You can taste for yourself that cooking in earthenware delivers the most satisfying results. Or, right now, you can use your imagination to get a feel for it. Imagine cooking three potatoes. Cook one potato in stainless steel, the second in aluminum foil, and the third in an unglazed clay pot. The potato cooked in metal absorbs metallic ions, whereas the tater cooked in clay is free of heavy metals.*
Clay, like all ceramics and glass, is nonreactive (so the third potato has no tag-along metals). That’s important. And that alone is enough reason to favor nonreactive cookware.
Felipe Ortega, an Apache medicine man and renowned potter, offers a second reason to use clay: Clay neutralizes acidity and so brings out the natural sweetness in foods. This is especially apparent when cooking with acidic ingredients. To clear any doubts you might have, cook identical tomato soups—one in clay and one in metal—and then taste test.
That clay neutralizes acidity makes intuitive sense, as we all know the healing power of the earth, how getting our hands in the soil seems to draw tension and toxins from us, as does walking barefoot or just sprawling on the lawn. Or how a dab of clay on a bee sting pulls out the venom.
Miriam Kattumuri, remembering the superior taste of her Southern India grandmother’s clay pot cooking, has created an affordable line of US-made stovetop earthenware cooking pots. Earthen cookware like Miriam’s invites lower-temperature cooking, as it diffuses heat more slowly. But once hot, a clay pot holds and more evenly distributes heat than does metal. This slow and gentle cooking coaxes subtle flavors from the foods and leaves nutrients intact. A disadvantage of clay cookware is that it is heavier than metal and less durable (if mishandled, it will crack), so its care requires some attention.
Ceramic pots are also made of clay, are nonreactive, absorb heat well and cook food evenly. Because ceramics are fired at a higher temperature, they are more durable and withstand sudden temperature changes. However, ceramics are glazed, and it is this glass-like interior finish that prevents the underlying clay to reduce acidity.
Be it a Moroccan tagine, a Spanish cazuela, a Chinese sand pot, or a New England–style bean pot, cooking in clay is an ancient art. Because clay cooking simply makes your food tastes great, you’ll find yourself wanting to reach for the pot and anticipating the results.
*Yes, stainless steel is mildly reactive. When new, scoured or used to cook acidic ingredients it leaches heavy metals including chromium and nickel (therefore people with rare nickel sensitivities cannot use stainless steel). Nevertheless, stainless is decidedly superior to aluminum and nonstick cookware. For most cooking purposes for most people, stainless steel is an acceptable and durable choice. As acidic ingredients quicken steel’s reactivity, favor ceramic or earthenware cookware when cooking with tomatoes, wine, citrus or vinegar. Do not scour stainless steel cookware; if a pan becomes scorched, add baking soda and enough water to make a thick solution and then soak for a day or longer until the burn can be coaxed off.
Reference: Kristin L. Kamerud, Kevin A. Hobbie, and Kim A. Anderson. “Stainless Steel Leaches Nickel and Chromium into Foods during Cooking,” Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry. 2013, 61 (39), pp. 9495–9501.
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