how to learn from failure in recipe developing

This  milk tea baklawa  took so much trial and error (emphasis on the error) before I finally came up with a reliable recipe, but I learned a lot along the way.

This milk tea baklawa took so much trial and error (emphasis on the error) before I finally came up with a reliable recipe, but I learned a lot along the way.

My husband and I were recently visiting Bob and Laura, our good friends from grad school, and one day while chatting about new challenges and projects, Laura introduced me to my new favorite concept: growth mindset. Here’s the general idea: if you’re in a “fixed mindset,” you assume that everyone is good at a few particular things, and the key to life is discovering unlocking those innate talents. With a fixed mindset, finding your passion is reduced to figuring out what you’re good at and avoiding what you’re bad at.

But with a growth mindset, you recognize that becoming good at something requires practice and patience, and that you can become better at something you’re not so great at, if given the opportunity to do so (see the note at the very end of this post for more on what this doesn’t mean*). And more importantly, with a growth mindset, you recognize that failure is not only perfectly fine… it’s actually a good thing!

This resonated with me, because I’ve been trying to shift from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset for the last few years, and am really proud of the progress I’ve made. When I first started recipe developing, I would internalize every kitchen disaster as a personal failing, and when a recipe didn’t go right, I was annoyed that I had wasted my time and ingredients on an idea that would never even make it to my blog.

It didn’t take very long to realize that this was not a productive or healthy way of thinking, and that failure is essential to creativity. So after the first couple months, I decided I was going to think of every failure as a learning opportunity, and understand it as part of my creative process. But declaring this and actually believing it are two very different things.

I’m obviously not perfect, but after a few years of working at it, I’ve finally shifted to thinking of things in terms of growth. I still feel disappointed when things don’t go well, but I’ve learned to be okay with that feeling, while actively taking steps to learn from the failed experiment.

There are a few concrete things I’ve done to get to this point, which I’m going to share below. But before I get to that, I just want to say that there are a lot of other wonderful essays on the subject of kitchen failure, which you should absolutely read. This piece by Maggie Shi is positively life-affirming, and this post by a Couple Cooks is a nice reminder that it happens to everyone. And as Ashley C. Ford says, “You are more than the worst thing you've ever done.”

Oh, and to my non-writer readers: while I wrote this one with recipe developers in mind, you’re totally welcome to stick around, because a lot of this stuff is pretty universally applicable to anyone doing any sort of learning or creating. Or feel free to check back on Thursday for a chocolate pomegranate pie (eek! so excited to share it!).

my super cute reflective journal 💁🏽‍♀️…

my super cute reflective journal 💁🏽‍♀️…

… on a stack of very practical recipe developing journals

… on a stack of very practical recipe developing journals

how to work toward a growth mindset while developing recipes

Intending to focus on your growth and learn from failure is a wonderful step, but in my experience, it took a few concrete actions to really train myself to learn from disasters (and to learn how to be kinder to myself!). These strategies might not be for everyone, but they work for me, and I hope you find something useful to take away:

 

1. balance comfort with challenge, so you can grow on your own terms

The main question here is “do I actually feel like focusing on growth today?” Spend a second deciding whether a recipe is going to be easy to develop, or whether it’s going to be a challenge, and then spend another second deciding whether you feel up for a challenge today. Does it feel like a good day to try something new? Or are you not really feeling it? There’s no right answer, and you know what you need better than anyone else.

Don’t let fear of failure stop you from trying something new, but also don’t push yourself into trying new things when you don’t feel like it. You’ll learn a lot more when you’re actually in the mood to.

Also try not to develop too many challenging recipes in a row, because (in my experience) this leads to burnout. Easy wins are good for confidence and productivity, and there will be periods when you just need to execute rather than grow. There will also be periods when you need to take a break rather than execute. Pay attention to what you need.

 

2. while writing the first draft, think critically and learn all you can

The work that leads to growth can happen before, during, and after kitchen testing time, but the stakes are lowest right before heading into the kitchen. It’s easier to view failure productively before there are ingredients and kitchen time involved, so these days I spend a lot more time on the first drafts of recipes, compared to when I first started.

