What is a Ramekin?
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The definition of a “ramekin” has evolved over the last 50 years in the restaurant industry. The traditional definition of a ramekin is a small, straight-sided ceramic or glass cup or dish used for baking and serving. it is typically a single serving dish meant to go from preparation to baking to serving.

You might know this as a crème brulee cup as this is one of the most popular dishes to be prepared in a traditional ramekin. But you might also see these used for molten lava cakes, small souffles, ice cream, egg dishes and more.

A traditional ramekin.
A traditional ramekin from Tuxton. Bake and serve in one piece.

A Ramekin by Any Other Name…

Although there is a strict definition of a ramekin, the term has evolved to encompass a number of different but related items.

So, you may call them sauce cups, cheese pipkins, oyster cups, monkey dishes, or souffle cups. All of these items are often collectively referred to as “ramekins.”

Let’s take a look at some of the more common varieties.


Cheese Pipkin

A pipkin is an “earthenware cooking pot used for cooking over direct heat from coals or a wood fire.” Many examples of early pipkins would include handles, lids and three feet on the bottom of the vessel.

However, the more modern version of the pipkin gained popularity as a holder for cheese to be spread on crackers or bread. Often part of a relish platter, the cheese pipkin is a small ceramic dish to hold the cheese separate from the rest of the platter contents.

A cheese pipkin from Hall China.
A cheese pipkin from Hall China.

French Onion Soup Crocks

This one is a little farther afield, but you can clearly see how it could be related to a traditional ramekin. French onion soup is an extremely popular menu item. It is traditionally served in a small piece of crockery. While the soup itself may be prepared in a larger tureen, it is traditional to place bread or croutons in the soup broth with the onions and then cover the whole dish with cheese such as Gruyere or another variety of swiss cheese.

Since this dish gets put in the oven or a cheese melter (also sometimes called a salamander), you need a container that can go from oven to table. And a French onion soup crock is just the ticket. Typically made of a ceramic or vitrified china, these crocks can handle the heat. These soup crocks are so tightly associated with French onion soup that it’s hard to imagine them being used for anything else. But you can certainly use them for other soups or chili just as easily.

Of course, these soup crocks differ from the traditional ramekin in their shape primarily. They tend to be a little more rounded and deeper with a lip at the top. But even with those differences, these crocks are often referred to as ramekins.

A very traditional French onion soup crock by Vertex.
A very traditional French onion soup crock by Vertex.

Oyster Cups

The actual origin of the name “oyster cup” is a bit of a mystery. However, oysters served on the half-shell do often come with a variety of sauces such as mignonnette or cocktail sauce. So perhaps it’s as simple as that.

In any case, oyster cups are really just sauce cups or condiment cups. They are typically ceramic, stainless steel or glass. Here is where we begin to see differentiation from a traditional ramekin. While ramekins are used to prep, cook and serve a single serving of food, an oyster cup is not typically used in food prep or cooking.

Some people might even call them “lobster butter cups.” Whatever you call them, they are a handy way to serve sauces an condiments in a mess-free and portion-controlled manner.

An oyster cup on a seafood plate from Hall China.
An oyster cup on a seafood plate from Hall China. Handy for serving condiments and sauces.

Monkey Dish

One of the more amusing terms used for this class of serving item is “monkey dish.” The true origin of the term “monkey dish” is a subject for debate. Some say that they were originally created from the skulls of actual monkeys (Yuck!). Others claim that they were small dishes used by royalty to serve small portions of food to monkeys to test for poison. Another theory is that they are dishes the size that a monkey would use such as those employed by organ grinders who would send the monkey around with a small cup or dish to collect tips and change.

No matter what the true story may be, the monkey dish has been a fixture on restaurant table tops for decades. Typically used for things like jello or cut fruit salad, a monkey dish is different from a true ramekin in several ways. First, a monkey dish is not usually used for cooking or food preparation. But more noticeably, monkey dishes are flatter, wider dishes with shallow sides. Whereas a ramekin has higher sides and is used to both cook and serve its single portion foods.

A variety of brightly colored monkey dishes from Elite Global Solutions.
A variety of brightly colored monkey dishes from Elite Global Solutions.

Souffle Cups

Here is where things go a little off the rails. The name “souffle cup” would seem to indicate that you could cook a souffle in it, right? Well, that certainly might have been the original intent. But today, souffle cups are most often associated with paper or plastic disposable sauce cups or condiment cups.

Dip your french fries in ketchup? You probably used a souffle cup. Get your salad dressing on the side? It probably came in a plastic souffle cup (with a plastic lid).

Souffle cups are some of the most widely used disposables in the restaurant industry. They are very flexible and it’s hard to imagine doing a takeout business without them in some form or another.

However, they too differ from the traditional ramekin in that you cannot bake or cook with disposable souffle cups. They also tend to be smaller than the other varieties of things we call ramekins.

But when people ask for “ramekins” they often are referring to this type of sauce or condiment cup.

A plastic souffle cup from Fabri-Kal and a paper souffle cup from SOLO
A tale of two souffle cups: plastic from Fabri-Kal and paper from SOLO®

Get to Dipping!

Now that you’ve had a whirlwind tour through all the different things we sometimes call “ramekins” it’s time to put that new knowledge to good use.  But if you are still confused about all these different choices, we are here to help.

For special assistance, please call one of our specialists at 1-866-634-8927. We would be happy to help you find the perfect ramekin for your needs. Even if it’s actually an oyster cup, a cheese pipkin, a souffle cup or a monkey dish!

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