Clay Pots: The Ultimate in (Safe) Slow Cooking

by Sarah Green LivingComments: 42

clay pots filled with split pea soup

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.

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 in a little over a year and a half. 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.

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 leeching heavy metals like carcinogenic nickel into your food when you cook acidic dishes such as tomatoes (source).  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 (source).

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.

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.

personal clay pot

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

Ingredients

Instructions

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:

split pea soup in clay pots_mini

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 $25 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.

Comments (42)

  • Melissa

    What does it mean to season the VitaClay pot? What is the purpose?

    April 23rd, 2016 1:55 am Reply
  • Diana

    Hi Sarah. I just bought one of these. Is there an easy way to adapt recipes for this so I am not limited to what is on the VitaClay site? I do not have any experience with this type of cooking method. Thank you.

    January 22nd, 2016 8:58 pm Reply
    • Sarah

      I’ve just been throwing everything in there and cooking on “stew” for 2-3 hours. Everything is turning out amazing!

      January 22nd, 2016 9:56 pm Reply
      • Diana

        Thanks, Sarah! One other question. The VitaClay website says that this cooker does use pressure as part of the cooking process. I saw this described on another site as “micro-pressure.” I don’t know anything about pressure cooking, which you indicated might be unhealthy. Is the pressure used in the VitaClay pot less concerning than the pressure in a normal pressure cooker? I assume a normal pressure cooker uses a lot more pressure, but if you can unpack this issue a little, it would be most helpful. Thank you again!

        January 23rd, 2016 1:49 pm Reply
        • Sarah

          There are holes in the lid of the Vita-Clay so whatever pressure there is, it isn’t much and wouldn’t build up to the point of creating MSG in the food. It cooks fine and not overly or unnaturally fast like a pressure cooker IMO. The micro-pressure term must refer to the steaming effect of the clay and water on the food as it cooks I’m guessing as this is the way the clay pot cooks as opposed to a stainless steel or ceramic slow cooker that is not porous.

          January 23rd, 2016 7:44 pm Reply
  • melanie

    i was so excited to read this because i’ve had fears about chemicals leaching from my crock pot. but i checked out the vita clay pot and the largest they make is only 8 cups. my current crock pot it 8 quarts. the pot i use for morning oatmeal or a side dish for supper is 6 quarts. unfortunately i do not see my family being able to use a vita pot :(

    January 16th, 2016 2:44 pm Reply
    • Sarai

      The 8 cup is actually a 4.2 quart. Still smaller than what you’re using, but might still work for oatmeal depending on how many cups of dry oats you use. I think 8 cups is the dry measurement.

      January 17th, 2016 7:55 am Reply
  • Sarai

    I just bought one and am looking forward to your yogurt post. I assume you can make raw yogurt in it? I hope to make porridge overnight, so my husband can have an easy breakfast.

    January 15th, 2016 3:15 pm Reply
    • Sarai

      Oops, you did say raw yogurt. I misread it.

      January 16th, 2016 8:40 pm Reply
  • Sheena

    I’ve had this cooker on my radar for a while now. I would like to replace my rice cooker with it. Can you tell me, to make rice would I just put the rice and liquid in and press start? That’s what I do now and I really don’t want anything more complicated then that.

    January 14th, 2016 12:14 pm Reply
    • Sarah

      Yes, put everything in and press start. It’s that simple. No bringing the rice to a boil and then stirring, turning down the heat. One step and that’s it.

      January 14th, 2016 12:19 pm Reply
  • lynne

    Hi Sarah.
    I bought the large multi-cooker based on your recommendation and just received it yesterday. I’m so excited about this appliance–(have used slow cookers forever for broth but “real meals” pretty much end up flavorless). I have the split pea soup cooking now in my new vita clay cooker and it smells so good. I’m still learning the controls, not too difficult. But am concerned to learn that the cooker should be seasoned. I read the instructions thoroughly, but I didn’t see any recommendation for seasoning. Can I/should I still season now that I’ve already cooked in it? And, where did you come across the seasoning directions. So very many thanks.

    January 13th, 2016 1:34 pm Reply
    • Sarah

      So excited for you Lynne! I hope you love it as much as I do!

      The instructions for seasoning are in the box. It’s on the sheet that says “Important Tips: Clay Pot Care Guide” I think you should probably do it even though you’ve used it already. Here’s what it says in case you can’t find it:

      Season clay bot before first use:
      Fill the pot with water, about 70-75% full and add 1-2 cups of white rice.
      Set on soup setting for 2-3 hours
      Disclaimer: this is not a recipe, it is a recommendation on how to season clay pot prior to use.

      January 13th, 2016 2:09 pm Reply
      • L

        Didn’t find that sheet in the box–only loose sheet was the Easy Start page. So thank you so much for providing those instructions. BTW, the soup is delicious, and I made some rice too, which also turned out great. Now I’m going to season it proper–because I want it to be a long-time friend in my kitchen! Again, many thanks.

