The Learning In Making Mistakes: A Cooking Story

Mistakes make your brain grow. It is true. It is scientific fact. When we make mistakes, our brains enter into new territory. It has new information to process—from why or how we made the mistake, to how to fix or avoid mistakes in the future—and thus it grows. However, most people are so afraid of making mistakes in the first place that we often limit ourselves from taking risks and thus the opportunity of growth! Here is the basic mathematical proof:

A. The more you embrace making mistakes, the less afraid of them you will be.
B. The less afraid of mistake you are, the more you will try new things.
C. The more new things you try, the more your brain grows.

A → B, B → C, so therefore: A → C.

See? It reads like a proof from basic geometry! (I know half of you just rolled your eyes at me.) So how does this relate to cooking? A LOT. Stick with me …

One key element necessary to embracing mistakes is to focus on the process and not just the end result. As an educator, I am very much focused on learning the processes. As a Co-op professional, I am often overly concerned with the results (after all, I have paying students who want to learn and eat!). As a human and developing chef … I make mistakes in the process and have varying results. When we cook, we don’t often have time or resources for ‘varying results’ (dinner needs to get on the table!), and, as the teacher at the front of the room, I desperately don’t want to screw-up. Sometimes the greater learning opportunity is in the making of mistakes. For example …

In a recent class, Condiments 101, among several recipes that we were making that evening, homemade mayonnaise was on the list.

Side note: I like to do things by hand at least once. For example, I encourage people to appreciate their mixer more by every once in a while whisking egg whites or whip cream by hand. Thus we embarked on making mayonnaise with the same base philosophy.

The students whisked away, adding oil to the egg yolk mixture, carefully following the directions, only for each to ‘fail’ in a different way. For one, the mixture never thickened. The student added oil too fast so it never broke down (a common problem that is easy to identify). For another, the mayonnaise broke. It needed more water or vinegar to allow for emulsion (again, a problem I could identify). For a third student, well, her beautiful mayonnaise that stayed together tasted bitter. Very, very bitter. I had no clue as to why. In all the recipes I had read, there was no mention of this as a potential outcome (turns out I wasn’t reading the right recipes), and in the times I have made mayonnaise successfully, this had never happened. Hmmm. Turns out, the extra-virgin olive oil we were using was the problem. It does not hold up well to extreme agitation. With enough vigor, extra-virgin olive oil breaks down into tiny bitter fragments, making the end result unpalatable. To avoid this, use a more neutral oil then add a bit of extra-virgin olive oil for flavor after the mayonnaise has emulsified.

The moral of this story is, it was ‘the mistakes’ that gave best to learning. And while we didn’t create an edible mayonnaise that night, we, the class, now know what mistakes are possible and how to avoid them in the future. Because really, everyone should be making homemade mayonnaise. (And use an emersion blender to do so. Oh, and take a cooking class …)

Just the simple act of cooking is also an act of learning.

Happy cooking!


P.S. A link to one of my favorite blogs/ cookbooks on making your own mayonnaise:


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Lindsay Smith

Lindsay Smith is the Co-op's Food Educator. Contact her at