Hot pot’s current heyday may have been ushered in by high-end chains with lavish service and endless sauce bars—pointing to its long-ago popularity with Chinese emperors—but to me, the practice of cooking meat and vegetables in simmering broth at the table is always best enjoyed in humbler settings, at home with the people you love (or even meditatively on your own).
The versions that people are familiar with in the US originated in China as huoguo (火锅 or “fire pot”) and also became popular in Japan as shabu shabu (しゃぶしゃぶ, which translates to “swish swish”). Both names signal a simple meal—a great excuse to slow everything down and linger at the table, gradually filling bellies with delicious food. As the country prepares to stare down some long winter nights during an already long year, this can be a great way for households to nourish themselves in all the ways they need.
While researching for this article, I interviewed several food professionals: Lillian Chou, chef, food stylist, and formerly Time Out Beijing’s food editor and restaurant critic; Jing Gao, Sichuanese food expert and founder of the Instagram-famous condiment brand Fly By Jing; and Harris Salat and Tadashi Ono, co-authors of the cookbook Japanese Hot Pots: Comforting One-Pot Meals. I also dug deep online, finding new recipe variations like this veganized Vietnamese lẩu and obsessively searching for rare, higher-quality yuanyang split pots (spoiler alert: still searching).
If you’ve never made hot pot at home before (or if you have but are looking to tweak your setup), we have the gear recommendations and tips you need to succeed. In general, we’re strongly in favor of using what you already have in your kitchen as much as possible. That said, there are certain tools that can make eating hot pot at home significantly easier and more enjoyable.
The most labor-intensive part of hot pot is the prep. Since the actual cooking happens at the table, that step is easy (or at least communal and fun). But variety is part of what makes hot pot so great, and it takes time and effort to wash, chop, slice, and display all the various ingredients. This is especially true because the way you prep each item will vary depending on how you want it to cook. Traditionally, you slice meat super thin so that it cooks almost instantaneously with a few swishes in the broth, and you slice root vegetables ⅛ inch to ¼ inch thick. Small, leafy greens (such as spinach or baby bok choy with the leaves separated) don’t need any slicing, while larger leaves (like napa cabbage) should be chopped roughly into thirds or quarters.
To get greens squeaky clean, I agitate them in a big basin-shaped bowl (like the large, lightweight mixing bowls we recommend) with a good amount of water, let the dirt and silt settle to the bottom, lift the greens out, and dump out the water and grit. Two or three rinses like this should prevent any sandy bites. You can also nestle a colander inside the bowl (or use a salad spinner with the basket insert in place) to lift the veggies out directly.
For chopping and slicing, most of the time a good chef’s knife and a large cutting board will suffice. A mandoline (with some cut-proof gloves) or the slicing attachment on a food processor can speed up the process and also make it easier to produce paper-thin slices of root veggies. A food processor may also come in handy if you’re mincing large amounts of garlic, ginger, scallions, or garlic chives for your dipping sauces. (Whether you make your own sauces or buy classic versions, aromatics like this can pack them with even more flavor, helping them fulfill their important role in the hot pot experience.)
If you can buy prepackaged thinly sliced meat from an Asian supermarket near you, that’s the way to go. It costs more per ounce, but it’ll save you a lot of time and effort. Look for meat labeled “hot pot,” “shabu shabu,” or even “bulgogi”—just make sure it’s not marinated. But if that isn’t an option, you can certainly try slicing your own, starting with easy cuts such as some decently marbled beef (I like using New York strip) or chicken breast. You may have seen the advice to freeze meat for a few hours to keep it stiff for slicing, but I prefer to freeze the meat completely and then pull it out and defrost it in the fridge for a couple of hours before taking a knife to it. (I find that a solid center with softening edges is easier to work with than a floppy center with firm but melting edges.) Tadashi Ono recommends using a knife with a nice, long blade (choose the longest non-serrated knife you’re comfortable using) and making sure your cutting board won’t shift or slide around (placing a damp paper towel or dish towel, or a small square of shelf liner, underneath your board can help). Slice your cut of meat at a 45-degree angle, using long strokes if possible (shorter strokes will make the slices bumpy and uneven). And be sure to set aside the slices you’ve made so that you can clearly see the next cut you’re trying to make.
As an alternative, Ono suggests taking thicker, fatty cuts of meat, such as pork belly or short rib, and simmering them in lightly salted water for about 60 to 90 minutes beforehand. The meat will be tender and seasoned, and you can then slice it into bite-size pieces and store it in your fridge. When it’s hot pot time, you’ll have chunks of meat that will warm and soften as you immerse them in the pot. (You can even use the salted water you simmered those cuts in as part of your broth base for the hot pot.)
