10 Tips for Quantity Cooking

Here are 10 tips I use to make quantity cooking for a crowd more manageable. Be it ingredient substitutions, management of kitchen space, or method adjustment, cooking for a lot of people demands flexibility. These crowd cooking tips help make quantity food preparation easier without sacrificing quality for your crowd.

This post is focused specifically on cooking, so for more generalized tips (such as meal planning) see my 12 Essential Tips to Cook for a Crowd.

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servings of chocolate cake on white plates

When amplifying recipes, we still need to stick to reasonable, manageable quantities. This allows us to ensure things taste right, that they cook properly, and that we can physically heft it all.

I learned that last part, the hefting, the hard way when I made oven-roasted ham for 80 people. I worked myself so hard moving heavy pans ridiculously overloaded with ham, that I ended up injuring my back. Don’t do that.

My Mac and Cheese is a good example of a recipe that is best made in batches.

4 hotel pans of chicken casserole on counter

When I cook in quantity, it is usually for an older crowd at my church. Onion bothers a lot of older tummies, so I go very easy on the onion in these instances. Also, chopping a lot of onion is literally the crappiest of all crappy food prep tasks, just saying.

Dried minced onion is a secret weapon. It adds a lot of flavor but tends to not upset tummies like regular onion does. I throw dried minced onion in everything anymore. My meatloaf is a great example. Dried minced onion is also cheap.

chopped onion on cutting board

One hotel pan of food is generally 20-25 servings (a hotel pan is about the size of two 13 x 9-inch pans). So right off the bat, using hotel pans (or even half pans) lets me judge serving sizes and quantity of food.

Aluminum hotel pans are also disposable, so they help tremendously with cleanup because not only is cooking for a crowd challenging but so especially is the clean-up.

4 hotel pans of chopped broccoli on counter

On my primary blog, I espouse using kosher salt and fresh cracked black pepper as a literal rule of life. But truth be told, that rule for pepper stops at the door when I am cooking in large quantities. It just isn’t feasible for me to pepper-grind teaspoon and tablespoon quantities of pepper. I don’t have the patience for it.

A dedicated coffee grinder, just for spices, would be ideal. But alas, I just get ground black pepper when cooking for a crowd and roll with that.

But that said, the rule for specifically kosher salt – only, ever, forever, and always – stands firm. Iodized table salt tastes terrible.

Far and away, what will suck up your time the most is chopping ingredients, and so I avoid chopping where I can if it is within the budget to do so. I invested in a chopper, and it is a favorite time-saving gadget for me now. Chopping a lot is a huge time suck in quantity food prep, so cut that corner if you can.

Chicken thighs? Yes make chicken thighs. Dark meat is juicy and forgiving, like my Mojo Pulled Chicken. Same goes for ham and pulled pork. These are GREAT proteins for quantity cooking.

Chicken breast meat? Not so much. Chicken breast has to be cooked to a perfect temperature, then rested, then served straight away or you can end up with dry and/or rubbery chicken. It is also more expensive. So, cooking for a DIY wedding, families in need, a church supper… dark meat chicken is the way to go.

hotel pan full of baked ham pieces

If a dish can be cooked in the slow cooker, then it can be cooked in an oven. This gives you flexibility when you are trying to cook a ton of food and don’t have access to a large or commercial kitchen.

It is easy to adapt most recipes cooked in a slow cooker to an oven: simply replicate the recipe in hotel pans or roasting pans, cover tightly with foil, and cook low and slow (250 to 275 degrees Fahrenheit). This replicates the action of the slow cooker.

four crockpots on kitchen counter

Potato masher to shred chicken? Yes! It is a hell of a lot easier to use a potato masher than it is to use two forks when pulling 20 pounds of chicken. Cookie sheets make great lids when boiling water in large pots too!

Don’t stay married to the intentioned purpose of gadgets. You will be amazed at how flexible many kitchen tools are.

3 large pots on stove covered with bake sheets as lids

I will repeat this rule time and again: before cooking anything, the first thing I do is organize all the ingredients. This serves two purposes for me: one, to make sure I am not missing any ingredients; and two, to physically separate the ingredients to be cooked (especially meat) from those that are assembled (like salad) for food safety.

Organization of ingredients combined with physical separation of ingredients that need to always be separated for food safety, is a key task in all cooking but is especially amplified in quantity cooking.

sliced buttered baguettes on counter
sliced garlic bread in hotel pan

Finding corners to cut without sacrificing the quality of the meal you are cooking makes a huge difference in the time, effort, stress, and money spent. This is, by far, the biggest lesson I have learned in the now dozens of times I have cooked for a large number of people.

I alluded to this all-important tip already with dried minced onion and black pepper, but this idea is important enough to give it its own time and attention. Plan your menu and then step back. Ask the question: what do you want to be the star of the meal? MAKE all of that from scratch and with the best ingredients you can afford, but then don’t scratch make everything else.

As I am typing, I recently made dinner for 50: Mojo Pulled Chicken, Mexican Street Corn Casserole, green chile rice, and salad – all of which I made and all of which are relatively easy to make in quantity. But the dessert? Store-bought churros for the win. I also store-bought the salad dressing.

No matter what you’re cooking, there is always some corner you can cut to help yourself tremendously. Use this power judiciously, because you don’t want to overdo it either. But done right, you will become much more efficient in quantity cooking.

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