        January 13th, 2016 9:05 pm Reply
  • Wanda

    Sarah,
    I purchased my Vitaclay pot at the WAP conference and I am one whose experience with the Vitaclay pot was not good. Mine is in the trash after many attempts to use it. I cooked rice in it several times. It will not even cook that anymore. I could not cancel or change a setting or make yogurt. I pulled it out to try it again with no luck so finally decided it was time to throw it out. Customer service is terrible. I would have to fully agree with the negative reviews on Amazon. When I saw that I was not the only one not getting help after three or four attempts, I just decided to take my loss and not waste any more of my time. I would not put my reputation on the line for this product if I were you. Half will be disappointed in this product.

    January 12th, 2016 11:31 am Reply
    • Sarah

      I honestly cannot in the world figure out how you cannot even cook rice in the Vita-Clay. My 13 year old did it on the first try with no help from me. There is also the “quick start” guide in the box that is so simple an even younger child could easily do it. I am sorry it didn’t work for you, but I am scratching my head over your experience. Perhaps you are just not so good at learning new appliances, although I have to say, this is one of the simplest I’ve ever seen. I think back to my Aunt who got a VCR for Christmas some years ago and couldn’t get it to work and thought it was broken even though there was nothing wrong with the machine when someone else started it up for her.

      January 12th, 2016 3:13 pm Reply
      • Wanda

        Sarah,
        Sorry you misunderstand my post. I did cook rice several time and am saying now the cooker will not even do that any more. I do know how to run the cooker. It is not operator error.
        Read the reviews on Amazon. I went there to see if others had the same experience as I did and found many if not more negative than positive reviews. They experienced the cooker not working and no customer service either. Seems you either get a cooker that works or you don’t. I’m sure yours was tested to make sure that it worked so that you would promote their product. VitaClay has a good concept but poor product. Research product not ideas before you promote and mislead.

        January 13th, 2016 5:37 pm Reply
        • Sarah

          Again, sorry you didn’t like it … I love mine as do many others, and it certainly is not “misleading” for me to say so! No product pleases everyone.

          January 13th, 2016 10:45 pm Reply
  • Britta

    We’ve had our VITA CLAY for a few months now and love it! Did you season yours? If so, how? I haven’t seasoned ours and keep meaning to.

    January 9th, 2016 2:58 pm Reply
    • Sarah

      Yes, we seasoned it. You just put a bit of rice and some water in there and simmer for an hour or so if I recall. Very easy.

      January 9th, 2016 9:12 pm Reply
  • April

    I was sold until I heard clay was from China. I know they claim lead-free but what about other heavy metals?Do they test for other toxins such as cadmium etc.?

    January 9th, 2016 11:22 am Reply
    • Sarah

      Yes, the tests come back free from cadmium as well. Here is what the FAQ on the Vita-Clay website says (more info on the website about the purity of the Zisha clay): VitaClay ® cookers are UL, cUL listed. It meets standard requirement of FDA, CA Prop 65, which covers lead and cadmium test. Moreover, our VitaClay ® has passed RoHS laboratory testing as well. The RoHS Directive stands for “the restriction of the use of certain hazardous substances in electrical and electronic equipment”. This Directive bans the placing on the EU market of new electrical and electronic equipment containing more than agreed levels of lead, cadmium, mercury, hexavalent chromium, polybrominated biphenyl (PBB) and polybrominated diphenyl ether (PBDE) flame retardants.

      January 9th, 2016 9:16 pm Reply
  • Natalie

    Would you know what is the difference between
    HIGH-FIRED VITACLAY® SMART ORGANIC MULTICOOKER – 8 CUP $149
    and
    HIGH-FIRED VITACLAY® 2-IN-1 RICE N’ SLOW COOKER IN CLAY POT – 8 CUP $89
    The size is the same.
    Thanks

    January 9th, 2016 5:34 am Reply
    • Sarah

      The second model doesn’t make yogurt from what I understand. It also doesn’t seem to have the delay function so you can set the meal to be ready at a certain time. It doesn’t seem to have the reheat or warming function either (keeps meal warm after cooking until you take it out to eat).

      January 9th, 2016 8:04 am Reply
  • Lp

    what about the emf’s is this product considered safe?

    January 8th, 2016 5:45 pm Reply
    • Sarah

      The Vita-clay is electrical and cooks with conventional infrared heat like an oven or stovetop. It doesn’t cook by induction or microwave, so is safe from that perspective as well. I would consider it completely safe.

      January 8th, 2016 6:59 pm Reply
    • lp

      Thanks…

      January 8th, 2016 11:14 pm Reply
  • Lorena

    Have you ever used it for making broth Sarah?

    January 8th, 2016 3:43 pm Reply
    • Sarah

      Yes, and it turns out wonderfully! The broth I’ve made is loaded with gelatin.

