[Foreword: This is a fairly long article because it is the basis for a lot of future posts and recipe ideas that will be linked back to it, so read it before you jump into one pan cooking, and I won’t have to repeat myself. Cheers!]
Some people make a HUGE mess when cooking, and those people also tend to dislike cleaning up the aftermath. I am not one of those people! I understand that it’s not possible to make some meals without using multiple pieces of cookware, 5 spoons, 3 spatulas, and 23 serving dishes… maybe that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but you get my point. Sometimes you need more than one pan. I sometimes use a pan AND a pot to get the job done. I digress… the idea behind my one pan method of cooking is simply a matter of order. I’m Chef Dave Palmer: a “perfectionist” (Use that loosely, okay?), a scientist of sorts, not hung up on traditions, and food is my love language. You don’t have to be a chef to be a great cook! Let me show you how…
We are often in a hurry, or tired after a long day, or whatever your excuse for not cooking is… and that means hustling up some pre-made microwaved junk food far too often! It’s great way to get fat and lazy, but not a great way to live your life. For over 6 years (2012 – 2019), I was the owner and operator chef of a restaurant, my wife Heather is a Doctor of Oriental Medicine and Acupuncture who also works all the time, and we have 4 young children (my oldest was 1 year old when we opened.) Cooking dinner at the end of the day wasn’t what anybody wanted to do, but it is important to us to eat healthy and feed our kids real food that will help them grow into healthy adults. We have a no “kid food” policy at our house. They eat what we eat. Somebody had to cook, and nobody wanted it to take a long time or make a big mess.
In that light, I developed my cooking method on my own, using whatever we had on hand. It’s a good place to start! I was actually inspired many years ago by a dear Australian friend (and Aussie Mum) with whom I lived with, Deborah Brown. When I lived with Deb and the rest of the Brown family, she used to start making omelettes or stir-fry dishes with no recipe at all… She just opened the fridge and pantry, and choose ingredients that seemed to match up. She even famously made an omelette with leftover lasagna in it that was both surprising and delicious! It’s all about just going for it… You just need a little base knowledge.
Ready to build a dish? Here’s my logic and the questions I ask myself…
- Figure out what you want to put in the dish.
- Think about what takes the longest to cook.
- Is anything cold or frozen that might slow or even stop the cooking process?
- Are you using fresh or dried herbs and spices or both?
- Are there any fast cooking ingredients going in the dish like shrimp or eggs that can easily overcook?
- Are you trying to cook dry pasta or noodles in the same pan?
- How BIG will this dish be when it’s done? (You might need a bigger pan.)
- Are you going to finish it in the oven?
Figure out what you want to put in the dish.
What do you have on hand that goes together? Are you going for an Italian, Mexican, Asian, French, Lithuanian, American, etc. or a unique fusion flavor palate? You kinda have to decide where you are going with this, and you have to have some ingredients on hand. Let’s say it’s summer, and you have homegrown tomatoes, and you are looking to make something with them. If you are heading in an Italian direction, you would look to see if you also have olive oil, basil, oregano, parsley, garlic, onion, spinach, meat of some sort, an Italian type of cheese, and some pasta. See what I did there? Start with something you have, and build around it. Use your imagination, and base it on something you like to eat. It doesn’t have to be complicated, just tasty!
Think about what takes the longest to cook.
Carrots… I love them, but they take a long time to cook! Onions add a lot of flavor to dishes, but not everyone enjoys a crunchy burst of onion in their mouth while eating spaghetti (especially kids.) So, I’d start cooking with a little oil and finely sliced or diced ingredients that take a while to get to the consistency I like them to be. It’s not just about texture… You also must consider food safety when cooking ingredients like chicken that must reach an acceptable internal temperature before it is served. A tasty dinner that makes everyone’s stomach upset is an unfortunate situation no one wants on their hands. This is the first step to choosing an order for cooking. Most of my one pan meals take 30 mins or less to prepare and cook, but if you get out of order in the process, it will definitely take longer, and texture will suffer.
Is anything cold or frozen that might slow or even stop the cooking process?
I’ve jacked this one up a few times, but I found I could also use it to my advantage if I want to drop the temperature in a hurry. When you add an ingredient that’s a lower temperature than the ingredients cooking in your pan, cooking will slow down or stop until the thermal transfer equalizes. This is important to think about, because sometimes you need to cook different ingredients at different temperatures, and we are trying to keep it all in one pan. Say you were making a cream sauce like an alfredo. You don’t want to curdle the cream, so dropping frozen spinach in the pan after you’ve caramelized onions and toasted garlic and herbs is a great way to drop that temp fast and not waste valuable time or space! You won’t overcook your first ingredients, and you instantly lower the temp while cooking at the same time. It works very well!
Are you using fresh or dried herbs and spices or both?
