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Cooking in Clay Pots


A clay cooker is a single pot or vessel that can serve as a vegetable steamer, stew pot, soup kettle, fish poacher, brick oven and roaster.  Clay is a porous material which, when saturated with water and heated in the oven, provides slow evaporation of steam from the pores.  This creates a moist enclosed environment that results in increased flavor, very tender meats and healthier foods.  Clay pots require less fat, use less liquid, require little tending and can even brown meats.


Before we get into the kind of clay pot cooking I plan to address, let me give you a little history about clay pots.  Traditional clay cooking pots are used all over the world!  Moroccans use the tagine with its conical lid; the Spanish a lidless cazuela; in Provence, the shallow open dish called a tian is also the dish cooked in it.  Other vessels of earthenware or stoneware include chicken bricks, tandoor pots, potato or bean pots, garlic or onion takers, souffle' dishes, pie dishes, glazed ceramic casseroles and Chinese sand pots - all great ways to cook many kinds of food, but especially good for slow-cooked dishes.  Follow the manufacturer's advice on the correct cooking method for each vessel, but a general guide is that unglazed earthenware, such as terracotta, should be soaked in cold water for about 10-20 minutes before use, and should never be washed in detergent or in a dishwasher, which will taint the clay.  Chicken bricks and Romertopfs* are perhaps the best examples of such vessels.  Don't use them for very highly flavored dishes, such as curries or fish dishes, in case they absorb the flavors and taint other dishes.  Glazed earthenware such as the cazuela and the tagine should never be placed in or on the heat while empty, and all earthenware should be placed in a cold oven, then brought up to the correct heat gradually (in stages if it is a gas oven),


Some clay pots were traditionally used on top of the stove, but you should follow the manufacturer's instructions, and it would be wise to use a heat diffuser between the heat source and the pot.  Moroccan tagines, however, can also be used on a barbecue, though the coals should be covered with sand.


Stoneware is a stronger material, fired at 1264 degrees C, and usually glazed - much ceramic ovenware is of this kind and can be placed in a preheated oven without fear of damage, but always check the manufacturer's instructions.  Never put a hot pot on a cold surface nor a cold unglazed pot in a preheated oven.


An important point - all dishes containing liquid should be brought to the boil at a high heat first, then reduced to a simmer.  The time it takes to reach that high heat will vary between ovens, so it is impossible to give precise times.


Different Kinds of Pots


1.     Spanish earthenware cazuela - probably made of terracotta.  Looks like a round, flat bottomed casserole dish and is about 4 inches high.


2.     Unglazed earthenware terracotta chicken brick.  Looks like a round jug laying on it's side.  The lid is formed by cutting one third of the jug away.


3.     Moroccan terracotta tagine with terracotta barbecue base.  The round base is where you would put your briquettes and sand.  Then the flat, saucer shaped base sits on top of the base with about an inch space for air.  Then a cone shaped lid sits on top of the flat base.


4.     Chinese sand pot, glazed inside with wire reinforcing.  It is shaped like a ceramic skillet with a ceramic handle.  The sides are 4 or 5 inches high and a lid sets recessed inside the pot.


5.     Terracotta tandoor pot, used in the same way as a chicken brick.  It is bell shaped with the lid again cut about 1/4 of the way down.


6.     Unglazed terracotta Romertopfs, part of a huge range of earthenware cooking vessels.  It looks like a large roaster pan.


7.     Glazed ovenproof ceramic casserole.  This looks just like a regular white ovenproof casserole dish - round with an inset lid.


8.     Potato baker, stoneware, to be used with or without a lid.  Again, a tan ceramic looking pot with a dome shaped inset lid.


9.     Terracotta garlic baker. 


10. Stoneware garlic baker.  A dish shaped like a pie pan with a domed

      inset lid.


11. White ceramic ovenware, produced for many different purposes, such   

      as pie dishes, gratin dishes, soufflé dishes or tians.  The examples

      look like a tart pan and a boat-shaped gratin dish.


12. Terracotta onion baker, used with or without a lid.  A larger version of  

      the garlic baker.


13. The earthenware bean pot, which can also be used as a potato pot

      resembles a large teapot with a handle, & a flat inset lid.


Advantages of Using Clay Cookers



I have several clay pots.  I prefer the unglazed clay cookers and use mine often for the above reasons.  I will primarily concentrate my instructions, hints and tips to unglazed cookers.  Those I use most often are:



Other types of clay containers include a small cooker like mine which holds 2 to 5 pounds, and a medium cooker which will hold 4 to 6 pounds.  Large cookers hold up to 14 pounds and the very large will hold a 17-pound turkey.  There are covered casseroles, garlic roasters, vegetable roasters, oval bakers, rectangular bakers, rectangular bakers with handles and hot pots.  All of these can be used to serve the food after cooking.


