“When a dish is not cooked in clay, it doesn’t taste the same,” Mexicans say. Housewives and well-known chefs in Mexico claim that clay pots enhance the flavor of their recipes.
Clay was the main component of the first kitchen utensils in pre-Hispanic Mexico, and it is still an essential material in the country’s cookware.
Now, people cook with gas or electricity, and they can do it on stainless steel, cast iron or a wide variety of materials.
Thousands of years ago, firewood and clay casseroles were the only options. . In Mexico, using them is a matter of tradition. But people also say they add a particular quality to food.
Mexicans use clay casseroles to prepare the simplest dishes, such as rice or beans, and the most complex ones, including mole — a pepper-and-nuts sauce.
“Even if one follows the same steps in a certain preparation, clay will enhance the flavors, creating a unique combination. Presenting dishes in clay pots when bringing them to the table is very showy, too,” said Emanuel Cansino Aguirre, a private cook and a gastronomy graduate from the Universidad de Oriente, Veracruz campus.
Making clay casseroles is complex.
Artisans knead the clay by stepping bare feet on it until it has the consistency they need. Once the clay is ready, they shape it into a ball; the size varies according to what they want to mold. Then they shape it with a baked-clay stone. Finally, artisans leave the piece to dry for two months, and finally, they fire it in a wood oven for the final touch.
Unlike some artificial materials that have hit the market and could be harmful or toxic, clay is natural. There are ways to process it that make it safe for cooking. Once, artisans used lead or other toxic materials to glaze clay casseroles. But environmental and health regulations encouraged them to find ways to finish their pieces without adding them.
Today, government programs guarantee the pieces’ origin and certify when their production is free of toxic agents.
Good clay casseroles withstand high cooking temperatures. Cooks can place them safely in gas or electric ovens or on wood stoves, and the pots won’t deform or break. However, clay can be quite fragile, so people should know how to handle their cookware. Clay casseroles shouldn’t get accidentally hit or be forced to cool down too quickly.
“When I buy a clay casserole, I first cure it with lime,” said Clotilde Vera Rascón, a housewife. “This process seals its pores and prevents the juices of what I am cooking from leaking. When I use a casserole, I let it cool for a whole day because the temperature change might cause it to break while washing it. One needs to know this if one wishes clay casseroles to last a long time.”
(Translated and edited by Gabriela Olmos. Edited by Fern Siegel.)