I have a recipe developing journal, where I take notes while researching recipes, and write first drafts. Once I’ve jotted down a bare-bones first draft, I type it up and flesh it out, and then bring it to the kitchen to test, edit, and re-test, until I’m happy with it (you can read more about this process in my post about how to research and write original recipes). Then I ask myself these questions:

  • What will the major challenges be while testing this recipe in the kitchen? What skills will I need to focus on? Do I need to brush up on any of these techniques before heading to the kitchen? E.g., if I don’t have much experience weaving lattice tops, I would watch a couple videos to make sure that my recipe explains the process clearly and accurately.

  • What are some ways things might go wrong? What do I need to learn to prevent things from going wrong? E.g., if I’m developing a recipe for toum, I know the biggest potential pitfall is the emulsion breaking, so I’d research and write up a list of techniques for ensuring the emulsion doesn’t break, and I’d make sure these are incorporated into the recipe.

  • Does my recipe look like other ones out there? Once you have your own recipe written up, it’s a good idea to do a few side-by-side comparisons, to see if anything seems off. You shouldn’t necessarily doubt yourself if yours is different (do I want my recipe to look like the other ones out there?)—it’s just helpful to see what other people are writing, to decide if you want to tweak your own ratios or techniques. Don’t forget to cite others if you end up finding help or inspiration in someone else’s recipe.

  • Is this recipe ready to take to the kitchen? Don’t give into perfectionism—a recipe will never be 100% ready to test, but you have to decide if it’s as ready as it’s ever going to be.

Do I always get it right after all this effort with the first draft? Absolutely not! These days, now that I’ve gotten much better at this, the first draft tends to be about 90% of the way there—a couple small things are a little wonky in the initial kitchen test. Then I tweak the recipe, try again, and usually love the second attempt.

But even now that things are running smoothly, disasters still happen. If they didn’t happen, I wouldn’t be learning new things. So here’s what I do after things go wrong in the kitchen:

 

3. keep a reflective journal for kitchen disasters

I go through a lot of recipe developing notebooks, and they’re not particularly special. But I have a second totally separate journal, which I use to work through kitchen failures: my reflective journal! Part of its purpose is to jot down practical notes like “needs 1/2 teaspoon more baking powder,” or “try 30 minutes instead,” but it’s above all a place where I think about what I learned, and what I can take forward with me.

My recipe developing journals are super utilitarian and cost like $1 each, but my reflective journal is one of those cute Anthropologie ones. You don’t have to buy a fancy-schmancy journal for this, but if you happen to have a notebook that feels too special to start using (journaling people—if you know, you know), I highly recommend using it for this purpose, because you need to re-conceptualize failure as something that you look forward to thinking and writing about, instead of something that feels like a chore.

 

4. ask yourself these questions, and write down your answers:

It takes about 20 minutes total to answer these, and it’s worth every second. At first, journaling was the last thing I wanted to do after disaster, but it’s helped me so much. These are the things I generally focus on, but don’t feel like you have to answer every single question, and feel free to use them as a general prompt:

How do I feel?

  • Engage your compassion. Try not to judge yourself if you feel awful about the day—just acknowledge how you feel, and sit with it for a second. Treat yourself with the same understanding you’d extend to a friend.

  • Maybe these things roll off your back, and you’re cool as a cucumber—that’s ok too!

What did I enjoy about the time I spent working on this?

  • Engage your sensory memories. Did you enjoy the feeling of kneading bread dough? Did you enjoy the food smells? Did you enjoy the walk to the supermarket?

  • Amidst the failure, did something small go right? Instead of thinking of the day as a waste of time, this reframes things and helps you understand your time as having both good moments and bad ones, all of which are worthwhile.

What went badly, and what would I do differently next time to fix it?

  • Engage your curiosity and problem solving skills to troubleshoot. Identify problems, and propose solutions.

  • If you have no idea how to solve a particular problem, it’s totally ok to write that you have no idea.

Exactly what do I need to learn between now and the next try?

  • Time to come up with a plan! What steps do I need to take to learn these new things? Is this a problem that will be solved by doing research or practicing, or both?

  • If I feel lost and don’t even know where to start, who can I reach out to for advice and guidance?

