Clay Pots: The Ultimate in (Safe) Slow CookingUpdated: February 20, 2017Green Living
Believe it or not, I have only very recently discovered the convenience and, yes, joy, of slow cooking in my home.
I incorporated this very traditional method of food preparation using clay pots which I have found to be quicker (and safer) than using a crockpot or stainless steel cookware.
While the concept of speedy slow cooking may seem to be an oxymoron, it really isn’t when it comes to clay pots. Let me explain …
My oldest child goes off to college very soon. The reality of him subsisting on unhealthy, highly processed college food after being raised on an organic, whole food diet for his entire life has been weighing on my mind for some time. As a result, I’ve been in search of an easy to use appliance in which he can quickly and safely prepare simple meals for himself as needed.
Why a Clay Cooker over a Crockpot or Pressure Cooker
While a crockpot might seem like the perfect solution at first, I’ve never been thrilled with this option for several reasons (no offense to those of you who love them!). First, most models are made with teflon, aluminum, and other unsafe materials. Even the few stainless steel models pose the problem of leaching heavy metals like carcinogenic nickel and chromium into your food when you cook acidic dishes such as tomatoes (1). Old time cast iron slow cookers can contribute to the little known health issue of excess iron in the diet which is particularly problematic for adult males and recognized as such by science (2).
Second, crockpots don’t cook fast enough for me let alone a busy college student. I’ve avoided fast cooking pressure cookers because I am in no way convinced that this unnatural way to cook food quickly doesn’t in fact greatly increase glutamates (MSG) in the food especially when you make bone broth. They are also mostly made with stainless steel which involves the very real risk of leaching heavy metals when cooking acidic foods.
Finally, while crockpots do produce moist, juicy results, I haven’t been overly impressed with the flavor of the crockpot meals I’ve tried. They taste rather bland to my palate unless excessive amounts of seasonings are used.
Hence my laid-back attitude toward slow cooking and pressure cookers in general until I discovered an affordable appliance (perfect for a tiny dorm room or a spacious kitchen) that combines modern technology and convenience with the benefits and safety of traditional clay cooking – the Vita-Clay.
Clay Pots 101
Cooking in terra cotta clay pots is an ancient tradition that dates back to the Etruscan civilization that existed around 800 BC. Today, this area in central Italy that includes the city of Florence is known as Tuscany. I was fortunate to be able to visit Tuscany in the Fall of 2015, which made research into this subject of even greater personal interest.
Cooking in clay pots is different than cooking in other materials such as ceramic or stainless steel because the clay remains porous. The lack of enamel or glaze means the hard-baked clay “breathes”, enabling water to be absorbed and then released during cooking to achieve moist, intensely flavorful results with little to no seasonings. The slow, steady evaporation of steam from within the clay pot’s unglazed pores and the double sealed lid is what makes this possible.
Cookbook author and Chef Suzanne Vandyck describes the process as follows:
… the clay cooker cooks with a minimum of liquid and retains all the intense flavors of every ingredient, achieved by simmering in its own juices. More of the essential nutrients and vitamins are retained in foods cooked in clay pots because food cooks in a closed environment with limited liquids.
In addition to intensely flavorful food, the moist clay combined with the double lid design of the model I use, the 8 cup Vita-Clay, creates a micropressure environment which allows for much improved cooking efficiency. This means you save electricity and time. In fact, clay pot cooking can have your meal ready in up to half the time compared with using other slow cookers.
The fact that slow cooking is so much faster using clay pots was not the only thing that got me excited about this method of cooking not just for me, but also for my children away at college.
You can set the meal to cook and when it is ready, you can use the delay function to keep it warm until you return and are ready to eat. In addition, clay pot cooking is not just suitable for stews – it can also easily cook rice, oatmeal, bone broth, soups and even make raw yogurt!
Below is a picture of the compact, personal Vita-Clay model I am going to send off to college with my son. Of course, since I am preparing many of our meals with the family size model at home until then, he will be ready to use the smaller model himself. Would you believe it costs less than $50? And, if the clay pot chips or breaks for whatever reason, it can be easily replaced without buying a whole new cooker. Clay pots are very resistant to damage by the way, so the chances of this happening are low.
