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How to Master One-Pot Cooking

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Photo: Campbell's; Illustration: Allie Pakrosnis/Thrillist

There’s a lot to like about one-pot meals. They’re easy. They make less mess. They make cooking feel accessible to those with smaller kitchens or anyone overwhelmed by the thought of straying from their beloved frozen tamales. Just because you’re working with a single pot doesn’t mean you’re beholden to wintery stews, either. From techniques like deep frying to steaming to slow cooking, here’s how to unlock the potential of one-pot cooking, six different ways. The best part? Cleaning up will only take a few minutes, max. 

One Pot: Pasta

Traditional pasta preparation generally involves boiling noodles in a deep stock pot and heating your sauce in a smaller pot on the next burner. But for cooking your entire pasta meal in a single vessel, a saute pan is your best bet -- the 6-quart size is a good versatile pick. (While a skillet will also work, saute pans are usually deeper and have a straight lip at the top, which make them better for working with saucy dishes.) The pan-cook method saves time, water, and energy, and makes a perfect vessel for building your sauce. Remember to salt generously -- the rule of thumb is a tablespoon for every pound of pasta and 4 quarts of water (so adjust if you’re boiling in a saute pan with less water). Lastly, don’t forget to save your pasta water -- it’s liquid gold. Aim to reserve about a cup of the salty, starchy water to incorporate gradually back into the pan to help bind the noodles and sauce. Add a knob of butter or healthy drizzle of good olive oil at the end once the heat is off for added richness, or go the creamy route with this One Pot Spaghetti Carbonara made with Campbell’s® Condensed Cream of Chicken Soup.

One Pot: Slow Cooker

Preparing meals in a slow cooker really is as easy as they say: pop in the ingredients, set it, and forget it. While the method is forgiving, there are still a few general rules of thumb for getting the most out of this pot: First, if you brown your meat and saute your vegetables before slow cooking, you’ll get a more robust, caramelized flavor. (And if you have a slow cooker with a removable insert, you can do this while still using a single pot.) Most recipes can be cooked on either the high or low setting -- the difference refers to how long it takes ingredients to reach the simmer point -- so you can convert depending on how much time you have. Finally, to protect against undercooking, you’ll want to have a meat thermometer handy to make sure it’s heated to a safe temperature. For a slow cooker recipe that’s good for the warmer months, try this chicken & sausage paella made with Campbell’s® Condensed Tomato Soup, reminiscent of a summer in Spain.

One Pot: Soup & Stew

Just because it’s summer doesn’t mean soups and stews are off limits -- think seafood chowder, veggie-packed minestrone, or chili with fresh summer corn. Here, your pot of choice should be a deep, stainless-steel stockpot (a 6-quart size should be plenty for most households), which will give you lots of room for broth and prevents boiling over. Perhaps the most important part of soup is a good base, typically stock or broth. Although both can technically be used interchangeably, broth generally imparts more flavor on its own, which makes it ideal for soups and stews. And if using stock, you’ll need to add more salt, as it’s usually sold unseasoned. To thicken a soup that’s watery, add flour or cornstarch, or puree some of the vegetables in the pot for a bit of extra heft (minestrone or broccoli cheddar soup are excellent candidates for this hack). A dollop of yogurt or sour cream will add instant creaminess to your soup, too.

Photo: Shutterstock; Illustration: Allie Pakrosnis/Thrillist

One Pot: Braise

Braising is a French technique that consists of frying meat at high heat, then completing the cooking at a lower temperature in liquid. Inexpensive cuts of meat (like chuck roast, pork shoulder, and lamb shank) are perfect for this method, as the long, low roast really draws out the flavor and tenderizes the meat in the same way that slow cooking does. For braising, you want to use a Dutch oven (or a braiser if you’ve got one) since it can go from stovetop to oven, and follow four basic steps: brown the meat, saute the veggies or mirepoix, deglaze, braise -- et voila! Timing is everything with this method as braising involves a bit of monitoring to ensure your meat has enough liquid, as it cooks off during the process (you want at least an inch). Or, if you’re looking for a quicker route to that braised flavor that doesn’t involve standing over your oven, try this bourbon & bacon braised chicken thighs recipe.

One Pot: Deep Fry 

No deep fryer? No problem. Create your own inferno using a heavy-bottomed, 5-quart cast iron pot or Dutch oven filled with a few inches of oil to make summer-ready meals like fried chicken or fish & chips. For deep frying, it’s best to use a neutral oil like vegetable, corn, or peanut that has a high flashpoint. (Do NOT use olive oil, as it will burn much quicker than the aforementioned varieties.) A word to the wise: don’t overfill the pan. The max in most cases is about halfway full, enough to completely cover the batch of food you’re working with. You’ll also want to invest in a thermometer, as it’s the best way to keep tabs on the oil temperature -- between 350-375 degrees is the optimal range for frying. Remember, when you add food to your hot oil, the temperature will drop, so be sure to work in small batches to produce the most consistently crispy results. And at clean-up time, you’ll want to make sure your oil cools off completely before pouring it into a leak-proof container or bag (old milk cartons work great for this).

One Pot: Steam

Steaming is the perfect method for enjoying the flavors of the season, unfettered. In July and August, produce like corn, zucchini, red pepper, eggplant, and much more are bountiful, and steaming them means you don’t sacrifice those nutrients. To do it, you’ll want to outfit your pot with a steamer basket or bamboo steamer -- although a metal colander can work in a pinch as well. Bring about an inch of water to boil in the pot (make sure not to use too much to prevent drowning) and throw some herbs or lemon in the water for added flavor. Shellfish like clams and mussels also make excellent candidates for steaming; place them directly in a pot and simmer in a garlicky white wine or beer-based broth. Then, keep a close eye on your pot to avoid that cardinal sin of steaming: overcooking. As soon as a knife or toothpick passes through the veggies, pull them out; clams and mussels are done when their shells open. Throw veggies on top of grains (cooked in the same pot prior to steaming) and serve shellfish alongside crusty bread to make it a full meal.