  • Should I try again right away, or do I need some time to learn something between now and the next attempt?

  • Do I even want to try again? Sometimes it’s ok to just shelve an idea forever. You can always revisit it if you feel ready later or change your mind.

What did I learn from all this? What can I take with me into the future?

  • What are some detail-oriented things I learned, which will help me in future recipes beyond this one? (e.g., “always use a little less cardamom than you think”)

  • What are some big-picture things I learned, that I can take forward with me? (e.g., “I hate failing, but that’s ok!”)

 

5. talk openly about this stuff and support each other

Talk about this stuff with your friends, colleagues, other food bloggers, etc. A lot of people confront this kind of challenge in their daily work—my friend Laura who I mentioned above is a computer engineer, not a recipe writer. Even if someone doesn’t work on the same thing you do, we can all learn from each other, listen, and relate.

You might learn a new strategy for dealing productively with failure, or you might just find solace in talking about this stuff with other people who understand. Reach out to other recipe developers and work on building a community of people who learn from, challenge, and support each other.

 

* A quick (but important) note: This concept can potentially be misused to say “everyone is capable of success, so if you’re not succeeding, you’re not really trying hard enough.” It’s important to remember that no one’s journey has the same beginning, middle, or end. Also, not everyone’s goals are going to be the same, and not every goal in life has to be about work. This post is about defining success for yourself, trying to figure out what goals you want to set for yourself, and focusing most of your energy on the journey that gets you there… and most definitely not about judging or blaming either yourself or others for what they are or aren’t doing.

These  eggs poached in grits  took so much troubleshooting, I almost gave up on the recipe altogether… then one day while journaling, I finally figured out what to do differently!

These eggs poached in grits took so much troubleshooting, I almost gave up on the recipe altogether… then one day while journaling, I finally figured out what to do differently!

how to research and write original recipes

how to consistently develop original recipes

“Do you ever worry you’ll run out of ideas?” was one of the most stressful things people would ask me about blogging when I first started. Now that I’ve been doing this for a couple years, and have posted over 200 recipes that I love (at a rate of 85 recipes/year), that anxiety has more or less gone away. But it takes work to overcome creative anxiety; there are several concrete things you can do to set yourself up for success as a recipe writer, and to make sure that your success is meaningful and has a positive effect on the recipe writing community.

Part of it is making sure you’re taking care of yourself, avoiding burnout, and focusing on the things in your life that really matter. But the other half of the equation is finding a creative process that works for you, and that’s what I’ll be talking about in this post. This is the process that works for me, and while parts of it are universally applicable (especially the parts about crediting others), your mileage may vary on some of it.

To my non-writer readers: I’ll be back with your regularly scheduled programming tomorrow, but in the meantime, this one is mostly for the food writers, so feel free to skip it and come back tomorrow for some chocolate cherry galette (oops, you didn’t hear it from me!). Or stay and read if you want a little behind-the-scenes peek!

So for anyone who wants to hear it, today I’m sharing my four strategies for creative consistency, as well as a guide to researching and writing an original recipe.


how to consistently develop original recipes

1) always have a big list of ideas (good and bad)

behind  every favorite recipe  that makes it to the blog, there are so many bad ones that didn’t even make it to the kitchen

behind every favorite recipe that makes it to the blog, there are so many bad ones that didn’t even make it to the kitchen

Most creative people will tell you that the secret to generating a decent number of very good ides is generating a ridiculous number of bad ones. I keep a spreadsheet of all my ideas for future blog posts, and each one gets promoted (or demoted!) as I work on it.

They’re definitely not all keepers, and this is not false modesty—it is the truth. Only the really good ones make it to the blog, but the bad ones are important in their own behind-the-scenes way. Just about 50% of my initial ideas are absolutely awful, 40% of them are pretty good but need some serious revision, and a small 10% sliver of them are actual fully-formed good ideas.

All my ideas start in the “more ideas” section of my list, which has literally hundreds of thoughts (I do some serious idea-weeding about once a year, but it’s normally pretty long). The good ones eventually move to the “on my mind” section when I’m thinking more seriously about working on them, then “in production” when they’re ready for the kitchen, then “post production.” And if they go into production, but end badly, they get demoted to “needs development,” or “dead ideas.”

