I’m an avid outdoorsman and have spent many days and weeks in the wild with friends and family. I’m also a chef, so it was always my job to cook the meals. Unfortunately, that meant I always got stuck with doing the dishes, regardless of my pleas, requests, threats and rants to get some help with greasy pots and pans. I finally found a solution, though, that pioneers and mountain men used for centuries. It’s the one-pan meal.
The fundamental idea behind a one plan meal is that you cook everything in one pot or pan. The protein — whether it be meat, poultry or fish — and all the vegetables are together in one pan or pot. Some recipes fall in the category of a stew, but just as many are more along the lines of roasted or braised foods. In some respects, this was a pioneer version of a crock-pot meal. Unfortunately, they didn’t have electricity, but I think the food tastes better when prepared the old-fashioned way.
A one-pan meal not only makes serving and cleanup easier, but it’s also easier to cook because everything’s done at the same time. There’s no waiting for those hard potatoes to get tender, or wondering when the uncooked chicken or duck is finally going to be done.
My setup for one-pan cooking is fairly basic. It’s either a grill over an open fire, a Dutch oven over coals on the ground and some in the lid, or a cast-iron frying pan with a lid warming and waiting over some hot coals. You could also cook these meals in an oven at home or on the kitchen range, but we’re going to stay off-grid like our pioneer ancestors.
Basic ingredients could range from beef and pork to venison, rabbit and squirrel. We’re going to keep it rustic and explore recipes with wild game like rabbit and squirrel, plus some poultry variations.
Water is the cooking medium in many recipes, although oils ranging from bacon fat to butter or a vegetable oil are also important.
The critical success factor is to manage the heat so the food cooks and caramelizes but does not burn. Heat control is what it’s all about. This isn’t about just bringing a big pot of water to a rolling boil over a blazing fire. It’s about carefully managing the temperature and humidity in the pan to make a great meal.
Get your pan or pot hot and either render some bacon to capture the fat or add an oil like canola oil or butter to the bottom of the pan. The first thing you’ll want to add is the meats or poultry (cut into pieces). Don’t do this step with fish or shellfish; it’s unnecessary.
Your goal is to brown the meat or poultry to an amber caramelized brown. This has three benefits:
- It seals the juices into the meat or poultry.
- The caramelization will impart a nice, amber color to the added water to make a rich stock.
- It enhances the flavor of the finished dish as it relates to the meat or poultry.
Once your meat is seared and nicely sealed, remove it from the pan and reserve it on a covered plate.
Add your vegetables to the drippings in the bottom of the pan. I start with carrots if I’m using them because they’re a firm vegetable. Once I start to notice some caramelization around the edges, I’ll add the onions. These are usually cut into halves or quarters but sometimes diced. When the onions start to show some browning, I’ll add potatoes peeled and cut. I’m stirring all the time to keep the vegetables from burning. Once I’m satisfied that I have a little bit of crispiness and browning, I’ll add 2 to 4 cups of water salted with a ½ teaspoon of salt per cup, or a bouillon cube per cup.
The water proportions vary depending on the size of your pot. Once I’ve added the water, I’ll stir the pot to scrape up any bits on the bottom. What you’ll start to see is a nice amber color coming into the water to begin the stock. I’ll return the pot to a gentle boil and move on to step 3.
Once the pot is gently boiling, I’ll return the meat or poultry to the pot. The meat will be sitting on top of the vegetables with some stock lapping at the bottom of some of the meat. This is a critical time to manage the heat. I’ll cover the pan or pot with a lid or foil and then put it over low heat. Medium to high heat can burn anything on the bottom of the pan, so keep the heat low. The heavy lid on a Dutch oven actually creates a mild, pressure-cooker effect. If I’m using a cast iron frying pan, I’ll place the lid over the fire to get it very hot and then carefully place it over the cast-iron frying pan. If you’re using a Dutch oven, then put some coals on the lid and some coals underneath.
How long you cook your food will vary depending on your heat source, the size of your pot and other factors like outside temperature. Cooking outside in winter takes longer than summer. The easiest way to assess your progress is to carefully lift the lid and take a peek. I’ll sometimes stir the bottom a bit just to make sure there’s no burning, and I might add some more water. Water goes a long way toward preventing charring and burning and it’s easy to boil it off if you have too much.
The Final Finish
Once I’m satisfied the food is cooked, I’ll consider taking the meal to the next level. This could include turning the stock into a gravy or adding dumplings to the top for a finishing touch. I’ll also taste the stock to adjust the seasoning with salt or pepper, but remember that people can always salt and pepper their own serving, so don’t overdo it.
Once all is done, put the pan or pot on a stump or large, cut log or in the center of the table on a trivet or some other insulating layer … and let everyone help themselves. Tell them they’re responsible tor washing their own plates and you can worry about the one pot or pan later.
