As you look for new ways to improve the quality of your diet, you should not overlook the cookware used to make your healthy meals. The vessels you choose directly affect the taste and nutrition value of a meal. Certain cookware materials can react with particular foods or release toxic gases when they are heated to high temperatures. As society seeks a cleaner and healthier environment, eco-friendly companies are turning their focus toward producing safer cookware and bakeware.
Old-fashioned cooking methods have made a come-back in kitchens and restaurants around the world. Clay pot cooking is a method of cooking food in an unglazed clay pot that is soaked in water to release steam while cooking. Cooking with earthenware pots is an ancient tradition that offers a distinct taste and keeps the nutritional value of food intact.
Types of Clay Pots
The most common ways of categorizing clay pots are according to the type of clay they’re made of and the required firing temperature.
Earthenware clay pots are usually made from impure, secondary clays that have been transported from their original locations via water or wind. These clays contain particles of rocks and sand and other impurities. The iron content gives the fired clay body a reddish color. Earthenware pots are fired at lower temperatures (1700®F to 2100®F) than stoneware and porcelain and cannot be used on the stove. Earthenware is soft and porous and it requires glazing in order to be waterproof.
Stoneware is made from unrefined clay with few impurities. It is fired at higher temperatures than earthenware (2100®F to 2300®F). Stoneware is semi-vitreous, sturdy, chip resistant, and more durable than earthenware.
Porcelain is made from the purest form of clay, called kaolin. It has a firing range of 2335®F to 2550®F. After firing, porcelain is non-porous, vitreous in texture, and translucent. It has a very smooth and shiny surface when glazed.
Flameware pots are made with special “flameproof” clay that is designed to handle higher temperatures and to resist thermal shock. Flameware can be used on all types of stoves and in all ovens.
Are there Toxins in Clay Pots?
Earthenware clay is a mixture of clays from different areas that were carried by a stream to a new site. These transported clays are usually contaminated with non-clay minerals such as iron-oxide, various amounts of different metals, and other unwanted impurities.
The clay used in producing items for cooking, serving, and storing food should be free of harmful impurities. Clay purity should be validated by a certified third-party laboratory. The purity test is performed during both pre-production and post-production to ensure clay safety. Reputable companies regularly test the complete composition of clay to ensure the finest quality and absence of impurities. Unglazed earthenware made from tested pure clay is 100% non-reactive or inert.
Health Concerns about Glaze on Clay Pots
Earthenware clay is usually glazed to overcome its porosity, make it more functional, and provide easy cleaning. The composition of glazes in earthenware products that are used in contact with food are regulated by both federal and state agencies.
Lead based glazes, that have traditionally been used on earthenware, can be a health hazard to consumers. Lead glazes are inexpensive and suitable for creating a pleasing glossy finish, but if the glaze on utensils is not properly formulated and fired, lead can leach from the glaze and enter the food in contact with the utensil. Consumers are exposed to lead by using lead glazed earthenware that is purely fired for preparing, storing, and serving food and beverages. Lead is considered be among the most toxic metals and can significantly affect people’s health.
Lead can be found in the glazes of some traditional homemade clay pieces made in other countries and brought into the United States as souvenirs by individuals arriving from abroad.
Due to the hazardous effects of lead, the FDA regulates extractable lead limits in tableware to ensure their safety. Substances used in food contact materials should be lead-free or contain levels of lead that meet current FDA limits. Tableware exceeding the FDA levels, including glazed pottery, cannot be legally sold in the U.S.
How to Choose a Lead-free Clay Pot?
The earthenware made or sold in the United States must meet safety guidelines for lead content and is considered safe to use for food.
Make sure to purchase clay cookware from a reliable manufacturer and look for a safety label that states “Safe for food use.” Also opt for a lead-free-labeled product. Avoid highly decorated tableware and handcrafted items made by individuals.
Do not use pottery made in Mexico or Latin America or highly decorative Asian dishware for food contact purposes because those items may contain high levels of lead. Developing countries also do not have strict rules regarding lead. FDA recommends avoiding using those pieces for food, even when they are labelled “lead free”.
Benefits of Cooking in Unglazed Clay Cookware
Less Fat and Calories
A clay pot with a lid doesn’t allow vapour to escape as it does with metal cooking pots. The food is soaked and cooked in its natural juices. The steam that circulates throughout cooking provides plenty of moisture and eliminates the need for adding extra fats or liquids. That is why the food cooked in an earthenware clay pot may contain lower amounts of fat and calories compared with the food prepared in metal utensils.
Clay cookware is safe for almost all types of cooking. You can use it to fry, bake, braise, grill, brown, and to serve hot and cold foods. It can go from the refrigerator to direct cooking. Is it safe to put into a microwave. Almost any basic recipe can be easily adapted for clay pot cooking.
Flavorful and Nutritious Dishes
The porous nature of earthenware allows for slow and even cooking, while retaining the natural juices in food. This causes the flavors of all the ingredients to slowly blend together to create fuller flavors and enhanced aroma.
Nutrient Content is Preserved
A clay pot is a good base for a healthy and flavorful meal. The food is cooked slowly in a closed environment inside the pot. There isn’t much loss of nutrients and all cooking fluids are incorporated into the dish, making the meals taste delicious.
Heat Retaining Capability
All foods are cooked at low to medium heat, using 1/2 the energy. The heat-retaining capacity of a clay pot helps food stay hot longer. You can turn off the stove 5 minutes before your food is fully cooked and the residual heat will finish cooking the meal. Clay also can keep food warm for several hours after taking it out of the oven.
Safe for Food Contact
Clay that has passed purity testing is naturally inert and safe for preparing, cooking, and storing food. Food doesn’t react with pure clay and there are no toxic products to leach into your food.
Cons of Cooking with Erthenware
- Clay can break easily if you accidentally drop it. Also sudden temperature extremes can cause clay pots to crack.
- Clay pots may be difficult to handle, especially when they’re hot.
Photo credit: Yutaka Seki at flickr.com
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