2) learn to tell the good ideas apart from the bad, learn to be productively critical without beating yourself up, and find inspiration in bad ideas

these delicious and simple  amba fish tacos  were inspired by another overly complicated taco idea that didn’t really pan out as a recipe

these delicious and simple amba fish tacos were inspired by another overly complicated taco idea that didn’t really pan out as a recipe

The key to consistently producing great recipes is learning how to figure out which ones are the good ones. It doesn’t matter how many bad ideas you come up with, as long as you don’t thoughtlessly chase after them, without ever identifying the ones worth pursuing.

With experience, my average number of good ideas has improved a bit, but way more importantly, my ability to sniff out a good ideas has improved much more. When I first started, I had no clue what was what, and would try out a random thing I dreamed up, which would go well about a quarter of the time. So I spent a tremendous amount of time (and energy, and ingredients) in the kitchen just experimenting and hoping something would gel. Eventually something would! But success was always hard-won. While I learned so much from the times things went badly, it was honestly mostly exhausting and stressful.

Developing the skills to be productively self-critical (recognizing when something is good, when something is terrible, and when something just needs a bit more work) takes time and a lot of reflection. But beating yourself up over bad ideas, while sometimes inevitable, is never productive. When something sucks, be proud of yourself for knowing so, spend some time figuring out exactly why it sucks, and then move on. Maybe moving on is trying again the next day, maybe it’s trying again next year, and maybe it’s totally scrapping the idea forever.

But what to do with the long list of bad ideas? Use it for inspiration! While 50% of my brainstorming ideas are awful, there’s usually a little nugget of something there. There’s always a reason you thought of it to begin with. Sometimes reading over my list of bad ideas inspires another better idea that I never would have had otherwise.

3) always have a few posts ready to go

this  turtle baklava  took a bit of trial and error before I was happy with it, but because I was working on it weeks ahead of posting, it was easier to deal with the disastrous first couple tries

this turtle baklava took a bit of trial and error before I was happy with it, but because I was working on it weeks ahead of posting, it was easier to deal with the disastrous first couple tries

Whenever bloggers ask me for advice about posting consistently, this is always the number 1 thing I say, and I feel like it usually comes across as completely unattainable, as if it requires a crazy amount of planning.

But having a few posts ready to go doesn’t mean that you need to work twice as hard to get a couple weeks ahead—instead, it could mean that you need to take a break from posting for a few weeks to spend some time generating content, so you feel super prepared when you start up again.

Having a few posts ready helps my creative process, because it takes the stress out of idea generating and recipe developing. That security blanket allows me to forgive myself when things go wrong, but also allows me to be critical enough to know that things have gone wrong.

Without this buffer, when things are going wrong, I end up vacillating between wishful thinking mode (“I guess this is good enough to post!”… because oh no, I need something to post!) and self-loathing mode (“everything I do is terrible, and I’ll never have another good idea ever again”). Neither of these ways of thinking is productive. Mindlessly hating yourself is neither self-reflective nor productive… but of course, neither is thinking everything you do is brilliant.

By always working a little bit in the future, you can detach from the pressure a bit, and have a little more objectivity when assessing your work. You’ll find that when things go wrong, you can take a step back, acknowledge it, and learn from it, all without beating yourself up about it.

Plus, working ahead helps you make room in your life for other projects. Right now, I’ve pulled 7 months ahead on content to gear up for a big project I’m about to take on. This kind of planning has given me the freedom to build something, and move beyond the daily grind of creating and posting content.

4) take inspiration, and give more credit than you think is due

my toum recipe , with an important change inspired by (and credited to!) my friend  Cosette ’s recipe

my toum recipe, with an important change inspired by (and credited to!) my friend Cosette’s recipe

While generating and recognizing your own contribution is really important to your growth as a recipe developer, it’s also totally okay to find inspiration in other people doing similar things. I find a lot of comfort in the idea that we can all inspire each other, and that I’m not just doing this by myself.

It’s just also important to actively take inspiration, rather than just passively soaking things up. Did someone’s photo inspire yours? Did you adapt someone else’s recipe? Did someone’s combination of ingredients make you think to do something similar? Did someone teach you about a new baking technique? Say so!

