The Ultimate Guide to Small-Batch Baking and Scaling Down Dessert Recipes, According to Pastry Pros
From cook times, temperatures, conversion, and cookware to what on earth you’re supposed to do when you’re asked to cut a single egg in half, we've answered your every question on scaling recipes.
As we sort through all the safe, socially distant ways we can still celebrate the holidays this year—having dinner outdoors, hosting a virtual holiday party, purchasing ingredients like turkey online—there's no denying that the smartest (and most unavoidable) distinction is that many of us won’t be able to celebrate with the same number of guests we have in the past.
We’re making the most of it. After all, who doesn’t love an intimate affair, especially when resisting the urge to travel and convene in large gatherings means keeping your friends and family safe? But because your holiday invite list is going to get trimmed down this year, your food should follow suit.
The good news is that eating mashed potatoes with your loved ones isn't canceled, and same goes for the grand finale: dessert. The trick is simply paring down the portion size of your crumbles, cakes, cookies, and other confections so you aren’t left with an entire fridge filled with leftover chocolate cheesecake and pumpkin pie (where will the turkey go?).
“Baking is a science, so it is extremely important to maintain the correct ratio and formula even when cutting a recipe in half,” explains Elizabeth Nelson, Test Kitchen Manager at Wilton, a global leader in baking and cake decorating. Nelson answered our every query on small-batch baking—from cook times, temperatures, conversion, and cookware to what on earth you’re supposed to do when you’re asked to cut a single egg in half—below.
Scaling Down Your Dessert’s Baking Time
According to Nelson, your baking time will likely need to be adjusted if you’re cutting down the recipe. “There are some exceptions, however, like cookies and cupcakes that are the same single-portioned size that would not need an adjustment to the baking time. You can just bake these as normal.” However, if you’re baking a smaller loaf of bread or cake, you will need to shorten the bake time.
“Start with no more than half of the recommended time on the recipe,” says Nelson. It’s always better to err on the side of caution and add a few minutes at a time until it’s cooked through. And instead of relying on baking time, Nelson says that it may be necessary to rely more on your instincts and other clues to determine when the baked goods are done. “Watch for changes in color, sheen, feel, and so on.” Cakes and quick breads will bounce back when lightly touched and are finished baking when a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Most cookies are finished when they just begin to turn golden-brown on the edges.
Do You Need to Adjust the Oven Temperature?
While you’d think you need to decrease the oven temperature if you’re cutting back a recipe, you actually don’t, Nelson says. Stick with the oven temperature stated on the recipe you’re using—just make sure to keep a close eye on your treats so they don’t burn.
The Size of Your Sweets
The size of your baked goods and the pan that you use depend on what you’re making. “As mentioned, cupcakes and cookies don’t require a change in size since you are only adjusting the quantity rather than the size,” Nelson explains. “However, cakes, brownies, pies, and quick breads will need a smaller pan.”
If you’re cutting the recipe in half, try and find a pan that’s about half the size in volume as the original recipe calls for. “A little tip is that you can measure the volume of a pan by seeing how much water it will take to fill it up.” (Genius!)
According to Nelson, it’s OK if you have excess batter or dough than what fits in the pan. Rather than forcing it all in into the pan, why not make some mini baked goods? Cake and brownie batters can easily be baked in a muffin pan. “You can save those as a treat for yourself—it’s considered quality control, right?”
The Eventual, Anxiety-Ridden Egg Dilemma
Cutting down a recipe with an odd number of eggs is a challenge. “If you’re going to scale down a recipe, I recommend sticking with ones that have an even quantity of eggs,” says Nelson. Fair. However, if you need to scale down to half an egg, Nelson says that there are a couple options. You can take a whole egg, crack it into a bowl, whisk it, and then divide the whisked egg in half and use that in your recipe. To be more precise you can try and measure it. For reference, a large whole egg is about 1/4 cup, so half of the egg would equal just about 2 tablespoons. “Liquid eggs are also super convenient and nice to have on hand for this very purpose. Liquid egg substitute is very easy to pour and measure out. Use 2 tablespoons for half of an egg,” she adds.
3 Fail-Safe Tips for Scaling Down Dessert Recipes
Some treats, like unbaked cookie dough or baked cookies and brownies, freeze well. Rather than making a smaller batch of chocolate chip cookies now, Nelson recommends making your regular recipe, scooping out all of the dough, and freezing half for later. You can have fresh baked cookies on demand (just add a couple minutes onto the bake time when baking from frozen).
While dividing ingredients usually works, it can also be easier to look for recipes that already make a smaller batch, especially if the recipe you’re trying to make starts off very large.
Common Measurements Cut in Half
If you’re stumped on a conversion, you can always look it up on the internet. Here we have the conversations for a few common measurements cut in half for you.
- 1/4 cup: 2 tablespoons
- 3/4 cup: 6 tablespoons
- 1/3 cup: 2 tablespoons + 2 teaspoons
- 1 tablespoon: 1 1/2 teaspoons