I'll let you in on a secret. Recipe writers guess when they specify the number of servings in a recipe. They have to - they don't know their readers' appetites. They often fudge by saying that a recipe serves 4 to 6 or 6 to 8. That's frustrating enough when you're cooking for six people, but it seems to make reducing a recipe to two servings nearly impossible. But with a few tips and some practice, you'll find it's not difficult at all.
Start with your preferred portion sizes
This is where knowing your portion sizes becomes crucial. If you're looking at a recipe for pasta, and you know that your preference is for two ounces, look at how much pasta the recipe calls for. Twelve ounces? Then your starting point is to divide by three for two servings. A pound? Then divide by four. Sometimes there are two or more main ingredients to a recipe - pasta and a sauce, or meat and vegetables - in which case you want to think about portion sizes for all the elements.
Keep in mind, though, that some ingredients depend not on portion size, but on pan size. If a recipe calls for three tablespoons of oil to coat a pan, and you're dividing the recipe by six, that doesn't mean you should use half a tablespoon. You need enough to coat the pan that you use. That might be a tablespoon; it might be two or three. If you're deglazing with wine or another liquid, you need enough to coat the pan and dissolve the fond. Likewise, if you're topping a gratin with breadcrumbs or cheese, the amount you need will depend on the size of your gratin dish.
Sauces are particularly difficult to make in small amounts, especially if you're not familiar with the techniques and ingredients. I often cut the sauce for a dish that serves 6-8 in half rather than try to reduce it further. I know that I'll probably have more than we need, but it's usually an easier reduction, and I can often freeze the excess or use it later in the week for another dish.
Put it into practice
The easiest way to get the hang of reducing recipes for your own appetite is to look at an example. Here's a recipe I reduced from "4 to 6" servings to two. The original comes from an Italian cookbook by Biba Caggiano titled Trattoria.
- 1 pound linguine
- 3 tablespoons olive oil
- 12 ounces raw shrimp, peeled and deveined
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 1/3 cup brandy
- 4 cups strained tomatoes
- Kosher salt
- Pinch of red pepper flakes
- 2 tablespoons cream
The directions call for cooking the pasta while you're making the sauce. To make the sauce, you sauté the shrimp in olive oil, then add the garlic. Cook just until the shrimp are done, then remove from the pan. Deglaze with the brandy and reduce by half. Add the tomatoes, salt to taste, and the pepper flakes and cook until slightly thickened. Add the cream and cook for another minute, then the cooked pasta and shrimp to warm through.
Here's the thought process I went through when I was reducing the recipe. I started with the amount of pasta - for us, 2 to 2-1 /2 ounces is a good portion size. For a main dish, I go with 3 to 4 ounces of shrimp per serving. Half a cup of sauce is slightly more than I need for 2 ounces of pasta, but I started with 1 cup of tomatoes in case I wanted more pasta. Since the brandy is used to deglaze the pan, I figured that for the small sauté pan I was using I needed somewhere between 2 and 4 tablespoons - 4 (or 1/4 cup) ended up being about right. For the cream, I just waited until the sauce was done and added enough to get it how I like it. I made the dish a couple of times and wrote down a few notes. For instance, I found that the amount of sauce was just about right for 2-1/2 ounces of pasta per serving. In this dish, though, that much pasta was too much. So I reduced pasta to 4 ounces and the tomatoes to ¾ cup -- this was slightly too much sauce, but it worked well enough. After a couple of tries, this is what I had:
- 4 ounces linguine
- Olive oil (enough to coat the pan)
- 7 ounces raw shrimp, peeled and deveined
- 1 large clove garlic, minced
- 1/4 cup brandy
- 3/4 cup strained tomatoes
- Kosher salt
- Pinch of red pepper flakes
- 1-1/2 tablespoons cream
You can see that it takes some practice, but once you identify the key ingredients in the original recipe and decide on your portion size, you're on your way to a successful reduction.