This series of Focus On pages has a simple mission: to shine a light on superior kitchen products that just don’t get the recognition they deserve. By that definition, the Romertopf clay pot may well be the poster boy for the whole concept. Or, put another way, I can’t understand why every home cook does not own one! Let me explain…
There are a rare, few instances in cooking where the better way is actually the easier way. And for all the cookware we have used, very few actually drive the results to the ideal all on their own. But Romertopf pots do. Because only an unglazed clay pot that has been presoaked in water has the ability to envelop foods in a tenderizing steam bath that will leave foods juicy, flavorful and perfectly primed to take on a richly caramelized exterior. This is what makes Romertopf so uniquely well-suited to roasts and braises of virtually any meat, fish, fruit and vegetable. Plus it is exceptionally good for a variety of one-pot rice dishes and will yield about the best home-baked bread possible. What other pot can do that? And what other roasting pan creates a clear, pure, flavorful broth all on its own, without additional ingredients or liquids? It’s as if the pot was saying “hey, thanks for picking me to cook that garlic-studded pork shoulder, it looks delicious! And it’s really juicy, but I’ve thrown in a nice pork jus, just in case you want to make hot roast pork sandwiches tomorrow…or maybe a soup, but it’s totally your call. Thanks again!”
I mean seriously, I love All Clad and have used it a thousand times, but not once has it given me free broth...
So why don’t more cooks use Romertopf cookware in their regular rotation? Maybe a lot of home cooks are simply not familiar with what clay pots can do, or are under the impression that clay is difficult to use? This past November, we spent a full afternoon in the kitchen with two clay pots and a mere 35 bucks of ingredients to prove why every home cook should own and use this unique cookware. But first, here’s a quick introduction to the cookware and the people who make it.
The German company Romertopf (literally “Roman pot”) based their simple but modern clay cookware on millenia-old designs used by the Romans and likely, the Etruscans before them. The 2-piece oblong pots are shaped from all-natural clay which is sourced from Ransbach-Baumbach, a region in Germany that’s known for superior clay. The company began manufacturing and selling clay pots in Europe in 1967 but did not arrive to the US until 1974. Fueled by print media buzz about the “new and unusual-looking” German cookware, Romertopf made a fair splash in the U.S. cookware market, despite it’s less-than-sleek appearance. But through the years, clay pot cooking has settled into a fringe or niche presence, with (at best) a steady U.S. market and small, loyal customer base. Previously, American markets had been supplied with Mexican-made versions of the clay pot. The easiest way to tell the difference between German Romertopf and the Mexican-made version is by checking the bottom pot. German-made Romertopf has always been made with a glass-glazed interior, while the Mexican pots are not. But Mexico's production stopped several years ago, and now all Romertopf is produced in Germany. Reston Lloyd, a company specializing in kitchenware and dinnerware, is the sole distributor of original German-made Romertopf throughout the US and the Americas
The pots are somewhat softer and lighter than glazed ceramic and other glazed stoneware pieces, but they are not particularly delicate. It is a good idea to store the pieces nested in their own spot and away from metal and heavier cookware. The most significant limitation of unglazed clay cookware is that it can’t handle a big, abrupt swing in temperature. For that reason, Romertopf instructs the user to NOT preheat the oven. Instead, you just place the filled pot in the oven and then turn the heat on. Also when taking the hot pot from the oven, you should not set it directly on a cold surface such as a cool stone counter or marble worktop. Instead, lay down a towel first, or set the pot on a wood or other heat-safe cutting board until it cools a bit. Romertopf backs their cookware with a 1-year warranty, which is limited to manufacturing defects and error or damage in shipping.
Let’s Get Cooking
Fresh out of the box, our new 4.2 Qt Romertopf has the look and feel of natural, raw terracotta. After a quick, light scrub of the pot and lid, I set the lid upside-down in the sink and filled it with tap water. This initial 45-minute soaking is required only once, and after that you soak it for just 15 minutes before each use. Since the bottom pot has a non-porous, glazed interior there is no reason to soak it, though you can if you like. I also filled my old and cherished Mexico-made 3-Qt Romertopf for its 15 minute soak. Since it came to me many years ago with an unglazed bottom, I’ve always soaked both pieces. I very consciously did not preheat the oven and got right to prep. Our menu for the day consisted of a roasted chicken with vegetables, a tagine-inspired braise and a few loaves of crusty, French-style boules.
