Cooking is about failure

Jamie Oliver's Beetroot cake

A beetroot cake that was completely inedible - all of this went in the bin

Cook from recipes, and you will fail. Probably not all the time, but at least some of the time. This is what no one wants to say. Recipes are an archaic format, the agreed upon least-worst option for print, but they can’t tell the whole story. Cooking is a craft, and we fool ourselves if we think that everything that needs to be said can be conveyed in a 300 word recipe.

The illusion of the printed recipe, and of the celebrity chef, is that as long as you have the recipe, you should be able to perfectly recreate the dish. Anyone who has cooked knows that this isn’t the case. You can follow a recipe absolutely to the letter and still not produce what was intended.

Julian Barnes conveyed some of this frustration in ‘The Pedant in the Kitchen‘. “How big is a lump?”, he asks. But it is not just jargon that we need to look out for. Some basic techniques have to be assumed; if everything was described in the detail necessary for an absolute beginner, then every recipe would run to five pages.

Beyond the vagaries of language, we seem to find it hard to accept the idea that cooking is a craft, and the skill is in the hands of the cook. Cooking, by its nature, is varied and improvisational. If I cook your recipe, in your kitchen, with your pan, I will still produce something that is different to yours. Just as one blacksmith or one carpenter will not produce the same product as another, so cooking ultimately depends upon the cook. And some parts of cooking can only be learned by experience, by looking, feeling, tasting and smelling at each stage, and building up a set of memories to refer back to.

That is the pleasure of cooking as well as its frustration – it’s never the same twice, no matter what you do. The only way to learn is to cook, from books, with a teacher, with an app or from a TV show. I think we can go beyond recipes and offer help in all sorts of formats to those learning something new, or improving their cooking. Ultimately, you should do as Julia Child did: “no matter what happens in the kitchen, never apologise … learn how to cook – try new recipes, learn from your mistakes, be fearless, and above all have fun!”

This entry was posted in ideas.

4 comments on “Cooking is about failure

  1. Vijiti says:

    Absolutely true! So many of us dive into a recipe expecting the end result to look like the stunning picture in the book. This year is my year to learn from mistakes 🙂 Wish me luck!

    • louise_m says:

      Good luck! Mistakes are fine – they’re only way to learn. But too many people make you feel bad for making them.
      Experiment away!

  2. My learning curves have come mostly from failures, be it it the fault of the recipe/book or my carelessness. It’s in the questioning of ‘why?’ afterwards and analysing what went wrong where I learn, make connections and learn for the next time.

    This year my biggest learning curves have come from studying text baking books and reading people’s work like Debra Wing’s paper on Lactic Acid Bacteria in sourdough.

    About 2yrs ago I remember going through 15 egg yolks because I couldn’t get a Gordon Ramsay recipe right 3 times, having followed it to the letter. It was only after the 3rd try I went back to an earlier book of his and realised this particular recipe was doomed from the start.

    The difference between making a savoury recipe say for a meat dish and baking a cake is that the ‘science’ part of the cake is absolute crucial (within narrow allowances usually) to that of the meat dish. If you replace carrots for potatoes in a meat dish you can still end up with a great tasting dish with no consequences but if you replace butter with yoghurt say it will have a different result in a cake unless you adapt the recipe as a whole.

    • louise_m says:

      Ah, that’s the difference between me and you, Azelia. If something goes wrong with your recipe, you just keep making it – I’m more likely to give up and sulk! 🙂
      I think baking recipes tend to be less tolerant, definitely, but I’ve also had big problems with some savoury recipes. This is particularly true with using different shaped pans for a stew or something with a sauce – you will get very different evaporation rates, so can end up with something far too thin from just using the wrong pan.

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