These bakers and cookers are made of porous hard-baked clay and need to be soaked in water before using. The water absorbed by the clay evaporates in the heat of the oven, ensuring that the food inside is cooked a moist environment at a very steady temperature. Besides being easy to use, a big selling point for these bakers has always been that dishes require very little liquid or fat to cook; the steam does all the work.
Any dish destined for slow-cooking in the oven can be cooked in a clay baker. Stews, braises, whole chickens, baked beans, and even loaves of bread come out beautifully in these bakers. The bakers can be carried directly to the dinner table and the insulating clay will keep the food warm.
A negative for me is that these bakers can't be used on the stovetop. One of the things I love about my dutch oven is that I can sear meat over high heat, add the rest of the ingredients, and put it right into the oven. Or if my oven is otherwise occupied, I can put the dutch oven on a back burner over low heat. Also, without handles and knobs, I wonder how easy it is to handle these clay cookers when hot from the oven and remove the lid.
On the other hand, clay cookers tend to be more affordable than dutch ovens and last forever when properly cared for (where enamel-coated dutch ovens tend to crack and chip over time). There is also some evidence that the alkaline nature of clay pots actually improves the flavor and nutritional value of foods.
Should you buy one? Since clay bakers function much the same as dutch ovens and slow-cookers, my feeling is that you don't need a clay baker if you already have one of those pieces of cookware. If you're in the market, however, a clay baker would make both a beautiful and a functional addition to your kitchen.
Check out these popular models:
• Romertopf 3 1/2 Quart Clay Baker, $59 from Williams-Sonoma
• Schlemmertopf Clay Bakers, $35 - $65 from Sur la Table
• La Chamba Casserole Dishes, $37.50 - $110 from Toque Blanche (Read Faith's review!)
Do you own a clay cooker? Would you recommend other people buy one?