ON A COOL EVENING LAST SPRING, I pulled my rental car to the side of the road and got out in front of a small white building in La Madera, New Mexico. I had come to the tiny rural town—45 minutes beyond my last bar of cell reception—with a ticket to Shed, a dinner project by chef Johnny Ortiz. Ortiz, who trained at Alinea in Chicago; The Willows Inn in Lummi Island, Washington; and Saison in San Francisco, had come back to his home state to cook off the land and showcase the flavors of New Mexico.
I cracked open the wooden door and stepped into a room that was warm and flickering with candlelight. On a far wall, shelves were stacked with clay plates and bowls. An in-progress clay pot sat drying on a table; a similar vessel, filled with dry-farmed Anasazi beans, bubbled on a wood-burning stove. Ortiz and his dogs greeted me, and his Shed partner, Afton Love, handed me a mezcal cocktail on the literal rocks–rose quartz to be exact, sifted from the hand-dug clay Ortiz collects from a valley nearby. The stones infused the smoky drink with a textured, wine-like minerality and immediately set the tone for Ortiz’s exploration of locally foraged and historically cultivated ingredients.
Ortiz balanced the rustic with the refined throughout his tasting menu of dried, spiced bison; elk tartare; and foraged pine nuts, mushrooms, cactus, and asparagus, but it was the clay I kept noticing most of all. Ortiz served everything in his handmade, unglazed pottery, which lent a mineral essence to every bite of the perfectly seasoned food. And then the beans arrived. Toward the end of their cooking, Ortiz had stirred in a remarkable amount of hand-ground red chile paste. “But really, the main star is the clay cooking pot,” he said. The pot, he explained, was made of a mica-rich clay that was alkaline, which softened and sweetened the piquant, acidic paste.
Read more: How to Get Started with Clay Pot Cooking
Ortiz ended the meal with a wild-herb tisane served in an unglazed clay cup, an infusion that mingled with the raw-mineral flavor of the clay for a parting sip that has stuck with me, reaffirming the taste of place, as powerfully as the first fine Burgundy I was ever poured. I’d cooked from Paula Wolfert’s seminal Mediterranean Clay Pot Cooking, and I’d dabbled with cooking rice in a Chinese clay pot and beef stew in a ceramic braising pan. But the flavors and textures I had just tasted engaged clay in a way I’d never experienced before.
I left New Mexico with an urgency to know more about clay-pot cooking. After eating those mica-cooked beans, I wanted a pot to cook with at home, so I contacted chef Katharine Kagel, of Santa Fe’s classic restaurant Cafe Pasqual’s, who is an expert in micaceous clay pots. She extolled the versatility of clay for cooking. “There are so many shapes!” she said. “And since they don’t have metal content, you can use them in the oven, on the stove, or in the microwave.”
Like Ortiz, Kagel favors micaceous clay pots that use clay from local volcanic beds. The distinctive pregnant-bellied pots, whose mica content gives the surface a glittery appearance, are the legacy of the late Apache potter Felipe Ortega, who died in 2018. Ortega learned the process from a blind, 90-year-old Apache woman named Jesusita Martinez—one of the last people who knew how to make the pots—shortly before she passed away. For over 40 years, he made pots and taught a new generation of potters the craft. It’s a laborious process. First, wet clay is coiled and roughly shaped into a vessel, left to dry until leathery, and then scraped until smooth. After drying again, the pots are sanded and then burnished with river stones, creating a perfectly smooth surface. The dried pots are pit-fired using wood like red cedar; the level of oxygen present during firing predicts the final color, from a yellowish copper to a glittering pitch black.
At the root of Ortega’s dedication to making those pots was an obsession with perfectly cooked beans. “When I first met him, he handed me a pot and some beans and said, ‘Don’t add any seasonings at all and call me in the morning,’ like a doctor,” Kagel remembered. “My God, I had no idea beans could get so much flavor from the cooking pot.”
Of course, I had to order one.
