Cooking in clay pots is a refreshingly original way to prepare food, and relatively simple. Cooks have used clay pots for centuries in a variety of cuisines, including South American, Asian and European cuisines. A small clay pot's capacity is 0.907 to 2.27 Kilogram, while larger pots can hold a whopping 7.71 Kilogram, and some can be even larger.
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There are as many versions of clay pots as there are recipes to cook in them. Among clay pots, there are glazed and unglazed, and the glazes often are coloured. Common types include the Spanish cazuela, Chinese sand pots, or the Indian tandoor. Clay pots are available through commercial retailers; however, finding and using handmade clay pots from their crafters all over the world, such as from Pomaire, Chile, provides an original dining experience.
Unglazed clay pots must be soaked in water for at least 15 minutes before use--you don't need to soak the glazed parts, or a fully glazed pot. Clay pots are vulnerable to cracking during rapid temperature changes; so, always bring your oven up to temperature with the pot inside, and use potholders or a towel when transferring the pot from the oven to a cooler surface.
Cooking time is generally 15 to 20 minutes longer in a clay pot than traditional baking methods because of the time it needs to reach the right oven temperature, and because the pot does not get as hot as metal. Because you soaked it first, pores in your unglazed clay pot release steam to cook the food, and the food then cooks in its own juices. Clay pots also brown meat, with the lid on or off. The combination of smokiness from the pot and this method of cooking produce a wonderful flavour.
Most dishes intended for traditional oven baking can be adapted for a clay pot. With the Spanish cazuela or a similar clay pot, chef Paula Wolfert recommends the "cazuela duck confit with a ragout of green lentils du puy." In Chile, a common dish is ''pastel de choclo," a corn and meat pie baked and served individually in a clay bowl.
Cooking in clay pots does not require added fat or oil, so the fat content of your meal is lower than with frying or sautéing. Foods cook with a minimum of liquid while maintaining tenderness and juiciness, and you achieve browning on meats and a smoky flavour. Plus, all the contents of a dish can be placed in the pot and cooked together at once, leaving you to entertain or enjoy free time until the meal is ready. Because of the limited liquids and closed environment, the food retains almost all of its nutrients, which is a boon over other methods, like boiling, where some nutrients are lost.
Take care to avoid cracks, maintain clear pores, and avoid staining unglazed clay pots with strong flavours. Avoid extreme or rapid temperature changes or your pot will crack. Use warm water and salt to clean the pot, or warm water with just a drop of dish soap. Do not put your clay pot in the dishwasher, or use scouring powders or other strong cleaners, as these methods will clog the pores of the clay. Unless you have a dedicated clay pot for curries and other intensely spiced food, avoid cooking such dishes in your pot--the flavour will likely transfer to other dishes you cook in it. If you do need to thoroughly clean it, let it soak in water and 1/4 cup baking soda, and scrub.
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