8 Tips for Scaling Down a Dinner Recipe

published Sep 16, 2015
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(Image credit: Megan Gordon)

I’m usually cooking for two, so when I find recipes that are written to make just a few servings, I count it as a personal victory. In reality, those little victories are not the norm. A lot of recipes I make are designed to serve six, eight, or even 12 people — far more food than our little family of two needs.

Scaling down recipes isn’t always the most intuitive process, but when you’re doing most of your cooking for one or two, it’s a helpful skill to have. If you’re tired of cooking too much but nervous about scaling down recipes, let us help.

When it comes to scaling down recipes, some are easy, while others — particularly when it comes to baking — might not really be feasible to reduce. Before getting started, here are the a few things I think about.

1. Stick with recipes that are easy to scale down.

Start with an easy recipe, maybe something that’s familiar to you. Certain recipes are easy to scale, while other simply aren’t. What makes a recipe easy to scale? Recipes that use single-serving pieces of meat, like chicken breasts or thighs, or pork chops, rather than a whole chicken or a roast, will be easier to scale down. Soup, stew, chili, and grain dishes are easy to reduce.

2. Adjust the measurements.

The first step in reducing a recipe is scaling down the amount of each of the ingredients. This could be as simple as dividing everything in half, or it may require a little more math. When you run into ingredients that are tricky to divide neatly, like eggs, use your best judgment. (With eggs, whisk the egg together in a measuring cup and pour out half!)

3. Write down the converted recipe.

It might seem simple enough, but don’t just adjust the measurements in your head as you’re cooking. It’s so easy to make mistakes this way. Take an extra few minutes to completely write out the ingredients along with the newly converted measurements. This will make the recipe easier to follow, and if you make it again, the conversions are already done.

4. For seasonings, use less than you think. Taste as you go.

For salt and seasonings, you can generally start with the ratio you want to scale down with, but if it results in an awkward measurement — say, 1/3 of a teaspoon — it’s better to be safe and use less to start with. If you can taste along the way, do so and adjust with more seasonings as needed.

For recipes that you love and will make again, sometimes it’s worth it to make full batches of things like a marinade or spice rub — use what you need for your scaled-down recipe this time around and save the rest for later. That way, there’s no converting measurements and making the recipe again will be so much easier!

5. Research using smaller cookware.

When reducing the size of a recipe, you may also need to consider using smaller cookware to ensure the dish cooks properly. The size of the pot, pan, or baking dish used will also affect the cook time, so it’s important to use an appropriate smaller size for what you’re making.

6. Reduce the cook time, if needed.

Cooking a smaller amount of food can sometimes mean that things cook faster. Like, cooking one steak rather than four, for example. Instead of using the timing listed in the original recipe as your main guide, use any visual cues in the recipes to know when to move onto the next step or know when the food is cooked, as things may happen more quickly than anticipated. Trust your instincts!

7. Swap in more conveniently sized ingredients.

When it comes to dinner, there are common ingredients like onions and herbs that you’re likely to find in most recipes. Consider if there are certain ingredients that can be swapped for something else that offers similar results, but proves more practical (say, using shallots in place of half an onion, or swapping dried herbs for fresh).

8. Freeze extra ingredients.

If you’re cooking for just one, or even two, you’re often left with extra ingredients. It’s a pain, and it can get expensive. If you aren’t able to swap these ingredients for something more practical, or can’t use them in another recipe right away, think about stashing the leftover in the freezer for later. Many fresh ingredients, like diced onions or single chicken thigh, will keep very well in the freezer for up to three months.

How do you scale down recipes? Any helpful tips we didn’t mention here?