David Lebovitz wrote a wonderful article about recipe attribution a few years back, which you should absolutely read. The bottom line? You can legally get away with a lot, but if someone else inspired your idea, it’s so much better to just give them the credit you owe them. And if you adapted or borrowed someone else’s recipe, attribution is crucial.

You’re not just doing the ethical thing—thinking about where your ideas come from is crucial to your own growth as a recipe developer, and can only help you become a better one. It’s not about being perfect (we all mess up and forget things from time to time!)—it’s about trying our best not to make a pattern of withholding credit. It’s about putting in a little effort to develop some good habits.

If this sounds totally overwhelming, don’t worry! I’ve put together the following guide, plus a flow chart. If you’re unsure, you can follow along, one step at a time, to decide which path makes the most sense for you.


how to research and write a recipe, and how to credit others

First, I always google whether someone else has already had my idea, so I can either scratch it off my list (or give credit to the originator) before I get all married to the idea as my own.

Some things are so universal, they don’t need to be credited in this way. E.g., I don’t need to credit someone else for my family’s fattoush recipe, even though there are other bloggers who have posted their recipes before I posted mine. No one person on the internet invented it, and it’s something a lot of Middle Eastern and North African folks know how to make totally independently of each other. Or you might find that you have an idea that lots of other people have also had (e.g., tomorrow’s chocolate cherry galette… it turns out lots of folks have caught onto the fact that chocolate and cherries are pretty tasty together). Unless you can track down the originator, you don’t need to find someone to credit with this universal idea.

But honestly, if a friend’s fattoush post inspires me to share my own, I’ll totally mention them. Or if I’m making something from a culture that’s not my own, I’ll for sure credit (or at least mention) the person or recipe that first taught me how to make it, or the friend or restaurant that inspired me to come up with my own version.

Once you’ve established that you have your own unique idea (or figured out how you’ll navigate crediting someone else with their idea in your post), there are a lot of different recipe developing scenarios, depending on where you’re starting from. Do you totally know how to make it, or do you need to do a bit of research? Follow along with this flow chart (and the explanation below it), to find out how to attribute your recipe:

how to develop a recipe, and how to credit others

let’s say you can make the dish without a recipe

Sometimes I’m developing a recipe for something I can make with my eyes closed and one hand tied behind my back. In those cases, I just write up a recipe off the top of my head, go for it in the kitchen, carefully record any changes, re-test it if need be—and that’s that.

I’ll spend a few minutes thinking about how the dish came to be, and mention any other recipes that inspired me, but if the recipe isn’t adapted from or inspired by anyone else, it’s totally ok not to cite anyone else. For instance, my s’mores baklava was inspired by my cousin Heather’s wedding, and I know how to make baklava without a recipe—so since the recipe and its inspiration came directly from my brain, I didn’t need to cite anyone.

or let’s say you pretty much know how to make it, but need a little guidance

Sometimes I’m working on an idea that I need to consult other recipes for, like my strawberry sumac pie. In a case like this, you’ll want to write down what you think the recipe should be, and then research to tweak it.

With my strawberry sumac pie, I started by writing down how many grams of strawberries I thought would fill a 9-inch pie pan. I knew I wanted to thicken it with tapioca, and estimated that I’d need a little more than I used in my strawberry sour plum pie, since strawberries are less pectin-rich than plums. And I wrote down about how much sumac and sugar I thought it needed (plus times, temperatures, and all that).

Then comes the research. I spent an hour or so looking at other recipes and taking careful notes. I read through dozens of other strawberry pie recipes, jotting down ingredient ratios, techniques, temperatures, etc. I then compared my notes to figure out what common ground exists between all these different recipes, and to figure out how to tweak my own to be more consistent with the ones I found. I also spent some time thinking about whether I wanted my pie to be similar to the ones I found—I like fruit pie to be a bit more on the set side, so I erred toward the ones that had more tapioca.

I then took my new and improved recipe to the kitchen, tested it out, decided it was a bit too sweet, didn’t have quite enough sumac, and wasn’t set enough to my liking. I changed all these things in my recipe, made it again, and was totally happy with the result.

