The Essential Kitchen: Clay Pot Cooking
An Ancient Cooking Method With Modern Results
Is there room in your city kitchen for one more pan? Whether there is or not, I'm going to suggest that you make space for a clay baker.
The name is a bit misleading because while you can indeed bake bread in one of these pans, they are most popular for making one-pot meals and roasting. It's an ancient method of cooking which uses a two-part (top and bottom) unglazed clay pot that has first been soaked in water. When heated to a high temperature, steam is created, adding moisture to whatever is being cooked and retaining nutrients.
In clay pot cooking, poultry or meat is combined with a little liquid, vegetables, and seasonings to produce the tenderness of a braise with the finish of roasting. Most of the cooking is done with the cover in place, but when the food is nearly finished, the cover can come off to get a golden brown finish.
Bread baked in a clay pot produces a crispy crust with a tender, moist interior. Some clay bread bakers are similar to metal or glass loaf pans but others come with a cover.
Cooking Techniques and Handling the Pots
- Always soak the pot in cool water for 10 to 15 minutes before using it.
- Never put a clay pot in a preheated oven because it will crack from the shock of the heat.
- Bake at high temperatures (400º to 475º F) to let the moisture that's saturated the clay slowly turn into steam.
- Clay pot cooking does not require added fats. As with microwave cooking, use added fats only as a seasoning.
- Do not place a hot clay pot on a cold or cool surface as it will crack. So when taking a hot pot out of the oven, always place on a wood or heat resistant trivet or potholder.
- Clay pots should not be used on top of the stove.
- Add liquids sparingly -- as any food you're cooking will throw off liquids and you don't want the pot to overflow.
- Because it retains heat, a clay pot will continue to cook after you take it out of the oven. So either factor this into your cooking time or else remove the cover and the food soon after removing it from the oven.
What to Cook in Clay Pots
Because food is cooked at high temperatures and with steam, some types of dishes are particularly well suited to clay pot cooking.
- Vegetable ragouts and ratatouille
- Baked potatoes
- Whole chickens, Cornish hens, and ducks, along with vegetables
- Baked ziti or lasagna
- Stews and casseroles
- Baked cheese, such as feta, with olives and fresh oregano
- Bread puddings
- Fruit cobblers
- Whole grain breads
If you cook fish or any other strong-flavored ingredients, you may need to give your pot extra soaking afterwards because the flavors will be absorbed into the porous clay.
Our conventional recipe for Chicken With Forty Cloves of Garlic cooks perfectly in a clay pot with the following changes:
- Soak the clay pot in advance.
- Place the seasoned chicken which has been rubbed with butter into the pot, surround with the garlic cloves and pour over this the juice of 1/2 lemon.
- Cover and place in a cold oven, setting the temperature for 425º F and bake for 50 minutes.
- Raise the oven temperature to 450º F, remove the pot's cover, baste the chicken, and let it brown for 10 to 15 minutes.
- Check for doneness with an instant thermometer, as in our original recipe.
Tip: Since clay pot cooking doesn't require added fat, here the butter is included for flavor so if you're looking to reduce fat or calories, you can easily leave it out.
How to Clean a Clay Pot
Do not wash a clay pot with soap or detergent because the porous clay will absorb the soap. Instead wash with warm water, using a brush and baking soda to help remove any baked-on food.
While some say it's okay to put in a dishwasher, most machines' high temperatures and harsh detergents could damage a clay pot. If you don't use your clay pot often and any mold forms during long storage periods, just rinse with warm water and use a brush with baking soda to remove the mold. Again, no soap.
Over time and with frequent use, your clay pot will darken, retaining scorch marks and stains but developing an appealing patina. If you want to use your pots for both savory and sweet dishes and you have the storage space, you may want to invest in two pots so that any absorbed flavors won't affect the taste of your recipe.
Clay pots range in size from one small enough to roast a few heads of garlic to others with the capacity to hold a 15-pound turkey. Prices range from $15 to about $70 for the largest. For most city kitchens, a 1 1/2-quart covered baker will easily hold a 3 to 5 pound chicken, plus vegetables and costs about $35.
The primary manufacturer of clay pots is Romertopfs. Their web site is full of details about these unique cooking pots, plus recipes, including ways to use clay pots in making special holiday meals.
I bought my clay pot -- one just big enough to hold a three-pound chicken -- after tasting my friend Pat's Clay Pot Roasted Orange Ginger Chicken. Having a pot to make just one dish breaks all my rules but the flavor of this tender chicken, fragrant with orange, ginger and garlic that collects in a sauce that can make a companion spoonful of rice become a sense memory -- isn't that worth taking up a little shelf space?