The Joy of Clay Pot Cooking

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A small sampling from the global clay pot tradition, including examples from Turkey, Italy, Vietnam, England, and Thailand.
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“Cooking with Fire” by Paula Marcoux combines personal experience, historical context and literary references to illustrate the possibilities of cooking outside the pan. From roasting on a spit to baking in a Tannur, these rediscovered techniques and recipes aim to capture the flavors of wood-fired cooking.

Clay pots have been gently settled in hearths for many generations, containing countless, varied recipes from diverse cultures. When it comes to food, technological advances don’t always yield better flavor, and there are many recipes to enjoy from methods including clay pot cooking. In Cooking with Fire, Paula Marcoux (Storey Publishing, 2014) shares the rich history and cultural context of open-fire cooking, with tips and best practices along the way. The following excerpt is from Chapter 3, “Pots and Pans.”

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The Clay Pot

Even during the Neolithic Period, when widespread ceramic technology was new and developing, potters were already working out how to compose and fashion clay vessels in the service of cooking in some very sophisticated ways. Neolithic potters at Tell Sabi Abyad in Northern Syria, for example, used several strategies to increase the usefulness and lifespan of their wares. They selected clay types that were especially suited to the rigors of the hearth; isotope analysis shows that the clay for their best cooking pots was imported from a region over a hundred miles away. They tempered the clay with minerals or crushed pottery, now a time honored method for conferring resistance to heat-shock on cooking pots; then, cutting-edge technology. In building the pots, they strove for even wall thickness and smoothly arced forms, both helpful in creating resistance to thermal shock; they added lug handles to give the cook something to grab. The artisans enhanced the naturally low porosity of their special clay by burnishing, intentionally smoothing the surfaces of the cooking pots before firing them, improving their cooking and storage qualities. In short, to a startling degree, some of the earliest known cooking pots were highly functional, and often beautiful, implements.

Today, potters are still making great cooking pots all over the globe, even though cooks now have many other choices. I have acquired pots of all sorts on my travels and, although I’m fiercely protective of those from the remotest locations, I do use every one of them, whether in a hearth or in a wood-fired oven. And even here in the States, I never enter an ethnic market without inspecting the housewares aisle for a hidden pottery gem. Southeast Asian grocery stores are especially fruitful in this regard.

Clay Pots and Safety

Most of the pots I have collected over the years have proved extraordinarily durable. I used to expect them to break at any moment, but have found that with a few ordinary precautions, they can provide many years, even decades, of tasty and beautiful service.

When you get a new pot, wash it in hot soapy water, rinse it well, and fill it with hot water. Put it on a very low flame and bring it to a simmer slowly. Then let it cool down slowly. Leery of thermal shock, I tend to use certain clay pots only for simmering and baking. I’m very careful not to add cold liquid to a hot pot, and I always set a hot pot down on a forgiving surface like a folded up towel. But some pots are more bulletproof than others. Asian “sand pots,” particularly those cased in wire, have considerable antishock qualities. Since they are inexpensive and easily available to me, I have been a bit cavalier, and have subjected them to some pretty rigorous treatment. I reach for a sand pot when a recipe starts out with sautéing, which is a particularly challenging technique for the vessel since one section of the pot, the base, is subjected to much higher temperatures than the rest.

So far I’ve talked about the safety of the cookpot — what about the safety of those eating from it? Most of the pots I have accumulated over the years come with no guarantee as to their composition, so one wonders a bit about the dangers of lead contamination in the food. First, many of my more interesting pots are unglazed, so are unlikely to be a problem. I do have a few with particularly beautiful lustrous glazes, some from Mexico, and some made by a friend down the road. While I’m pretty sure that the Mexican pots have lead in the glaze, I’m utterly certain that my friend’s do, since he told me so. He feels that lead, skillfully handled, shouldn’t be accessible to contaminate the food. I take no position on the matter except to say that I do not serve salads or any other acidic foods in those nice shiny pots.

