Potlucks don’t require tons of fancy equipment, but there are some tools that can make cooking for crowds easier. Here, a list of my kitchen faves:
Bowls with lids Sure, plastic wrap (or that re-useable beeswax-coated canvas plastic wrap alternative) works fine, but after buying a set of mixing bowls with lids, I’ve wondered how I’ve lived without them. I use a large one every time I go to a potluck. The smaller ones are perfect for sauces or storing leftovers. I have this colorful set of plastic bowls made by Oxo, but you can also find glass bowls with plastic lids.
Rimmed baking sheet A true workhorse, these are the pans pans I use almost daily for roasting vegetables, baking focaccia, and catching drips under fruit desserts. They’re also great landing spots for things like meatballs as you finish rolling them or sheets of pie dough that need to chill or just-boiled lobsters that are cooling. I mostly use these pans for prep and cooking, not serving, but for potlucks, I’ve been known to bring a slab pie right on the pan. The best part: These pans rarely cost more than $20, so while you’re buying one, you might as well pick up two. My favorite size are the half sheet pans.
Parchment paper This heatproof paper is great for lining your baking sheets and certain baking pans. It helps prevent sticking and makes clean-up a snap. Plus, parchment can help you lift out and neatly slice baked goods that would otherwise be served from the pan, like bar cookies.
9×13 pans In Modern Potluck, I devote a whole chapter to these multi-purpose pans, and I keep a small collection of them around for different purposes. For example, my aluminum one work best when baking bar cookies and large cakes because they tend to create the best bottom crusts. (Love this metal pan with a lid!) Glass pans, like Pyrex, are inexpensive and great for casseroles because they heat evenly and you can see the bottom and edges. Ceramic and enameled-cast-iron are the best-looking pans: They go from oven to table beautifully. Prices here can range widely, depending on the material and the maker. One of my favorites is the large baker from Emile Henry.
Enameled cast-iron Dutch ovens These are investment pieces, for sure, but after you cook in them, it’s hard to use anything else. The enamel coating is the perfect surface for getting a great crust on meat, and the heavy, nearly airtight nature of the closed pot really holds heat and moisture in. I have a small one (2 quart) for cooking beans and grains and a larger one (5 1/2 quart) for braises and stews. Both are made by Le Creuset.
Slow cooker Because I’m in love with my Dutch oven and all of the flavor it helps me build, I tend not to use a slow cooker for actual cooking. As a serving tool, however, you can’t beat a slow cooker. They can keep food hot that needs to be hot, with nothing more than a power outlet. Crock Pot’s Hook Up Systems are perfect for people who entertain large groups or potluck regularly.
Casserole carrier As a former New Yorker who had kitchens that ranged from dollhouse-sized to just plain small, I’ve always found single-use items, like a casserole carrier, a bit silly. But if you’re a regular potlucker and casserole-maker with room to store extra stuff, these insulated carriers are definitely handy. A friend recently tipped me off to this Cook’s Illustrated story about insulated food carriers. The winner: The Lasagna Lugger from Rachael Ray, which kept food hot for a whopping three hours.
Easily portable cooler Soft coolers with shoulder carry straps (like these aspirational ones) make it easy to bring cold dishes to potlucks, even when traveling on public transit.
And, of course:
Sharp chef’s knife If you like to cook, and you shop at the farmers’ market, a good quality chef’s knife or a Japanese-style santoku with at least a 6-inch blade is a worthy investment. And keep it sharp! It will save you incredible amounts of time during prep and bring you more joy as you cook. I don’t play favorites with brands—knives are often like the wands in Harry Potter. The right one will find you and it will just feel right. To buy one, head to any good quality kitchen store, including Williams Sonoma or Sur La Table. These shops also often offer sharpening services.
Large cutting board Little is more frustrating than trying to prep stew or salad for a crowd and chopping on a minuscule cutting board. Get one that’s at least 16 inches wide, and I promise, you will find more happiness in the kitchen. My current favorite board is this black walnut one, which doubles as a carving board.