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Clay Pot Cooking

Now, more than ever, a large section of society seems to be embroiled in the issues of healthy eating. While the fast food industry reels from a salvo of criticism, mainly from the health and medical professions, an old-fashioned cooking method is quietly but steadily gaining in popularity.

Since the 1970's, the ancient art of clay pot cooking has been making a leisurely come back to the kitchens of the western world. This well tried and tested method is responsible for producing some of the most delectable and delicious cuisine since before early Roman times. And as most history books will testify, the Romans certainly knew a thing about fine wine and good food.

However, the clay pot method is by no means restricted to the confines of the old empire. There remains irrefutable archaeological evidence, which undoubtedly suggests that many other early cultures around the world, used similar cooking utensils, on which to hone their culinary skills.

Today, we are rediscovering that just about anything can be cooked or baked in a clay pot including, meats, fish, vegetables, soups, casseroles and even bread and cakes.

These earthenware pots have a typically unglazed finish. The porosity of the dried clay, allows hot air and moisture to combine within the pot and thoroughly cook the food in a similar fashion to that of steam cooking. This process allows the food to absorb and cook in its own juices, ensuring a nutritious, healthy and very tasty meal.

When using the clay pot for the first time, it should be washed thoroughly in warm water. Do not use detergent or soap as this will likely block the delicate pores. Completely immerse the pot and lid in tepid water for about 30 minutes. The pot will absorb a considerable amount of water and it's this liquid which will form the main part of the steaming process. For subsequent use, you need only soak the pot and lid for 15 minutes.

Prepare the food as you would normally and place into the pot. Add the lid and position the clay pot in the center of a cold oven. If cooking fish, it's a good idea to line the pot with parchment paper, which will help absorb the strong odours. It's probably wiser to have a separate pot for cooking fish and there are a variety of shallow dishes available for this purpose.

It's important to remember that the pot is earthenware and will crack if exposed to sudden hot and cold extremes or placed on a hot stove or open flame. They are designed for oven use only. Microwave ovens can be used, but you should always consult the manufacturer's guide for cooking times. If in doubt, there are pots available especially for microwave ovens.

For successful clay pot cooking, the oven temperature needs to be set higher than for traditional methods and cooking will generally take longer. One reason is the oven will be cold from the start. Another factor is that clay will not get as hot as other customary materials like metal. Cooking temperatures will therefore need to be on average 40C (105F) higher than normal and cooking will usually take about 20 -30 minutes longer.

When the clay pot is in the oven, set the timer and leave it to do its work. If you intend baking bread or sponges, then lining the base with foil or parchment paper will aid easy removal. If you're cooking meat, fish or potatoes and would like the dish to be browned and crisp, simply remove the lid for the last 10 minutes of cooking time.

The benefit of using a clay pot is the cooked food has incorporated all the natural juices, nutrients and vitamins, presenting the foundation for a healthy meal. The most noticeable aspect and that for which clay pot converts will continue to cook this way, is the wonderful flavour and taste of the food.

It's necessary to take extra care when removing the hot clay pot from the oven. Be sure to use oven mitts or baker's pads and place the pot on a trivet, a wooden board or folded towel. If it comes into sudden contact with a cold work surface it could crack. For the same reason, you should always allow the pot to cool down before placing into cold water.

To clean the pot, use a nylon scourer or brush or better still, soak overnight in water with a little baking soda. Recommended use is 3 tablespoons of baking soda per litre of water.

After use, store the pot as you would any other but place the lid alongside rather than on top to allow air to circulate. If the pot is not completely dry when put away and has the lid placed on, it will form a seal. This could cause mold to form on the inside.

In summary, the benefits of cooking with a clay pot far outweigh the disadvantages.

Meats will brown fairly well and are noticeably tender. For crispness and a deeper browning, you have only to remove the lid for the last 10 minutes of cooking.

There's no need to add any cooking oil or fats to meat dishes, as they will cook in their own natural juices.

Food is cooked thoroughly and retains its natural flavours, nutrients and vitamins, which makes for healthy eating.

The porous clay pot encourages a good rise to bread and sponges.

Almost any recipe can be adapted for clay pot cooking.

Clay is a natural product so is perfectly safe to use.

The few disadvantages are the higher cooking temperature and longer cooking time but the exquisitely tasting food, will soon have you forget about these minor setbacks.

Remember to avoid exposing the pot to sudden extremes of temperature. A hot clay pot in sudden contact with cold water or a cold worktop or a cold pot with hot water could cause it to crack. For the same reason, they're not recommended for freezing.

Looked after, there's absolutely no reason why the clay pot shouldn't give decades of satisfactory and enjoyable service.

There are a number of clay pot cookers and bakers available. Romertopf is a major supplier and have cookers for just about every occasion.

Here's a few recipes developed for clay pot cooking:

Clay Pot Onion Soup
Clay Pot Warm Vegetable Salad
Clay Pot Aromatic Honey & Ginger Chicken
Clay Pot Mushroom Risotto
Clay Pot Tipsy Apple Crumble

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