When I was little, I remember my Nonna telling me that clay “remembers” all the delicious dishes that are cooked in it, so the older and the more “used’ the pot is, the tastier the result. I would have laughed this off as an old wives’ tale - but my mom, who is a pharmaceutical chemist, confirms that it’s all true, thanks to the porous nature of clay. This means, she adds, that (no matter how gorgeous my authentic Tuscan cookware is, and how many cooking classes I teach) my stew is never going to taste as good as it would have in our family heirloom (one's I threw away as a rebellious teen).
People have been cooking in clay utensils since the beginnings of time. From Morocco to Italy, from Mexico to Japan, terracotta is favored for slow cooked preparations, from minestrone to stew, from legumes to meat sauces. Unlike metals, earthenware heats up extremely slowly, and releases the heat to its contents just as slowly! So much so, that the food keeps cooking for a while once the heat is turned off.
5 Earthenware Tips
- Moist heat can have its drawbacks too: once when I opened the lid to check my Japanese hot pot recipe, I ended up with a third degree burn from the steam. I have since invested in a pair of asbestos gloves for safe handling of my pot.
- Before the first use, most manufacturers recommend that clay pots be soaked in water for several hours to be tempered and made heat-resistant. Some even rub the surface with garlic as a kind of “toner” to close the pores. Note that natural pots (unglazed) also need to be “seasoned.” There are different ways to do this (rice, pareve milk, etc.) and you can simply follow the manufacturer’s instructions.
- Because clay is porous and absorbent, you should never use commercial detergents to clean it! Hot water and a good scrub, plus some vinegar and/or baking soda are all you need.
- “Natural” clay pots can only be used in the oven. However, glazed ones can withstand more direct heat and can be used on the stovetop; but always on lower settings, and with the help of a heat diffuser (available for about $5 at most cooking supply stores).
- As far as glazed clay is concerned, while some countries such as the U.S., France and Italy are known for their high quality-control standards, other places produce gorgeous pots but still use lead in the coloring. Lead is highly toxic, so make sure to do your homework before you buy!
You can find Italian Terra Cotta pots like the one pictured here on Amazon.
This article is part of a series on "pots & pans" published in Joy Of Kosher Magazine. Some other pots & pans included are crock pots & pressure cookers, for more information and recipes Subscribe Today