Low and Slow
Modern technology brings the ancient art of claypot cookery up to date.
By Lisa James
In Morocco it’s called a tajine, with a conical top. In southern India it’s known as a chatti, perfectly round. In Germany it is referred to as a Römertopf, featuring a decorated cover.
No matter what they are called, claypots for kitchen use represent an early form of cookery employed by cultures around the world. Today, traditional crockery has been joined by self-contained cookers that make this venerable culinary technique available to modern home cooks.
From the Ground to the Kitchen
People started turning clay into pottery about 16,000 years ago. Eventually, ancient cooks discovered that putting food into clay pots allowed for low, slow cooking; over time, pottery manufacturers created wares designed specifically for this purpose.
Cooking pots fall into two basic categories. Unglazed earthenware is relatively soft and porous. Such pottery takes on the flavors of the food within it. In time potters learned to work denser types of clay; this eventually became known as stoneware.
Both types can be covered with glaze to give them a hard, shiny surface with less of a propensity to absorb flavors. Unlike fully glazed ware, unglazed pots need to be soaked in cold water for about 10 to 20 minutes before each use and seasoned before first use.
In addition to being a no-fuss way of cooking, claypot cuisine offers other advantages. Little cleanup is needed, since the food is in one pot and the oven stays clean. Leaving the lid on allows food to be kept warm. And the enclosed space within the pot means that the food, including tougher cuts of meat, becomes extremely tender and retains more nutrients.
The Claypot, Updated
Today the humble claypot has enjoyed a revival, with the pots themselves and suitable cookbooks readily available. But what has really helped claypot cooking take off has been the development of the self-contained cooker, which eliminates the concern about leaving a lit oven unattended for hours while everyone in the household goes their separate ways.
Some units use glazed vessels. However, this may represent a potential hazard from contaminants such as lead, a potent neurotoxin, leaching into the contents. The long cooking time accentuates this risk, as does the use of acidic ingredients such as tomatoes, vinegar or citrus.
When purchasing a slow cooker with an unglazed insert, look for a pot made with high-quality clay. For example, Zisha clay from Yixing in southern China, famous because of the teapots fashioned from it, is known for its smooth feel and finish. A process known as “water-glazing,” in which the raw pot is treated with plain water at very high temperatures, provides some non-stick properties without the potential hazards associated with regular glazing. (Third-party testing provides an additional layer of protection against contamination by heavy metals, chemicals and other harmful impurities.)
As for the cooking element itself, certain features are helpful. All slow cookers allow you to enter cooking times, and many also let you delay the time the cooker starts and supply a warming function. In addition, some models provide several distinct modes such as braising, stewing and making soup or yogurt; some even have a special rice setting.
No matter which type of claypot cooker you choose, whether a modern self-contained model or a traditional clay vessel, certain precautions apply. Do not expose claypots to sudden temperature changes, which can lead to cracking. Damage can also result from frequent dry heating; do not preheat or add cold or frozen foods (or cold water) to a hot pot.
Cleaning your claypot cooker properly will help it last longer. Wait until the pot cools, then wash it in warm water (some manufacturers recommend using small amounts of dish liquid before rinsing thoroughly). A soft cloth or pad in the sink can help protect the pot. For hard-to-remove spots, use a nylon scrub pad instead of an abrasive cleanser or steel wool. For heavier residue, or to remove strong odors such as fish or very aromatic seasonings, soak overnight with water and a quarter-cup of baking soda. Air-dry thoroughly before storing with the lid inverted in the bottom, preferably with a clean, dry towel between them.
Is your dream to have dinner ready when you walk through the door at night? A self-contained claypot cooker can let you enjoy a tender, tasty meal without the fuss.
Slow Cooker Creole Shrimp Soup
“This light and delicious dish is low in calories, nutrient-dense and very filling,” says culinary instructor Suzanne Vandyck. “It’s most definitely mealworthy.”
1 large sweet onion, chopped
1 red bell pepper, chopped
1 green bell pepper, chopped
1/2 jalapeño, seeded and minced
2 celery ribs, chopped
32 oz tomato juice
1/2 cup clam juice
2 tbsp Worcestershire sauce
1 tsp paprika, plus extra for garnish
1 tsp dried oregano
1/2 tsp black pepper
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp cayenne pepper
1 bay leaf
1 1/2 lb medium shrimp, peeled and deveined
1/2 cup chopped parsley, for garnish
Slices of lemon, for garnish
1. Combine onion, peppers, celery, juices, Worcestershire, paprika, oregano, pepper, salt, cayenne and bay leaf in a claypot slow cooker. Mix well.
2. Cover and cook on the Soup setting for 1 1/2 hours, until the vegetables are soft.
3. Add the shrimp and cook for an additional 15 to 20 minutes or until the shrimp are fully cooked but still tender.
4. Stir in the chopped parsley just before serving and garnish each bowl with
a sprinkle of paprika and a lemon slice. Serve with a piece of crusty bread.
Reprinted with permission from VitaClay (vitaclaychef.com)