Two Unique & Unexpected Benefits of Cooking in Clay

Clay pot cooking seems to be all the rage these days. Earthenware pots are relatively inexpensive and beautiful to look at, as evidenced by the lovely products featured at clay pot specialty shop Bram. There are also reviews all over the web attesting to their superior cooking abilities. After Faith's own enthusiastic review of her Chamba clay pot, we really got to wondering: what's the big deal with these pots anyway? Well, it turns out that the unique properties of clay lead to two unexpected benefits in the kitchen. What we've discovered makes us all the more curious to try cooking in one of these pots for ourselves. Two things make clay pots unique, both having to do with the fact that they are made from clay.

1 The first is that clay is somewhat porous. Heat and moisture circulate through the pot during cooking, unlike with metal or enamel-lined pots. Chef Charles Phan from The Slanted Door in San Francisco describes the cooking as "slow, even, delicate" in his ode to Bram Cookware in the latest Saveur 100. Most pots are also made with micaceous clay (clay containing mica flecks), and mica acts as a natural insulator.

2 The second thing that that makes these pots special is that the clay is alkaline. In a recent interview on KCRW's Good Food, clay pot maker Felipe Ortega explained that the clay will interact with acidity in the food, neutralizing the pH balance. Something that is naturally very acidic, like a tomato sauce, will take on some natural sweetness when cooked in a clay pot. (Ortega even said that he will only drink coffee out of a clay mug because it tastes more robust and he hardly has to add sweetener!)

What strikes us as most significant is that all of these unique properties of clay pots are completely canceled out if the pot has been glazed (except for its ability to absorb heat and cook food evenly). Our natural instinct is to think of a glaze as preserving the clay pot, but in this case, it sounds like a glaze would be a disservice.

Do you have a clay pot? Have you noticed a difference when cooking with it?

More Information on Clay Pots:
Chef Phan's and Bram Cookware from Saveur Magazine
The Clay Way from Saveur Magazine
Clay Pot Cooking with Felipe Ortega on KCRW's Good Food
Bram Claypot Cookware: Store Profile
A Guide to Clay Cookware: Best Sources
Cooking in a Clay Pot: A Review of La Chambra

Related: Word of Mouth: Tagine

(Image: Faith Durand)

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