FOR THE PAST 20,000 YEARS, people have depended on clay as a fundamental building material for shelter, storage, and tools. Religious and cultural origin stories illustrate the importance of clay to early civilizations, with gods shaping terrestrial matter into human form. (Fun fact: In her origin story, Wonder Woman was also sculpted from clay.) Modern scientific theory (ever heard of primordial soup?) actually points to the minerals and moisture found in clay as having the perfect conditions for life to spark. But perhaps most crucially for humankind, clay became cookware. Early earthenware pots allowed food to be easily cooked over fire, with the effect of reducing bacteria and releasing digestible nutrients. Even today, clay plays an enormous, if quiet, civilizing role in human advancements. (You, reader, are reading this story thanks to clay. The computer industry mines clay to access rare earth elements for the laptop and cell phone you undoubtedly have within reach.)
Clay pots fell out of favor as metal became cheap and plentiful, but the two materials are not equivalent. Clay cookware heats up more slowly and more evenly than metal, and it holds and distributes heat more diffusely. Those qualities are what make it ideal for simmered soups and curries, for braises or tender baked meats where the juices create self-basting steam, and for evenly and perfectly cooked rice or beans. Around the world, clay is still used for specific dishes whose qualities cannot be replicated with metal cookware: for biryani and fish curries in India; mole, beans, and birria in Mexico (and mezcal, too); cassoulet and beef daube in the South of France; tagine in North Africa; fish sauce caramel–glazed pork in Vietnam; crispy-bottomed rice in Hong Kong; jollof rice in Ghana; spicy chicken stew (kedjenou) in the Côte d’Ivoire; one-pot soups in Korea; Sri Lankan feasts cooked in huge pots outdoors; Spanish cazuelas filled with sizzling shrimp and slowly cooked fish and vegetables; Boston baked beans; and Brazilian barreado.
While the general thermal properties of clay are universal, individual clay beds have specific characteristics that confer unique properties to the cooking vessels made with their clays. For those micaceous clay pots, for example, the high levels of mica in the clay from the Taos Pueblo of New Mexico yield vessels that are both thin and very strong and transmit heat very well. Cooked food will stay hot in one of these pots for hours after it’s been removed from the heat.
The dried bed of ancient Lake Biwa in the Iga region of Japan is home to a special type of clay containing trapped fossilized sea creatures. When kiln-fired, they burn up and create tiny air pockets in the clay that hold heat very efficiently. Iga clay is the preferred medium for making donabe, a low-slung, lidded pot for cooking rice, fresh tofu, and soups.
Chef Kyle Connaughton uses donabe to cook most dishes at his three-Michelin-star restaurant, SingleThread Farms in Healdsburg, California. “Donabe is about the terroir of the clay,” he says. “Iga clay is unique; the way it heats allows for precise flavor extraction of ingredients.” That property also makes it the ideal serving dish to keep food warm at the table, so at SingleThread, Connaughton brings many dishes to guests in their beautiful vessels.
Naoko Takei Moore, Connaughton’s friend and co-author of the cookbook Donabe, imports Iga donabe to her Los Angeles shop, Toiro Kitchen and Supply, where she also hosts donabe cooking classes. One of her favorite dishes to teach is yosenabe, a casual, mixed hot pot. “For busy parents, donabe will change your life because you gather the family at the table and cook together,” she says. The photos under her Instagram hashtag #happydonabelife radiate a passion and enthusiasm so common among modern clay-pot cooks.
Clay is even good for cooking in its raw, unfired state. Last fall, Connie Matisse and her team at East Fork, an innovative tabletop company in Asheville, North Carolina, with a cult following, threw a special dinner where clay took the form of a more rustic cooking medium. Taking cues from traditional Indus Valley and Chinese cooking techniques, they partnered with local chef Matt Dawes, who invited guests to wrap sheets of raw clay and fig leaves around seasoned, buttered quail before setting them in a charcoal fire. The clay quickly heated and dried, creating a crust in which the birds steamed. Cracked open, ash brushed aside, the clay packets revealed perfectly cooked, lightly smoky quail. “Everything tasted more of itself and had melded with the fig leaf and spice aromas,” says Dawes.
