Besides the skillet, the piece of cookware I use most is the rondeau. A rondeau is a wide, heavy-bottomed pot with straight sides and two loop handles. Restaurant cooks use rondeaus constantly, not only for their volume (which ranges from three to an industrial 18 quarts) but for their incredible versatility.
A rondeau is kind of like the wok of the Western kitchen. With it, you can use almost any cooking technique favored by the great chefs of France and the humbler (but equally opinionated) nonnas of Italy: searing, simmering, poaching, shallow-frying, pan-roasting, oven-braising, and more. This flexibility is due to the rondeau’s proportions, which allow for both dry and wet cooking methods.
I prefer the rondeau to the Dutch oven for braising. A rondeau is wider and slightly shallower than a Dutch oven, with which it is sometimes confused. The Dutch oven is narrower, with less surface area available for browning. So I end up using a skillet for browning meat, then transferring the meat to a Dutch oven for braising. This means more dirty dishes.
The rondeau’s wide, heavy base means you can fit more food into it in a single layer, and brown that food (instead of steaming or burning it) more evenly. And the rondeau’s sides are shallow enough to allow evaporation — essential for the browning step of a braise — but also high enough to contain braising liquid.
In a rondeau, for example, you can fit eight chicken thighs in a single layer. The skins on those thighs will crisp up and color richly, and caramelized bits of meat will remain on the bottom of the pan, to flavor the braising liquid to come.
The rondeau and its lid are oven-safe, so your braise can finish on the stove or in a low oven. Finally, you can take it to the table for serving.
Rondeaus also allow for two underrated but related cooking methods: pan-roasting and shallow-braising.
When you roast a piece of meat in a covered pan on the stovetop over medium-low heat, rather than in the oven, then you’re pan-roasting. A very small amount of liquid is added, to prevent burning and to create savory, concentrated juices to serve with the roast. Pan-roasting probably originated when cooks did not have ovens in their homes.
In shallow-braising, you use more liquid than in pan-roasting, but not as much as in regular braising; instead, the liquid only rises one-quarter to one-third of the way up the item being cooked. The result is more concentrations of flavors. The muscles in meat relax slowly over very low heat, and give up less of their meaty flavor to the surrounding liquid.
Poaching is easy in a rondeau, especially for elongated foods such as asparagus, sausages, and fish.
A rondeau is also excellent at cooking whole grains. Over low heat, for example, whole-grain farro and barley will become completely tender without bursting open. Start grains on the stove, bring them to a boil, then cover them and put them in a 325-degree oven for a gentle-yet-thorough cooking.
Slow cooking isn’t the only use of a rondeau; you can also use one for efficiently reducing and simmering sauces, such as tomato sauce. Due to its wide surface, a rondeau evaporates liquids quickly.
A rondeau is expensive, but it’s a single piece of do-everything cookware likely to last a lifetime. Most rondeaus are well-built, with a sandwich bottom consisting of an aluminum core encased in stainless steel. High-end pots feature a copper exterior. Enamel-coated, cast-iron rondeaus are also available.
Do you want luxury or utility? Fancy cookware stores sell gorgeous rondeaus for $200, $300, $400, and more. Try a restaurant-supply store for something more affordable; just don’t expect a shiny copper exterior.
Be sure not to buy a pot with a diameter so big that your burner can’t heat it. Look for a rondeau that doesn’t extend beyond your largest burner by more than two inches per side.
With even heat set at the right temperature, you and your rondeau can go on to tackle the entire Western culinary canon.
Kelly Myers is a chef and writer in Portland, Oregon. She is also the co-director of Market Chefs, an organization dedicated to inspiring and teaching consumers to cook local foods.