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The One-Pan Method: Eating Well Without the Celebrity Chef

By November 2, 2015Nutrition
Reading Time: 7 minutes

Let’s get this out of the way up front: I am not a chef.

My stovetop holds four (highly temperamental) electric coils, and my pans came from TJ Maxx. Every time I go into Williams Sonoma, I’m reminded of my tax bracket, left to wonder who shops there without first taking out a substantial home equity loan.  

Nonetheless, I manage to eat well, thanks largely to a one-pan method that hides my lack of culinary skill behind a wall of fresh ingredients and a can’t-screw-it-up technique that requires almost no training of the preparer. I’ll share it with you, in hopes that it serves you as well as it has served me.  

Follow along, and you’ll learn to make dinner (and 90% of the following day’s breakfast) in less than a half-hour. As a bonus, you’ll impress your dinner guests, you’ll use some of the freshest ingredients in the grocery store, and it will take you exactly 30 seconds to clean up afterward.

Pre-Staging: Stuff You Need

  • A skillet and a spatula
  • Spices, including pepper, salt, paprika, curry powder
  • Herbs, including basil and garlic
  • Cooking oils, either olive oil or coconut oil
  • Fresh ingredients: meat (or protein substitute), vegetables, and seasonal fruit

You need two pieces of kitchenware to execute the one-pan method: a deep skillet (size dependent on the number of people you plan to feed) and a spatula.  

Also handy, a well-stocked spice cabinet. My go-to spices are pepper, salt, curry powder, paprika, and cayenne. I’ll also grab fresh basil, garlic, and white onions if I’m looking to add big flavor. Your selections are a personal choice, but for the uninitiated, these are a good start—inexpensive, tasty, and easy to find.

Finally, you’ll need a cooking medium, the oil of your choice. I’m a fan of olive and coconut oils, both of which have documented health benefits, can withstand the necessary heat, and taste fantastic.

Once you have the basics in place, it’s time to make ingredient choices.  No matter what your particular selections, you’ll want some just-butchered meat and a selection of fresh vegetables. You can go big league with things like flank steak, asparagus, and artichokes or keep it easy on the wallet with chicken tenderloin, peppers, mushrooms and squashes.  

Either way, buy your ingredients the same day you’re going to cook—freshness hides a lot of sins, and it’s hard to mess up flavor combinations if everything is in-season and comes from the same produce department.

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Step 1: Preparation

  • Cut up your vegetables to double-bite size chunks
  • Spice your protein, and if necessary, cut into double-bite size chunks

Begin by cutting up your vegetables. Don’t go nuts; we’ll want to keep fairly large chunks of vegetable in the pan during the cooking process, as it helps maintain moisture and flavor. Aim for double-bite size chunks, requiring your diner to use a fork and knife once the dish is plated. Once you’re done cutting, put the veggies aside.

Next, take your uncooked meat out of the package and sprinkle it with spices. I almost always use chicken tenderloin, covering it with a liberal helping of pepper and paprika. The spices form a beautiful, golden crust once the meat begins cooking, and they add a ton of flavor (and a bit of heat) to the dish.  

In lieu of pepper, you can use nearly any combination of the spices listed above. The first time you try any combination, go easy, limiting the application of spices you haven’t used before. Subtlety is never a bad idea, and you can always increase your quantities the next time you cook.

If you’ve selected a large cut of meat, cut it into double-bite size chunks (just like the vegetables). We’ll want the protein to cook quickly, so we’ll want to present a lot of surface area to the pan.

Step 2: Execution

  • Skillet on medium-high heat, oil “popping”
  • Fry meat for two to three minutes, spice side down
  • Add additional spice and flip meat, frying for sixty additional seconds
  • Lower skillet to medium heat, cover meat with vegetables
  • Cook three to four minutes and flip
  • Cook two additional minutes and flip
  • Cook two more minutes
  • Do your side preparation during the cooking intervals, cutting fruit and cleaning
  • Plate Dinner, keeping one serving aside for breakfast

We’re going to start hot. Put your skillet over medium-high heat, add oil, and get it popping.  If the oil starts smoking, back off the heat a little bit.

Once the oil is hot, add your meat, coating the entire bottom of the pan with protein, spice side down. You’ll leave it there for two to three minutes, forming a light crust on the down side. While it’s cooking, hit the “up” side with your spices, sprinkling to taste.  

Once you’re confident there’s a crust on the down side, flip your meat over. At this point, it will not be fully cooked. Leave it for sixty seconds or so, and then turn the heat down to medium.  