AFTER MONTHS OF SEEKING OUT clay-pot restaurant dishes—from the biryani at Adda Indian Canteen in Queens, New York, to the mole at Masala y Maíz in Mexico City, to the beef tagine at Bavel in Los Angeles—I grew increasingly convinced that clay pots deserved a place in my kitchen. But even though I am a professionally trained cook, I still felt intimidated by the idea of cooking with clay at home. I went down a rabbit hole of research, poring over science and history books and religious texts and talking to chefs and other experts about the lofty intangibles of cooking with clay pots. All of it was enlightening, but it didn’t help my confidence. I still struggled with how to translate all of it to my own home cooking.
So it might come as a surprise that, of all people, it was international superstar, model, and legit home cook Chrissy Teigen who managed to disarm the idea of cooking in clay with a single Instagram post in which she made her husband John Legend’s chili in a clay tagine. “I first fell in love with tagines on a visit to Morocco, one of my favorite places in the world,” Teigen later told me. She shares her passion widely: You can watch her try her hand at making a tagine on David Chang’s Netflix show Breakfast, Lunch & Dinner, and she included one in her Cravings cookware line for Target. “Cooking with clay feels like something people have been doing since the beginning of time, and the way a clay tagine retains heat is super comforting,” she continued. As a parent of two small children, she finds clay cookware convenient. “I like it for food that is braised or long-cooked and can either be made in advance or cooked slowly for hours without needing a lot of caretaking.”
Teigen’s comments made me realize that in actuality, we have all been cooking at home with clay for years: The ceramic inserts of slow cookers are the most widely distributed and used style of clay pot in America today, with 12.7 million sold in 2018.
But traditionally shaped clay pots—especially those designed for cooking over direct heat–produce dishes with nuanced, deep flavors that retain their textural integrity beyond what a slow cooker can achieve. Owning an array of clay pots, I was starting to suspect, could be the way to open up a new world of deliciousness in my home kitchen. But was the difference between clay cookware and metal worth the investment in a new set of pots? I decided to put them to the test.
THE F&W TEST KITCHEN COLLECTED more than 50 clay pots and started cooking. First, we cooked beans, testing a dozen bean pots from throughout the Americas against cast-iron Dutch ovens and stainless steel pots. In a blind tasting, the beans cooked in a pricey, handmade micaceous pot beat out every other bean. Those cooked in a stainless-steel soup pot were relatively bland, tough, and sharp-tasting. We repeated the test twice, with new tasters and several different recipes, but the micaceous pot won every time. (Of note, our second-place winner was an old-school Boston-style bean pot available for a fraction of the price.)
Next, we revisited the Römertopf, popular with home cooks starting in the 1970s. A rectangular lidded baking dish made of raw German clay from Ransbach-Baumbach, Germany, the “Roman pot” is often touted as a healthy way to cook, since the glazed bottom requires no added fat and the unglazed, porous lid (soaked in water before covering the dish) provides enough moisture to steam-roast the contents of the pan. The result is profoundly juicy roast chicken and vegetables with an intensely concentrated flavor. During testing, one chicken was accidentally overcooked to an internal temperature of 190°F. It should have been tough and dry, but when the chicken was pierced with a knife, juices shot across the room. Forget brining; forget hair dryers—the Römertopf is the key to the best roast chicken you’ll ever make.
In test after test, we found that everything cooked in clay tasted better than the same recipes cooked in metal pans. Rice smelled more floral and toasty, each grain fully cooked while maintaining its individuality. Beans were creamy and tender without their skins falling apart. Braises tasted snappy and fresh, not muddled and heavy. While I wouldn’t recommend searing and frying in clay pots—thermal shock of cold ingredients hitting the hot pan can cause breakage—gentler cooking methods rewarded us with deep, delicious flavor.
The only drawback to clay pots is that they can break. Seasoning, cleaning, and storing them properly are easy but necessary steps to keep them in good condition. Cooking with them also takes a bit of practice—a sort of awkward period of getting to know each pot as an individual—which I found re-engaged my senses and focus at the stove.
“At the base of it, you are cooking in a part of the earth, and that is pretty incredible,” Ortiz told me when we caught up recently. “When you are willing to cook in these things—knowing the pot might break, knowing you can’t control everything—it changes the way you look at the food you’re cooking.”