Cooking for two can be an endless struggle to break up packs of chicken parts into freezable units, dealing with leftovers (resurrecting, freezing, or throwing away), and just plain wondering what to do with an open can of tomato paste you needed one teaspoon from that scaled-down chicken cacciatore recipe.
Things are changing, thankfully—there’s now a market (regrettably still niche) for lower-yield recipes and cooking-for-two books and blogs. But for modern living’s vast demographic of two-person households, new resources aren’t appearing fast enough.
THE HISTORY OF DOWNSIZING
The United States Census Bureau tracks changes in the size of the American household. In 1967, more than two-thirds of people in the U.S. lived with spouses and kids. That number shrunk to just about half by 2014, and the number of Americans living solo or with an unmarried partner has risen steadily. Quick takeaway: We’re living in smaller households, with fewer around the dinner table. The demand for recipes written for smaller yields, and food products packaged in small units, has never been bigger.
Likewise the classic American nuclear family (mom, dad, and 2.3 kids) was the norm in 1967, when 70 percent of Americans lived in a household with a spouse. By 2014, U.S. households had become far more complex, with smaller overall families comprised of unmarried partners, more people living alone, and two-person households of parent and child.
The historical reality, then, is that there have never been more two-person households in the U.S. then there are now. The thing is, cookbooks, cooking blogs, and TV food shows in many cases still scale recipes to yield four to six servings.
Cooking for two can feel like a nonstop act of running interference against spoilage, for perishables and dry goods alike. Here, we answer a handful of persistent questions about storing stuff and knowing when to throw it away.
Bread. In our two-person house, we’ve thrown away so many green-molded partial loaves of bread we could have started a penicillin lab. Is the trash bin the inevitable ending for a loaf you can’t eat fast enough? Is it okay to store bread in the fridge?
If it’s taking you longer than you thought to eat up those slices, try wrapping the loaf in heavy-duty plastic wrap or a zippered freezer bag and freezing it. Retrogradation (the process that makes bread go stale I the fridge) slows down considerably below the freezing temperature because the water in the bread freezes, which restrains the starch molecules from forming crystals. Read more.
Most dried pastas come in packages of about 1 pound, a size more suited for three or four diners than two. Though you can cook half or two-thirds of a package of spaghetti with no big sweat, what about the rest? Will it go stale once you’ve breached the box? How long can dried pasta be stored?
“[Most] pastas are given a use-by date of two years after manufacture, though [some don’t] hesitate to eat three-year-old dried pasta. ‘Because dried pasta has little to no fat or moisture content, it resists spoiling easily, and has a shelf life that is pretty remarkable.’” Read more.
Buy a jar of spices you need a teaspoon from, and that jar’s going to be taking space in your cupboard. That’s fine, as long as you have the space, but what about shelf life? How long before that ground ginger no longer has much bite? How long can you keep dry spices?
Spices that are past their prime won’t make you sick, but they won’t have much flavor either, says Patty Erd, the owner of the Spice House, a small chain of specialty spice stores in Illinois and Wisconsin. To get the most from what you’ve got, she suggests keeping whole spices for three years and ground spices for just a year. Read more.
Even Brady Bunch–size households can have issues keeping garlic. Depending on the time of year you buy it and when it was harvested, it can develop green sprouts in the hearts of the cloves faster than you can use it up. Is this tragic? Do you have to toss it? Can you cook with sprouted garlic?
As garlic ages, it develops a spicier, sharper taste; it also starts to sprout. This is not spoilage—garlic isn’t spoiled until it turns soft, or develops dark spots on the cloves. Basically, using sprouted garlic or not comes down to taste and personal preference. Read more.
Even if you’re buying only two russets for that appropriately sized mash, plans change, meaning those two russets can hang out in the pantry far longer than you originally thought. What happens when they start sprouting white buds? Are sprouted potatoes poisonous?
Potato sprouts are considered toxic due to their potentially high concentration of glycoalkaloids, says Dr. Nora Olsen, an associate extension professor and potato specialist at the University of Idaho. Cooking is not believed to reduce levels of the compounds, but you can cut the sprouts off and still safely eat the potato. Read more.
