Tuesday, December 21, 2010

If At First: The Necessity of Failure

Usually I hate failure.  Especially when failure comes at the expense of time and money that simply doesn’t exist.  For example, when a car or the human body fails I tend to be quite unhappy.  But we all muscle through semi-catastrophic failure, one way or another, and hope it never happens again.
                The kitchen, however, is a different story.  Aside from personal injury and property damage I welcome failure like it’s a loving teacher I haven’t seen for a while.  I’m speaking, of course, of recipe failure.  Don’t get me wrong … I don’t ever start to cook hoping that something unexpected or unpleasant occurs.  However, my heart rarely sinks when a recipe fails.  I consider culinary failure to be an invaluable teaching moment.   It’s absolutely silly to think that a wise cook doesn’t make a mistake; a wise cook doesn’t make the same mistake twice. 
                Think about the last meal you made that went well.  Let’s say that this morning you poached an egg, toasted bread, and brewed coffee.  Everything went well most likely because you’ve made it dozens, or maybe hundreds of times.  What about the first time ever you poached or brewed?  Maybe it didn’t go so well because you didn’t know how much you could play with the time and temperature you brewed the coffee for, or poached the egg at?  What about the utter simplicity of toasting?  Sure it came out perfect at ½” slices, but what if you want thick toast, or maybe a different grain of bread?  With so many factors, who’s to say which ones contributed to success, and which ones are irrelevant?  It’s through trial and error that we come to the most usable and memorable kinds of enlightenment. 
                This simple breakfast may be a bad example, seeing as each piece has little more than 1 or 2 ingredients, but things get more muddled when we’re making a recipe with many more ingredients, or making a culinary maneuver that we’ve never made before.  With complexity or novelty comes the probability of failure. Take exhibit “A” into consideration:

This is the first mayonnaise I made myself.  Only an escaped patient from the Galloping Senility ward would consume this stuff.  A failure - and I was upset about it, for sure.  On the other hand I learned the immense importance of continually whisking and very slowly adding oil when forming an emulsion.  Had I not learned this lesson at the get-go imagine how silly I would have looked if trying to make a mayonnaise sauce with friends around or in a time of need, and in my over confidence been slack with the whisk or hasty with the oil?
You only have to learn a lesson once when you learn by failure.  What the great thing is about cooking is that almost every lesson is transferable.  So when I go to make a hollandaise or vinaigrette I know standard procedure.  By the way, out of all the mysterious suspensions of oil droplets in water, otherwise known as a stable emulsion, mayonnaise is my absolute favorite.  I finally did get it right, too!  But now I never make it by hand, since I have a food processor and a stand mixer as options.  You could use either one, or still go the old fashion way with a metal whisk and stainless steel, or glass, bowl.  I use Alton Brown’s recipe from Good Eats episode “Mayo Clinic”

Party Mayonnaise
2 cups oil (he suggests a neutral one such as safflower or corn oil)
2 tablespoons chile oil
2 tablespoons vinegar (white wine or champagne, according to Alton)
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lime juice
1 large egg
1 large egg yolk
1 teaspoon fine salt
1 teaspoon ground mustard (powder)
¼ teaspoon sugar

Dump everything but the oils into whatever you’ll be mixing in.  If using a food processor give it a few pulses to get things started, otherwise beat vigorously with a whisk or in a stand mixer with whisk attachment.  Once mixed put the pedal to the metal with your mixer/whisk/processor and very. slowly. add.  the oil.  Start drop by drop.  You can pick up the pace with the oil once the emulsion looks light and thick, but don’t *pour* it in … a thin steady stream will do just fine. (If you get to the end and the sauce breaks do not fret.  Just break a solitary egg yolk into a clean bowl, whisk it up nice, and slowly add the broken sauce to it.)

Once you’ve got a beautiful mayonnaise put it in an airtight vessel and leave it on your counter for an hour.  This gives the acid a chance to kill whatever nasty bugs could potentially be in that raw egg.  According to Alton the acid is less apt to kill anything while it’s cold.  So after an hour stash it in your fridge for “up to a week”.

If you don’t think you’ll use that much mayonnaise on your sandwiches, make it into a homemade French onion dip (sometimes called California dip), or use it as a base for other sauces like rémoulade, or tartar sauce, or a dressing like Ranch or Thousand Island.  I mixed a little capers, pimentos, and Worcester sauce into some and used it as a steak sauce.  Or mix it with a bit of tomato sauce (canned/jarred is fine) and a touch of ketchup and use it for dipping thick oven baked French fries, or for shrimp.  The possibilities go only so far as your imagination.
The point is, never hesitate to try a new recipe or technique for fear of failure.  Let failure be a teacher, instead of a bully.  And when worse comes to worse, your failed dinners could be the dogs gourmet dinners!  Comment below by clicking the "Comments" button, and share some of your favorite failures, and more importantly the lessons learned.  What are some new dishes you plan to make for the first time?

"The truth is, that all genuine appreciation rests on a certain mystery of humility and almost of darkness.  The man who said, ‘Blessed is he that expecteth nothing, for he shall not be disappointed,’ put the eulogy quite inadequately and even falsely.  The truth ‘Blessed is he that expecteth nothing, for he shall be gloriously surprised.’ Until we realize that things might not be we cannot realize that things are. Until we see the background of darkness we cannot admire the light."
- Gilbert Keith Chesterton, "Heretics" 1905


  1. I'm glad you weren't afraid to take a picture of your failure! The two photos side by side is a sweet reminder of how a little patience and teaching can turn something awful into something much, much better!

  2. catherine burgess pattersonDecember 21, 2010 at 8:20 PM

    i do not get upset EVERY time i mess up food.when i do get mad i never make it again.when i do not get mad i try again. i can not make a pie crust to save my life even though i have tried too many times. but. i think it is ok if we can not make something delicious like someone else can. we all have different TALENTS.

  3. Brilliant Emulsifying post my friend. As someone who has failed many times at even attempting to cook, your post is encouraging :)

  4. Only on rare occasions do I get upset about cooking failures and never on first attempts. On something that's a no-brainer when I'm not focused? Absolutely. Love to use my Cuisinart for aioli which is what it's called here since the hubs HATES mayonnaise. He knows it's the same, but still. Go figure. I love sharing failures :) Keeps me humble.

  5. That reminds me of a story:
    My Uncles' brother-in-law claims to hate beans, but he LOVED this chocolate fudge his sister made. When it was revealed that the fudge had beans in it he suddenly "realized" he no longer liked the fudge. Funny how our minds work :)