have purchased in a decade!
· Rebel Shell · www.rebelskitchen.com
Oct 23, 2013 · 3:01 PM
As a retired scientist I’ve always loved the precision of baking. Alas, nothing is black or white from the art of medicine to the art of baking. My learning from reading insightful comments/reviews on blogs/online recipes is priceless. Even before trying a recipe there’s insight. (Though I can make pate au choux in my sleep I’ve yet to try macarons and look forward to the process.) Thanks
Oct 23, 2013 · 4:57 PM
Thank you for this post. One of the things I get caught up in – especially with everything on the internet – is looking and looking at every possible incarnation of something I want to try to make thinking I need to find the perfect recipe first. Next thing I know, it’s 4 hours later and I haven’t made a damn thing! I’ve been trying to limit my searching and just start “making”. It’s way more fun to screw up a good recipe (and try to figure out why it failed) than to look blurry-eyed for hours for the “perfect” recipe and have nothing to show for it…and nothing to eat.
Oct 23, 2013 · 5:27 PM
I’ve been cooking/baking for a long long time. AND I have a serious cookbook addiction. So I’m taking recipes from all over creation. Some are good. Some not so good. Some the flaws are obvious and I can fix them up….. I always enjoy reading the comments of others and sometimes you read something helpful but other times people are obviously expecting miracles or want the cookies to miraculously come together themselves! You just gotta laugh!
Oct 24, 2013 · 12:41 AM
Your essays are always so thought-provoking- thanks! This made me think: how much of being a good cook (in the sense of following a recipe, not creating one) is knowing information that’s missing in the recipe- things like what a great version of that dish should taste like, what it should look and feel like at every stage, the exact meaning of baking terms. So much of this information is transferred easily when you learn by cooking with someone who knows how, and by seeing it all happen, but it’s so hard to put on paper. Could one learn to play a Mozart oboe concerto having never heard Mozart’s music, having never seen anyone play the oboe much less ever have a private lesson? Recipes are so important for sharing ideas and maybe even a workable substitute for a real teacher, but it’s not quite the same thing… almost all my fundamental cooking knowledge comes from watching and listening to my father- don’t you think learning from someone makes a huge difference?
Oct 24, 2013 · 9:54 AM
I LOVE this post! It’s so true, and not just about cooking. I see it in two of my other hobbies: knitting and gardening. I am a passionate gardener and work at the information desk of a garden center, helping diagnose plant and landscape problems customers bring to me. I see both kinds of people you mentioned every day. Luckily the delightfully curious ones who want to find out what went wrong so they can avoid it in the future far outnumber the irritated ones who, after I’ve explained that their plants need to be watered and fed, just keep saying, “But I bought the plants from you!”
I do feel bad for the latter people, even the ones who set my teeth on edge with their insistence that it’s the plant’s fault it died (sigh). They almost take it as a personal affront. I try to remind myself that they just don’t know that failure is most definitely an option, at times an inevitability, and it’s okay. So I try to instill that knowledge in every customer I help by telling them, “You’re not really gardening if you’re not killing a few plants. But it’s okay ~ they’re not puppies.”
Maybe the cooking and baking equivalent would be, “You’re not really cooking if you’re not burning a few cookies. But it’s okay ~ it’s not Christmas dinner at Buckingham Palace.”
· The Redneck Hippie · TheRedneckHippie.com
Oct 24, 2013 · 10:13 AM
@Sarvi (and other Macaroners), that’s the funny thing about technique based recipes— it’s easy to mistake success for mastery (the flip side of equating failure with “not making progress.” Success is a bit of a spectrum, from getting something right to knowing how to get it right every time. Macarons illustrate that better than any other dessert I know of!
@natalie, having just wrapped up the cookbook, that “intuition” was the hardest part for me to articulate. How can I put into words the broad range of cues I use (subconsciously) to judge each step along the way? We’ll see how successful I was in the end, lol.
@vanillasugarblog, oh dear, I definitely plowed headlong into a TON of failure for the cookbook. I will have to turn that into a post of its own because I could write for days about my misadventures in baking.
@Heather, thank you! I definitely had a few unsubscribers afer this post, but I think it’s for the best because if whatever I said was off putting to someone, then we’re probably not a good match. It’s good to hear that there are even more people out there, however, ready to roll up their sleeves and learn!
@wendyb964, you’ve really hit on it. We like to say baking is a science, and the underlying process sure is, but there’s a whole lot of interpretive art going on too.
@DavidWL, actually, I think that’s a great strategy! After four hours of reading about the same thing, you’ve gotta walk away with a better sense of the process. You might read one recipe that glosses over a certain step, then see someone else explain it in great detail. It certainly will give you a better sense of which recipe is going to help you the most. Keep it up!
@Redneck Hippie, um, can you come help me with my orchid?
And thanks to everyone for the continued encouragement on the cookbook. Whenever I finally have the details, you know I’ll be shouting it from the rooftops.
