The term "ceramic cookware" refers to a vast array of cooking vessels. Most likely the first that come to mind are casseroles, soufflé cups and enamelled Dutch ovens. But the category also includes ceramic skillets, pots, saucepans and tagines. Whether glazed or unglazed, fully ceramic or merely enamelled, understanding the basic principles of ceramic cookware will make for safe cooking experiences and delicious outcomes.
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Glazed Ceramic Cookware
Glazed ceramic cookware is made entirely from ceramic material and is coated with a nonporous glossy glaze. This smooth coating is not harmed by water, so soaking the cookware is a fine way to remove stuck-on food. You can also use a nonmetal scouring pad to remove really stubborn stains.
Enamelled cookware typically has a cast-iron core and a colourful ceramic coating (such as the Le Creuset® line). Because it is primarily made of heavy metal, an enamelled cookware item retains and distributes heat very well. Like glazed cookware, soaking enamelled pots is a good way to loosen food particles and mild nonmetal abrasives are safe for removing especially stubborn bits.
Clay cookware is generally unglazed and is used in cuisines across the world. Unglazed clay, such as terracotta, is great for steaming because its porous surface absorbs water, which slowly evaporates into the vessel during cooking. This type of cookware requires different care than glazed ware. CookingWithShirley.com advises that clay cookware be soaked in water for 10 to 20 minutes before use. It should never be washed in the dishwasher or with a harsh detergent because these can taint the clay and clog its pores. After cooking foods with strong flavours, soak the pot overnight with a water and baking soda solution. Then scrub with a nonmetal brush or scouring pad. Store clay cookware with the lid off to avoid mould growth.
There is some concern about the safety of ceramic cookware, particularly that it may contain harmful heavy metals. According to the Clemson University Extension, in the 1970s traces of cadmium were found in the enamel of imported slow cookers and metals such as lead are found in some ceramic glazes. However, these materials are rarely used today and ceramics produced in the United States must meet food safety regulations. It is not advisable to cook with ceramic cookware from other countries, especially less developed nations, because comparable standards may not apply.
When ceramics experience rapid changes in temperature, they are susceptible to thermal shock cracking. This is more of an issue in older cookware. Nowadays, boron or a soda-lime formula are used in ceramic production to control the uneven expansion of molecules that causes such cracks. Also, glazed cookware is generally fine going from cold to hot but is liable to crack when there is a drastic shift from hot to cold. Unglazed clay cookware, on the other hand, does not handle temperature extremes as well. CookingWithShirley.com recommends putting clay cookware in a cold oven and gradually raising the temperature.
Because ceramics are not all created uniformly, the best way to ensure your safety is to follow the manufacturer's instructions. For instance, if the manufacturer advises against putting cold soufflé cups directly in a preheated oven, this is likely because the material is not meant to withstand thermal shocks. Or if your clay dish has a "for display use only" label, the clay or glaze probably contains inedible substances. Use common sense and caution.
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