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Overcoming Fear of Failure in the Kitchen | A Couple Cooks

Overcoming fear of failure in the kitchen is part of our Healthy & Whole series to inspire a lifelong passion for home cooking and a sustainably healthy lifestyle. See the entire series here.

“There is this awful American syndrome of fear of failure. If you’re going to have a sense of fear of failure, you’re just never going to learn how to cook. Because cooking is one failure after another, and that’s how you finally learn.”

-Julia Child (watch her say it here)

Let’s face it: cooking is scary. No matter how inexperienced or skillful you are, there’s loads of room for failure. When we first started out, fear of failure almost paralyzed me: I couldn’t bear to start something I already knew I wasn’t good at. “I can’t cook” was my motto, so trying it was a recipe for disaster. After I began to gain a bit more experience in the kitchen, the process was just as humbling. Yes, maybe I knew more, but now I appreciated the variability of it all: on any given day, the weather might be different, my ingredients might be different, and I might have a whole set of new distractions, making the recipe I made perfectly yesterday a failure today.

And that’s the nature of cooking — it’s an imperfect, variable thing that takes experience in the School of Hard Knocks to pull off. For example, embarrassing story: Alex and I recently had a couple over for dinner. In the midst of cooking up a storm, we answered the door and poured some wine for our guests. After a few minutes of amiable chatting, I remarked, “Does it smell like smoke in here?” To our dismay, the croutons I had intended to broil for 2 to 3 minutes were now engulfed in flames! Alex removed them from the oven in an elaborate gesture, holding a tray of 2 foot flames with me frozen in fearful laughter on the sidelines. (We re-tell this tale in our latest podcast Episode 23, if you’d like to hear more.)

All that to say: even after 8 years of cooking together, our kitchen is still ripe for failure. And you know what? We wouldn’t have it any other way. As Julia Child said, “Cooking is one failure after another, and that’s how you finally learn.” It’s how we learned not to put croutons in the broiler (try the oven, it takes longer but is more foolproof). How we learned not to put a pizza stone on the grill (yeah, it breaks), and that butternut squash that’s been in your pantry for 6 months is too dry to serve to guests. Thankfully, our guests have all given us loads of grace — and we’ve learned to give it to ourselves, too.

One of the largest obstacles between a person and a home-cooked meal is not simply free time or money: it’s fear of failureWhat if it doesn’t work out? What if I can’t do it? Don’t worry; overcoming fear of failure in the kitchen is attainable with the right mindset. Just as with anything in life, recognize that you will fail. And failure itself is not bad! It’s what you make of the failure that makes the difference. So laugh it off, make sure to have ingredients for grilled cheese in the pantry and fridge as a backup, and think about how well lessons learned the hard way stick. Because I know we’ll never put croutons in the broiler again!

How about you? Do you have any embarrassing kitchen disasters to share?

Also: podcast Episode 23 starred Martha Collison, of The Great British Baking Show fame! Check it out at our podcast page or search “A Couple Cooks” in your favorite podcast app.

Related Posts: 
Face Your Fear
Food & the Inner Critic

Video source: Julia Child – “Don’t be afraid of failure in the kitchen” from The Herbangardener on Vimeo.
Photographs by Caitlin Sullivan.

Overcoming Fear of Failure in the Kitchen | A Couple Cooks

About the authors

Sonja & Alex

Meet Sonja and Alex Overhiser: Husband and wife. Expert home cooks. Authors of recipes you’ll want to make again and again.

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  1. Failure is definitely part of the process! The first kitchen failure I remember was using parking soda instead of powder- those were some not tasty biscuits. But there have been hundreds more since then. Even the pros mess up! There was a time the chef I was working under forgot to add sugar to a huge batch of dough, and another time that the eggs didn’t get fully incorporated, and we found a perfectly intact yolk inside a cake. These kind of things all make for great learning experiences.

    1. Haha, I love all of these! Especially finding a yolk inside of a cake — did a customer find this? It takes it to a whole new level when you’re serving failures to other people :) And, baking soda vs powder is probably a very common mistake! But frustrating nonetheless.

  2. Thankfully we found the egg yolk, since we were cutting up large sheet cakes for serving. I always used to say it’s not really a mistake if you can fix it, and that was one time we did OK ;)

    1. Ooo I like that – “it’s not a mistake if you can fix it”! I will have to start using that. :)

  3. Before I got married, I decided to impress my boyfriend (now husband) with his favorite holiday pie -Pecan pie.
    Obviously, I wanted him to think I had made it countless times before and it would be magnificent.
    That pie stayed in the oven for hours, Yes, HOURS. It would not set! I would take it out and the filling would still be moving around. I did this over and over until I finally just gave up and let the pie stay out of the oven. It set alright and was a tooth breaker. But, fortunately for me, not a deal breaker. :-) It really is about failing and learning from what went wrong. Now, I can make the best pecan pie ever – according to my sweet husband ;)

    Thanks for these stories – absolutely adore your blog.

    1. I love 1. that you overcame the difficult pie 2. that your husband wasn’t phased in the least. Thanks for sharing this!

  4. Thank you so much for your blog and podcast – I love reading and listening to them, you two are such an inspiration in every way. (Btw your attempts at British goodbyes this time were hilarious)
    My embarrassing story is kind of similar to yours – involving flames and burning. I was making a Pakistani sweet following my grandmother’s traditional recipe, for which the first step was to heat dry semolina in a saucepan. I thought it was smelling kind of funny, but I’d never done it before and didn’t really know what to expect, so I kept going, following the recipe and the weird smell was still there – eventually I lifted up the pan… Turned out I hadn’t noticed a spatula resting with its handle in the stove, it was not only on fire (with huge tall flames now that the pan was gone from on top) but melted rubber was dripping everywhere. Not only my most embarrassing kitchen moment, since it was such an idiotic thing not to notice, but definitely my most terrifying as well!

    1. Oh thank you for such a nice comment! We’re so happy you’re enjoying the podcast. And, LOVE this embarrassing moment — complete with dripping rubber! Too funny. :)

  5. Love this post, Julia totally nailed it. I think all my cooking and baking failures this year make for fun memories anyways! And slowly I’ve noticed I’m becoming more confident in the kitchen so it’s a complete win in the long run :)

  6. Great post. I have had many cooking and baking failures over the years; the two worst:
    1. I forgot to put the flour in the banana bread and
    2: Substituted 3 tablespoons of dried dill for 3 tablespoons of fresh dill.
    Both were unedible.

  7. Could not have found this post at a better time – about 10 minutes after nearly ruining my dinner. I used wax paper instead of parchment, which led to my pizza crust sticking horribly to the paper. After some patience, I was able to salvage about 75% of the crust.

    There is never a short supply of beautifully executed recipes across the internet, and I love hearing the other side of those photos. Thank you for sharing!