13 of our favourite foods that were invented by accident

13 of our favourite foods that were invented by accident

by Lauren Fitchett14 April 2023

If you’re unlucky, kitchen experiments mean ruined food and a sour taste in the mouth. But more successful tests can unlock new family favourites – here, we look at the accidental invention stories of some of our most cherished foods.

13 of our favourite foods that were invented by accident

If you’re unlucky, kitchen experiments mean ruined food and a sour taste in the mouth. But more successful tests can unlock new family favourites – here, we look at the accidental invention stories of some of our most cherished foods.

Lauren is a food writer at Great British Chefs. She joined the team in 2022, having previously been a food editor at regional newspapers and trade magazines.

Lauren is a food writer at Great British Chefs. She joined the team in 2022, having previously been a food editor at regional newspapers and trade magazines. She is based in Norfolk and spends most of her time trying new recipes at home or enjoying the culinary gems of the east of England.

Lauren is a food writer at Great British Chefs. She joined the team in 2022, having previously been a food editor at regional newspapers and trade magazines.

Lauren is a food writer at Great British Chefs. She joined the team in 2022, having previously been a food editor at regional newspapers and trade magazines. She is based in Norfolk and spends most of her time trying new recipes at home or enjoying the culinary gems of the east of England.

From split sauces to overdone meat and peculiar flavours, we’ve all suffered the results of a cooking experiment gone wrong. Whether a substitute didn't quite work out or a recipe simply didn’t go as planned, getting creative in the kitchen has its risks, and the more time you spend doing so the more mistakes you'll see. The same, of course, applies to successes – every so often, a culinary blunder creates something special, a pairing or texture so surprisingly fantastic that it quickly becomes a favourite.

Throughout history, countless foods have been created by mistake, including plenty which play a huge role in our lives today – bread, for example, was flat for thousands of years before we discovered if you leave dough in the sun, it expands. Beer, too, is believed to have come into being after a mishap while making bread, while one theory behind tofu's creation is that it was thanks to a chef who accidentally curdled soy milk. Necessity may be the mother of invention, but so too is curiosity and clumsiness, it turns out. Though there are too many to list in one place, we've looked at just some of the foods that we cherish today but which almost never came to be, from sweet treats to savoury snacks.

French fries

It's said that we have villagers in a French-speaking part of Belgium to thank for French fries. Traditionally, communities living along the River Meuse would catch small fish and fry them for dinner, but during the winter months the river would freeze over, cutting off their access to fish. Instead, the villagers used potatoes, cutting them up small enough to look like the little fish, before frying them. While they had been doing so since the 1600s, it's believed the potatoes were first dubbed French fries and taken across the world by visiting soldiers during the First World War.

Ice lolly

In 1905, eleven-year-old Frank Epperson accidentally left a glass of powdered lemonade soda and water with a wooden stirrer inside it outside overnight. Temperatures dipped below freezing and when he went back outside, he discovered what has since been said to be the world’s first ice lolly. He named it the Epsicle and started selling them to other children in his neighbourhood. As an adult, Frank reintroduced the ice lolly in 1922 when he took them to a local firemen's ball. They were, unsurprisingly, popular and the following year Epperson applied for a patent for his Popsicles. 

Chicharrones

We think it might be sensible to take this one with a pinch of salt – the history of delicious chicharrones is contested, but one bizarre (and frankly slightly off-putting) story says that a Spanish farmer discovered them in the 1700s after his hog rubbed its skin off while scratching its back on a tree. The skin baked in the sun and, out of curiosity, the farmer tried it, discovering its crispy, meaty joys.

Chocolate chip cookies

Today one of the world’s favourite sweet treats, chocolate cookies are believed to have been created by accident in 1930, when Ruth Wakefield, co-owner at the Toll House Inn in Massachusetts, was baking a batch of cookies. The recipe called for melting baker’s chocolate, but Ruth had run out. Instead, she crumbled up a regular chocolate bar, thinking it would melt evenly into the cookie batter – it didn’t, of course, creating the crunchy, gooey cookies we love.

Chimichanga

The story goes that chef Monica Flin, at El Charro Café in Arizona, was cooking a burrito when she accidentally dropped it into a vat of hot oil, splashing herself. She started to say a Spanish swear word beginning with 'ch', but the presence of her young nieces and nephews meant she changed it to 'chimichanga', a Spanish equivalent of 'thingmajig'. Rather than throwing the fried burrito away, she tried it and quickly realised it deserved a spot on her menu. Interestingly, the burrito was also said to have been created accidentally by Juan Méndez, a Mexican street vendor, who wrapped his food in flour tortillas to keep it warm, before discovering they were actually the perfect addition to his meal.

