The idea of one-pot cooking is irresistible: We’re all drawn to the prospect of a speedy, less-messy meal during the busy work week. Despite its new wave of popularity and perhaps gimmicky appeal, though, it is no fad. Cooking in one vessel might seem tailor-made for today, but these dishes have been made for thousands of years in different cuisines and cultures throughout the world.
Today, “one pot” is an umbrella term for dishes made in a single skillet, sheet pan or roasting pan. For our ancestors, the technique was a favorite because it met essential survival needs. “It saved time, water and firewood, three of the most important elements in the food preparation in the past,” said Michael Twitty, food historian and author of “The Cooking Gene.”
In Medieval Europe, a large cast-iron pot was always on the back of the hearth, the source of warmth for a room, according to Amy Bentley, New York University professor and food historian. Cooks constantly added vegetables, grains, maybe meat (though the latter was expensive) to the pot, and served it in bowls. This allowed them to stretch food for many meals while staying free for other activities. Porridge, also a one-pot meal, is found in many forms, such as oatmeal, congee in China, and, according to food historian Julia Skinner, uji in Kenya and ogi in Nigeria, both of which have existed since grains became part of the diet in those areas.
Other cooking vessels, such as the Japanese clay donabe, were found in primitive form more than 10,000 years ago, according to Naoko Takei Moore, founder of Toiro cookware. The current style of donabe has been used for hundreds of years, Moore said, to make hot pot, soups, stews and rice, all of which are served directly from the pot.
Indian cuisine has many one-pot dishes. “It’s a way of cooking [that] people have been doing for generations,” said chef and cookbook author Romy Gill. With regional variations, dal is cooked in every household in India, often slowly and overnight, allowing women to perform other tasks without worrying the food will burn.
One-pot cooking can also help meet other time restrictions. Cookbook author Adeena Sussman said many Israeli one-pot dishes are cooked overnight to sidestep the prohibition against cooking on the Sabbath. That includes cholent, an Ashkenazi stew filled with meat, beans, barley and potatoes. In Palestinian culture, there is makluba, “made with lamb, rice, vegetables and other delicious things,” she said.
For cooks who always seem to feel short on time, cooking in one pot helps meet the need of getting an interesting meal on the table quickly without ending up with a sink full of dishes. But it can also be immensely satisfying to stir a big pot and inhale the mingling scents of spices, fat and vegetables as you watch it slowly take shape, moving from various pieces and colors into something unified. Even a sheet-pan supper like my Za’atar Salmon With Charred Broccolini warms a household, drawing people together and fostering memories.
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In places with a population that has a predominantly Northwestern European heritage, Bentley said, the generally accepted idea of a meal is one that’s on a plate. That’s what anthropologist Mary Douglas calls “A+2b,” with A being the main protein and b the two smaller sides. (Add another side, and in the American South you have the standard “meat and three.”) Meals used to be served in bowls, but Bentley said a shift occurred in regions where meat was more readily available. But maybe the resurgence of bowls is a side effect of the popularity of one-pot cooking and a reminder that it never really went away.
Ultimately, the appeal might be in the time we’re freeing up for what we really crave and need. As Moore said, donabe is loved not only for its efficiency, but also for how it brings people together and fosters bonding over food.
“Sharing a meal out of donabe is always special because you enjoy the process together,” she said. “Donabe dish doesn’t only feed our stomachs, but it feeds our souls.”
Fahr is the author of “Keeping It Simple: Easy Weeknight One-Pot Recipes” (Hardie Grant, 2020).
A quick marinade of yogurt, lemon and cumin creates a seal around the salmon fillets, keeping them moist while cooking. Food writer Yasmin Fahr likes to slather the salmon in the yogurt slurry first, so it can marinate while she cuts the broccolini and lemon. Don’t skip eating the softened lemon rinds for a bright burst of flavor. This salmon makes great leftovers in a salad, mixed with grains or hearty greens.
Make ahead: The salmon and broccolini can be refrigerated for up to 3 days.
1/2 cup thick-style plain yogurt, such as Greek or skyr
2 lemons (1 juiced/about 2 tablespoons; 1 sliced)
1 teaspoon ground cumin, divided
Freshly ground black pepper
4 salmon fillets, 6 to 8 ounces each, skin removed
1 bunch broccolini (about 8 ounces), ends trimmed and thick pieces cut lengthwise
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper, or more as needed
1 tablespoon za’atar
1/2 cup roughly chopped flat-leaf parsley, leaves and fine stems, for garnish (optional)
Position one rack in the middle of the oven and another 6 inches under the broiler heat source, and preheat to 400 degrees.
In a shallow medium bowl, combine the yogurt, lemon juice and 1/2 teaspoon cumin, and season to taste with salt. Liberally season the salmon with salt and pepper, then add it to the bowl and coat the fish with the yogurt mixture.
On a large, rimmed baking sheet, toss the broccolini and lemon slices with the olive oil, remaining 1/2 teaspoon cumin, crushed red pepper, salt and pepper until all the broccolini pieces have a light sheen to them. (You can pick seeds out of the lemons before or after roasting.) Push the vegetables to the side so the salmon has direct contact with the pan. Place the salmon in the center, skinned side down.
Roast for about 10 minutes, until the broccolini and lemon are lightly browned at the edges. Using tongs, flip the broccolini. Sprinkle the za’atar over the salmon, then return to the oven (rotating the baking sheet front to back) and roast for an additional 6 minutes, until the salmon is opaque.
Turn on the broiler and roast for 2 minutes more for medium-rare. Transfer the baking sheet to a counter and let the salmon rest for 2 minutes.
Divide the salmon, broccolini and lemon rounds among plates. Garnish with parsley, if using, and serve.
Adapted from Yasmin Fahr.
Tested by Olga Massov; email questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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