TV chefs dream up a dish and then immediately start to prepare it. One minute they’re confidently toggling between chopping vegetables, grilling meat and whipping up a sauce — and before you know it, they’ve created a gorgeous-looking plate of food.
But that’s just television magic. In real life, cooking doesn’t always lead to dishes you’d want to eat. This is even true for cookbook authors. They may spend their nights dreaming up recipes and their days testing them for audiences of millions, but they’ll tell you that screwing up in the kitchen is part of the job.
In fact, they believe those mistakes actually help.
We spoke to cookbook authors who shared why experimenting (and messing up) in the kitchen is a crucial part of becoming a better home chef. They also discussed tips on how to tweak dishes that aren’t quite working and how to come up with new dishes on your own.
Making mistakes is encouraged
School may have prepared us to think of making mistakes as a bad thing. After all, if you get enough answers wrong on a test, you fail.
“I’m one of the most trusted Instant Pot recipe creators out there, and I’ve made plenty of mistakes along the way,” said Jeffrey Eisner, author of “The Lighter Step-by-Step Instant Pot Cookbook.” “If I didn’t make those mistakes, I wouldn’t be able to solidify my game into what it is now.”
Eisner admits he has even made common, elementary Instant Pot mistakes, like adding heavy cream or cheese before bringing the pot to pressure. (Pressure-cooking cheese can result in it curdling or burning to the bottom of the pan, so it’s best to wait until the dish is done cooking to add it in.)
Once you attempt to prepare a dish a couple of times, what initially felt like an experiment can turn into something that feels comfortable.
“My most ‘famous’ recipes were experiments,” said Andrea Hanneman, author of “Plant Over Processed.” That’s how the world ended up with her uber-popular hemp seed, chocolate and peanut butter Rice Krispie brownies.
“I bake and cook with a lot of the same ingredients,” Dada said. “I think by working with them so much, it’s given me confidence in the kitchen. Trial and error has helped me figure out what’s going to work and what won’t.”
Tweaking recipes can make them delicious
Just because a dish doesn’t turn out exactly how you’d imagined doesn’t mean you completely wasted your time. Perhaps all it needs is a small change.
“When I’m cooking something, I plan out how I want my end result to look, and I give it my best shot,” said Rachel Ama, author of the vegan cookbook “One Pot: Three Ways.” “If it doesn’t go that way, I’ll try to retwist and revitalize.”
When she initially prepared oyster mushrooms in a sweet, orange-y sauce, for example, the result fell short of her expectations. After more experimenting, she ended up with a dish to feature in her cookbook: Sticky Miso Oyster Mushrooms.
“I fried them up with Chinese Five Spice, reduced all the liquid, and got more of the meatier texture of the mushroom. I added miso and made it way more delicious,” she said, noting that miso paste is one of her secret weapons in the kitchen because of its “instant umami flavor.”
“Being connected in that moment with your plate of food is very important,” she said. “I’d take a mindful approach to what I’m tasting. Am I connected with an emotion that this recipe derives for me?”
Ahmed, who is also a gastroenterologist, breaks down recipes in a scientific manner, paying attention to whether a dish could use more umami, heat, texture or aromatics. That could mean anything from adding chili notes to a dish that feels flat, or supplementing it with crunch by way of fried onions or chopped pistachios.
Getting creative can introduce you to new flavors
Once you get comfortable with experimenting and begin to feel confident in the kitchen, the fun really starts.
Still, we’ve all had that feeling of having absolutely no idea what to make for dinner. Sometimes finding the answer is as easy as opening the refrigerator.
“For me, eggplant is something I buy and upon arriving home, I black out and immediately forget why I bought it,” Dada said. “You can start there ― what’s something in my fridge that’s going to go bad?”
Ama likes to use the spice cabinet as a starting point. “I always go with what’s in my spices,” she said. “I have Caribbean roots, so a lot of the time I think about Caribbean flavors. If I feel like Thai food, Caribbean food, or a curry, that’s what I’m drawing my spice and flavor palate from.”
Another place to draw inspiration from is restaurants. Don’t worry about replicating the dishes exactly, but use them as a starting point.
“I’m lucky that I live in LA, where there’s a lot of great restaurants around,” said Dzung Lewis, a YouTuber and author of “The Honeysuckle Cookbook.” “I had this amazing dish at The Rose Venice with summer squash and a yuzu miso with peanuts and basil. It was so unique I had to go home and try to recreate it in my own way.”
Taking elements of dishes you’re inspired by can give you a renewed enthusiasm for cooking.
“Seeing how [restaurants] use miso gives me new ideas on how I can use it in different ways in my own kitchen,” Lewis said. “And because not everyone has yuzu (or can find it easily), you can substitute orange, lemon or other citruses.”