The Ultimate Guide to Small-Batch Baking and Scaling Down Desserts

From cook times and conversions to what to do when asked to cut a single egg in half, we've answered every question on scaling recipes.

If you're accustomed to hosting a large gathering for the holidays but find you wish to host a smaller get-together, we're here to help. After all, who doesn't love an intimate affair, especially when it can mean less stress and cleanup? Because your holiday invite list is getting a trim, your food should follow suit. 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 full of 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 every query we had on small-batch baking—from cook times, temperatures, conversions, and cookware, to what on earth you're supposed to do when asked to cut a single egg in half.

Scaling Down a Dessert's Baking Time

According to Nelson, the bake time will likely need adjusting 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," she adds. But if you're baking a smaller loaf of bread or cake, you will need to decrease 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. Instead of relying on baking time, Nelson says 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?

You might think you need to decrease the oven temperature if cutting back a recipe, but it's not necessary, Nelson says. Stick with the oven temperature listed 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 one called for in the original recipe. "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," suggests Nelson. (Genius!)

According to Nelson, it's OK if you have excess batter or dough beyond what fits in the pan. Rather than forcing it all in, why not make some mini baked goods? Cake and brownie batters can easily be baked in a muffin pan. Nelson says: "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 there are a few 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, 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

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Enlist Your Freezer

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 of minutes onto the bake time when baking from frozen).

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Start Small

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.

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Try a Mini Foil Pie Pan

"Some holiday treats, like pies, can be tricky to scale down," Nelson says. "Many grocery stores sell mini aluminum foil pie pans that can be used to make multiple smaller pies."

Common Measurements Cut in Half

If you're stumped on conversions, you can always look them up on the internet. Here we have the conversions for a few common measurements cut in half:

  • 1/4 cup: 2 tablespoons
  • 3/4 cup: 6 tablespoons
  • 1/3 cup: 2 tablespoons + 2 teaspoons
  • 1 tablespoon: 1 1/2 teaspoons
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