THE BEST BULK MARKETS FOR SCALED-DOWN SOURCING
Buying in bulk can be a two-person family’s best friend. Instead of having to haul home a five-pound sack of bread flour, you can scoop that precise four-cup measure you need to make a small batch of cinnamon rolls. Whole Foods is probably the best known bulk-food retailer in America. Here, in alphabetical order, are some additional options.
• Atlanta: Sevananda Natural Foods Market
• Berkeley, California: Berkeley Bowl
• Brooklyn, New York: Park Slop Food Coop
• Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvest Co-Op Market
• Charlotte, North Carolina: Healthy Home Market
• Chicago: Dill Pickle Food Co-Op
• Denver, Colorado: The Zero Market
• Houston: H-E-B
• Los Angeles: Erewhon
• Oklahoma City, Oklahoma: Native Roots Market
• Philadelphia: Essene Market and Café
• Portland, Oregon: People’s Food Co-Op
• San Francisco: Rainbow Grocery
• Seattle: Metropolitan Market
• Washington DC: Yes! Organic Market
HOW TO GET STARTED
Setting up a kitchen-for-two (or downsizing from a bigger one) is an act of courage. Yeah, it’s cool to have a drawer stacked with a dozen sauté pans just in case you ever want to use that spun-steel crepe pan, but chances are you…won’t. Whether you live in a tiny house or just want to get organized, here are the things you really need.
• Basic cutting board.
• Three knives: a paring knife, a chef’s knife, and a serrated bread knife.
• Vegetable peeler.
• Box grater.
• Four pans (seriously): a small (half-quart) saucepan; a medium (2-quart) saucepan; a medium (4.5- or 5-quart) enameled cast iron Dutch oven; and a medium (9- or 10-inch) skillet (cast iron or nonstick, depending on preference and cooking style).
• 9-by-13-inch baking pan.
• 9-by-5-inch loaf pan. • Rimmed baking sheet.
• Hand blender that can perform the jobs of an immersion blender and a food processor. http://www.chowhound.com/reviews/cuisinart-smart-stick-variable-speed-hand-blender-csb-79-28
THIS COOKBOOK IS ESSENTIAL
The Complete Cooking for Two Cookbook: 650 Recipes for EVERYTHING You'll Ever Want to Make by America’s Test Kitchen
“Recipes don't always scale down quite as nicely as you might like,” writes TheKitchn, “something that America's Test Kitchen has stepped in to remedy. This book is filled with classic dishes, from Pad Thai to Pizza, that are tailor-made just for two. Simple preparations, minimal leftovers.”
HOW TO MAKE THE BEST
A REAL-LIFE GUIDE TO COOKING FOR TWO
“If you follow cooking websites and magazines with any regularity,” writes Miki Kawasaki in her excellent recipe guide to cooking for two, “you’ll know that there is only one time of year when a spotlight is put on making meals for two: Valentine’s Day. As if the sole purpose of a small, intimate dinner is seduction, or that you and your significant other/roommate/family member spend the other 364 days of the year in a relationship with your local takeout. The odds aren’t always in your favor when making home cooked meals for two: not only are the majority of recipes out there written to serve four to six, it can be a challenge to find ingredients that are portioned to fit your appetites. As an ardent home cook who shops for and makes dinner nearly every night of the week, I’m here to tell you that those sorts of excuses are based out of anxiety, rather than experience. Because with a little ingenuity and planning, small-scale cooking can not only be feasible, but also practical. Here’s what I’ve learned from years of not eating out and running a kitchen that feeds just two.” Read more.
THE BEST THINGS TO COOK FOR TWO
Things Chowhound community member adido finds easy to downsize:
• Pasta carbonara: 2 slices of bacon cooked in the pan, 2 servings of cooked pasta added to the pan, 2 eggs and 2 tablespoons of grated cheese added at the end.
• Sole meunière: Buy two fillets from your fishmonger.
• Burgers: Make ahead and freeze, defrost when you need them.
• Dinner omelets.
• Cornish hens: They’re small and roast faster than a chicken.
• Polenta: Eat it soft the first night, then spread out the leftovers and cut into squares to be crisped up the next day with various toppings.