Speaking of which, if you’re not buying ready-made broth bases, this is a good time to get one going on the stove (or in your Instant Pot). If you’re in the habit of keeping kitchen scraps and bones in your freezer, pull them out, submerge them in water in a large stock pot, and simmer away while you prep the other ingredients.
As you finish your slicing and chopping, you can lay out your ready-to-cook ingredients on the table using any combination of bowls, platters, and trays, or even sheet pans, pie plates, bakeware, and cutting boards. It’s a good idea to keep raw meat separate from vegetables or frozen items (dumplings, fish balls, or fried tofu squares, for example) so that you can pack up any uncooked food without fear of cross-contamination. We’ve used smaller bowls for things such as fish balls or enoki mushrooms alongside large platters (such as this understated oval platter from Jono Pandolfi, which we use in our test kitchen) for rows of sliced carrots, taro, daikon, sweet potatoes, and the like. If you want a good excuse to shop for new ceramicware, this straight-sided Hasami porcelain bowl from Tortoise General Store (one of Harris Salat’s favorite ceramic shops) would make a beautiful vessel for a bouquet of assorted fresh greens.
If your table space is limited, you might also consider pulling up a folding TV tray or a rolling cart (like our staff favorite, the IKEA Råskog cart) next to the table to repurpose it as an additional surface for some of your ingredients.
Your main setup requires just two things: a portable heat source for the table and a compatible cooking vessel deep enough to handle bubbling broth (but not so deep that you’re playing stand-up-sit-down for the entire meal).
Portable induction cooktops: Induction burners like our pick, the Duxtop 9100MC, have magnetic coils that generate heat in the pot itself, so cooking with them is fast and precise, and there’s no wasted energy the way there may be with a gas flame. This option also keeps your environs a little cooler—and your fingers a little safer—throughout your meal. Also, with induction you don’t have to keep butane cans on hand (or figure out how to recycle the empty ones).
We do have to note a few caveats with induction cooktops, though. Cooking with induction requires pots made of magnetic materials and with completely flat bottoms—cast-iron and many stainless steel pans are fine, whereas aluminum and ceramic ones are not. Many induction cooktops also make a slight, unpleasant humming noise when in contact with a pan: Wirecutter senior staff writer Lesley Stockton cautions, “If you’re sensitive to the high-pitched squeal of an induction burner, it might ruin your dinner.” You also need to make sure that the cord of your burner can reach an outlet from your dining table. If not, you may be wondering if it’s safe to use an extension cord. Wirecutter senior editor Mark Smirniotis (who wrote our guide to extension cords) suggests using a 12-gauge cord (this cord is another option) in the shortest length you can find to suit your needs. Staff writer Sarah Witman (who wrote our guide to surge protectors) says, “Never run it behind couches and curtains, or under rugs, as that can cause overheating. And to prevent sparks or fires, take care that the plug doesn’t get pulled partway out of the outlet.” Also make sure to position the cord so that people won’t trip getting up from or moving around the table—that’s arguably the worst way to end a hot pot meal.
Butane burners: These will work with any kind of flat-bottomed pot that is safe for the stove. They’re the best option for a traditional earthenware donabe pot (more on that below). Butane stoves are also completely portable, so you don’t have to worry about finding an outlet or someone tripping on a cord, and they make it easy to cook outdoors. Chef Tadashi Ono (co-author of the cookbook Japanese Hot Pots) recommends Iwatani portable stoves.
Having to keep butane canisters on hand is the biggest drawback to using this kind of burner. It’s a bummer to be midway through a shabu session only to have the fire go out on you, so we recommend having a backup or two around. You should store the canisters in conditions between 32 and 120 degrees Fahrenheit (we’d store them indoors, out of garages and kitchens) and keep them no longer than eight years. It may also take some work to dispose of them properly: My sanitation department says it’s fine to put empty canisters in the bin with my recycling, but you may want to check the rules in your area. Out of an abundance of caution, we think it’s a good idea to keep a fire extinguisher on hand, too.
I’ve been testing a few different pots in my own home, and I’ve found that 2½ to 5 inches deep, with a volume of roughly 3½ to 6 quarts, is a good sweet spot for serving two to six people on one burner. Much shallower than that, and you’ll struggle to submerge your raw food in the broth to cook thoroughly. Any deeper, and it’s hard for everyone to see and tend to what’s inside. You should also make sure your pot is compatible with the burner you’re using. Following are some options that we and our experts came up with.