Now, layer on the vegetables. You can do this without too much attention; just make sure you’ve added three or four types of vegetables in a quantity sufficient to fill the skillet. The veggies will form a roof, helping retain moisture as they cook slowly over the heat.  

At this stage, the vegetables are not in direct contact with the bottom of the pan. They’re on top of the meat, preventing them from flash frying while maintaining a consistency similar to steamed vegetables—hot but still crisp. This indirect cooking method adds a lot of pleasure to the coming dining experience, keeping the vegetables flavorful and crunchy.  

After three to four minutes, flip the contents of the pan. Now, the meat is on top and the vegetables are on the bottom. Hit it with spice one more time, leave cooking for two minutes, and then flip one more time. After two more minutes, turn off the heat.  

During the cooking intervals, I like to do some side preparation and cleaning. I’ll slice up fresh fruit or berries to accompany dinner and put some water on ice. Once everything is in the pan, I’ll also wash my knife and cutting board so they’re out of the way.

Once cooking is finished, I plate dinner, sprinkling my empty plates with whatever spices I’ve selected, adding the (still steaming) meat/vegetable mixture, and garnishing with a side of fruit with cinnamon. At this point, I’ll also pull out a single serving of the meat/veggies, which I’ll use the next day at breakfast. Finish by dropping your empty skillet into the sink. Hit it with water while it’s still hot (everything comes right off), and go enjoy dinner.

Bonus: The One-Pan Breakfast

  • Reheat leftovers in oil
  • Add eggs, scrambled or whole
  • Plate and enjoy

The next day, I pull my stored serving of last night’s dinner from the refrigerator and grab the skillet out of the sink.  

Adding a little bit of oil, I’ll reheat the leftovers. Once they’re hot, I just add eggs: scrambled if I’d like a frittata, whole if I’m making a hash-style breakfast. I’ll then add pepper and cook the eggs to my desired consistency. If I’m not strapped for time, I’ll typically cube some red or sweet potatoes and fry them up prior to making the egg/leftover mix.  

With just three or four eggs, one serving of leftovers is enough to feed two people. If you’re pre-planning and would like to feed more, just make more one-pan dinner the night prior so you’ll have more leftovers.  

This is a great two-for-one—two meals using the same ingredients and the same pan, with near-zero prep the second time around.

Combinations

The One-Pan Method is incredibly easy to execute: fry some meat, add fresh produce, and sprinkle with spices.  

Once you understand the principles involved, you can create nearly any flavor combination you like. You can do this with chicken, fish, beef, tofu, shellfish, pork, green vegetables, tomatoes and eggplant, squashes and savory vegetables, fruits, and every spice in the cabinet. You can create combos that meet your diet, or you can indulge.

Here are some of my favorites to get you started:

Meat Vegetables Spices Oil
Chicken Tenderloin Green Peppers
Snow Peas
Zucchini
Summer Squash
Black Pepper
Cayenne
Coconut
Chicken Tenderloin Green Peppers
Sweet Potatoes
Apple
Black Pepper Coconut
Flank Steak Eggplant
Mushrooms
White Onions
Black Pepper
Garlic
Olive

Give the One-Pan Method a shot. You’ll be surprised at how easily you’ll pick it up, and you won’t believe the reward-to-effort ratio.  As long as the ingredients are fresh and the flavor combinations aren’t completely wacky, you’ll have a great meal, a bonus breakfast (and no one will realize you don’t actually know how to cook).

Got your own ideas for great one-pan combinations?  Awesome spices we’re not using?  Post to comments, and help others benefit from your creativity.

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Jon Gilson
Jon Gilson is a coach and writer, and the CEO of the Whole Life Challenge.

Previously, he founded Again Faster Equipment, a functional fitness equipment company created to serve the CrossFit community. Established in 2006, Jon took the Company global in 2012, twice landing on the Inc. 500/5000 list of America’s fastest growing private companies.

From 2007 to 2013, he served as a Senior Lecturer for CrossFit, Inc., training aspiring CrossFit trainers at over 100 seminars, including engagements in Iceland, Afghanistan, Moscow, Holland, the United States, and Canada. Jon also served on the CrossFit L1 Advisory Board, helping establish policy for the organization’s training efforts from 2011 to 2013.

He’s also done stints in state government, gym management, and consulting — and currently teaches classes at CrossFit City Line.

Jon graduated from the University of New Hampshire in 2003, summa cum laude, with a B.A. in Psychology. He also holds a Graduate Certificate in Finance and Control from the Harvard Extension School, 2006, and has completed coursework in data analytics.

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