Worcestershire sauce

Our beloved Worcestershire sauce is another household staple said to have been invented by accident. In 1835, Lord Sandys returned to England from India and tasked John Lea and William Perrins, local drug store owners, with recreating a sauce he'd tried there. They had originally hoped to make some for Lord Sandys and sell the rest, but the strong smell encouraged them to hide it away in the cellar, where it was forgotten for two years. When they rediscovered it, it had aged well, turning into the fermented, umami-packed sauce we use today.

Yoghurt

Tracing yoghurt’s history is no easy task – historians believe it was being made in Turkey as early as the sixth century BC. But its creation is understood to have been fortuitous; the story goes that, long before the food preservation tools and techniques we have today, Central Asian herdsmen stored extra goat’s milk in animal stomachs. When they opened the makeshift containers, they found the milk had thickened and become sour, thanks to the blossoming of good bacteria.

Tarte tatin

The legend goes that tarte tatin was created by sisters Caroline and Stephanie Tatin, who were in charge of a French hotel at the turn of the twentieth century. It’s said that Stephanie, the chef of the two, was distracted and caramelised some apples more than she meant to. Fearing they were burnt, and in order to avoid throwing them away, it's believed she decided to put dough on top of them and turn them over before serving.

Oyster sauce

In 1888, Lee Kum Sheung was busy running a food stall in Nanshui, China, when, as usual, he set a big pot of oyster soup on the stovetop and left it to simmer gently, ready for his lunchtime customers. Though we don't know what distracted him, his attention wandered and he forgot about the oysters. When he remembered them many hours later, they were still simmering away and had reduced to a thick, brown paste, with deeply savoury flavours. He sold it to his customers as a rice seasoning and it proved a hit.

Crisps

The tale of crisps' accidental invention is another to not take too seriously. In 1853, a man called George Crum was working at a resort in Saratoga Springs in New York as a cook. He received an order for fried potatoes, the story goes, but the customer kept sending them back, complaining they were too thick. To keep them happy, George stopped chopping the potatoes and instead sliced them as thinly as he could and fried them, creating crisps. It’s a good story, but one which has been disputed over the years – there are recipes for crisps in the early nineteenth century, after all, before George was even a chef. Either way, we’re certainly grateful they’re here.

Buffalo chicken wings

When Teresa Bellissimo, the owner of the Anchor Bar in Buffalo, New York, received a case of chicken wings instead of the chicken necks she had ordered, she had to get creative. At the time, in 1964, chicken wings had a bad reputation and were often considered unusable, so, determined they wouldn't go to waste, she deep-fried them, coated them in hot sauce and served them alongside celery and blue cheese dressing. From that night they became a staple on the menu, and a phenomenon which has since travelled across the world.

Mozzarella

According to Italian legend, a cheesemaker may have invented mozzarella by chance. It's said that curdled milk fell into a pot of boiling water in a cheese factory near Naples, creating a rich, creamy delicacy that has since become one of the world's favourite cheeses. Legend has it that blue cheese was also made unwittingly, this time in a cave outside the village of Roquefort in France. A piece of bread was said to have been left there, going mouldy and spreading to the cheese – though historians aren't entirely convinced the tale is true.

Eton mess

There are a few stories about how Eton mess was created, including one involving a Labrador which sat on a picnic basket containing a strawberry pavlova at a cricket match at Eton College. That's said to have happened in the 1920s, though, and the first record of the name dates back to 1893, so it's unlikely to be true. Another claims that a strawberry, meringue and cream pudding was dropped at an Eton vs Harrow cricket match in the late nineteenth century – instead of binning it, the myth goes that it was picked up and served anyway, leading to the accidental creation of a classic English dessert.

Whether they are more folk tale or fact, the moral of the story is clear; we should think twice before dismissing our failed kitchen experiments. After all, if quick-thinking chefs and cooks throughout history hadn't thought to turn lemons into lemonade (lemonade wasn't, for that matter, created by accident), we wouldn't have the likes of crispy Buffalo chicken wings or sweet tarte Tatin – and what sort of world would that be?