Using a Clay Pot in the Hearth

This is one of the simple joys of hearth cooking. Have a moderate hardwood fire underway; you’ll need the supply of coals and ashes it provides. Use a fire shovel to rob a nice mix of the two and deposit it a few feet from the main fire. Select a spot that is easy to tend, yet is unlikely to get in the way. (I know more than one person who broke an earthen pot by upsetting an andiron onto it.) Nestle the pot, full of the food to be cooked, down into the coal bed.

If you are nervous about your clay pot’s durability, or if you are heating it for the very first time, make a thermal cushion by laying a second shovelful of ash over the first little pile of mixed ashes and coals. When the heating capacity of that coal bed begins to slacken, merely pick up the pot with a potholder or rag and set it aside — in a warm place! — while you steal more coals from the fire to fortify your little cooking hearth.

What’s So Special about a Clay Pot?

If the food I intend to cook is small enough to fit in a clay pot, I will most always choose clay, which transfers heat slowly and can be maintained on a coal bed at a very gentle heat, poaching more than boiling the food. The difference may be appreciated by thinking about cooking a chicken covered with a gallon of seasoned water in an iron pot hung over a fire, versus tucking that same chicken in a snugly fitting clay pot with a glass of wine and some salt, pasting the pot lid on with a flour and water slurry, and setting it down in the coals and ashes. Each result is excellent in its own way; it all depends on whether you are looking to make chicken in an excellent broth or an elixir of chicken. Some seventeenth-century cooks intensified this effect with a technique called “smoring”: sealing the seasoned chicken or rabbit or duck into a small clay pot and immersing that in a kettle of simmering water. (A bit reminiscent of the recent sous vide craze . . .) In a rather extreme case of pot-abuse, an Anatolian lamb dish is made by seasoning small kebab-sized bits of meat with onions, herbs, spices, and tomatoes; forcing the mixture into a tall vaselike pot with a narrow neck; stopping up the top; and burying it in coals and ashes to cook slowly for several hours. Serving is accomplished by means of a skillful sharp rap with a hammer, bisecting the pot neatly with a single blow. This is single-service disposable cookware, convenient as long as you have a production potter at hand.

One of the real advantages of clay is obvious to those of us who do not smash our pots after one cooking, but use them over and over. Earthenware vessels absorb some mojo from each delicious food that has gone before, as fat carries each dish’s essence deep into the clay. You would think that there would be a limit to the benefits from this tendency, that the cookware would develop sour, off, or rancid aromas. But I clean the pots promptly after use and do not store foods in them; perhaps these practices account for my lack of trouble on this score. Somehow, the effect of the je ne sais quoi imparted by the pots seems altogether positive, merely adding depth and nuance to dishes. (This characteristic of clay vessels also helps archaeologists learn what people cooked in those pots. The residual lipid profile in a cookpot shard reveals all.) Another culinary advantage of clay over most metals is its nonreactive nature. For our simple boiled chicken example that may not matter, but if you want to make an intense little sauce for your chicken using, say, tart fruit like grapes, or maybe the juice of a lemon, or even a glass of wine, and then you thicken that sauce with an egg yolk, a small clay pot is far and away the superior choice. Acids and compounds, when exposed to reactive metals, can unleash some powerful funky aromas and flavors (wet golden retriever, anyone?) and unusual colors (George Carlin was wrong — there are blue foods). That same theoretical sauce also illustrates another wonderful benefit of cooking in clay. Whereas a metal pot transfers heat quickly to the foods within it, clay diffuses it. Thickening a sauce with egg yolks or making a crème anglaise in even a nonreactive metal pot will always be more fraught with the risk of curdling than cooking the same food in a friendly, gentle clay pot. Any of the clay pot cooking done in the wood-fired oven in chapter 5 may be done in a gentle coal bed in your hearth.

More from Cooking With Fire:

Roasting in Ashes and Coals: Tips for Open-Fire Cooking
Buttered Gooseberry Recipe

Reprinted with permission from Cooking With Fire: From Roasting on a Spit to Baking in a Tannur, Rediscovered Techniques and Recipes That Capture the Flavors of Wood-Fired Cooking by Paula Marcoux and published by Storey Publishing, 2014. Buy this book from our store:Cooking With Fire.