- Dutch oven: This kitchen workhorse is a little on the deep side, but it will work if you don’t have a better option. Both of our enameled cast-iron Dutch oven picks—the 6-quart Lodge and the 5½-quart Le Creuset— are fine for hot pot, but Tramontina makes a tri-ply Dutch oven with similar dimensions that should work well if you’d prefer something lighter.
- Braiser: Salat and Ono like this wide, shallow shape. The Le Creuset braiser I have at home is about 2¼ inches deep, which I found a smidgen too shallow, but we managed just fine. Lodge’s version would work just as well, for much less money. This tri-ply stainless steel braiser from Tramontina (the company that makes our pick for the best cookware set) would likely work well, too.
- Wok: Jing Gao, founder of sauce company Fly By Jing, suggests that woks could make great vessels for hot pot, and we agree—as long as they’re flat-bottomed, not too big, and not designed with a stick handle (something like the 13-inch version of this wok). With a handle, I’d worry about all the hands criss-crossing the table and potentially knocking the whole thing over.
- Split pot: Most split pots (also known as yuanyang pots) are not great quality and are made of thin metal that may burn any food that settles at the bottom. But split pots are the only convenient option that allows you to accommodate different flavor preferences or dietary needs without using a separate burner and pot. We’ve been using this generic one over the past half a year without any issues. Editor Tim Barribeau found his at a Chinese restaurant supply store and noted that, along with extra plates of ingredients, it was a great way to share a socially distanced meal outdoors with friends.
- Bouillabaisse pot: Salat and Ono say this kind of pot has an ideal shape and note that the 7.5-quart Le Creuset is good for a larger group. If you want something smaller, Staub makes a 5-quart version.
- Donabe: Earthenware pots are beautiful, carry centuries of tradition, and absorb the flavors of what they cook (in a good way). In our interviews, Salat, Ono, Gao, and Chou all independently recommended donabe pots from Iga prefecture, like this beautiful one sold by Toiro Kitchen. Salat also told us that the tiny bubbles of air trapped in the clay of a donabe make it highly insulating: “Once you get to terminal heat, you could turn off the burner and the thing is still bubbling because you’ve created so much retained heat within that vessel.” (Cast iron behaves similarly.) The material’s porosity also means it requires more care. “You have to season your pot before it can take direct heat. Cook a rice porridge [in it], and that fills the little holes and makes it impermeable to water leaking,” says Salat.
Once your broth is bubbling away, you need some tools for cooking and retrieving your ingredients. As you start introducing your uncooked ingredients into the broth, you’ll notice a layer of foam developing. This is just starch and protein interacting with the boiling liquid, and a fine mesh skimmer is great for removing that foam throughout the meal. Chopsticks definitely come in handy, too—we recommend designating a pair for picking up raw meat or seafood from the platters and using a separate pair for collecting cooked food. (Tongs would serve a similar purpose, though they wouldn’t be quite as deft at separating super-thin slices of meat.) A small metal spider strainer is also great; you can place it in the broth and then cook a slice of meat or other morsel of food inside the strainer, without losing it to the depths of the pot. Ono recommends these ladles and strainers for similar purposes. (Their wooden handles are a plus, as anyone who has picked up a metal ladle left in a pot of boiling broth can tell you.)
Your broth will slowly diminish as food gets eaten and moisture evaporates. It’s a good idea to use an electric kettle to keep some hot water at the ready to top up your pot, but you could just use any old kettle, or even a pot of hot water (or broth) kept warm on the stove.
What about using an Instant Pot or other electric appliances?
If you have an Instant Pot or slow cooker and aren’t ready to commit to the other cooking options we mentioned above, you could try using one of these appliances, but it may get real frustrating real fast. The Instant Pot is a little too tall to be comfortable to use at the table, and neither appliance is especially responsive to heat adjustments. At some point, you’ll find yourself trying to cook meat in broth that won’t boil, and that’s not only un-tasty—it can also be unsafe.
An old-school electric skillet is a better choice, as the rectangular or square vessels usually have a pretty good depth and shape for hot pot, and the heat controls are a little more precise. If you take this route, reread our tips above for safe electrical usage.
We’re curious about trying a two-in-one hot pot appliance like this one from Aroma. It’s quite a large uni-tasking appliance to keep around, but if it works well, it could be an easy, affordable way to get everything you need in a hot pot setup without fussing with piecing things together. If this option interests you, let us know in the comments.
Set the table with chopsticks (forks and tongs work, too), soup spoons, plenty of napkins, personal bowls for each diner, lots of little sauce dishes to encourage experimentation, and glasses for drinks. (Do you have a wine, beer, baijiu, sake, or soju crowd?)
