Big cooking adventures always mean a towering sink of dirty pots and pans and a long night of scrubbing afterward, right? Conventional wisdom might hold that only the simplest dishes can keep a sink reasonably empty — but conventional wisdom hasn’t yet grappled with the delight of Puerto Rican cooking styles.
A great deal of Puerto Rican cooking can be summarized as “one pot.” Many of these dishes are designed to make repeated or layered use of a single pot, rather than have multiple components cooked separately.
It’s a culinary tradition grown out of limited means and low-cost ingredients, where making a big mess in the kitchen is a waste of time, heat, water, and more — and it keeps dishwashing manageable without sacrificing flavor.
In some cases, it’s also the key to experiencing every nuance of taste that a particular set of ingredients has to offer. This cooking technique isn’t restricted to this one island and can enhance anyone’s kitchen.
The first step is an appropriately versatile pot. A classic Hispanic kitchen centerpiece is the caldero, a cast-aluminum lidded pot similar in concept to a Dutch oven. Its curved sides and light finish keep it low-maintenance and relatively easy to clean. Its shape is a compromise between tall, deep pots and wide, shallow pans. Most cookware sets have something like this piece, and any Hispanic market will have multiple sizes of caldero available.
With this tool in hand, the next trick is defining the technique. Most recipes — even those where each component of the meal is cooked separately — have an implied order to them. Different ingredients have different cooking times or require more preparation, creating a natural progression while cooking.
For many of these, that order can be just as easily fulfilled by introducing them all to the same pot at different times, rather than keeping them apart until plating. Combining all of the elements into the same pot also allows them to infuse flavor, creating a unified experience that is much harder to achieve when each component of a meal cooks in its own pot.
A classic use of this technique might be to sear some chicken legs as a first step, then make a gravy from the drippings and make the rest of the meal elsewhere. However tasty, this approach requires a lot of effort and outside flavor coordination to make sure the various parts of the meal feel like a cohesive whole.
A one-pot approach would include setting the chicken aside and heating some aromatics, such as onions or ginger, in oil in the same pot, without cleaning it in between. This infuses the oil with all of those flavors, including the rich, savory drippings, which can be passed on to anything else cooked in the same pot.
Rice takes on those flavors nicely, so adding pre-measured water and rice directly to that pot will allow it to absorb the infused oil as it cooks. With a few more spices and the return of the chicken to finish cooking, this becomes a bright and relatively simple meal, done as a single unit.
As space continues to get more cramped in major cities and free time for cooking remains a pricey commodity in itself, anything that makes it easier is a welcome addition!
I’ve found myself thinking in one-pot terms for many types of dishes, from fried rice to mashed potatoes. Any technique that reduces the amount of cookware doesn’t just save time and dishwashing effort, but also maximizes every dish by reducing the amount of precious flavor that washes away with that soapy water.
Kitchen veterans might recognize that stir-fry and slow-cooker recipes have a similar ethos behind them for the same reason.
The one-pot cooking tradition that’s been passed down for generations in Puerto Rico is a technique that turns low-effort habits into culinary virtues, and it can work for you in ways you haven’t yet imagined! To get you started, here are a few recipes to try: