For Flavor Nothing Surpasses Earthenware Cookware

You can taste for yourself that cooking in a clay pot 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 earthenware (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 healthy cookware.

potted plant

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.

Earthen cookware 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). Despite their relative fragility, I typically favor a clay pot over an enamel or ceramic pot for soups and braised dishes. My favorite is Chamba cookware from Columbia.

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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16 Responses to Food Tastes Best When Cooked in Clay Pots

    • The line I prefer are the artesian pots from Columbia, la Chamba; they’re lovely and sturdy (the USA line that I’m aware of is not durable). Of course, you may get one from a potter and that will be pricy.

  1. What a lovely website with so much useful information, thank you Rebecca!

    I am very much looking forward to cooking in unglazed clay pots, but I was wondering – can all unglazed clay pots be used for cooking (I mean slow, long-term cooking – as in making a stew or beans?) Or do the cooking pots need to be baked/seasoned first by the craftsman in a certain way?

    I come from a country where unglazed clay pots are very affordable (unlike in the U.S., unfortunately), however, most craftsmen I have spoken to there insist that the glazing process is crucial in making the pot usable for cooking. And yet, it is precisely in the glaze that harmful ingredients can be found and released in the food. I really would like to resolve this conundrum!

    • Some clay vessels, like stoneware or an unglazed flower pot, can be used for baking, but cannot be used for stove-top cooking. Glazes are problematic if they contain lead but if they contain no toxins, they’re fine for culinary use. A reputable pot maker will provide you with information about his/her glaze. Hope this helps.

      • Thank you Rebecca!
        It is good to learn that not all glazes can be problematic. It is just so difficult to obtain this information from pot makers – not that they would want to conceal it, it is just that they do not necessarily test the glaze for toxins.

        In the meantime, I found out something else interesting that I thought maybe your readers could find useful. Apparently there is a middle ground between unglazed (=not suitable for stove-top), and glazed pots (=potentially carrying toxins) – it is the Terra-sigillata finish – apparently a mix of clay and water that seals the pots and serves a similar role as a glaze. This technique is used to make Miriam’s earthenware clay pots which they claim can be used on stove top.

        • Thanks, Polly. And as USA glazes do NOT contain lead that potential problem is only for antique or imported pots.

  2. Is there one method of seasoning that will work well for all glazed clay/ceramic pots? Some suggest covering only the bottom of the pot with any type of milk and simmering it for 5 minutes…but I’ve seen various other instructions. Also, what is the purpose of seasoning?

  3. After learning about La Chamba clay pots from your site some time ago, I purchased two and love them. However, since the black color is achieved by smoking the clay, I wonder if the blackness on the interior slowly comes off over time into the food, because it is probably carcinogenic, as most burned/smoked/charred things are. Your thoughts?

  4. Great Website with a lot of useful information.
    Question: how do we know that the clay has not been contaminated with toxic waste? la Chamba, for instance, comes from Colombia. Is the area where the clay was mined clean?

  5. Recently I was gifted with a La Chamba clay cooking pot, and I found your web site because I was looking for information about it. As another long-time whole-foods-cooking enthusiast, I’m thrilled to learn about you. I look forward to reading more of your pages.

  6. Hi Rebecca. I discovered your website a few days ago. Thank you for your dedication to health, healing, and teaching. How lovely!