Funny Math

These days, I can’t look at a recipe without thinking about how I’d scale it down. I say to myself, “I know it’s designed to use up that full can of chickpeas, but could I get away with using half? Do I have to make two dozen cookies? Do I want three quarts of soup?” On a recent night, it was this NYT ricotta and chickpea pasta. I cut the recipe in half, but it was still a bit heavy on the spaghetti, low on stir-ins, so I kept adjusting. 

Scaling down a recipe is never quite as straightforward as doing the division you learned in elementary school. There will always be that one egg that needs to be divided into thirds, that grain-to-water ratio that works perfectly as a big batch but not in any smaller proportions. Scaled down recipes are more likely to fail because it’s not how they were developed, which means you’ll never know exactly why they didn’t work.

I feel this gnawing sense of not belonging as I read these recipes… This is food you make to feed your family, to impress your partner, to entertain your friends. It’s meant to be practical, using up that full package of ground beef or filling that 9×13-inch casserole dish. The solo cook just doesn’t fit into most notions of how recipes are designed and who they’re designed for. How can we, as single cooks, scan the shelves at the bookstore or scroll through our feeds or flip through a magazine and not feel like we don’t exist? Talk about funny math: Being the biggest yet most invisible audience in the food space is quite the head scratcher.

Granted, it’s changing. We’re slowly starting to see more cooking for one cookbooks and more acknowledgment (at least since the pandemic began) that the majority of home cooks are really only feeding themselves. My hope is that cooking for one doesn’t become another niche category, like gluten-free baking or vegan Indian cooking. There are as many types of solo cooks as there are, well, cooks! We don’t all want beginner recipes that are just scaled down versions of what we ate growing up (boring!). We don’t all want chef manifestos that call for lux ingredients (because hey, surely you can spend more if you’re serving less). We’re not all subscribing to a diet lifestyle or cooking just to lose weight. The category can be as wide ranging as we are.   

A few tips for scaling down those recipes:
– Add a splash more liquid than you think you need, especially when cooking grains.
– Unless it’s easy to spit a baked good recipe in half, look for a small batch version (Dessert for Two is a genius at this). There are just too many variables that could affect the end result.
– Cut down longer cook times by a few minutes or start checking for doneness a little earlier.
– Not every ingredient needs to be divided by the same ratio in a recipe. You might find that a dressing needs more than exactly half the lemon juice, or you need 1/2 teaspoon of spice instead of 1/3 teaspoon. Taste and use your judgement here.