Speaking of herbs, dried herbs are greatly enhanced in flavor potential when they are toasted. I like to add them just as I’m finishing caramelizing an onion so they don’t burn, but they are still added to a hot pan. Toasting herbs is a quick process, and you will know they are toasted because they will become aromatic (smell good). That’s the oils being released that you smell, and the oils are where the flavors come from. If you are using fresh herbs, you will want to wait until later in the cooking process because they tend to burn and lose brightness if you put them in too early. They also can lose in the texture department if they are “cooked to death” as my fellow southerners say.
Are there any fast cooking ingredients going in the dish like shrimp or eggs that can easily overcook?
Nothing is worse than having a beautiful flavor palate in a dish only to have it ruined by chunky, chewy, overcooked ingredients in it! Much like ingredients that take longer to cook, you must also consider the timing of easily overcooked ingredients. This is pretty easy to handle correctly once you get a feel for how long it takes you to build a dish. The way I think about it is “How long would this ingredient take to cook if I were cooking it by itself?” If you’ve got a 30 minute dish cooking, and shrimp take 5 minutes to cook… at 25 minutes in, you know it’s time to drop them in and prepare to finish up. If you randomly decide to add potatoes after you’ve already dropped those shrimp, I hope you have exercised your jaws… You’re going to have either rubbery pink curls with tails or under-cooked potatoes in your dish!
Are you trying to cook dry pasta or noodles in the same pan?
Believe it or not, I don’t love doing this because adding liquid comes into play, and every pasta/noodle has different requirements. Adding dry rice noodles to saucy/soupy Asian cooking is not too bad, because they cook very quickly (thin noodles), and they always get added at the very end of the dish. However, Italian pastas are much less predictable and require some experience and usually added liquid which messes with the temperature of the dish as it cooks making timing harder. I personally just use a pot of boiling water as the box suggests, boiled for the lowest duration that will result in an “al dente” texture, and then I add the cooked noodles to my dish to meld the sauce with the pasta for a minute or two before serving. It’s just easier, frankly. Turn on the burner to get the water boiling when you start cooking in the main pan, and drop the dry pasta in when you have boiling water and “al dente” + two minutes left in the cooking process. I’ll gladly wash one pot + one pan in lieu of having a headache.
How BIG will this dish be when it’s done?
You might feel silly toasting herbs in a 5 quart saute pan in the beginning, but what’s better… Feeling silly for a few minutes or awkwardly trying to transfer hot ingredients into a bigger pan later when you find you’ve outgrown your pan? Try that with a couple gallons of hot soup… NOT FUN! Don’t worry! All of this planning will become second nature to you soon. I have one 5 quart saute pan and one stock pot that I use over and over for just about everything. The smaller pans are fine for a quick lunch or a side, but if you are cooking for a family like mine, you won’t use them often. You’ll see!
Are you going to finish it in the oven?
Cookware is getting better these days. I remember when the only pan you could take off the stove and stick directly in the oven was cast iron. Though it’s still true that you can do that with cast iron, there are other options available that aren’t expensive restaurant grade stainless steel. I have a glass top stove at home (it came with the house), so cast iron isn’t the best choice for me. Early in my cooking career, my mom bought me a Calphalon 5qt saute pan for Christmas that I use more than any other pan in my kitchen. I know there are others, but that’s my favorite! The reason is simple… It’s big enough to hold a family-sized one pan meal, AND it can go directly from stove top to oven in a single action. Usually the reason I’d do that is to melt cheese over the top of something, but it is also handy if you are searing meat and finishing it in the oven. You can even deglaze it after removing the meat for a tasty gravy or sauce still only using one pan. (After 15 years of using non-stick, I recently switched back to stainless steel, but don’t let that sway you. Use what you have if it’s oven-safe!)
Secrets to success:
You might be wondering how I would accomplish all of that in 30 mins from prep to plate… The secret is simpler than you might think. I prep “on-the-fly”. That means I have a nice big cutting board nearby. Once I’ve cut the first ingredient(s) and start cooking, I move on to prepping the next ingredient. Unless it’s something that requires constant stirring (those are usually later in the process if any at all), I stir occasionally. That leaves me plenty of time to prep while something else is cooking. Like I said before, it’s all about the order! I do sometimes have to prep something that is more time consuming like trimming chicken or tearing stems off of kale, and I might do that first and then hold those ingredients until I’m ready for them.
I am also not afraid to use whole ingredients like canned tomatoes or beans as a time saver. Canned vegetables are usually cooked in the can during the canning process, so they are ready to use as soon you open them. They are also picked at peak ripeness, so the quality is consistently good. I learned from being in the restaurant industry that a lot of ingredients in restaurant kitchens are pre-cooked for quicker service potential. Many are flash frozen par-cooked (partially cooked) so when you heat them up to an appropriate temperature, they have a fresh presentation. Many of these ingredients are very good quality, and after a quick label check you may find that there is nothing wrong with them at all. What I don’t like to use are pre-made microwave ready junk food items that aren’t healthy any way you cook them! Stay away from these over-salted, preservative laden foods for better health.
Feeling a little more comfortable with the idea of building a one pan meal yourself? Awesome! That’s what I was hoping. Try one of my easy one pan recipes to get some ideas of your own or go the even easier route and use mine. Let get cooking!