In addition, there are storage containers.  These might include canisters, garlic cellars, mushroom cellars, bread crocks, utensil jars, spice jars, herb jars, wine coolers, onion keepers, cutlery drainers, honey jars, vegetable crocks, celery jars and preserves jars.  Serving pieces are also available such as teapots, tea mugs, assorted pitchers, coffee mugs, assorted bowls, butter coolers and tankards.


All of these items are available at your local kitchen store, department store, gift or specialty shop.  I believe I obtained some of mine from a local Kitchen Kaboodle.  My large one was a gift.


How to Use a Clay Cooker


There a certain rules you must adhere to if using the unglazed clay cookers.  Otherwise they can break or taste of soap.  These rules are as follows:



Clay Cookware Care and Cleaning


Caring for your clay cooker has a few rules too, but remember that you usually only use one pot so an extra rule or two shouldn’t be a problem.  It just takes some getting used to and after half a dozen uses, you will just take it all in stride.



I’m going to give you a few recipes that give you an idea of how to use your clay cooker and eventually adapt your own recipes or even some of those from the Cooking With Shirley e-cookbooks.


                            Clay Pot Beef Stew


Serving Size: 4    


  1 ½        pounds beef stew meat

     ½        cup all-purpose flour

     ½        teaspoon salt

     ¼        teaspoon ground black pepper

  1            tablespoon butter or margarine

  1            tablespoon vegetable oil

  2            large carrots -- peeled and sliced

  2            large russet potatoes -- peeled and cubed

     ½        medium onion -- chopped

  1            can beef broth

     ½        cup dry red wine

  2            cloves garlic -- minced

  1            whole bay leaf

     ½        teaspoon dried thyme

  1            tablespoon cornstarch -- mixed with 1/4 cup cold water

                salt and pepper -- to taste


1.  Soak top and bottom of a medium clay cooker in water for 15 minutes.  Cut stew meat into 1-inch cubes and dredge in flour seasoned with salt and pepper.  Heat oil and butter or margarine in a skillet and quickly brown meat on all sides.  Place meat in clay cooker.  Add carrots, onion, potatoes, beef broth, wine, garlic, bay leaf, thyme, salt and pepper; stir gently.  Cover and place in a cold oven, set temperature to 450 degrees and cook for 1 ¼ hours or until meat is very tender.

2.  Remove from oven.  If you desire a thicker sauce, pour liquid into a saucepan, mix cornstarch with 1/4 cup water and add to sauce, stirring over medium heat until thickened.  Pour mixture over meat and vegetables and stir.  Taste and adjust seasonings.


NOTES : Sometimes meat tends to absorb much of the liquid, so if you desire a saucier stew, simply add some more broth or a can of stewed tomatoes or even water to the saucepan before thickening with the cornstarch mixture.  You may need more cornstarch.



                        Sausage Soup with Legumes


Serving Size: 4    


  1 ½        cups dried lentils -- of choice or mixed

  3            cups beef stock

  1            large onion -- chopped

  3            cloves garlic -- minced

  2            large carrots -- diced

  2            stalks celery -- diced

  1            tablespoon light soy sauce

     ½         pound turkey kielbasa -- cut into bite-sized pieces

  1            tablespoon red wine vinegar

                salt and pepper -- to taste


1.  Soak top and bottom of a medium clay cooker in water for at least 15 minutes.  Combine lentils, beef stock, onion, garlic, carrots, celery, soy sauce in clay cooker.  Cover and place in a cold oven.  Set temperature to 375 degrees and cook for 2 ½ hours or until lentils are soft.

2.  Cut kielbasa into bite-sized pieces and add to cooker with vinegar, salt and pepper.  Cook for an additional 30 minutes.  Taste and adjust seasoning. 


                         Tuna Steak in a Clay Pot


Serving Size: 4    


  4        tablespoons olive oil

  2        whole onions -- sliced

  3        large garlic cloves -- crushed

  1        can cannellini beans

  1        large tuna steak

  4        tablespoons basil, fresh -- sliced

            sea salt to taste

            freshly ground black pepper to taste         


1. Heat half the oil in a pan, add the sliced onions and cook gently until softened and translucent.  Add the garlic, stir well and cook for about one minute or until golden.  Add the beans, stir well, add salt and pepper to taste and heat until sizzling.

2. Placed half the beans in a lidded glazed clay pot, place the tuna on top, then spoon in the remaining bean mixture.  Sprinkle with the remaining oil, cover with a lid and cook in a 400 degree oven for about 20 minutes or until fish flakes easily.

