Consolidating Pans Shouldn’t Just Be For One-Pot Meals

Over the past couple of years, I’ve noticed a major uptick in recipes for one-pot meals. As a kid, a one-pot dinner meant Crock-Pot pork roast with potatoes and carrots or a beef stew with gravy. Thankfully, the average home cook seems to have moved beyond this and has begun to experiment with chilies, noodle bowls and skillet pastas.

Although one-pot dishes have come a long way and can be an excellent go-to for quick weeknight dinners, they aren’t the “wonder meals” that they’re often chalked up to be. In many of these dishes there appears to be a prevalence of overused cuts of meat – cue the boneless, skinless chicken breasts – and they typically include rich, heavy and unhealthy sauces. Furthermore, the reasoning behind putting everything together into a single cooking vessel is often just a ploy to lure in novice cooks, which can discourage them from trying their hand at more complex and nuanced dishes.

As a result, one-pot recipes limit variety. For average people wanting to cook for themselves and their families, it’s easy to start with one-pot meals. Anyone can dice an onion and some peppers, add canned beans and spices and prepare a tasty chili. However, when novice cooks rely almost exclusively on one-pot recipes – and I’ve known some who do – they significantly restrict the array of dishes they can make. After all, how many different cuisines can you cook well in a single pot or pan? Also, since these dishes rely on only a few cooking methods, they limit the diversity of ingredients that can be used. You can’t make a 20-minute skillet dish with cheap cuts of meat like lamb shanks or pork shoulder – which need to be slow-roasted – and you can’t incorporate vegetables like eggplant or broccoli that work best with alternative cooking methods like frying, baking or steaming.

Most importantly, though, one-pot dishes don’t teach transferable cooking techniques. When novice cooks prepare one-pot dishes that rely solely on basic and uniform cooking methods – such as baking or stewing everything together – they don’t learn helpful cooking techniques that can be used for other dishes. For anyone trying to grow as a cook, translatable cooking techniques – much more so than recipes or a list of dishes one can make – provide the foundation for a lifelong love of cooking, and they make the daily preparation of meals easier, more efficient and more enjoyable. Additionally, knowing helpful and transferable kitchen skills allows one to try new dishes and experiment with a wider array of ingredients and cooking styles.

While one-pot recipes have certain drawbacks, I’ve found throughout the years that the practice of consolidating cooking vessels – the main emphasis of one-pot dishes – provides an excellent way to save time and hassle in the kitchen. Especially when my wife and I lived in our first apartment – which lacked a dishwasher – cooking with fewer pots and pans made cleaning up much easier, and it allowed us to save scarce counter and stovetop space. Moreover, many of the consolidation tricks we learned simply helped us make dishes more effectively without having to reference a recipe or cookbook continually.

Here are a few ways that I consolidate pots and pans in the kitchen, and I hope they’ll prove useful for you as well. They may not be revolutionary, but they help my cooking day in and day out.

Lasagna Filling

To make ladling a filling into your lasagna easier, I recommend cooking your vegetables and meat in a large pot, letting them cool and then adding your sauce and Ricotta cheese. Also, by mixing everything together, it allows you to incorporate the pan drippings into your filling without letting any of the deliciousness go to waste.

Sausage & Onions

My wife and I love topping hot dogs with onions. When we’re only cooking one onion, though, it wastes time and energy to dirty up another pan for something so minute. Therefore, I find it’s easier to chop the onion, layer it on top of the hot dogs with plenty of seasonings and bake everything together in the oven for 20 minutes. Not only does this save having to clean an extra pan, but it also infuses the onion with a better flavor and avoids the hassle of pan-frying your sausages on the stove – which often leads to splattering oil and smoke. Plus, while the hot dogs and onion cook in the oven, it leaves the range free for preparing a side.

Jambalaya & Paella

If you want to make a one-pot meal and are looking for variety, I suggest going for an ethnic dish that is traditionally made in a single cooking vessel. Spanish Paella and its Cajun cousin Jambalaya are two excellent one-pot dishes that are meant to be prepared that way. Because the rice is cooked in the pan drippings and alongside of the seafood and vegetables, it soaks up all that wonderful flavor and makes for a unified bite. Just remember that unlike most American one-pot meals, these two dishes have to be left covered while the rice cooks.

Make Your Sides Count

One reason why I think one-pot meals are increasing in popularity is because most people tend to think of dinner as “meat and two veg,” as the Aussie’s would say. To many, making a meal entails cooking an entrée and preparing a couple of additional sides. If you make your sides count, you don’t have to struggle preparing too many dishes, and you also don’t have to opt for the other extreme of throwing everything together into one pot. However, if you only have one side dish with a main course, it means you’ve got to make it count. After all, if you’re being frugal, you’ll likely eat it as leftovers for at least one or two more meals.

Here are some parings that I enjoy, which spice up a meal and minimize cookware: crab cakes with a vinegar and dill cucumber, red onion and tomato salad; pulled pork barbeque with red cabbage and apple; chicken tagine with tomato couscous; sautéed shrimp po-boys with tasso flavored rice; and pork carnitas with guacamole salad (pictured above – $33 for 8 servings). For each of these meals, I try to balance a more difficult dish, one with a longer cooking time or one that uses the oven with something easier, faster or cooked on the range. This way, I can consolidate my time and cooking surfaces as well as my pots and pans.

Stagger Your Ingredients

A favorite technique of many one-pot dishes is to cook most if not all of the ingredients simultaneously – whether on the stove or in the oven. While this may work well for some dishes in certain circumstances, most foods needs to be cooked at different temperatures and speeds. For those trying to consolidate pans, it’s important to stagger your ingredients accordingly so that nothing gets overcooked.

For example, when I make General Tso’s tofu (pictured above – $23 for 6 servings), I cook my tofu in a Dutch oven with a tiny bit of canola and sesame seed oil. When it’s done, I let it drain on napkins while I sauté my onion in the remaining oil. As the onion cooks and the tofu rests, I prepare broccoli florets, which I add to the browned onions. Then, I turn down the heat, cover the pot and let it steam. Finally, when my rice is cooked and everything is ready to be served, I add the tofu to the vegetables, toss with sauce and spoon it over the rice. In this way, I only use two pots instead of three, and I stagger my vegetables and tofu so that everything cooks properly. Additionally, if you want to make the sauce yourself, you can cook it in the same pan between sautéing your onion and adding in the broccoli.

As I said above, none of these tips are groundbreaking, and I’m sure you probably already do some of them. However, when taken together and expanded upon, these and other simple tricks will help you consolidate cookware while also avoiding doing all of your cooking in a single pot. While I’m not trying to discount one-pot meals altogether, I think focusing on transferable cooking techniques that avoid extra work, time and mess provides a much more helpful, flexible and long-lasting alternative.

Happy cooking!

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