By Darina Kopcok - Photo: Helena McMurdo
WHEN MY AUNT SERVED OUR DINNER in a flowerpot, I worried that she had finally lost her marbles. I had been travelling with my family for almost seventeen hours, and arrived in the Balkans exhausted and famished. The smell of simmering stew was wafting through my aunt’s home, and my stomach rumbled like a truck down the highway. When she finally came into the dining room and set the terracotta dish on the table, my mother and I looked at each other, startled.
I soon discovered that this pot was actually a piece of unglazed earthenware. Although clay pot cooking is ubiquitous throughout the Mediterranean and used in some shape or form in countries as diverse as China and Morocco, it is virtually unknown in North American kitchens. From the Spanish cazuela to the Indian tandoor and the palayok of the Philippines, these pots have been used for millennia for the superior results they provide.
Clay is a porous material that, when soaked in cold water and then heated, allows for slow evaporation of steam from its pores. The benefits of cooking with clay are numerous: food cooked in a lidded clay pot, especially slow-cooked dishes like stews and beans, is full of intense, rich flavour. When a clay pot is used repeatedly, the porous surface develops a seasoning “memory” that adds to a dish’s flavour.
It turns out that my aunt is a rather smart lady, as food cooked in clay is not only incredibly tasty, but also healthy. The process of cooking in clay is similar to that of steaming: little fat and liquid are required, and the food’s vital nutrients and vitamins are retained. Unlike steaming, however, food cooked in clay browns easily—even in an enclosed vessel. When set aside with the lid on, meals cooked in a clay pot retain their heat and moisture without becoming soggy.
Perhaps you’re familiar with the terracotta garlic bakers available at your local dollar store, but there are many more types of clay pots. There is the tagine, which is used for the popular Moroccan dish of the same name, chicken bricks, rice pots, even special bean pots that resemble teapots and produce deep, complex flavours that would convert all but the most ardent bean hater. Almost anything can be cooked in clay, from soups, fish, and seafood, to casseroles, vegetables, even breads and desserts like pies and cobblers. Because clay is a natural material, it is safe to use, raising none of the concerns of many other types of cookware.
Clay pots fall into two categories: glazed and unglazed. The former are often glazed only on the bottom and provide easy cleaning; however, unglazed pots soak up more liquid and produce more steam from their pores, thus tenderizing meats and assisting in overall browning.
The key to success in clay pot cooking lies in their use and how you care for them. Manufacturers’ instructions provide guidelines for each vessel, but generally, clay pots should be soaked in cold water for at least fifteen to thirty minutes before each use, always placed in the centre of a cold oven, and gradually brought to the desired temperature. They should never be used on the stove or under a broiler or removed from a hot oven and set on a cold surface. Direct heat or a drastic change in temperature can cause cracking or breaking.
Clay pot cooking requires a higher oven temperature, generally 100 degrees hotter, than other types of cookware and takes longer than traditional cooking methods, in part because the dish is inserted into a cold oven, but also because clay does not get as hot as other materials such as stainless steel or metal. Most dishes are cooked in temperatures between 400 to 475ºF.
To care for a clay pot, clean it with a paste of salt or baking soda and water; avoid abrasive cleansers and dishwashing liquids that will clog its delicate pores. To clean a vessel that has been used to cook food with strong flavours or odours, such as fish, soak the pot and lid in a solution of cold water and baking soda for several hours or overnight. Alternatively, the bottom of the pot can be lined with parchment paper to protect strong flavours from saturating the pores and prevent food from sticking. To store, invert the lid, and place it over the pot with a tea towel or a piece of felt in between for protection against breakage.
When properly cared for, the pot will provide a lifetime of use and an endless variety of delicious dishes. To read more about clay pot cooking, I recommend Mediterranean Clay Pot Cooking, by Paula Wolfert, an expert on Mediterranean cooking and professed clay pot junkie. In addition to 150 mouth-watering recipes, the author demystifies the art of clay pot cooking with many amusing anecdotes and additional ideas, such as grilling with a flowerpot!*
Clay pots are available at many cookware stores, including Ming Wo, the Cook Shop in City Square, Gourmet Warehouse, and Cobblestone Cottage. You can find tagines at Well Seasoned and Cooks ‘n Corks.
*Not all clay is suitable for cooking. If you’re in a creative mood and decide to see what can be done with a flowerpot, ensure that the pot is food-safe, unglazed, and 100 per cent terracotta.
Darina Kopčok is a freelance food and travel writer with a special interest in local and sustainable food—and clay cookware. She can be found at gratineeblog.com
Check out her recipe for Clay Pot Beef Bouguignon here: