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Adjusting the servings: Considerations for scaling a recipe
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All recipes produce a specific number of servings — for example, six waffles or two dozen cookies. But what if you need more or less food? How do you change the recipe to fit your needs?

Scaling a recipe — increasing or decreasing the amount of food a recipe produces — isn't as simple as it sounds. "It's a balance between art and science," says Jennifer K. Nelson, a registered dietitian at Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minn. "Consider that there are thousands of different foods, millions of ways they're combined in varying amounts and numerous ways to cook them. All of these variables mean there are very few hard-and-fast rules."

Though no strict guidelines govern how to scale a recipe, these practical considerations can help you adjust your recipes with greater success.

Changing a recipe's yield: Points to consider

A recipe's yield, for example, 12 muffins or 3 cups of spaghetti sauce, tells you how much total food the recipe makes. If the yield is more or less than what you want to make, you may need to scale the recipe.

Though some recipes, such as casseroles, stews and other main dishes, usually lend themselves to simply increasing or decreasing all ingredients, other recipes don't. For example, baked goods — especially those that require leavening agents, such as baking powder, baking soda or yeast — may not turn out well if doubled, tripled or quadrupled.

Here are several points to consider before increasing or decreasing the number of servings a recipe provides:

  • Equipment. When you scale a recipe, match your equipment to the volume of the food. Larger batches need bigger bowls and larger or extra baking pans, for example. Likewise, smaller batches require smaller bowls and baking pans.
  • Cooking times. Cooking times may stay the same. For instance when preparing muffins, it won't matter if you bake one dozen or six dozen muffins, the cooking time remains the same. Some recipes, however, may require longer cooking times. A casserole that serves four will need much less baking time than one that has been tripled to serve 12.
  • Cooking temperature. In most cases, you won't have to change the cooking temperature when you scale a recipe. The exception is when you have multiple items in the oven. This may require a slightly higher baking temperature.
  • Seasonings. Spices and other seasonings, including salt, don't always need to be increased or decreased in the same proportion as the other ingredients. Instead add seasonings to taste until you get the results you want.
  • Alcohol. In recipes, alcohol, such as white wine or rum, can quickly overpower the flavor of the food if you use too much. So don't increase alcohol as you would other ingredients. Rather, add small amounts and taste as you go until you're satisfied with the results.

Best practices for scaling a recipe

For best results, be familiar with your original recipe, experiment with your adjustments and make separate batches, if necessary.

  • Make the original recipe first. Know how the recipe should look and taste before you make any adjustments. The original is then a benchmark for comparing the success of the adjusted recipe. Plus, the original may yield more or less than you're expecting, and you may not need to adjust the servings after all.
  • Test first, then serve. You may not find success when scaling a recipe for the first time. So test your scaled dishes first, before serving them. Experiment with what works and what doesn't work. Ingredients interact with each other differently, and you may have to adjust cooking methods, temperatures or times accordingly.
  • Make food in batches. If you're increasing a recipe and lack time to experiment, make several individual batches. This way you end up with the amount you need based on the original recipe. Baking separate batches also reduces waste because you can cook food as needed, which ensures the freshness of your food.

No tried-and-true rules dictate how to scale a recipe. But experience and common sense can help you find success.

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  • November 17, 2006

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