Today, we are going to learn about clay pots and curing one! (And I’ve also compiled a list of my dream pots and how I’d cure those.) As you may know, I’m extremely fond of clay pots and I recently got a new one from my favourite shop in Strasbourg. (I would highly recommend for you to read that post first!)
Clay pot cooking has a long and storied history, with many different traditions around the world. I find it fascinating that clay pot cooking is apparently so intuitive that it has been separately invented and practised in so many different cultures.
Interestingly, there seem to be as many ways to cure and season pots as there are to cook in them, featuring a multitude of ingredients ranging from spinach to buttermilk to mustard oil. Some curing rituals seem a little on the superstitious side, but there’s also plenty of “science” in there. The general purpose of curing and seasoning is three-fold: to strengthen the clay against thermal shock, help store moisture in the porous material, as well as helping to enhance the flavours.
Overall, why would you pick clay? Well, it retains heat but doesn’t transfer heat well, meaning that your delicious foods won’t burn. The inside is essentially cooked with steam as the lid seals tightly – you don’t lose any moisture and everything comes out tender and flavourful. The heat radiating from the sides also cooks the food in a different way and slower than in a cast iron pot.
Some pots have a shinier finish, meaning they have been burnished to reduce the porosity of the final product. They do not require to be soaked each time before use – just once when they are cured the first time. Some pots have a recognisable matte-finish and require soaked for about 15–45 minutes in water, every time, before use (such as the German Römertopf).
So, before I can start cooking with my new toy, it needs a little fixing up. As the pot I got is an Alsatian “Baeckehof”, it shall be seasoned as one.
Let’s get to it!
- Fill the pot with full fat milk. No exceptions – full fat! The whole point of curing is that the fat in the milk will go in the pores of the pot.
- Put the pot in a cold oven. Turn on the oven and let the milk reach its boiling point. It’s important that the pot & the milk heat up with the oven to avoid any abrupt changes in temperature.
- Take the pot out, but be careful where you put it: ceramic pots are sensitive to thermic shocks. You don’t want the pot to crack before you even get to use it! Let the pot rest and cool down for a few minutes.
- Take off the lid (carefully! if the milk has boiled a lot, the lid may be a bit stuck) and brush the milk around the lid and the parts that are not covered with milk. Now, I’ve never really found out how long you are supposed to do this. I usually do it for 5-10 minutes, depending on how quickly I get bored.
- Let the pot cool down quite a bit, so you can comfortably handle it. Throw out the milk and gently wash the pot with lukewarm water. Don’t use a brush or anything abrasive and don’t use soap: only your hands or a sponge will do.
- Dry with a soft tea towel, or let air dry.
- Your pot is ready to be used!
There is nothing like a roast or a stew – or anything, for that matter – made in a clay pot. I’m generally a fond roaster and most of my signature dishes are now made in clay pots.
What fascinates me about clay pot cooking is that it’s almost as old as cooking itself: ever since pottery making was invented in the Upper-Paleolithic period, humans have put foods in clay pots and placed them on hot coals or above fires.
Unfortunately, clay pots are big and heavy and my slightly nomadic life style combined with small studios, shared apartments and inexistent kitchens has prevented me from acquiring more of them. So far. If I had all the room in the world, here are a few examples from around the world that might secure some space in my kitchen:
1. La Chamba (Colombia)
La Chamba is a traditional Colombian pot, especially for cooking beans but also many other foods. To cure, in the traditional way, immerse your pot in water and soak it for 2 hours. Rub the pot with a clove of cut garlic and fill it 3/4 full with water. Place the pot in the oven and turn it on to 225 degrees. Bring the pot up to temperature and leave it in the oven for 2 to 3 hours. Turn the oven off and leave the pot in the oven until its cool. Your pot is now ready to use.
2. Römertopf (Germany)
Always begin with soaking the pot in cool water for 10 to 15 minutes. Bake at high temperatures (200+C) to turn all of that moisture into steam.
If you cook fish or any other strong-flavoured ingredients, you may need to give your pot an extra soaking afterwards because the flavours will be absorbed into unfinished, the porous clay. For a serious cleaning of the Romertopf, put the lid upside down in the bottom or the bottom upside down in the lid – depending on the size – and fill bottom and lid with water and a cup of white vinegar. Put them in the oven for about an hour at 180°F to clear out the pores. The water will turn brown and your Romertopf will be cleansed!
3. Tagine (Morocco)
How long have a longed and dreamt of owning my own tagine. It’s a pot and a delicious Moroccan stew, made especially delicious by the smooth and even distribution of tagine heat. Meats melt, sauces cling and coat, and vegetables remain shapely and nutritious. A few traditional combinations include chicken with preserved lemons and olives, meat with dried fruit, and mixed many vege variations.
4. Sand pot, shāguo, bàozai (China)
The most popular sand pot dishes in Cantonese cuisine revolve around rice: clay pots cook slowly and gently, allowing liquids to gradually evaporate and infuse into the rice. Those delicious juices have nowhere to escape. The pots are made with a clay with a high sand content and have a slightly rough exterior and a hard glazed interior. The pot exterior is almost always the natural unglazed off white colour with a blackish or brown glazed interior. Sometimes, there’s one long handle and sometimes two short.
To cure, traditionally, you would soak the whole pot and lid in water overnight, then leave to air dry. Next, it up with water and boil for half hour on medium heat. Cool, empty, dry.
5. Donabe (Japan)
Donabe can be used to cook a variety of hot pot dishes on the dining room tabletop with family and/or friends. It’s equally useful for stewing or braising. Because Iga clay has a higher heat-resistance, you can even cook with it over gas range or in the oven. Yes, you can’t do that with most earthenware or stoneware – thanks, 4-million-year-old clay layers which used to be the bottom of Lake Biwa! They’re special pots and they, of course, have their own special curing technique.
Pour water to about 2/3 of the donabe, and add some cooked rice. Not too much, not too little – perhaps 1/3 of the water. Stir the water and rice thoroughly. Cover the pot and bring to a simmer on the stove (approximately after 20-30 minutes for a medium-size donabe), uncover and keep the heat low (the mixture should never boil). Continue to cook until the mixture becomes a paste. Stir occasionally to make sure the bottom doesn’t stick. Turn off the heat and let it cool. Remove the rice mixture from the donabe, rinse and leave to dry completely.