As daunting as cooking for a large group can be, there’s something even more stressful about whipping up a meal just for two.
From start to finish, small-batch cooking comes with a unique set of challenges. Firstly, it’s not quite as simple as doing the math to scale down a recipe, because how does one cut an egg in half? And how do you make a lasagna that doesn’t feed 12? Because sure, the idea of bountiful leftovers sounds great, but no one actually wants to eat beef stew for three days straight.
As of late, we’ve all been eating at home a lot more with our significant others or roommates (thanks, COVID), so there’s no better time than now to roll up your chef sleeves and master the art of cooking for two. Bridget Lancaster, executive editorial director at America’s Test Kitchen, cracks the dinner-for-two code right here.
Shop To Minimize Waste
Fact: no one likes to throw out half-eaten homemade pot roast because two people couldn’t finish it fast enough. It’s wasteful. Luckily, there are ways to cut down on leftover food and ingredients going in the trash by shopping smartly from the get-go.
“Organic produce is often sold in individual units, such as a single carrot versus a bunch or large bag of carrots,” says Lancaster. Buying only the amount you need when cooking for two can help minimize potential waste and save you money.
Buying already-frozen produce is also a great option for certain recipes (i.e., peas, cauliflower rice, and berries) which make it easy to measure out exactly what you need without throwing out the rest, Lancaster explains.
Make Smart Substitutions
There’s nothing more frustrating than buying a huge batch of fresh parsley, just so you can harvest a tablespoon’s worth and watch the rest wilt. Lancaster offers some easy-to-make ingredient swaps for small-batch meals so they don’t go bad in the fridge:
- Instead of canned chicken broth, use broth concentrates or bouillon cubes; this allow you to reconstitute only as much as you need
- Instead of cooking with a bottle of wine, opt for a good-quality boxed wine; the box has an airtight inner bag that prevents the wine from oxidizing for up to a month
- Instead of mincing a tablespoon of onion, use shallots or scallions; the aromatic flavors are similar and they’re packaged/grown much smaller
- Instead of buying expensive fresh herbs which have a short shelf life, use the dried versions you already have on hand; use only one-third of the amount called for, since dried herbs have a much stronger flavor than their fresh versions
Get Creative With Kitchen Equipment
When scaling down your recipes, using the right size kitchen equipment is of utmost importance. Your massive baking dish won’t do the trick if you’re making potato gratin just for two. On the plus side, the smaller-yet-mighty cooking gear you need is generally budget-friendly and easy to find online.
If you’re making a pan sauce for just two people in a large skillet, it can lead to a burnt sauce; for most saute recipes, an eight- or 10-inch skillet is just the right size.
If you’re looking to use something in place of a large, heavy Dutch oven, Lancaster suggests using a 4-quart saucepan for braising, or for making soups, stews, and other sauces.
You’ll also want to get yourself a loaf pan, which is the perfect shape and size for making smaller batches of lasagna, brownies, or bar cookies.
Also, keep lots of individual ramekins on hand. “Five-ounce ramekins are great for individual crumbles or pudding cakes, while larger ramekins are perfect for single chicken pot pies,” says Lancaster.
Oh, and if you haven’t yet pulled the trigger on investing in a slow cooker, consider buying the four-quart size (they take up way less space in your cupboard and are easier to clean).
The Freezer Is Your Best Friend
When it comes to small-quantity cooking, utilize the heck out of your freezer. “Many things can go in the freezer for long-term storage, which should prevent you from having to throw any ‘leftovers’ away,” says Lancaster. Plus, on the days you really want to avoid a trip to the grocery store, there’s no better feeling than remembering that your recipe’s one-off ingredients are frozen in time and ready to go.
You can easily prep these items for the freezer and later, use them creatively in another for-two meal:
- Bacon: Avoid having to tear apart a hunk of frozen bacon by rolling up each slice into a tight cylinder, then freezing them in a zipper-lock bag. This makes it easy to pull out a slice or two when date-night brunch omelettes or street corn sauté calls
- Flour: Whole-grain nut flours can be kept in the freezer to prevent spoiling
- Nuts: Whole and chopped nuts freeze beautifully and can then stay fresh for months (you don’t even need to defrost them before chopping)
- Bananas: Peel ’em and freeze ’em in a baggie for smoothies and banana bread
- Buttermilk: Freeze leftovers in small paper cups so you can make pancakes or biscuits again the next time around
- Canned chipotles in adobo, tomato paste, and grated lemon zest: These can all be portioned and frozen in small piles, then transferred into a storage bag
- Egg whites and wine (!): Pour leftovers into ice cube trays and freeze
- Herbs: Place herbs into an ice cube tray, cover with a little water, and freeze; then, add directly to future recipes as desired.
Recipes For Leftover Ingredients
When you’re cooking for two, “it’s good to know a few recipes that can use up items that commonly produce leftovers,” says Lancaster. This way, you can put your excess ingredients to work into something delicious for tomorrow’s lunch instead of throwing it away (a win-win). Double down and try a few of these “leftover recipes” courtesy of Lancaster:
- Make salsa or barbecue sauce with the rest of a can of tomatoes
- Bake croutons from leftover bread
- Make dried herbs from fresh herbs by microwaving them between a single layer of paper towels for one-to-two minutes
- Create a compound butter by stirring minced herbs into softened butter, then refrigerating the mixture until it’s firm
- Chop up and roast the rest of that gigantic butternut squash and toss it on a salad, make breakfast hash, or turn it into a pasta sauce
- A full cabbage yields an excessive bounty; try making coleslaw, kimchi, or roasted wedges with the rest