Whether you are making a layered Lucknowi biryani, a classic meen vevichathu from Kerala in India or the popular Moroccan tagine, clay pots are a must, primarily because cooking in earthenware are said to make food more flavoursome and healthy.
Cooking in clay pots is an ancient cooking practise. Almost all ancient civilisations, Indus Valley, Egyptian, or Sumerian, used clay pots to cook, serve and eat, and it is all claimed to have emerged at least 20,000 years ago.
According to science.org, “pottery was invented somewhere in eastern Asia between 12,000 and 20,000 years ago, but exactly where and when—and particularly why—isn't clear. These prehistoric chefs weren't part of an early agricultural community, and they weren't cooking grain: They were hunter-gatherers who are claimed to have lived in Japan during the waning phases of the last ice age, and they were apparently boiling up a seafood stew.”
A long time has passed since then, and clay pots continue to find a place in almost every Indian kitchen today. In a 2021 study conducted by the Applied and Natural Science Foundation (ANSF) in India, food cooked in earthenware increases iron and zinc concentration, and also decreases other toxic heavy metals while cooking. Moreover, eating food served from an earthen pot is healthier, when compared to other utensils. In addition, the use of earthen pots is recommended in many medicine and fermentation processes as per traditional indigenous knowledge and Ayurveda.
Since a lot about clay pots reaps benefits, the Food team at Gulf News decided to decode the science behind it. First things first…
How do clay pots make my food taste better?
Simply because all earthenware are alkaline in nature – which means it has a pH more than 7 – making it the key reason behind why it makes food taste delicious. Since food has certain level of acidic compounds present in it, the chances of a toxin build up is quite high. Therefore, cooking in a clay pot interacts with acidic foods and provides the adequate pH balance, and also keeps nutrients like iron, calcium, magnesium, and sulphur well-preserved.
Another reason why food tastes better when cooked in a clay pot is mainly because of the porous nature of it. So when you cook your meats and seafood, you wouldn’t need to add in a lot of cooking oil because they can slow cook in their own juices. Since aromas and flavours get trapped, they tend to get concentrated. However, make sure you don’t rely solely on the meat and seafood juices, because the very same porous nature of pots can cause the water content to evaporate quickly.
Clay pots also have the ability to retain temperature – be it hot or cold. Food cooked in a clay pot with a lid, has an intense and rice flavour. Clay pots are also best used for cooling foods like mishti doi or caramel yoghurt, kulfi or milk-based dessert, or even masala chai.
But before you go ahead and use any clay pot to make a dish of your choice, we would like to guide you through the process from buying it to cooking with it.
Buying my clay pot
When buying a clay pot, there are a few things to keep in mind. For one, each clay pot comes with a different make, so you must choose based on what you intend to cook. If you are cooking meat and seafood, you may need a wide clay pot. If you are looking to make a biryani, you would need a clay pot with a wide base, but a slightly narrow neck. Clay pots are inexpensive, and they must be handled with care, especially because a quick move could result in a chip or crack.
Once you purchase a clay pot, it is time to clean it – which brings us to seasoning.
Seasoning my clay pot
Before you get your ingredients ready to make that delicious Hyderabadi dum handi ka gosht, here’s the thing – do not start cooking with the pot you just bought for they would most likely taste of mud.
Seasoning a clay pot helps endure the heat in a better way, thus increasing its durability. So here’s how you should season your clay pot – it is a long process, but it is worth it in the long run.
1. Firstly, wash the clay pot thoroughly to rid it off any dirt.
2. Next, you will have to soak the clay pot in water, for a minimum of eight hours (ideally overnight).
3. The next day, take it out of the water and leave it out to dry in the sun.
4. Once dry, rub the clay pot with a generous amount of oil. Since clay pots are porous, they will absorb the oil completely.
5. Once absorbed, fill the clay pot with rice water and leave it at room temperature overnight.
6. The next morning, place the clay pot over a medium-high flame. Do not discard the rice water. Let it come to a rolling boil, and then turn off the flame. Once cooled, discard the rice water.
7. Next, wash the clay pot with a scrubber. Make sure you do not add any dishwashing soap or liquid. You can also sprinkle a little bit of gram flour while scrubbing the clay pot, to remove the oil.
8. Once scrubbed clean, keep the clay pot back on a medium-high flame and let the water evaporate.
9. Pour a little bit of oil, and once heated, sauté a few onion slices. Your clay pot is now ready to be cooked in.
Another tip, is to always avoid glazed clay pots because they have been coated with harmful chemicals, which would emit toxic fumes when heated.
Cooking with my clay pot
Now that you’ve cleaned and seasoned your clay pot, it’s time to start cooking with it, in it. The first thing is to get the recipe right – don’t make more than what your clay pot can handle. Follow your recipe and fill the clay pot leaving a little room at the top, about ½ to 1-inch, for the ingredients to bubble, and not spill over.
If this is the first time you are using your clay pot to cook, always set it on a low flame, and gradually increase the temperature. If you have cooked with it before, you can set it on a medium to high flame. While stirring, make sure you use a wooden spoon and not a steel spoon; you can also twirl the pot with your hands to avoid scratches on the base of the earthenware. Beware of the handles, because they could get hot quickly; so always use oven mitts.
While serving, you can serve yourself or your guests right out of the clay pot. Not only does it give it a traditional presentation, but it also gives more time for the flavours to infuse well.
Clay pot recipes
Now that you have gotten your basics right, it is time to actually start cooking in a wooden bowl. Here are two recipes for making Chuley ka Dum Murgh and Awadhi Murgh Biryani by Chef Mohammed Rahil Aga from Art of Dum restaurant in Dubai.
Here are a few other recipes you can try:
- The best Mumbai Masala Chai recipe ... for the perfect cuppa in UAE, for 2022
- A one-pot recipe from Bihar: Champaran Mutton
- Classic Kerala recipe to making Ayala Thoran or Mackerel stir fry
- Bengali Mishti Doi or molasses yoghurt
- Moroccan Chicken Tagine
- Michelin-starred chef Akira Back shares a recipe: Clay Pot Truffle Rice
- Traditional Kerala recipe for Meen Vevichathu or red fish curry
- Mutton Lucknowi biryani
- This 20-minute Kerala recipe for Chattiyil pollicha meen or pot fish curry uses less oil
- Kozhikkodan chemmeen biryani (Kerala shrimp biryani)
- Kalchatti hammour curry with idiyappam
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