Alone in the kitchen: The seductive nature of solo cooking

Single-size recipes add variety and help with portion control — without sacrificing flavor

Credit: Chris Hunt

Credit: Chris Hunt

Some people find solitary pleasure in listening to podcasts, going for long walks, soaking in the bathtub. For Eric Kim, it’s cooking solo.

“It’s really time to myself, and it’s really therapeutic,” says the writer, who grew up in Alpharetta. As the author of Food52′s popular Table for One column (2018-2020), Kim spent many quiet hours conjuring single servings of risotto, beef bourguignon, chicken soup (from a Cornish game hen), and chocolate lava cakes, then sharing the recipes in confessional essays about life as a gay academic-turned-food writer in Manhattan.

Thanks to the warm response of readers, he ended up feeling less alone. And he found that his musings on diminutive meatloafs and five-minute peach cobblers resonated not only with solo dwellers, but also married couples with and without children, people with roommates, people in long-distance relationships, and so on.

Credit: Ella Quittner

Credit: Ella Quittner

“I don’t like exercising, so I cook for myself,” says Kim, 29, who since August has been in quarantine with his family in Atlanta, where he is putting the final touches on his first cookbook, “Korean American.” He calls the culinary memoir, due out next year from Clarkson Potter, a valentine to his Korean mother, Jean.

Soon, however, Kim will have a full-circle moment. Next month, he returns to New York to work as a cooking writer and recipe developer for The New York Times.

Once again, he’ll be alone in the kitchen, mostly. “I’m looking forward to getting back to that,” said Kim, who taught himself to cook as a Columbia University grad student immersed in Hemingway, Faulkner, Henry James, and Nigella Lawson.

Kim is not unique in this passion.

While the census doesn’t query Americans about their cooking habits, it does track household numbers. In 2019, an estimated 28% of Americans lived alone — a trend that has grown steadily since 1960.

And now that we are in the middle of a somber pandemic winter, having visitors inside the home is off the table for many. Just as some singletons may feel increasingly isolated, couples and families in quarantine might find their personal space shrinking. As COVID-19 transformed social norms last year, families rejoiced in the novelty of coming together for home-cooked meals. Almost a year later, it’s possible that the pendulum has swung. If two’s company and three’s a crowd, maybe now one is the magic number in the kitchen.

Forget counting steps: How much me-time have you clocked this week?

“Discover the joy of cooking for yourself — no matter your household size,” said the press release tucked into America’s Test Kitchen’s “Cooking for One: Scaled Recipes, No-Waste Solutions & Time-Saving Tips” ($29.99), published in September. A welcome volume with recipes for the likes of Crispy-Skinned Chicken, Gingery Carrot Soup, Simplest Ground Beef Tacos, Mexican Street Corn Salad, No-Bake Apple Crisp, and — ahoy! — Two Chocolate Chip Cookies, the cookbook is in tune with the zeitgeist. On the practical side, it packs a good many tricks, tips and techniques for cooks at all levels, too. It’s a companionable book to give to both the college-bound and the older person suddenly setting the table for one.

I’ve lived alone for the past 20 years, and though I enjoy entertaining, the more I cook for just me, the more I love it. In the past year, the pandemic has forced me to be more resourceful and more creative. Instead of dashing out with a shopping list, I improvise with ingredients on hand. Instead of batch cooking, which can lead to both wasting food and overindulging, I’ve lately taken a shine to the single-serving approach. Kim’s columns have been a particular inspiration.

So the next time you are feeling all alone and hungry, instead of reaching for the peanut butter or the cereal, treat yourself to a little luxury. A half-dozen oysters, a perfect filet mignon, a chocolate lava cake with a hint of clementine: It’s hard to get bored when you fill your solitary hours with such deliciousness.


With these dishes, you can perfect your steak-cooking technique, make a TV dinner of scallops steamed in tin foil, and bake just two chocolate chip cookies instead of two dozen.

Credit: Chris Hunt

Credit: Chris Hunt

Eric Kim’s Foil-Packet Scallops with Caper-Raisin Butter

Atlanta native Eric Kim’s foil-wrapped scallops, dotted with caper-raisin butter and steamed on a mound of rainbow-chard ribbons, are easy and luxurious. If you make the butter ahead of time, you can have dinner in about 30 minutes. You will have enough extra butter for another batch of scallops. Kim suggests using leftovers with pasta, roasted cauliflower, and raw bitter vegetables. I might spread it on a cracker or bread.

— Adapted from Food52

Credit: Chris Hunt

Credit: Chris Hunt

Buffalo Filet and Potatoes for One

The flavor profile of hot sauce and blue cheese started with the chicken wing, and has since infused the culture. Here we apply it to steak and potatoes for one. We’ve adapted Alton Brown’s stove-top-to-oven technique of steak cookery for a filet mignon, topped it with a hunk of blue cheese, and paired it with home fries doused with hot sauce. This is a generous portion; if you add a green salad or vegetable and a dessert, you will likely have enough to share.

Credit: Chris Hunt

Credit: Chris Hunt

Two Chocolate Chip Cookies

Making a big batch of cookies can be a big problem for a solo cook. Who can stop with just one or two? In “Cooking for One,” America’s Test Kitchen poses a solution with two perfect chocolate chip cookies. You may use any kind of chocolate (chips or chopped bar), M&Ms, Reese’s Pieces, white chocolate or butterscotch chips — and have warm cookies in 30 minutes. Then, all you need is a glass of milk.

— Adapted from “Cooking for One: Scaled Recipes, No-Waste Solutions & Time-Saving Tips” by America’s Test Kitchen ($29.99)

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