Oct 24, 2013 · 11:55 AM
Sometimes I cook with my friends and found myself having to explain so much because they made big assumptions in the kitchen that would affect whatever they were making, but they never questioned it. The one that always comes to mind was that they would make brownies and melt chocolate in the microwave – full blast, several minutes until it was all fully melted before taking it out but didn’t know why it would usually taste funny afterwards or why the brownies didn’t taste as chocolate-y and just kept doing it every time, though trying different recipes. (I may have ranted about burning chocolate and the ways to avoid it and to treat chocolate like a delicate flower. (I like working with chocolate.))
It’s sweet when my younger siblings cook though because they like to explore why things happen and I think that they’ll be great cooks because of this. Once they made these cookies but thought, because they didn’t have sugar, that they could replace it with more flour and salt instead. After that (adorable) disaster, we got them to make three cakes all using the same recipe, one without flour, one without sugar, and one missing another ingredient, possibly butter, to see what each did.
I’m spread out between about three or four continents so when recipes use volumes instead of masses it can cause problems for me. When a recipe calls for a cup – is it Australian, Japanese or American? A pint is a different amount in the US vs the UK. First time I heard of a stick of butter, I had no idea what it was on about. And so on and so forth. But the fun part about this is working out different substitutes for ingredients or learning what they are called in different countries. Half and half in the US is a cream and milk drink – in the UK and NZ it’s to do with alcohol. Sometimes it messes things up – a recipe called for apple cider and I thought it meant the alcoholic drink because I hadn’t known about the US version.
Anyway, sometimes thinking about recipes too much means that four hours later you are on google, learning how to make crème fraîche, instead of actually making the recipe but usually it’s fun to learn about the actual details of cooking and how to apply them when making things!
Oct 24, 2013 · 1:42 PM
“Yet scientists have recently discovered that attempting something over and over until you get it right is a contributing factor to a mysterious process known as learning.” Yes! Exactly! Cooking is a skill that has to be learned. Always wanted to know why Nonna’s cookies tasted so good? Because she made them 100 times!
As much as we should trust a recipe for directions, we have to apply what we learned (good and bad) to continue producing awesome noms. When I learned how to make buttercream, my first attempt was a failure. But after trying it again a few times, I learned how to watch the sugar syrup, how to properly ‘read’ the recipe and proactively work towards success (frequent chilling in the fridge, wrapping a cold wet towel around the bowl).
A perfect cake may only take 35 minutes to bake but it really takes hours and hours of hidden practice and theory.
Keep up the great work Stella – I cannot wait for your cookbook.
· BA · www.bainvancouver.com
Oct 24, 2013 · 8:37 PM
Welcome back, and congratulations on getting the book finished!
From what I can tell, the only people who would say “there are no bad cooks, only bad recipes” are probably bad cooks. Yes, some recipes are better than others, but it takes a good cook to know the difference and fill in the gaps with proper technique and experience.
All that aside, failure is often the best teacher! I bake exclusively gluten-free, and I find that the more ambitious my recipes are, the more I actually know WHY they work when they work out, because I’ve had to make multiple attempts.
Oct 25, 2013 · 6:47 AM
“failure is necessary and vital to mastering those techniques.”
AMEN to that. GREAT piece, Stella!
· Mardi (eat. live. travel. write.) · www.eatlivetravelwrite.com
Oct 26, 2013 · 10:05 AM
Hi, Stella! I just stumbled on your blog recenty and have fallen in love with it. The recipes are great, as is your humor, but in particular, I love posts like this one that examine the psycho-emotional underpinnings of the cooking and baking process.
I agree with you that blaming “bad recipes” reveals weakness and insecurity on the part of the chef. I rarely ever follow a recipe religiously when cooking, so I can’t blame anyone but myself when it fails. Although, I have been known to blame pans and ovens when cooking in foreign kitchens…(It feels good to come clean)
· Amy · www.sweetbeetnutrition.com
Oct 27, 2013 · 5:34 PM
My view on cooking as well is that not everyone can cook, it takes a level of patience and discovery and rediscovery. I’ll take a recipe and as I’m cooking it I think what flavors do I like, what don’t I like, and when you have experimented enough along the way you know what flavors complement what items. This is not really a skill that can be taught in most cookbooks. This is strictly a skill that is learned in repetition.
Oct 28, 2013 · 5:08 PM
All I can say is “what she said.” Seriously Stella, sometimes I feel like you get in my head and articulate exactly how I feel about something. Kind of creepy if you ask me. It has been awhile since I’ve visited Bravetart and I’m having fun catching up!
· Terris · www.freeeatsfood.com
Oct 30, 2013 · 5:20 PM
I went out of town and now I see that I am way behind on comments! But what a nice feeling to come home to, thanks to all the Good Cooks who’ve been coming out of the woodwork.
For those who’ve asked, I still have no idea when exactly the book will come out. It was scheduled to be Autumn of 2014, but there have been some delays that are out of my hands and I am not yet sure how that might impact the release date. You can absolutely guarantee that the moment I know, I will be shouting it from every tweet and blog post from here until eternity.