As far as I'm concerned, roasting is the Romertopf's "bread and butter", and we could have used any type of roast to prove it. A clay pot doesn't know the difference between lamb shoulder, winter squash or pork loin and it will cook most any food with tender, juicy results. So feel free to substitute whatever you're hungry for, but I decided to roast a chicken. Roasted chicken has remained a culinary standard for hundreds of years, both as a popular, everyday meal, and as an early technical watermark for cooks. It can also be one of my all-time favorite meals, but that depends on the details. As a chef, I tend to take certain details very seriously and the roasted chicken that I love is fully cooked and evenly browned with a delicately crisp, caramelized skin; it is succulent, plump and so juicy that, if not careful when eating, drips will certainly run down to your chin. It’s glorious and if you’ve ever experienced a good roasted chicken, you’re salivating right now just thinking of it.
Now, let me say this first because it’s absolutely true: anyone can roast a chicken and do at least a fair job. But to make the glorious type described above takes some preparation and some practice. Or you can just use a Romertopf, and easy success is just about guaranteed. That's why I use it for a lot of my roasting at home, and especially if I can’t afford to be stuck in the kitchen. The first “recipe” made in our new pot is a standard in my house that I prepare once or twice a month.
Since our chicken came with a pop-up thermostat already in place (most major brand roasting chickens do), all I had to do was check the pot after the hour and a half had passed. I pulled the whole pot from the oven and set it on a towel, on the counter. I then removed the lid and placed it on the stove next to the pot. The smell was amazing and, intentionally or not, a few customers casually circled the test kitchen while others approached the counter to watch, or ask "what time's lunch?" That's always a good sign. But the timer had not popped yet (though I knew it wasn’t far off), and at this point the roast had no color because it had been covered. So I placed the roast back in the oven, uncovered, so it would develop a rich, roasted color as it finished cooking. Since the fat had already rendered from the skin as it cooked, caramelization occurs quickly, and in under 15 minutes it was nicely browned and ready.
After a short resting period, I carved the roast, claimed my cook’s tribute of 1 wing and some sliced breast, and arranged the rest on a platter with the vegetables for our shoppers to sample. In situations like this, where food is unexpectedly offered, many people tend to act shyly. I mean, it's easy enough to get people to try some cheese on a toothpick, but this was roasted chicken with potatoes and carrots. Forks, plates and napkins were involved. However, seats were pulled and customers ate. Properly roasted, the humble chicken provides a sumptuous experience that will hold your attention. You know you’ve done well when people eat quietly with an occasional nod or a quick, wide-eyed glance at whomever they’re with, in an inaudible “Yummm!”
The thing that I have to point out is the Ropmertopf pot is the reason why this simple preparation turned out so well. Outside of seasoning, I really didn't have anything to do with it! For me to make a similarly juicy bird on an open roasting pan requires far more attention and time. I’d have to turn and baste the bird repeatedly, co-ordinate the timing of the vegetables with the timing of the roast and watch the temperature like a hawk or risk drying out the white meat. But using a Romertopf, I could very well have taken a 90 minute nap and the bird would have come out the same! The ingredients inside cook at the same rate and “dry” just doesn’t happen. In fact, there was easily a quart and a half of clear, aromatic chicken broth left in the pot that could easily be used as a light jus or thickened into a gravy. But roasted chicken this good needs no sauce, so I decided to use it for the next dish.
A recent visit to an excellent Philadelphia spice shop left me yearning for the spice-driven flavors and heady aromas of a North African Tagine. It’s a stew of sorts, traditionally prepared in an earthenware pot (also called a Tagine), with it’s distinctive and tall conical lid. I was certain that a Romertopf could handle it brilliantly, so I adapted an online recipe that used chicken legs and thighs, butternut squash, dried apricots, pears, preserved lemons and an arsenal of exotic spices. But instead of simply loading all the ingredients into a soaked clay baker and popping it in the oven, which is fine to do in many cases, the recipe called for a preliminary searing of the meat, making it much more like a braise. The searing step adds rich color and flavor development, but also the opportunity to properly “bloom” the spice mixture in oil to intensify flavors before they are added to the stew. So after frying the chicken to a deep brown in a stainless steel pan, I transferred the pieces to my clay pot, turned down the heat and began building flavors with onions, garlic, paprika, turmeric, ginger, cardamom and more. There was no escaping the aroma, and who would want to?! Once again, unsuspecting shoppers began eyeing us up as they walked slowly by the demo kitchen. Then we captured all that flavor in white wine and just 2 cups of the broth from our roasted chicken, added the rest of the ingredients and brought them up to heat before pouring the whole pan into our clay pot and over the chicken. As before, the Romertopf lid was drained of water, placed on top and the whole pot went to the cool oven, which was then set to 425°F. Since I was only cooking cut pieces, and they had already gotten a head start from the searing, I figured that an hour should be plenty of time. Once again, I just didn’t worry too much about it, knowing the forgiving nature of the cookware.
