There are many mysteries surrounding the art of cooking in clay. Some say they lend unbelievable sweetness to dishes. Others believe they cook healthier and more flavourful meals surpassing steel or ceramic in cooking food evenly. Have you ever cooked on one? This time, you might.
The Old Way of Cooking
In ancient times, cooking was done in ceramic pottery, mostly clay pots or earthenware (stoneware and porcelain). These were the quintessential cookware that helped shape an array of cuisines spanning time and geography.
In fact, if you visit some countries in South Asia, Africa, and Europe, you’ll still probably find shops selling different kinds of clay pots. Donabe is used for hotpot dishes in Japan, tagine with its cone-shaped lid and shallow pan in Morocco, and flat and wide cazuelas in Spain.
Today, there seems to be a new interest with the old way of cooking. Earthenware is now being produced in lead-free versions, and many are keen to make a collection.
Let’s take a look at this list of clay pots and learn why they are slowly making a comeback.
The standard Spanish cazuela is a wide and shallow casserole with straight sides and a slightly curved bottom. It is made from low-fired clay which is naturally porous and brittle when new. As a result, they are traditionally glazed on the inside so liquids won’t escape through the walls. Cazuelas can last for years if treated well.
In Spain, cazuelas are not only popular souvenirs but also commonly used to serve tapas, sofritos, stews, and even paella (rice dishes). Like any other earthenware, they hold a slow, steady heat, allowing food to cook gently and evenly. They retain heat longer so food can continue cooking on the table or be served warm for longer. And with their natural terracotta colour, they look stunning on the table.
Many consider cazuelas as utilitarian cooking vessels. That’s why they come in variations too. Here are some of them:
- Cocottes – It’s not often that you would find a cazuela with a lid. But if you do, they guarantee better cooking. Cocottes are one of those cazuelas that are deeper, have small looped side handles, and instantly come with matching lids. The lid helps trap every vital nutrients in your ingredients so you can cook and serve more nutritious dishes.
- Ollas – Ollas, on the other hand, are bean pots large enough to serve at least 20 people. They are shaped with a short wide neck and wider belly. But aside from cookery, ollas are also used for storing water or dry food, even for gardening too. Simply fill up an unglazed olla with water, bury in the ground, and plant a seed atop. Because an unglazed olla is porous, water would seep through the walls and naturally irrigate the plant.
Tagine is a cone-shaped cooking vessel that originated in the Middle East and North Africa and widely used in Morocco. It is used for slow cooking savoury stews typically made with sliced meat, poultry, or fish along with vegetables and spices. A Moroccan tagine has a round, shallow pan with a conical lid designed to help return the steam back to the food.
While tagines are either made of ceramic or unglazed clay, some prefer the latter as it adds rustic, earthy flavour and aroma to any dish. But if you’re more into aesthetic, ceramic and glazed tagines come in pretty colours and festive patterns perfect for entertaining.
Donabe is an earthenware pot made from a special clay that is more porous than a cazuela and tagine. They are multipurpose and works for soups, stews, or hot pots. Every Japanese household has at least one donabe ready in the kitchen. It’s essential for group meals since a portable burner turns it into an instant one-pot cooker.
How to Season, Clean, and Care
Most cazuelas today are lead-free and can be used on the stovetop, in the oven, and over fire. Some can go in the microwave, freezer, and even the dishwasher (though it’s not recommended.) For first-time users, here’s some expert tips on how to season, clean and care for your earthenware:
- New clay pots taste earthy and are brittle. Soak them in water overnight but dry well before use as moisture can cause the pot to expand and lead to cracking.
- Frequent use is the best method for seasoning. If left unused for a long time, you would need to season it like the first time (refer to the process above).
- Clay pots are not thermal shock resistant. To prevent unwanted chipping or cracking, never place a hot pot on a cold surface or vice versa.
- When cooking, let them sit above the heat source and not directly on it. Always start with low heat and gradually increase the temperature. For ovens, make sure it’s cold and not preheated. It’s also best to use a heat diffuser when cooking on electric or ceramic cooktops.
- Wash them with warm water and a gentle brush. For unglazed pots, avoid using soap or any detergent. You wouldn’t want it to leach into your next dish.