How to pare down holiday recipes for a smaller crowd

Photo of Deanna N. Fox

Leftovers have been given a bad rap. In an age of meticulous meal planning and pricey meal kits that create perfectly portioned servings, the concept of cold spaghetti on a slice of buttered toast from last night’s dinner is all but lost on this generation of eaters.

Holiday recipes, however, are designed to feed several people gathered to feast. We want these big, indulgent recipes to harken to the purpose of the holiday: to celebrate, to gather and to be thankful for the abundance we are provided. Except, when the holiday falls during a pandemic, how much abundance is too much abundance? Should we still move forward with making a sweet potato casserole that serves eight when there are only two of us, then pick away at the leftovers for the following week until the 13x9 pan is licked clean? Or should we instead learn to adapt our recipes the same way we have adapted in all other corners of our existence and scale back, pare down and focus on the essentials.

As a rule, recipes are simple math. The flourishes that make them special are the intricate vectors that turn the Pythagorean Theorem into quantum mechanics, but at their root, most recipes still rely on simple numbers processed into a method to reach a predictable, desirable outcome. The math gets semi-complicated when you try to cut a recipe in half or even thirds, but you do not need to be completely left-brained in order to figure out how to reduce a recipe but still achieve the same flavors and textures. Our guide to reducing recipes breaks it all down into basic concepts, listed below for you.

It is easier to reduce cooking recipes than it is for baking recipes
Tasting as you go is a hallmark of adapting recipes in cooking. The benefit of cooking is the ability to adjust seasonings as you go, allowing flavors to build and develop with time. Even for items you won’t be cooking immediately - a glaze for ham, brine for turkey - simple reduction by half or thirds will still create familiar flavors. Baking proves difficult because of the radical transformation of ingredients under heat that cannot be experienced until the recipe is complete and out from the oven. Make life easier for yourself by baking a recipe as listed, but feel free to reduce cooking recipes. (For the record, pie crust is a baking recipe, but chocolate pie filling is a cooking recipe. Try making a 6-inch instead of a 9-inch pie and use the pie dough scraps for decoration or roll out, cut into squares, fill with jam and make BTCC国际交易会所homemade Pop-Tarts for the morning.)

Most items can simply be scaled down
Flour, salt, spices, sugar and fat can generally be cut in half or thirds if needed. Try to keep ratios in check (if you recipe calls for 3 cups flour, 2 cups sugar and 1 cup butter, try to keep the 3:2:1 ratio as best possible) and use our chart below to help calculate reductions. (We recommend taping it to the inside of your cabinet for easy reference.)

It gets tricky with baking soda and baking powder, though
Baking soda, where to begin? Baking soda is a chemical compound of sodium bicarbonate. It is a base that reacts with the acids in flours, liquids, fats and eggs. Baking powder is typically a combination of baking soda, cornstarch and cream of tartar. Cream of tartar is a natural acid for the baking soda base, so the additional acid components in other ingredients is not necessary to create lift in cookies, cakes and other baked goods. You generally need more baking powder than baking soda in a recipe.

The problem lies that the reaction is not always based on a 1:1 level. The general rule for increasing (doubling) recipes is that leavening agents like baking soda and baking powder usually do not need to be doubled to achieve the same rise and lift in a recipe. (Instead of increasing baking soda by 100 percent, 75 percent suffices.) With that thought, you need to work backward when reducing a recipe. 1 teaspoon of baking soda in a recipe that is reduced by half, means you need closer to 5/8 teaspoon of baking soda rather than ½ teaspoon. Too much baking soda or baking powder will result in a metallic flavor in your recipe.

Let’s make it easier on ourselves: for every cup of flour used, add 1 teaspoon of baking powder or ¼ teaspoon of baking soda. If your recipe calls for both, try to maintain as close a ratio as possible of baking powder to baking soda.

And eggs, too!
Chances are good you will end up with an “odd egg” if you reduce recipes. If you decide to make one-third of a recipe that calls for five eggs, you will need 1.7 eggs for your adapted version. The simplest way to make this work is to add the one whole egg, then crack the second egg into a separate dish and mix it together with a fork. Pour it into a liquid measuring cup, examine the volume, then use 70 percent of that volume in your recipe.

However, at some point the remaining 30 percent is nearly negligible in its ability to affect the recipe. Eggs are protein, and protein is the glue of your recipe. Too much egg might make your batters a bit more tough, but not by much. You can around your percentages of egg up or down if the remainder is less than 2 tablespoons.

Surface area matters
If you are reducing a recipe in half, use a pan to accommodate. Cutting a brownie recipe in half but still using a large baking pan will lead to dry, flat brownies. The same is true for roasts and braises in the oven or sauces on the stove. Larger pans expose more of your ingredients to heat and air, therefore causing uneven cooking times and rapid evaporation rates. Use smaller pans wherever possible.

The freezer is your friend!
There’s nothing wrong with making full recipes and freezing whatever portion you do not plan on eating right away. Most items will last for a month in the freezer, while well-wrapped baked goods can live in the freezer for up to three month. Breads, muffins and pastries reheat best when put in a brown paper bag in a single layer with the end slightly folded. Place in a 400 degree fahrenheit oven with 2-3 ice cubes thrown into the bottom of the oven to create steam and reheat until you reach the desired level of warmth. (Anything reheated in the oven benefits from the steam trick and keeps food from drying out.)

Beware of items that are cream-based, like puddings. Cream and soft cheeses can sometimes separate when transferred from the freezer to the oven, making your items look curdled.

MEASUREMENT CHART

Original Amount   Half                                                    Third
1 cup                         ½ cup                                                 ⅓ cup
¾ cup                      6 tablespoons                                     ¼ cup
⅔ cup                       ⅓ cup                                                   3 tablespoons plus 1 ½ teaspoon
½ cup                      ¼ cup                                                  2 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons
⅓ cup                       2 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons     1 tablespoons plus 1 ¼ teaspoons
¼ cup                      2 tablespoons                                     1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon
1 tablespoon           1 ½ teaspoon                                      1 teaspoon
1 teaspoon              ½ teaspoon                                         ¼ teaspoon
½ teaspoon            ¼ teaspoon                                         ⅛ teaspoon
¼ teaspoon            ⅛ teaspoon                                         Dash

 Deanna Fox is a food and agriculture journalist. www.foxonfood.com @DeannaNFox