What you need to know about clay pots
There are several types of clay pots, each with its own set of attributes.
Earthenware, which can be glazed, partially glazed, or unglazed, and is sometimes called redware or terra cotta, is the most common. When using earthenware either on the stove top or in the oven, moderation is always key, as quick changes of temperature may cause the clay to crack. A heat diffuser should always be used as a buffer when cooking with earthenware pots on an electric or ceramic stove.
Unglazed earthenware pots, including those made from micaceous clay, should be seasoned before use as directed by the manufacturer. Glazed and partially glazed earthenware pots need simply be soaked once. Glazed pots are generally dishwasher safe, but porous unglazed pots should be washed by hand to prevent absorption of detergent.
Flameware, the popular name for flameproof ceramic cookware, is newer on the market, but it's extremely practical. This type of stoneware contains mineral elements that keep vessels from expanding and contracting with sudden changes in temperature (as conventional stoneware does), thus allowing them to be used more easily over direct heat on a stove top or even under the broiler.
Clay pots also come under different names, depending on the shape and country of origin.
* A Spanish cazuela is a round earthenware vessel glazed all over except on the very bottom. Cazuelas come in a wide range of sizes, but for most recipes a 10-, 11- or 12-inch pot will be most handy. The cazuela is a real workhorse, as it can stand in for all kinds of Mediterranean skillets and shallow pots and can be used both in the oven and on top of the stove.
* You will need at least one deep earthenware or Flameware casserole with a cover to use for cooking soups, daubes, stews, beans and other slow-cooked dishes on top of the stove or in the oven. Gentle and even cooking preserves the flavors and binds them brilliantly. There is less of a tendency for food to burn, and cleanup is effortless. There are beautiful casseroles available online from North America, France, Italy, Spain, Egypt, Turkey, Colombia and Chile.
* Pots made of micaceous clay have a lovely glittery surface and are thus left unglazed. One inexpensive line I particularly like, La Chamba, is imported from Colombia. These pots make superb clay cooking vessels that can stand up to direct heat and retain heat beautifully. They are strong and particularly good for cooking slow-simmered soups, sauces, vegetables, beans and stews. They come in the form of skillets, baking pans and casseroles. The La Chamba shallow baking dish is particularly useful for cooking flat breads, scrambled eggs and gratins. La Chamba pots are porous, so don't leave liquid in them for long periods off the heat.
* Tagines have become very popular lately, and with good reason. Tagines cook food beautifully, and they are relatively inexpensive. The high conical -- or dome-shaped -- cover, which fits into the shallow base, acts as a kind of closed chimney. Since the heat on a stove top comes from below, the top of the cover remains cooler than the rest of the pot, which causes steam to condense and drip back onto the stew, preventing the food from drying out.
-- Paula Wolfert