      January 8th, 2016 4:08 pm Reply
  • Rebecca

    That looks very interesting. I’m looking into it further.

    January 8th, 2016 6:18 am Reply
  • Miriam

    I was intrigued by the title of your post but somewhat annoyed as I read through to discover that while you say you don’t like “slow cookers” that is exactly what this is – only with a clay pot instead of a ceramic. Why not call a spade a spade and just say you like the clay pot in the slow cooker better than the ceramic or stainless steel.. That would be a more honest review.

    I do like the idea that I can use less liquid (if that’s true) because my major complaint about slow cookers is that the meat or food always tastes boiled, not simmered or braised because of the amount of liquid. I’ll check out the vita-clay but if the company really wants to capture a new market they should make clay pots that fit the major makes of existing slow cookers. I don’t want to throw away an appliance that still works.

    January 7th, 2016 11:33 pm Reply
    • Sarah

      Hi Miriam, did you read the section where I talk about how clay pots cook in half the time of slow cookers? I think that is significantly faster! I totally agree with you that slow cookers produce food that is not tasty IMO. I have found the clay pot food to be very tasty though .. which is why I am now using it :)

      January 8th, 2016 7:32 am Reply
  • Angela

    I have never seen a slow cooker made with teflon. All of the ones I’ve seen and used have ceramic inserts. Are the teflon ones an older style?

    January 7th, 2016 8:59 pm Reply
  • eliz

    I’ve had the 8 cup VitaClay for about a year, and it’s fantastic for making bone broth. All I do is fill it up with bones I’ve saved from meals, add water to just below the top, put the lid on, and set to “Stew.” Since I like to get everything I can out of the bones, I set the timer for 12 hours (the maximum), and then another 12 hours. The next day the bone broth is unbelievably rich and required no tending.

    Another favorite is to put (often tough) free range chicken legs in, add a little water (3/4 cup), a chopped onion, some garlic, a tablespoon of tomato paste, a teaspoon of salt, and some spices, such as oregano. I set it to “Stew” for 4 hours and the result is fantastic. If I want to thicken up the sauce, I put it on “Soup” for about 45 more minutes. (Be careful not to let it dry out! “Soup” is a fast boil.) The result is fall-off-the-bone tender.

    Note that “Stew” is low, and “Soup” is high. (I never use the rice settings so I’m not familiar with those choices.) One of my most used appliances! I do also have a large ceramic insert crock pot, which works well for larger items, such as a whole chicken or beef knuckle bones.

    January 7th, 2016 5:27 pm Reply
    • Sarah

      Thank you for sharing your experience over the past year!

      January 8th, 2016 7:38 am Reply
  • Molly

    I am very interested in this as I have never heard of it before and am skeptical about using my glazed slow cooker. Thanks for sharing.

    January 7th, 2016 2:22 pm Reply
  • Mary

    I was initially intrigued by this cooker, so I went to Amazon to see if available there and to check prices and read reviews. I suggest anyone considering a purchase to read the one and two star reviews on Amazon. There are no reviews listed on the Vita Clay page linked to in Sarah’s article above. I have decided to pass.

    January 7th, 2016 1:07 pm Reply
    • Sarah

      My post is a review … I love it! :)

      January 7th, 2016 3:31 pm Reply
  • MG

    One of my slow cookers is ceramic, the other is stainless steel. The stainless steel one doubles as a pressure cooker. I really don’t see the advantage to a clay cooker over a ceramic or stainless steel one. Are you addressing a problem that doesn’t exist (someone, somewhere might be cooking in something with a lead glaze)? Why not just use a pressure cooker if you’re interested in speed? I’m trying to see the benefits, but all of the claims in the write-up on the website (except the first) fit my current cookers.

    January 7th, 2016 11:53 am Reply
    • Sarah

      Glad you are happy with what you have. I have never been a fan of pressure cookers as I am not convinced that they don’t increase glutamate (MSG) in food particularly bone broths or soups. This is the reason I’ve never used one and prefer the clay which doesn’t increase pressure on food unnaturally. Also, stainless steel will leech heavy metals into food if you cook acidic foods in it (like anything with tomatoes for example … why kombucha isn’t supposed to be brewed in stainless steel is another example). Clay would be better than anything stainless for this reason as well.

      January 7th, 2016 11:56 am Reply
      • Rebecca

        I usually cook tomato sauce in stainless steel pans on the stove top. What could I cook this type of food in that allows steam to escape so the sauce reduces?

        January 7th, 2016 10:47 pm Reply
        • Sarah

          Ceramic cast iron? This would be my choice. The ceramic would keep the iron from getting into the food as too much iron is a problem particularly for adult men which is why I wouldn’t suggest regular cast iron.

          January 8th, 2016 7:35 am Reply

Leave a Comment