The holidays are largely about enjoying many of your favorite foods—it’s not really a holiday meal unless your plate is overloaded with an entire constellation of colors and textures. However, if you are hosting a small celebration, the total volume of food, prepared in their usual proportions, can become overwhelming, especially if you want to fill your table up with all of the foods—including an assortment of different pies and other desserts. The answer to this quandary is: small-batch baking.
Small-batch baking is what it sounds like—a process by which you bake a smaller amount of your favorite desserts, so you’ve got enough without going overboard and risking much of the leftovers going to waste. Depending on how big the original recipe is, and how many people you are baking for, this could include cutting the amount by a half, a third, or a quarter.
Small-batch baking comes in handy if you are having a small Thanksgiving, or if you are making a dessert you know only a few people will want to taste. Sure, you may adore pecan pie (and you deserve to have it!), but if you are surrounded by people who—for some strange reason—don’t, that full-size pie may be a struggle to eat up post-holiday. But given how precise baking can be, adjusting the proportions of your favorite recipe can be tricky.
“Baking relies heavily on precise measurements and chemical reactions, which can pose challenges for home bakers to successfully scale a recipe up or down great lengths,” said Christine Pittman, founder of COOKtheSTORY, which focuses on quick, easy-to-make recipes.
Before you despair, there are a few principles to keep in mind, if you are wanting to adjust the size of your recipe.
How to calculate baking ingredients for a smaller portion
If you want to adapt your favorite recipe for a smaller portion, it’s best to start by halving it. “Cutting a recipe in half for smaller portions, or doubling a recipe will almost always yield good results; however, anything lower or higher would require a precise ratio,” Pittman said.
The hard part will be if the recipe calls for an odd number of eggs; if that’s the case, one way to split an egg for a recipe is to whisk the egg you are trying to divide, weigh it on a food scale, and then add half of it to the recipe. If an egg weighs 50 grams, add 25 grams to the recipe. (This also works if you need half a yolk or half an egg white.)
How to adjust the baking time on your recipe
You’ll want to bake at the temperature the original recipe calls for, but you will need to decrease the baking time. This will be one of those trial-and-error processes, where you need to keep a careful eye on what you are baking.
“Follow the same baking instructions, but double-check the oven every 7-10 minutes to prevent overcooking,” Pittman said.
How to choose the right pan
Figuring out the best pan in which to bake your smaller dessert can be tricky. There are specialty pans made for smaller portions, such as mini-loaf pans or pie pans. There are also a number of alternate uses for the pans you already have, which can save you the additional cost. There will be a certain amount of math involved—including both volume and area measurements— but there are a few simple swaps you can keep in mind.
A standard loaf pan, which has a dimension of 8-½ inches by 4-½ inches, is approximately half the size of an 8 inch by 8 inch pan. (You can also get loaf pans that are slightly bigger or slightly smaller.) If you want to halve a brownie recipe, or something else meant to be baked in that size of a pan, a loaf pan might do the trick.
If you want to bake mini-pies, just barely big enough for a couple of bites, you can use a muffin pan. For cookies or cupcakes, you’ll be able to use the same baking pans, you just won’t need quite as much.
If all else fails, look up small-batch recipes
If you have a recipe you absolutely love, it’s worth taking the time to calculate ingredients, baking times, and baking pan alternatives. However, if you are willing to be a little flexible, one way to start small-batch baking is to find already-existing recipes that have been calculated for a smaller size. This build your confidence in your ability to do small-batch baking, which can lead to adapting a few of your own favorite recipes.
Given how many of us have been stuck at home in smaller units, small-batch recipes are becoming more common and easily available.
I wanted to see how adapting a recipe for a smaller portion might work in practice. To put these principles to the test, I decided to make two desserts I’ve baked fairly regularly, along with one new-to-me recipe.
For the recipes I’ve baked in the past, I used this brownie recipe, made famous by Katherine Hepburn, as it’s long been a standard of mine and hits all the right notes of being rich, fudgy, and simple to make.
To adapt it for a smaller portion, I halved the ingredients and baked it in a loaf pan. Since the recipe called for two eggs, that made halving it easier.
- ¼ cup cocoa
- ¼ cup unsalted butter
- ½ teaspoon vanilla
- one egg, ½ cup sugar
- 1/8 cup flour (that’s 2 tablespoons)
- ½ cup of pecans
- A tiny pinch of salt.
The brownies turned out as rich and fudgy as I remember, requiring a baking time of a little less than 25 minutes, as opposed to the original recipe’s recommended 30-35 minutes.
Mini apple pies
I also wanted to try mini apple pies, as pie is a dessert I make often. I used a muffin tin, and started by making a single, all-butter pie crust. I rolled it out, cut it into circles that were approximately 3-½ inches in diameter, and shaped them into each individual muffin cup, which had been greased with a little baking spray. (You can make your own pie crust or you can buy pre-made; either option works just fine.)
After shaping the bottom crust, I spooned apple filling into each individual pie, with about two cups of filling spread out over 8 pies, and then added in a little bit of (very messy) lattice work on top. I baked the pies for 40 minutes at 350°F. They made a nice two-bite apple pie snack—all the better to whet your appetite for more pie.
Photo: Rachel Fairbank
Small-batch cranberry oatmeal bars
For a new recipe, I decided to try cranberry oatmeal bars, provided by Pittman, which has the added benefit of using up leftover cranberry sauce. The original recipe was enough to make a 13 inch by 9 inch pan’s worth of bars; I decided to divide the original recipe by a third, and bake it in a loaf pan, which has approximately one third of the area. Since there were no eggs, it was easier to divide the ingredients, albeit a little tricky to divide 1 teaspoon and ½ of a teaspoon by 3.
- 2/3 cup rolled oats
- 2/3 cup white flour
- 1/3 cup brown sugar
- 1/3 tsp baking powder
- 1/6 teaspoon baking soda
- 1/6 teaspoon salt
- 1/3 cup softened unsalted butter
- 1/3 can of cranberry sauce.
Note: For the baking powder, baking soda, and salt, I used a scant ¼ teaspoon and a heaping ¼ teaspoon, as a way of guesstimating 1/3 and 1/6 of a teaspoon.
The cranberry bars took 20 minutes to bake, rather than the suggested 25-30 minutes for the full recipe. The balance of oatmeal and cranberry sauce was a good palate cleanser, one I could see eating in between the mains and the rest of the desserts—or for breakfast the morning after Thanksgiving.
Baking in smaller amounts can take a little trial and error, but it’s worth the effort if it you crave more dessert variety with less wasted leftovers.