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Fear and Loathing in Your Home Kitchen

Every home cook has ingredients and dishes they avoid out of fear, or tools they’re afraid to use. What does it take to get over it?

Scallops searing in a pan are flipped over by a person holding a pair of tongs. Shutterstock

A few months ago, I was invited by some friends to join a cookbook club. Similar to a book club, a cookbook club gets together once a month to tackle one specific book — everyone picks one part of the meal (mains, appetizers, desserts, and so on) and a recipe from within that category they’d like to cook, then we all get together to make dinner. It’s extremely fun. But it’s been three months of cookbook club and I’ve never once elected to cook a main dish for fear that might mean I’d have to cook chicken. Or steak. Or pork. I have always been terrified of making anything where meat is the star, so I default to what I know best: dessert. (For everything in life, I try to just make dessert.)

It is not unusual for even the most accomplished chefs to have dishes, or even entire categories of dishes, that they’re afraid of cooking. In fact, having fears in the kitchen seems to be a great unifier among most cooks, professional and domestic. “I’m really just afraid of making something that’s inedible or unappetizing, like a really tough steak, or a dry piece of chicken,” says Stephanie Spector, who works in the food industry. “I’m afraid of using the wrong parts of an animal, like not knowing that you have to remove a part of a turkey before cooking it and accidentally leaving it in and making everyone sick.” Spector followed up: “I don’t even know if that’s a thing.”

Spector is a pescatarian, so part of her fear comes from the fact that if she’s making a roast chicken, she can’t taste-test what she’s cooking. “It’s how I learn,” she says. “I can’t do that with meat, so I’m afraid I’ll never get better at cooking it.” Years of vegetarianism translated into decades of fear for me, too: What did I know about how a chicken was supposed to look or how a pot roast would perform in the oven? It has always been better to just ignore that genre of food entirely than risk killing anyone. (That fear also applies to the fish-fearful: “I do not want to die by scallop,” one friend says.)

It’s comforting to know that many of our kitchen fears are the same, related to certain ingredients and how to cook them without killing ourselves or others. Meat, pie dough, seafood, and rice all top the list of foods that home cooks that we spoke to are afraid to mess up. A friend who worked in a “failing restaurant” at age 15 was scarred by the experience of dealing with a lot of spoiled fish, so it took a while for him to trust his ability to tell if the fish is good or “if it’s actually the fish it claims to be.”

But those cooking fears stem from other places, too — whether it’s the fear of wasting food or time or not meeting the expectations or standards of dinner party guests. And if we’re all afraid of something in the kitchen, is there a way to free ourselves? Can we see our fears as irrational or unnecessary and overcome them for the sake of a good meal? Or are we doomed to always let these culinary fears get the best of us?

Cooking meat without dying, making rice with scorching, and poaching eggs properly may top the list of ingredient fears we have, but many of us all also fear the tools we use to cook them. Hillary Dixler Canavan, Eater’s restaurant editor, has a terrible fear of her broiler. “I have this phobia about burning the top of my hand — it happened to a friend of mine when we were making nachos in middle school and it really scarred me,” Canavan says. “Her skin looked like a piece of cooked chicken.” These kinds of haunting memories linger for a long time, and now Canavan says that when she cooks she will “internally discard” a recipe when a broiler is called for. Even extremely cautious home cooks are thrown off by the mandoline, a sloped slicing tool that is used to sliver all manner of vegetables. Asked whether she’d hurt herself using a mandoline, Diana Lu — a writer for Eater Philly — says, “Oh god yes. It’s usually because I’m trying to talk to a cooking companion.” Being distracted while shaving has resulted in many injuries, and “each time I put it away for a few years.”

Cooking fears are often rooted in wanting something that you spent all this time cooking to actually be good, which is why most home cooks also have extremely high standards, even if they’re only cooking for themselves or their close friends and family. “I will not serve food that I don’t think is very good to other people,” Rachel P. Kreiter, Eater’s senior copy editor, says. Kreiter struggles making yeasted breads and can’t figure out how to overcome that fear of them being bad. “Since the most natural opportunity to make a large-format thing is for other people, and since I abhor food waste, I won’t be satisfied until I produce something that other people, objectively, will think is good.”

But there are few things more obnoxious to home cooks than going through the process of making something, doing it poorly, then having to throw it out. Several friends I spoke with refuse to poach eggs on principle — there are a dozen egg preparations that are more enticing than the idea of fully wasting eggs in a pot of hot water. Henrike Theda Klug, a cook and food professional in Paris, says that deep-frying anything is the scariest thing she can imagine in the kitchen. In addition to fearing the boiling-hot oil, she says, “I’m nervous about under-frying the food and it getting soggy and oil-logged, or burning it, and I hate wasting food.”

It is possible to overcome fears of a culinary tool or ingredient, though. Try writer Maggie Lange’s approach: Lange says that her sister hyped up how terrifying the mandoline is for so long that Lange believed it was much harder and scarier to use than it was. “I’d pictured a mandoline as a rusty guillotine with a manic blade,” she says. “And then it was plastic and didn’t need a government-approved license to buy it so I was like, ‘Oh okay, it’s actually not the most dangerous weapon in America.’”

Even with lingering fears around foods we avoid cooking and tools we choose to ignore, we remain ever hopeful: A friend who always messes up her rice (“It’s my Achilles heel”) is considering getting a rice cooker. Canavan is thinking about investing in a really nice toaster oven. And Spector thinks it’s possible that she’ll eventually overcome her fear of cooking meat. “I think the best way for me is just to keep practicing and take every opportunity I can to cook meat for people who will eat it,” she says. If she does it enough, she may start to become comfortable with it. And maybe, just maybe, “I’ll even come to enjoy it.”

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