While the tagine cooked, I spent a few minutes readying the lean French bread dough that I had mixed the night before. I shaped two 1-lb boules and set them over squares of parchment paper before sprinkling them with flour and draping a kitchen towel over each. The temperature of the kitchen had risen with the cooking and I estimated that the loaves would be sufficiently bench-proofed in an hour, maybe even less.
When using a Romertopf Pot for baking bread, there are two ways you can go. You can soak the pot, place the shaped and proofed dough in,and then set it in a cool oven and turn it on, per the typical directions. I have used this method for richer dough types, filled breads and slicing loaves and it works well. But for lean dough types, such as French bread, where an open, airy crumb is preferred, I like to set the unsoaked, empty pot and lid side by side in the oven and let them get very hot before adding the dough. The pot won’t add humidity to the baking as a soaked pot would, but it does provide a strong heat, which in turn encourages a powerful oven rise and an open and airy crumb structure. The closed pot will also capture the steam coming from the baking bread itself, which helps create a thick and chewy crust. Think of it as a small clay oven within a regular oven. Since that is the method I was going with, I placed my old Romertopf in with the tagine to heat up.
By this time the tagine began to smell really good again, but in a different way than it had in the pan. The braising method is one of transformation, and the simmering tagine developed a soft, even perfumed aroma of exotic spices. After a total of 60 minutes, I pulled the pot from the oven and could not have been happier with what I found. Well, maybe that's not exactly true. I do regret that I didn't make some cous cous to soak up all that amazing sauce!
Every oven can be a bread oven!
The boules had expanded pretty well on the counter, and having sliced an "x" across the top of each with my sharpest paring knife 15 minutes earlier, I figured they were ready to bake. Since I had already turned the oven up to 500°F after removing the tagine, the empty romertopf pot inside was very hot now. Working with a screaming hot clay pot is not something you want to do unprepared, so I've developed an easy system. The Romertopf pot and lid were placed side by side in the oven, open sides facing up. Since a Romertopf lid needs overhead space to fit, I had set the rack to the bottom third of the oven, and removed the top rack altogether so there would be plenty of room. To get the bread dough into the hot pot with a minimum of fuss, I open the oven all the way and pull the rack forward to allow easy access. Then I carefully lift the shaped boule by grabbing the ends of the parchment paper that it's resting on, holding it so the dough is cradled in between. I simply lower the dough into the pot, leaving the parchment underneath. Then, using oven mitts or dry kitchen towels, I turn the lid over and onto the pot, slide back the rack and close the oven. It's easy and straight-forward, just make sure you have everything you need before you begin so that you do not burn yourself, and so the oven does not stay open for longer than is necessary. With the hot lid on top, The Romertopf works as a little clay oven. It directs a strong, close heat at the boule from all sides, and that encourages a strong surge in yeast activity, otherwise known as "oven rise". Simultaneously, the smaller enclosed space traps plenty of steam from the cooking dough. This moisture-rich environment keeps the dough exterior just pliable enough to expand, and helps ensure even browning at a later stage of baking. If the dough had been cooked on a pizza stone instead, it still lets out steam, but not enough to sufficiently hydrate the larger area of the full oven, so additional steps must be taken to increase the humidity. From experience, I knew that a 1-lb. boule would take around 30-35 minutes in this type of heat, but I had a thermometer handy, in case. At 190°F, a lean dough is fully baked and ready to rest.
Bread is another area where I tend to be very nit-picky, and this was not my best attempt because I didn't knead it enough (I think). But I could not be disappointed with the bake; the loaf had a great oven rise and a crispy-chewy crust with good color. And again, I owe that to the Romertopf clay pot!
Now, there are many things that a clay pot cannot do at all, such as sear meat or boil water. I do not recommend one for making a grilled cheese for lunch or a good plate of pasta for a weeknight supper. But for the diverse range of dishes that are roasted or braised, a Romertopf pot is arguably the best cookware you can use. So I'll say it again: I can't understand why every cook would not own a Romertopf pot! The prices are very reasonable, compared to metal pots of similar size and capacity, and they are easier to cook with.
Consider the foods you prepare, or the foods you aspire to cook. If your list includes roasted anything, you need to try this cookware. If stews, braises or other slow-cooked, one-pot preparations are your thing, you should have at least one size of Romertopf in your cookware collection. Try it, and you'll get it!