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A clay roaster or clay pot is an unglazed clay baking dish intended to be used in clay pot cooking. The use of clay pots for cooking dates back over thousands of years in many cultures. The clay roaster is designed to slowly cook the food inside when subjected to steady indirect heat, typically through an oven, although some clay roasters can be used in a fire. Many kitchen supply stores sell an assortment of clay roasters, and they can also be ordered through import stores, if you are seeking a particular style.
There are two pieces to a clay roaster. The bottom half of a clay roaster typically resembles a bowl, with a flat bottom and a deep lip to hold in liquids as they are cooked. The domed top nestles into the bottom, creating a snug seal while the food is cooked. In most cases, a clay roaster is unglazed. The pot is left unglazed so that it can absorb water, which is an important step in the cooking process.
To use a clay roaster, the cook starts by soaking it for 15-30 minutes in water. The porous unglazed clay sucks up the water readily. As the clay roaster is heated, the water will slowly evaporate, steaming the food on the inside and ensuring that it does not lose moisture. The result is a soft, thoroughly cooked dish. Some cooks like to remove the lid at the end to brown and crisp the food.
Cooks should never place a clay roaster into a preheated oven, as this can cause the roaster to crack. Instead, the moistened clay roaster should be put into a cold oven and slowly brought to temperature. When the food is done, the clay roaster should be placed onto a kitchen towel or cutting board, never a cold or wet surface. Abrupt temperature changes can crack the clay, ruining the meal and making a colossal mess.
To clean a clay roaster, a stiff scrubbing brush and hot water should be used. Since the clay is porous, detergent, bleach, and other inedible cleaners should not be used, as they will leach out into the food the next time the roaster is used. For stubborn stains, salt or baking soda can be used as a scrubbing agent, or the clay roaster can be soaked in a baking soda bath. Always allow the clay roaster to dry completely before putting it away, to prevent the formation of mold.
Many cultures have clay roaster recipes, ranging from the tandoori recipes of Northern India to Moroccan tangines. Different cultures have different traditionally styled clay pots, but it is often possible to cheat, using one clay roaster for recipes from many regions. Try searching for “clay pot recipes” in your favorite search engine for some inspiration.