Note: This post is part of an occasional Q&A series called Ask Addie. Have a question about food or cooking? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I’ve enjoyed your columns for the last three years. I started reading your column when my wife died and I had to start cooking for myself. I usually pick the recipes that sound good, have minimal exotic ingredients, not too many steps and can be cut in half without affecting the results.
That brings up two things. Item one: It seems that when you cut down a recipe, in half or thirds, the taste changes. It just isn’t as good unless you cook the whole recipe, but then you have three or four days of soggy microwaved leftovers that are worse than if you had cut the recipe down. Are there some rules of thumb to follow that will make a cut-down recipe taste like the full batch?
Item two: When you cut a recipe down, the volume of the batch goes down and the depth of the mix in the pan is reduced. This creates a problem with cooking time and temperature and makes a cake look like a cookie. So I have tried to find smaller pans that keep the mix to approximately the same depth. For example, when a recipe calls for a 9-inch-by-12-inch dish, a 6-inch-by-8-inch would do the trick for half the batch. But I have yet to find a 6-inch-by-8-inch dish. Can you tell me where I can find small “cooking for one”-sized dishes?
My condolences on your wife’s passing, David. For more than the recipes, I’d recommend “The Pleasures of Cooking for One” by the late Judith Jones, who wrote about cooking by herself after her husband’s death.
The logistics of cooking for one can be tricky, but here are some thoughts to help find the right recipes and tools for the job.
- Cooking ingredients individually and then remixing them is one way to reduce food waste and boredom. Cooking one cup of rice or quinoa can yield enough rice for a savory dish dish, a salad and a wrap, saving you cooking time on three different meals.
- Cut whatever protein you’re using in half, and season each portion with a different spice or marinade. This means you can turn one large chicken breast, piece of salmon or block of tofu into two meals, perhaps a lemon pepper pasta one night and fajita-spiced tacos the next.
- Smaller pans, which are available at restaurant supply stores, such as ACE, and international markets like MT Market, will help when baking, roasting and braising smaller portions of food because they will more accurately cook the food, from a frittata to a pot roast, as intended in the recipe. In most cases, a smaller saucepan, skillet, roasting tray or baking pan will cook the food a little faster, too, so keep an eye on the heat.
- When looking for recipes, keep an eye out for dishes that serve two and no more than four. Don’t try to scale down batches larger than that. The larger the batch, the harder it is to recreate the same flavor in a smaller portion, especially when measurements are in tablespoons, teaspoons and cups.
- Some foods, chili or pozole, for instance, simply can’t be made well in smaller batches. If you don’t mind the texture of leftovers but just don’t like to eat the same foods in a week, freeze the leftovers in portions, which are easy to reheat in the future.
There’s a whole subculture of mug food, which is aimed at people who want to make single-serve meals using a mug and a microwave. We ran a recipe for a raspberry cheesecake a few years ago, and Duncan Hines is now selling single-serve mug cake packages at the grocery store.
Sarah Kerekes Watkins, an Austin-based recipe developer who spends a lot of time scaling recipes as a corporate chef, says that using smaller cooking vessels will help, but so will using a kitchen scale. “Do everything by weight, if possible,” she says. “Once you have ingredient weights, you can derive ingredient percentages and make scaled batches according to your total desired yield.”
If halving a recipe is still too much food, find another recipe or adjust the proportions intuitively as you prepare the meal, cutting back on liquid or seasoning to accommodate the cooking method and ingredients. In general, if your problem is flavors that are too intense or the textures are off, cut back on the spices and use less-pungent or faster-cooking ingredients, such as shallots instead of onion or a sweet potato instead of a large butternut squash.