FIRST we started buying pizza stones, massive pottery slabs that bake more evenly than flimsy metal sheets ever can.
Since then, some bold souls have been on a mighty quest for ever more slow, traditional cooking. They buy brick linings for their ovens or even install brick ovens in their backyards.
So maybe it’s time for stone pots to make a comeback.
That’s stone, not stoneware. Stoneware is just a kind of clay fired at a high temperature. We’re talking about pots actually carved out of stone. Out of blocks of soapstone dug from the earth.
Evan Kleiman, owner of Angeli Caffe on Melrose, bought her first soapstone pots in Milan 18 years ago. “They’re really gorgeous in a rustic, useful way,” she says. “They have a smooth, sensuous feel, an appealing smoothness.”
But they’re not just pretty, any more than they’re just exotic. They’re substantial cookware, with unique virtues in the kitchen.
“Soapstone is beautiful to cook with,” Kleiman says. “I love it because I love cooking things very slowly in moist heat. I love making small stews, Persian rice and bean soups in them.”
Soapstone gets its name from its slightly soapy feel, which owes to the fact that it’s about half talc, a stone soft enough to scratch with your fingernail. (The rest is mostly a harder stone named magnesite.) Soapstone is heavy and dense but easy to carve, so people have been making all sorts of things out of it ever since the Stone Age.
The Gabrielinos, who dominated the Los Angeles basin in pre-Columbian times, made pots at their soapstone mines on Catalina Island and traded them with their neighbors. Because there were no stove tops back then, these pots were used over an open fire, with a few rocks arranged underneath to hold them up. The Inuit of western Canada once had a similar business making soapstone pots.
The medieval Vikings also cooked in soapstone, and soapstone was the preferred cooking material in the eastern Mediterranean during the Middle Ages. The tradition has survived here and there, notably in Brazil, Lombardy and Yemen.
Medieval Arab cookbooks claimed soapstone was superior to metal because it didn’t change the flavor. But it has other virtues besides being chemically inert. It cooks with remarkable evenness; there are no hot spots in a soapstone pot.
And it retains heat. When you fry something in it, it browns up better than it does in any sort of metal but cast iron, because the food scarcely lowers the temperature of the utensil at all. In oven cooking, soapstone protects food from the temperature fluctuation that is always going on as the gas or electric element cycles on and off.
On top of all that, you can bring a soapstone utensil to the table and the food will stay hot. (Just don’t forget to put a trivet or a thick mat under it. After eight minutes on the fire, the bottom will be 400 degrees, and 10 minutes after being removed from the stove top it will still be nearly 300.) For that matter, soapstone retains cold -- stick it in the refrigerator for an hour and use it for serving food in summer.
You’d be tempted to bring it to the table, because soapstone ware is charming to look at. Each piece is unique, with beautiful natural grain. It darkens with use, the same way cast iron ware does. Most raw soapstone is a bluish gray color, which turns darker and darker green until it’s almost black.
The problem with soapstone (apart from the fact that it’s on the heavy side) is that it can crack. Heat isn’t the danger -- soapstone will withstand temperatures up to 1,000 degrees, much higher than you’d want to heat a copper pot. In Yemen, soapstone miglas last for decades, though they’re casually used over wild, leaping flames.
The danger is shocks. Just like a pizza stone, soapstone may crack if you drop it or hit it hard with something. It will certainly crack if you put cold water on it while it’s hot. Though it hardens with use, soapstone does have to be handled with some care the first few times you cook in it.
Going to the source
RECENTLY, Kleiman bought a Brazilian soapstone griddle from Michael Gerard, whose Eagle Rock business, Wildwood Ovens, makes brick ovens and Brazilian churrascarias (a sort of brick barbecue with built-in rotisserie). Gerard also imports soapstone cookware from a Brazilian village workshop.
On a visit to Brazil, he’d seen soapstone pots (panelas de pedra-sabao) for sale at chic shops in Sao Paulo, so he decided to visit the soapstone capital of Brazil, the state of Minas Gerais. A Brazilian university study recently found two-thirds of the people in one Minas Gerais town regularly cook on soapstone.
“I found a village with a soapstone pot-making co-op there,” he says, “30 to 40 families, all related, in a remote region you can only get to by dirt roads. They mine the stone locally and form it into rough nuggets, which they shape on a lathe, finishing it with hand tools.” They now supply him with soapstone pots and griddles.
In Italy, the capital of stone cookware is the Valchiavenna, a valley north of Lake Como, also well known as a ski area. It has been making soapstone pots at least since the 1400s. As in Brazil, the pots are worked with lathes. The stone pot (laveggio or lavecc), the symbol of the local cuisine, is used for making soups, risottos and long-cooked meat dishes such as potatoes and sausages or pork ribs in wine.
Yemeni stone cookware (not commercially available) is carved by hand, using adzes and files. It’s quite thin, about one-quarter inch, while Brazilian and Italian ware is usually at least half an inch thick. Surprisingly, this probably makes the thinner somewhat more durable on the fire. Food science writer Harold McGee points out that heat spreads slowly through stone, so thinner pieces suffer less stress and warping on the fire.
Because it’s just a piece of rock, a soapstone pot can’t have a built-in handle, the way pottery or a metal utensil can. The Italian laveggi that Kleiman bought at Medagliani l’Alberghiera in Milan 20 years ago don’t even make a nod in the direction of a handle -- you have to pick them up with pot holders. Yemeni miglas have flanges on their sides so you can move them with a pair of sticks. But more modern pots and griddles mount a copper band around the utensil and rivet some handles onto that.
The laveggi that Medagliani sells today also have disks of aluminum affixed to their bottoms, presumably for extra sturdiness. Not that they absolutely need it, but it might be a sign -- a sign that stone is coming back.
An uncommon cookware
Soapstone cookware is available from one local distributor, Wildwood Ovens in Eagle Rock. It has stock on hand, and you can also order from its website. Other distributors offer the cookware for sale online.
All sell Brazilian soapstone, except for Medagliani l’Alberghiera in Milan, which sells Italian.
Because of the awkwardness of ordering from Medagliani’s website, it would be best to inquire about prices and shipping costs by clicking @Contattaci at www.medagliani.it.
The usual sizes of the Brazilian griddles and pots range from $70 to $100; 1-liter and smaller pots tend to be around $50. Brazil on My Mind has small pots without handles as low as $30 and a 5-liter pot for $150.
Most soapstone merchants give instructions for curing the cookware by oiling it and baking it until it darkens. This resembles the curing of iron pots, but it’s primarily for appearance’s sake. While uncured iron pots will give a rusty flavor to food, uncured soapstone will simply not have such an evenly darkened surface.
Medagliani l’Alberghiera, Milan. 2.5-, 3- and 4-liter casseruola pietra naturale, 4.3- and 5.5-liter casseruola bombata, square and rectangular baking/serving trays (lastra). www.medagliani.it/allegati_rassegna/Cucina.pdf (Soapstone ware is on Page 7).