One thing I find helpful is what I like to call the all-important Communal Catch-All Bowl. What is the CCAB? Basically, it’s cooked-food purgatory. When the cooking gets going, often things can get a little … hectic. One person might forget about the slice of lotus root they put in six minutes ago, or someone else may have accidentally eaten two of the three slices of fish you added and do penance by seeing your two fish and raising it by a couple of slices of pork belly. Inevitably, someone will be standing with a spider strainer full of cooked food and no one to claim it. Rather than toss those items back into the pot to meet an almost certain textural death, you can place them in the CCAB, where people are free to help themselves to unclaimed goodies.
A bit of chaos is to be expected in communal cooking, but Ono notes that a leader may arise—“The Hot Pot Dictator,” he jokes—and that’s a good thing. (But since authoritarian regimes are no laughing matter, we’ll call them the Hot Pot Boss.) This person can loosely oversee the flow of cooking and maintain some structure:
- Fill your pot roughly halfway to two-thirds full of broth and then bring it to a boil. (If you’re using butane, do this part on your regular stove; save the canister for the real action.)
- Once you have a happy boil going, get your pot settled on your burner and crank it to medium-high or whatever keeps it bubbling but not raging. Load slower-cooking vegetables (carrot, daikon, lotus root, or even corn) into the pot, as well as ingredients such as mushrooms or fish balls, both of which lend umami to the broth and can handle lengthy cooking.
- Once those items have simmered a bit and the broth returns to a boil, you can start swishing some meat and adding other proteins like shrimp or slices of fish. Each time you add raw ingredients, let the liquid come back to a boil but then turn it down to a strong simmer; a constant mad boil tends to overcook your food and evaporate your broth too quickly.
- Alternate between proteins, leafy greens, and root vegetables, since they have different cook times and it’s easier to keep track of everything if you do each type of ingredient in waves. This process also ensures that you eat a variety of items throughout the meal rather than ending with entire dishes of things that you never got to. (But don’t worry if this rhythm breaks down and everyone just starts cooking and eating what they want. That’s part of the fun!)
- Add carbs last to prevent the starch from prematurely thickening the broth too much. Toss in rice, vermicelli, udon noodles, ramen, whatever you like.
- Finally: Drink the broth! You’ve worked hard all night layering flavor upon flavor upon flavor, so ladle some of that goodness into your bowl (with or without the dregs of your dipping sauce).
How to shop for ingredients
You can find plenty of great advice about what broth, sauces, and ingredients to buy on sites like Serious Eats or the food blog The Woks of Life. Although canned broth or even plain water could work as a base, it would be bland to start with. Pre-made bases, like these spicy favorites from Chinese hot pot restaurant chains Haidilao and Little Sheep, are a convenient alternative. If you want flavor without any spice, Haidilao also makes tomato, mushroom, and “clean” broth variations. Factor in the option to make your own broth base, and the possibilities are endless. In our interview, Lillian Chou rhapsodized about a congee hot pot she encountered in Hong Kong that turned the “carbs at the end” rule on its head (and would likely require a practiced hand at controlling the heat so it simmers but doesn’t burn): “It starts out very thin, and becomes more viscous as it cooks down. It’s just gently poaching the food, and then you have this wonderful, delicious congee at the end of it.”
You can make your own dipping sauces using condiments such as soy sauce, sesame oil, vinegar, miso paste, and the like paired with fresh herbs and aromatics. But here, too, you have time-honored favorites worth trying, such as the Taiwanese Bullhead shacha sauce (a briny, shrimpy paste often loosened up with a raw egg) or a Northern China–style sesame dipping sauce (a creamy-savory counterpoint to spicy broths). Balance is key. For example, according to Jing Gao, the tallow-based soup base for Sichuanese mala hot pot is so rich and deeply flavored that it’s often paired simply with minced garlic in a pool of sesame oil.
Proteins, vegetables, greens, and packaged ingredients (like fish balls, fried tofu, or mung bean noodles) are endlessly variable, too. Get what sounds good to you. Asian grocery chains like H Mart and 99 Ranch carry plenty of options. We’ve also had success ordering from the online Asian grocer Weee, though it currently delivers only in select regions (mostly on the West Coast and in the Northeast). Food Basket delivers to large portions of the Midwest and Northeast, as well as to Houston and Atlanta, but be warned: Its labyrinthine website and ordering process are not for the faint of heart.
Sometimes, you might end a hot pot meal with so many leftover ingredients that you just fire up the burner the next day and do it again. This is a great way to try different iterations and see what you enjoy most. And if you’re tiring of hot soup and you still have thinly sliced ingredients to use up, you can always try making Sichuanese hot pot’s dry cousin, mala xiangguo.
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