Jun 022011

[swfobj src=”http://indieculinary.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/06/recipe_conversion_quiz.swf” width=”500″ height=”400″ align=”center” allowfullscreen=”false”]Recipe Conversion Quiz[/swfobj]


A Facebook friend dropped me a line recently; he told me he’d doubled a chicken recipe and ended up with so much extra liquid he was forced to both strain and reduce.  What, he asked, had gone wrong?  He was curious if I had any tips on doubling recipes effectively.

As a matter of fact, I do.  Let’s talk about recipe conversion formulas, (really, there’s just one main formula, and it’s not that bad), as well as some hints and tips for multiplying or reducing recipes effectively.  I hope that after you read this post, you’ll be able to easily convert recipes, use the right tools in your measurements, interpret measurements in recipes correctly, and identify exceptions to the conversion formula rules.  Be sure to take the quiz at the top to test your knowledge after you read this post.

Recipe Conversion Formula

First, the formula.  It’s New Yield, divided by Old Yield, to get your Conversion Factor.  Then, you just multiply each ingredient by your conversion factor, and boom, converted recipe.  Let’s work on an example.

Recipe Conversion Formula

Recipe Conversion Formula

In his case, he doubled a chicken recipe.  Doubling is easy, of course; you could probably just do it in your head.  (Which is why I suspect something went wrong with his recipe besides just the conversion factor– more on that in a minute.)  I don’t know which recipe he was using.  So to make it interesting, let’s just take the ingredient list from an easy Chicken Adobo recipe I got from a relative, which serves 6.  (By the way, I have never personally used this recipe, so I can’t vouch for its tastiness– just its suitability for a conversion exercise.)

Now let’s suppose we want this recipe to serve 9 instead of 6.

Here’s the original recipe:

3 lbs chicken pieces
½ cup vinegar
½ cup soy sauce
2 cloves garlic, minced
Freshly-ground black pepper to taste

So if our new yield is 9, and our original yield is 6, then we know we need to divide 9 by 6.  The result is 1.5, which is now our conversion factor.  So we’ll multiply the amounts given for each ingredient in the recipe by 1.5.  It’s usually easiest to convert your fractions to decimals– for instance, ½ cup becomes .5 cup.

We end up with:

3 lbs x 1.5 = 4.5 lbs chicken pieces
½ (.5) cup x 1.5 = (.75) 3/4 cup vinegar
½ (.5) cup x 1.5 = 3/4 cup soy sauce
2 x 1.5 = 3 cloves garlic, minced
Freshly-ground black pepper to taste

That’s it.  Recipe conversion 101.

Now, let’s talk about some other things to keep in mind when converting a recipe.  Recipe conversion 102, if you will.

Cups vs. cups: Make sure you’re using the proper measuring devices when making your conversions.  Unfortunately, the U.S. has been hooked on “cups” as a standard unit of recipe measurement for some time, even though they’re imprecise. Cups can lead to inaccuracies because they measure by volume rather than by weight.  (For instance, a cup of flour might weigh 3 ½  ounces, or it might weigh 5 ounces, depending on whether its been sifted, spooned, packed, heaped, leveled, or anything in between.)  If at all possible, get a kitchen scale, and seek out recipes that give ingredient amounts in weight (ounces, pounds, grams…).  But if you’re using a U.S. recipe meant for home cooks, you’re probably dealing with cups, so the next best thing you can do is to make sure you’re using the right kind of cups for a given ingredient.  There are “liquid” measuring cups and “dry” measuring cups, and using a liquid measure for dry or a dry measure for liquid will lead to even further unintended (and likely negative) consequences.  If you fill a “dry” measuring cup with milk, you’ll end up with slightly less milk than if you used a “liquid” measuring cup.  The more milk you measure this way, the greater the variance will become.

Liquid Measuring Cup

Liquid Measuring Cup

Dry Measuring Cup

Dry Measuring Cup

(I saw a conversation on Facebook a while back between an Irish friend who now lives in Portland, and one of her friends still in Ireland.  Her friend in Ireland had gotten a hold of an American cookbook and left a tongue-in-cheek post for my friend to the effect of, “What size cup do they mean?!?!?  Shall I use my Simpsons mug??”)

Recipe semantics: Pay attention to the way the recipe describes ingredients.  “½ cup diced walnuts,” (which is normally interpreted to mean the walnuts should be diced before being measured) may mean you end up with a greater amount of nuts than “½ cup walnuts, diced,” (meaning you dice the walnuts after you measure them.)

Scaling chilés and spices: Let’s add a caveat to what I said earlier about it being so easy to scale recipes up or down: just figure out and apply your conversion factor to each ingredient and away you go.  The caveat has to do with chilés and spices.  The effects of capsaicin (the compound that gives chilés their heat) can be exponential.  Different chilés (and derivatives of fresh chilés, such as chilé powders, or hot sauces) have different amounts of capsaicin; your experience with their relative hotness will tell you whether it’s appropriate to apply the conversion factor as-is, or scale back.  One jalapeño scaled up to four may taste way hotter, especially to your more delicate companions, than you would expect, given that you scaled all your other ingredients up by 4 as well.   Some other assertive spices, such as nutmeg, do not necessarily scale up well, either.  (I’ve been both the perpetrator and the victim of nutmeg scaling disasters; braised short ribs with mashed sweet potatoes were the crime vehicle on both occasions.)

Capsaicin scales differently: 4 jalapeños may seem more than 4x hotter than 1.

Capsaicin scales differently: 4 jalapeños may seem more than 4x hotter than 1.

Consider the source: You can’t always trust recipes you find on the internet.  Think about the source, and apply what you know about successful recipes as you read through the new recipe.  If something seems off, it probably is.

The rule of 4: In pastry class, we were taught that baking formulas should not be scaled up by more than 4, or divided by more than 4.  I’m not sure if this was grounded in science or just the pastry chef’s experience, but I trust her judgment.  So there you go.


  8 Responses to “Recipe Conversions”

  1. Michelle, wow after reading these luscious recipes I’m hoping you have a spare bedroom and I can come and be your taster. Well written, informative, beautifully photographed and fun. What more could a foodie ask for?

  2. Thank you!!! This was very helpful!

  3. Good basic Input for when you do not have a calculating tool

  4. Nicely explained in a very simple to understand manner. Thank you!!

  5. YOU ARE nice #projectatinks

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  8. Thank you. So helpful.

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