How about cleaning the clay pots? No dishwasher is necessary although you can use one if you like (it might discolor the clay pot slightly or cause some lime buildup, however). All I do is rinse it out (use a drop or two of mild dishsoap if desired) and wipe clean. If there are some cooked on bits of food, I soak for an hour or so in plain water in the kitchen sink and then wipe clean. For tougher to remove food bits, soak overnight using 1 cup water, 1/4 cup white vinegar, and 1 tablespoon baking soda and then rinse it out and wipe clean (I’ve never had to use this approach). No scrubbing is necessary in my experience even when I cook rice.
What About Toxins in Clay Pots?
One of the very first questions I asked before considering cooking in a clay pot was: would it be safe and toxin-free for my family? The particular clay pot that I use made by Vita-Clay is manufactured using organic Zisha clay. Zisha is an extremely pure clay, free from contaminants that was formed over thousands of years by rainfalls that scrubbed the mountains in southern, nonindustrialized China, releasing minerals into lakes and forming huge clay beds.
Most risk of lead contamination comes from glazed, ceramic dishes and pots. The Zisha clay pots are unglazed and have been certified by an independent third party lab as lead-free (test results here), meeting the FDA, CA 65, and UL safety requirements. No chemical treatments have been applied to the clay during manufacturing of the clay pots.
Making Soup in a Clay Pot
The three items I love making in the clay pot cooker the most are soups, oatmeal (soak and cook in one step!) and yogurt. Yes, you can actually make yogurt (using any type of milk: dairy, coconut, almond) in the Vita-Clay very easily. I will post more on this later. It deserves its own article!
For now, let me share with you my favorite soup recipe that I’ve cooked so far in the Vita-Clay. Just throw all the ingredients in there, turn it on and you are done. This is a very easy option for dinner on a night of the week where the schedule is challenging and hectic.
Clay Pot Split Pea Soup Recipe
Makes 1/2 gallon of thick, hearty soup
- 2 cups dried split peas
- 5 cups homemade bone broth or in a pinch, filtered water (a mixture works too)
- 1 lb/.5 kilo ham hock
- Pinch turmeric powder
- 1 onion, finely chopped
- 4 stalks celery, chopped
- 5 carrots, peeled and chopped
Put all ingredients in the clay pot (use the larger 8 cup Vita-Clay model) right after lunch around 1pm and close the lid. Your ingredients will look something like this:
Turn on the “stew” setting for 3-4 hours. Dinner will be ready around 5pm. If you wish to eat dinner at a later time, the Vita-Clay will automatically keep things warm until then.
Hint: I like to soak my split peas before cooking to increase digestibility and nutrient availability. To do this, put the split peas in a glass bowl with a teaspoon or so of sea salt, cover with filtered water and stir. I do this right after breakfast. You can also do it before you go to bed the night before if that’s easier. Then, after lunch, I drain off the water and put the soaked split peas and remaining ingredients in the Vita-Clay to gently simmer into soup for dinner.
Want to Try Cooking in Clay for Yourself?
If this article has you excited to try cooking in clay pots too, note that there are several models of the Vita-Clay to choose from. If you click here, you can check out all the sizes and models available. If you like what you see, owner Michelle Liu has given me the special coupon code WISE25 to order whichever one you like best at 10% off (you won’t believe how reasonable the prices are!).
Have you already tried cooking in clay pots? If so, what is your experience and what are your favorite dishes to create?
Sarah, The Healthy Home Economist
Disclosure: I was *not* paid to write this post although I was provided a Vita-Clay to try in order to personally verify all product claims. I wrote this article because I have become a big fan of the Vita-Clay since researching about the benefits of clay pot cooking and learning to use it. I wanted to let others know how wonderful and safe these appliances are! Some of the links in this post are affiliate links – I truly believe in what this company is doing to produce a safe, quality product for the public.
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