A Ramekin is a small, heatproof dish for baking that looks like a miniature soufflé dish. They are individual-portion sized; you both cook and serve in them.
Because Ramekins are so small, heat easily gets to the middle of what you are cooking in them. Sometimes you put them straight in the oven, sometimes you put them in a water bath. A typical use for them in North America is for crème brûlée.
They are usually round, but the sky's the limit these days for novelty shapes. They will be will be anywhere from 3 to 6 inches (7 1/2 to 15 cm) wide. They are generally wider than they are tall. Typical volume sizes are 3 oz, 4 1/2 oz, 5 oz and even up to 7 oz (90 ml, 135 ml, 150 ml, 200 ml.) Ideally, if you'll use them and have room for them, it is good to have 3 sizes: small, medium and large. They are often sold in sets.
They can be made of glass, porcelain, or ceramic. Glass ones tend to have thinner sides, and so stuff cooks faster in them. Ideally, a soufflé needs the little more time that it will get from a ceramic ramekin. Classic Ramekins are white, with fluted vertical edging on the outside, and a thin lip on the inside.
You can get really fancily decorated Ramekins, such as those made by Royal Worcester. Some people pride themselves on such sets.
You can use Ramekins to as serving dishes for dips, pâtés, tapenade, flavoured mayonnaises, herbed butters, meat jus for dipping, etc.
You usually eat right out of Ramekins. There are very few things have you turn them out of the Ramekin. If you must turn something out of a Ramekin, dipping the Ramekin in hot water for a few seconds (not letting it go "plunk" and sink under the water) should help to loosen what's inside it.
Ramekins are very hard to store, because they don't stack well. You can only go so high with stacking them because the piles get unstable after they get 3 or 4 high. As a result, they want a lot of surface shelf space, and many people get rid of them for this reason. Some people build holders that use dowel wood for sides to hold them up in a stack. Some people store them in the very large soft drink bottles that they cut the top off of; others put thin cardboard on top of each ramekin to provide stable support for the next one.
There's only speculation as to where the word Ramekin came from, as there are many plausible explanations. One is that it came from a Germanic language, such as German or Flemish, and means "little cream" ("ram" being "cream" in German; "kin" being a suffix that means "little.")
You may also see it in English spelt French fashion as "ramequin."
In French cookbooks several centuries old, Ramekin can refer to a small piece of bread that is fried and garnished.
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Ramequins (French); Ramequins, Souffléförmchen (German)