Clay Pot Cooking
Cooking in clay cazuelas is a practice that has been around for generations, walk into any Spanish kitchen be it in the home, the tapas bar or the Spanish restaurant and you will see a selection of terracotta cazuelas. The Spanish cazuela is essentially a clay dish which, when soaked in water can be used in the same way as some of the most expensive pans and cookware on the market today. Clay, as a natural, economic and eco friendly product is up there with the very finest cookware, why? It is all down to simplicity…
Clay pots, including the Spanish cazuela are porous, there are two distinct advantages to a porous cooking vessel and that is that initially they can be soaked in water ready for cooking which only needs to be done once and also that they retain heat incredibly well which results in tender meats. Cooking in Spanish clay need not be complicated, there are many varieties of clay cooking equipment available from small mini cazuelas to large five litre cooking pots or ‘Ollas’, all of which can be used over the stove, the barbeque grill and in most cases the open fire.
As the cooks friend clay pots can be seasoned, scour the internet and you will find all manner of techniques but by far the best way to discover the most reliable information on this particular angle of clay pot cooking is to ask the manufacturer direct and also get the opinions of a few restaurant owners who use this type of cookware on a regular basis. There are of course our own terracotta cazuelas stacked up in the kitchen and used weekly but for the purposes of this article we will remain with the information offered by both manufacturers and local restaurants.
No matter which type of clay pot, cooking tray, casserole or pan you decide to purchase there is one fundamental rule and that is soaking. Manufacturers recommend soaking for as long as possible, a few hours will do for smaller items but when it comes to larger pieces especially thick, heavyweight pots then overnight is advised. It may be tempting to use your clay cookware as soon as you receive it but for longevity and performance your clay needs to absorb water before it is introduced to heat. There is a misconception that clay cookware needs be soaked to soaked in water before every use which is not the case, a process called ‘seasoning’ takes place every time the clay is used which ultimately means the more the piece and more frequently it is cooked in the seasoned and therefore tougher it will become. Soaking your clay cookware only needs to be done once – the longer the better, for large pieces 24 hours is a safe guideline.
Almost anything can be cooked in clay, remembering that this article has the Spanish perspective in mind which involves a lot of rustic and traditional cooking it is safe to say that the humble clay pot could be described as multi-purpose. Take an ‘Olla’ for example, a lovely clay cooking pot which is quite thick, complete with lid – these clay pots will cook everything from hearty beef or lamb stews to soups and can also be used to keep food warm such as rice, couscous and even baked potatoes such is the insulating qualities of the terracotta.
Clay pots are also at home on the gas hob, on the barbeque, grill and even in the microwave. In general your terracotta piece is tough and can even be frozen (oval terracotta trays being particularly good for steak and ale, fish and shepherds pies!). There is something about cooking a stew or a casserole in clay, stirring your recipe in a clay pot especially outdoors is a satisfying experience knowing that the end result will be a warming a well cooked tender dish. Historically, clay pots were used to cook meats throughout the Meditteranean, sometimes to carry water and often for storage, over time different countries adapted their pots to local cuisine, a good example of this would be the Moroccan tagine or the Spanish cazuela. As a natural way to cook meat and various foods the clay pot is making a comeback with chefs and restaurants increasingly turning to clay for both cooking and serving in their establishments.
All Cazuelas Great and Small
We cannot of course talk about cooking in clay without mentioning the traditional Spanish cazuela. The cazuela (pro: ‘cath-wella) . Cazuelas come in an array of sizes from tiny 8cm examples for serving tapas to giant 46cm examples which are used in the biggest ovens to cook roasts and other large dishes. The cazuela is so versatile you can almost cook anything in one – even a Spanish paella. There are various different designs of cazuela, some for example have handles and some do not, some are fully glazed, some partially and there are those with straight side and flat bottoms compared to the more common cazuela with a slightly tapered base. No matter which cazuela you choose you can be sure that, if looked after will last many years in the kitchen and will stand the test of time, naked flame, hot coals, grills, hobs and microwaves making it one of the toughest terracotta cooking vessels available.