Scaling recipes for smaller gatherings

Downsize your cooking during COVID

Growing up in a large family and ten years of dabbling as a caterer makes cooking for a crowd my default. Even with many intervening years, I still tend to cook much larger quantities than truly needed - smaller amounts just don't look like enough and my go-to recipes don't help. Prior to COVID-19 limiting the social circle, extra quantities might have been shared with co-workers or friends. But without these extra eaters, and considerably more home cooking than usual for my small, safe "pod", I have struggled to shop and cook for just one or two. I have too many leftovers for my refrigerator or freezer and with reduced physical activity I don't need all the calories.

So, after eight months of too much food going to waste and a gradually widening waistline, I have gotten serious about scaling down my cooking. As with everything in the kitchen, it takes some planning, but with downsized recipes, accurate measurements and the right equipment, enjoyable mealtime variety as well as manageable, nutritious leftovers have become the norm.

Adjust by weight

Early last summer, I had thrown away half of a chocolate cake and half of a carrot cake - both delicious birthday splurges from my favorite recipe files - we just couldn't eat them before they spoiled. Baking is one of the areas where adjusting recipes seems challenging and I didn't want any more cakes consigned to the trash, so I consulted some experts. I started by asking whether there were any special considerations for adjusting amounts in baking. Several baking professionals immediately answered that they adjust up or down by weight. Having a good kitchen scale and recipe ingredients described in ounces/pounds or grams/kilograms are necessary for this.

The strategy may be of limited use for many of us but I have already tried it when a recipe called for using one package of baking yeast for a bread recipe. Instead of making my usual two-loaf bread recipe, I cut my 7 gram packet of yeast in half using the scale – this would not have been as accurate had I tried using my measuring spoons.

If you want to try using weights with your current recipes, there are some easily accessible references online that show a volume to weight conversion (i.e. King Arthur Baking or Joy of Baking).

Measuring precisely with measuring cups and spoons or with a scale can affect your product when downsizing recipes. The difference in a packed cup of flour versus a lightly filled cup of flour may be as much as 2 ounces (1/4 to 1/2 cup) with extra flour producing a much drier or heavier product. Flour and other dry ingredients settle or compact in shipping so it is always a good idea to sift before measuring and use a dry measuring cup and the flat edge of a knife that allows you to level the top. If you can indulge yourself, get some measuring cups that go all the way down to 1/8 or 1/16 of a cup, as this will mean a bit less hassle if you are reducing recipes.

Similarly, use your measuring spoons with precision – leveling the top – and buy a good set that goes all the way down to 1/8 teaspoon. If you have a scale, you can use 4 ¼ ounces or 120 grams for the weight of one cup of flour.

Measuring liquids

I was also concerned about liquids and flavoring or seasonings and wondered if recipe reductions needed any special adjustments. Again, the baking pros didn't think that this was any more complicated than simple division for smaller quantities. You could weigh liquids for most accuracy, but using clear glass liquid measuring cups properly will work pretty well.

For measuring liquids precisely, do your division and with your measuring cup on a flat surface, fill until the bottom of the liquid (the meniscus) is sitting just at the correct line – you will need to bend down and observe your cup at eye level to see the meniscus. If your downsized liquid amount goes below ¼ cup, and you have to use your measuring spoons, make sure that you fill the spoon all the way to the top.

Working with eggs

Eggs add liquid to a recipe as well, helping to bind ingredients and give products structure, texture and volume, so it is important to get this right even if it means using only a portion of an egg.

As an example, if your recipe calls for 3 eggs and you decide to cut that recipe in half, start by breaking one egg into a small bowl (always assume that they mean a "large" egg). With a fork or whisk, gently mix the yolk and white until well blended but try not to incorporate too much air. One large egg will give you about 3 ¼ to 3 ½ tablespoons of blended egg.

Using measuring spoons, carefully measure out 1 tablespoon plus 2 teaspoons of the blended egg and add this to the one whole egg for your downsized recipe example.

Weighing the blended egg also works well – a whole large egg weighs approximately 50 grams, so you could weigh out 25 grams of blended egg on your scale. If your recipe calls for using just the yolk or just the white, realize that the volumes of the yolk and white are different – an egg white is approximately 2 tablespoons and a yolk is approximately 1 ¼ tablespoon.

Finally, you might decide to use homogenized/pasteurized liquid eggs. Use 2 tablespoons of liquid egg in place of ½ egg. One advantage of using liquid eggs is that you don't end up wasting any.

Downsize the cookware

You can't just pour your downsized recipe into your standard sized equipment – the rate of heat transfer and moisture loss would be different and possibly negatively affect your product. Smaller volume baking or cooking utensils and pots and pans are necessary for your scaled-down baking and cooking.

I was delighted to see more small volume equipment available and picked some up before Thanksgiving to practice. I purchased a six-inch cake pan instead of the usual eight- to ten-inch pan. I found a six-cup Bundt pan to use instead of a ten-cup (for my next carrot cake), a small gratin dish, a six-inch springform pan and a half oven baking sheet. With the smaller baking sheet, I am not as tempted to load on more than I can eat or easily store as leftovers.

Another piece of equipment, a small loaf pan, can be used to make small batches of things like lasagna or enchiladas instead of making an overwhelming nine-inch by thirteen-inch panful. Really small loaf pans and muffin pans can be used for quick breads or muffins.

Time and temperature

For making two experimental pies at Thanksgiving, I used the little cake pans – they were about the same depth as my larger pie dishes but with a 4-inch smaller diameter. Taking recipes that I would use for a 10-inch diameter pie, I multiplied the ingredients by 0.6 and filled little pie dishes (pecan pie and buttermilk pie). I baked them at the same temperatures called for in the recipes and for almost the same length of time. The baking pros had suggested that they wouldn't get done much faster even if smaller, and they were right.

My experiment didn't save me from the extra calories (it took me three weeks to finish eating both large and small pies). But, next time around, I have confidence that the small pies will work out well as long as I do my math correctly.

A good time to learn and practice

Hopefully, our small COVID-19 social circles and our dinner tables will soon include more guests. In the meantime, gaining skills at smaller quantity cooking is good practice for a reformed caterer. If you don't have a favorite recipe that you need to downscale and you aren't up for straining the brain, there are plenty of recipes on the internet that can save you the trouble of the calculations. A local bookstore is also likely to have cookbooks with recipes for small households and Cooperative Extension has some publications with recipes, nutrition advice and suggestions for saving money when cooking for one or two.

Cooking the right amounts can save you time and money and may just be the key to a healthier you.

Leslie Shallcross is a registered dietitian and professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks Institute of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Extension.