3. Remove the fish and bone and skin if necessary.  Chunk and put back into the pot.  Divide between 4 heated bowls and sprinkle with sprigs of basil.  Serve with crusty bread and Italian red wine.


NOTES : You can make a salad version of this dish by using canned tuna Albacore chunks, white beans, sliced green onions and fresh basil. Serve atop mixed greens.


                              Roasted Garlic


Serving Size: 6    


  2        whole garlic bulbs -- (not cloves)

  2        tablespoons olive oil

            salt and pepper -- to taste

     ½     teaspoon dried basil


1.  Soak top and bottom of garlic roaster in water for at least 15 minutes.  Remove some of the outer papery covering (but not all) from garlic bulbs.  Cut about 1/2-inch off top of whole bulbs so garlic is exposed and can be extracted easily.  Pour 1 tablespoon oil over each bulb.  Sprinkle with salt and pepper.  Sprinkle with dried basil or other herb of choice.

2.  Set bulbs cut side up in garlic cooker, cover and place in a cold oven.  Set temperature to 350 degrees and bake for at least 1 hour or until garlic is easily squeezed out of cloves.


NOTES: If a richer looking, browner bulb is desired, remove the lid at the end of the cooking time and brush more oil on the bulb and bake for an additional 15 minutes.


                             Chicken and Rice


Serving Size: 6 


  1        cup white rice -- uncooked

  2        cups chicken broth

  2        tablespoons butter or margarine

  2        cups diced celery

  2        tablespoons diced green bell pepper

     1/2 pound mushrooms -- quartered

  1        pound boneless chicken -- breast, poached

  1        can cream of mushroom soup

  1        can chicken and rice soup

     1/3 cup cashews -- chopped


1.  Soak top and bottom of a medium clay cooker in water for at least 15 minutes. 

2.  In a saucepan, cook rice in chicken broth until tender (about 15 minutes).

3.  In a skillet, melt butter and saute celery, green pepper and mushrooms until slightly browned.

4.  Cut chicken breast into bite-sized cubes and poach in a small amount of water, covered for about 3 to 4 minutes.

5.  Combine chicken, cooked rice, vegetables and soups. Spoon mixture into cooker, cover and place in a cold oven.  Set temperature to 400 degrees.  Bake for 45 minutes.  Sprinkle cashews on top of casserole and bake for an additional 15 minutes without lid so nuts roast. 

NOTE: Serve with a fruit salad and vegetable.


                     Spicy Corned Beef in a Clay Pot


Serving Size: 6    


  3       pounds corned beef brisket -- or silversides

  1       whole orange -- sliced with peel

  1       cup chopped celery

  1       large onion -- chopped

  3       cloves garlic -- minced

  1       teaspoon dill seed

  6       whole cloves

  2       whole bay leaves

     ½    teaspoon dried rosemary

  1       stick cinnamon

           water to cover corned beef


1.  Soak top and bottom of a medium clay cooker in water for at least 15 minutes.  Place all ingredients in cooker.  Cover and place in a cold oven and set temperature to 450 degrees.  Bake for 2 hours.

2.  Serve hot or chilled and sliced thin.  As an accompaniment mix horseradish cream with sour cream to taste.


NOTE: As an accompaniment to the corned beef, 45 minutes before it is done, add baby carrots, chunked red potatoes (peeled) and boiling onions, peeled.  Cabbage quarters are also good.  Or make a cole slaw of the raw cabbage and serve the entire meal with dark rye bread and butter.  Yum.


                           Clay Pot Apple Crisp


Serving Size:  6


  4        cups Granny Smith apples -- sliced

  2        tablespoons lemon juice

     1/3 cup whole wheat flour

  1        cup brown sugar -- packed

  1        teaspoon ground cinnamon

     ¼     teaspoon ground nutmeg

     ¼     cup cold butter

  1        cup rolled oats

            whipped cream or ice cream


1.  Soak top and bottom of a small clay cooker in water for at least 15 minutes.  Mix sliced apples with lemon juice and place in bottom of clay cooker. 

2.  In a separate bowl, mix flour, brown sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg and butter together until crumbly, using a pastry blender or your hands.  Stir in oats and sprinkle mixture over apples.

3.  Set cover on cooker and place in a cold oven.  Set temperature to 450 degrees and bake for 40 minutes.  Remove cover and bake for an additional 5 to 8 minutes or until top is crisp.  Serve warm with whipped cream or ice cream.  Sprinkle with chopped nuts.


2002 by Shirley Willard all right reserved.



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