If one recipe in particular influenced the way I changed mine, I’d credit that author somewhere in the post. To give a very different example, my friend Cosette’s recipe for toum taught me a really wonderful technique that helped me tweak my own recipe to be more consistent, and I was sure to mention that in the post.

Also, since I wasn’t the first person to have the idea to make a strawberry or cherry sumac pie or tart, I made sure to give credit where it was due (Majed Ali’s cherry sumac date molasses pie and Jerrelle Guy’s strawberry sumac granola tart) in the original post. Could I have legally skipped this part? I guess so! But why skip it? Crediting others for their related ideas takes nothing away from yours, and makes it no less original.

then again, sometimes you have no clue how to make it, and need a lot of help

This is where things get tricky, and you have to decide between 3 options, depending on how much time you want to put into the research. You’ll either:

1. Find someone else’s recipe, make almost no changes to the ingredients or technique, and ask permission to post it with credit. Make sure you do this right:

David Leite’s cookies…  with pine nuts !

David Leite’s cookies… with pine nuts!

  • Put the instructions 100% in your own words. Like, literally rewrite them as you remember the process going, without referring to the original recipe until you’re done writing yours.

  • If you make one or two small tweaks to the ingredients (e.g., cut back on the salt, used beef stock instead of chicken, or used whole milk and lemon juice instead of buttermilk), you should still give full credit.

  • For example, once I adapted David Leite’s perfect chocolate chip cookies by adding pine nuts to them. I asked his permission to post this recipe to my blog, which he gave me, and I did all of the above steps. Adding pine nuts isn’t exactly an earth-shattering change, so I needed David’s permission to use this recipe, and I made sure to credit him profusely in the post.

2. Find someone else’s recipe and make a ton of changes to it until it’s totally become your own, but then credit them anyway with “loosely adapted from” because you’re not going to be that guy.

  • A good rule of thumb: if you make 1 or 2 big changes along with 2 or 3 minor changes to a single recipe, it’s probably ok to call it yours, but it’s always best to give credit to the recipe that helped get you there.

  • For example, this is how I came up with my cardamom rose gingerbread cake: I had previously baked (and loved) the Cook’s Illustrated classic gingerbread layer cake. So I used that as a starting point, and made several major changes to it. I added a couple new flavors, like rosewater and cardamom, and cut out a couple others, like cayenne pepper and white pepper (which would clash with the new ones). And instead of coffee, which would overpower the delicate cardamom and rosewater, I used buttermilk, which changed both the flavor and texture of the cake. And I used my own recipe for a rosewater cream cheese glaze with dried rose petals, instead of an ermine buttercream with crystalized ginger. Plus I made some very minor changes to a couple techniques. And I credited the original recipe as "loosely adapted from."

3. Do a ton of research and come up with your own recipe

how to develop a recipe, and how to credit others
  • This is the option I usually end up choosing, but it definitely takes the most effort. This is basically the same as when I pretty much know how to make something, but need a little guidance… except I have no idea how to make it, and need a lot of guidance, and a lot of trial and error.

  • I end up spending a really long time reading every single recipe I can find on the subject, comparing notes (see above “you pretty much know how to make it” for more info on how to do this). I end up writing a recipe from scratch after a comparison of dozens and dozens of related recipes, once I feel like I can write up my own.

  • This usually requires several more rounds of testing than any of the other methods listed above, because you’re starting from such a place of not knowing, but it’s super gratifying once you finally figure it out and come up with something that’s really your own.

  • If you don’t feel like you have the background to be able to do this yet, that’s totally ok, because all the other above options are perfectly fine alternatives—the important thing is to make sure you cite other recipes if you’re not truly writing your own yet. It’s really helpful to read some books on technique and food science to build your skills up—for example, Salt, Fat, Acid Heat (for cooking technique), The Bread Baker’s Apprentice (for bread baking), I’m Just Here for More Food (for pastries), and On Food and Cooking (for food science).

So do you have to do everything 100% from scratch, without ever using anyone else’s recipe? Absolutely not! Being original isn’t about being an island—you can collaborate and still be your own unique person. There’s no shame in adapting someone else’s recipe—just make sure you give credit appropriately, out of respect for yourself and others.