- 6 strips of bacon or 2 tablespoons of vegetable or canola oil
- 1 chicken or 2 ducks or 2 pheasants cut into quarters
- 6 carrots sliced into circles
- 2 large onions quartered
- 4 large potatoes quartered
- 2 cups of water
- 1 teaspoon of salt or 1 chicken bouillon cube
- Herbs like rosemary, thyme or sage
Heat the pan and render the bacon fat or add the oil. Brown the meat and reserve. Brown and caramelize the vegetables and add the water. Stir the pot and return to gentle boil and add the poultry. Add the herbs. Cover and cook over low- to low-medium heat or coals for 1 hour. Stop and stir halfway through the cooking. Check for doneness by rocking a poultry leg at the thigh. If it moves freely, you’re finished. Serve with salt and pepper. Top with crumbled bacon if you used it at the beginning.
Hunter’s Stew With Dumplings
- 6 strips of bacon or 2 tablespoons of oil
- 1 squirrel plus one rabbit plus one bird, all quartered (chicken/duck/pheasant/quail)
- 2 large onions sliced
- 4 large potatoes cut into large chunks
- 4 cups of water
- 2 tablespoons of salt
- 1 tablespoon of cornstarch or flour stirred into ½ cup of water
- 2 cups flour
- 1 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1 tablespoon baking powder
- 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
- 1 cup warm water
- (Mix until you have a dough and roll out or pat until about ½ inch thick and cut into pieces about 2 inches across.)
Hunter’s stew is best made in a large cast iron pot or Dutch oven. Heat the pot and render the bacon fat or add the oil. Brown all the meats and poultry and reserve. Add the onions and potatoes and cook until onions begin to show some browning on the edges. Add the water and stir and bring to a gentle boil. Add the meat and cover and cook for one hour. Stir halfway through. Check for doneness by slicing into some of the meats. Mix the corn starch or flour with the water and add to the pot and stir. Simmer gently until stock thickens. For a thicker gravy, add some more corn starch or flour. Top the pot with the dumplings and cover and cook an additional 10 to 15 minutes. Serve.
Fisherman’s Stew (Michigan Bouillabaisse)
- 2 tablespoons of butter or oil
- 4 carrots diced
- 3 stalks of celery diced
- 1 medium onion diced
- 1 fennel bulb diced (optional)
- 2 peeled tomatoes or 1 15-ounce can of chopped tomatoes
- ¼ teaspoon of turmeric
- Herbs like thyme or chervil
- 4 cups of chicken broth or fish stock (simmer fish heads and bones for
- 30 minutes and strain for fish stock)
- 12 to 24 crayfish
- 6 to 10 frog legs
- 4 to 8 fresh water mussels, depending on size and availability
- 2 pounds of fish cut into large chunks (salmon/trout/bass/northern/walleye)
This is best made in a large, uncovered cast iron frying pan or uncovered Dutch oven. Heat the pan or pot and add the butter or oil. Add all of the vegetables except tomatoes at once and cook until onions are translucent. Add the tomatoes, turmeric and herbs and the chicken or fish stock. Bring to a gentle boil and add the crayfish and cook until they turn red. Add the mussels and the frog legs.
Discard any mussels that don’t open. Once the mussels are open, add the fish and cook for a few minutes until opaque. Don’t overcook the fish or it will crumble into bits. Serve.
Rabbit and Squirrel Pot Pie
- 2 tablespoons of butter or oil
- 2 squirrels and 1 rabbit cut into small chunks
- 4 carrots diced
- 1 medium onion diced
- 2 large potatoes diced into cubes
- 1 cup of peas
- 2 cups of beef stock or beef bouillon cubes in 2 cups of water
- 2 tablespoons of corn starch or flour in ½ cup of water
- 2 pie crusts
Pie crust recipe
- 1 cup Gold Medal™ all-purpose flour
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1/3 cup plus 1 tablespoon cold shortening or butter
- 2 to 3 tablespoons cold water
(Cut the shortening or butter into the flour and salt with two knives until the mixture is crumbly. Add the cold water a tablespoon at a time and mix with your hands until you have a dough ball. Cover with plastic wrap or in a plastic bag and chill for 20 minutes. Cut the dough ball in half and roll out into two equal-sized sheets to fit your pan. You can roll the dough onto your rolling pin to make it easier to transfer and unroll over your pan.
This is best made in a cast iron frying pan with a tight-fitting lid. Aluminum foil is your backup plan as a cover. Make the dough and let it rest in a cool place. Heat your pan and add the butter or oil and brown the squirrel and the rabbit. Reserve. Add all of the vegetables except for the peas. Cook until edges start to brown. Add the beef stock and the meat and cook uncovered until all ingredients are cooked through and tender. Add the corn starch or flour in the ½ cup of water and stir until thickened. Add peas and pour the mix into a bowl or other container.
Wipe out the pan and oil before you get the first pie crust into place. Poke the bottom with a fork to make some holes. Fill the pan with the meat/vegetable mixture. Don’t fill to the brim. You still need to add the second crust on top and have a lid to cover all of it. Top with the second crust and poke more holes in the top with the fork. Heat the lid over the fire until it is very hot and place on top of the pan. Place the pan over the lowest heat possible and let bake for 15 to 20 minutes. Don’t lift the lid until you think it’s done. If it’s not done or golden brown, return the lid to direct heat to heat it up. Put the lid bake onto the pan until finished. Let rest off the heat for 5 minutes and serve.
Have you made one-pan meals? What advice would you add? Share it in the section below: