A Guide to Clay Pot Cooking

Before the Instant Pot, air fryer, or pretty much any other cooking vessel existed, there was the clay pot. These traditional clay or earthenware vessels come in many shapes and sizes and have been used around the world since prehistoric times. And to this day, display-worthy clay pots, including donabes, tagines, cazuelas, sha guo, and more, can all play a role in the modern kitchen, whether a recipe specifically calls for one or not. 

So, why opt for this ancient cookware when you can tap a few buttons on the side of a slow cooker? Lidded clay pots are excellent choices for making any dish that needs to be simmered, stewed, or braised. That includes beans and grains like rice. The clay generally takes longer to fully heat than a metal pot, but once it does, it retains that heat and allows for steady, gentle cooking. And clay has the unique advantage of being a porous material. An unglazed clay pot may be soaked in water before use, so that once food cooks inside, the pot puts off additional steam. As 886’s chef and founder Eric Sze commented on using a clay pot for Three Cup Chicken, when this occurs and the food is brought to a rolling boil inside, the soaked clay pot almost creates “a semi-pressurized environment” in which the food can cook more rapidly.

Because clay pots are the traditional cookware of so many cuisines, there’s a nostalgic pride you may get when cooking with them. And the beauty of these vessels makes them great for presenting food at the table. Like a wok, they acquire a rich patina with use, which clay pot aficionados covet. Steve Sando, founder of Rancho Gordo beans and avowed clay pot head, sells clay pots online and writes in one product’s description: “Exposure to heat, fire and food will only make it more beautiful. Even better, cooking beans in clay is almost magical. The slow, even heat and natural clay are considered the best way to cook beans.”

One caveat: Never introduce clay pots to sudden temperature changes as they may crack. Let the pot cool down to room temperature after cooking in it, before you bring it to the sink. 

Here are some brief introductions to popular types of clay pots from around the world.

Tajine or Tagine

Easily recognizable by its conical shape, this pot is a mainstay of North African cooking, in which dishes cooked in the pot are also referred to as tagines. These pots have relatively shallow dishes with tall, pointed lids: The lid’s shape allows steam to condense and trickle back into the food that’s simmering in the base. Tagines can be glazed or unglazed, made of terra-cotta or other types of earthenware, and varied in size. Slow-braised stews with vegetables and meat such as lamb or chicken with seasonings are popularly cooked in tagines; the ingredients become beautifully enmeshed while they gently simmer. As Claudia Roden writes in Arabesque: A Taste of Morocco, Turkey & Lebanon, “Cooking in a clay tagine, very gently over a brazier (kanoun) of constantly replenished embers, diffuses the heat all around the pot and produces, at the end, a reduced sauce sizzling in its fat.” 

Glazed Terra Cotta Tagine, 12.5 inches

Handmade Moroccan Tagine, 7 inches

Shakla Dist

These clay pots are traditionally used in Ethiopian and Eritrean cooking, especially for long-simmered stews or wat (or wot), such as doro wat with chicken and hard-boiled eggs. These pots come in a variety of sizes and are usually round in shape with handles on both sides of the base and one on the top of the lid. According to Harry Kloman, author of Mesob Across America: Ethiopian Food in the USA, shakla means “clay” in Amharic, and “some Ethiopians will swear that the food tastes better when it simmers in earthenware.” There are also many other types of clay cookware used in these East African cuisines, such as the jebena, a traditional clay coffee pot. In In Bibi’s Kitchen: The Recipes and Stories of Grandmothers From the Eight African Countries that Touch the Indian Ocean, author Hawa Hassan notes that all recipes can be made with modern cookware that is available—but makes an exception for the buna, or Ethiopian coffee, recipe, which specifies the jebena.

Handmade Ethiopian Shakla Dist


As noted above with the tagine, the dishes that are typically cooked in clay pots often share their name. In the case of cazuela, which has been traditionally used in cuisines all over Latin America, that battery of typical dishes has become quite broad. In Chile, for instance, a cazuela refers to a chunky soup or soupy stew of meat and vegetables like potatoes and corn on the cob. In Puerto Rico, a cazuela is a sweet potato and pumpkin pudding. The word originates from the Spanish for “cooking pot,” and like its contents, its shape and size can vary quite a bit. Cazuelas are often made of glazed terra-cotta, with handles on both sides and a lid, and might be adorned with glazed patterns.

Handmade Clay Pot with Lid, 80 ounces

Bean Pot

There are a variety of pots that are more specifically for slow-cooking beans. In Mexico, they might be called an olla de barro frijolera. In Italy, they may be called a pignate. The shared characteristics often include a long, deep cavity with a rounded center. You might mistake one for a vase if it doesn’t have a lid. According to Rancho Gordo, which sells a Mixteca Bean Pot, “beans love the constant heat and the clever shape helps hold in moisture.” 

Rancho Gordo Mixteca Bean Pot

Terracotta Pot with Lid, 6 quart

Mexican Handmade Terracotta Bean Pot, 4 liters


Nowadays, you’ll be hard-pressed to find this pot in France, where it originated, let alone in the U.S. But this earthenware pot was traditionally used to make cassoulet, the rustic French bean dish. (As with many of the clay pots featured here, the food that was typically served in them took on their name to some extent.) In France, these pots are typically tapered from top to bottom—sort of like the inverse of a tagine. The open top allows for a rich crust to form after the bubbling bean liquid has mostly evaporated. 


This traditional Japanese earthenware pot is a versatile cooking vessel that comes in a variety of shapes and sizes that are more tailored to their cooking uses. For instance, the donabe Kamado-san, with a large domed lid, is excellent for cooking rice. According to Naoko Takei Moore, who sells the pots online and authored the cookbook, Donabe: Classic and Modern Japanese Clay Pot Cooking, this donabe creates fluffy, shiny rice grains that are almost satisfying enough to eat alone. Donabe are also the classic cooking-and-serving vessel for a Japanese hot pot, or nabe, a comforting one-pot meal with meat or fish and vegetables cooked in broth or sometimes soy milk. 

Nagatani-En Mushi Nabe Donabe Steamer

Sha Guo

Chinese clay pots, or sha guo, also run the gamut in terms of shape and size. Braised and stewed dishes, such as the Taiwanese Three Cup Chicken or Shanghainese Lion’s Head Meatballs, are traditionally cooked in sha guo. This ancient style of cooking has its fans—there’s a restaurant in Beijing devoted to sha guo cooking—although you probably won’t find clay pots in many modern urban kitchens in China today. Sha guo commonly feature a longer clay handle on one side for easy transport from the fire to the table. The historic Wok Shop in San Francisco sells two sizes of them with handles and a wire cage, the latter to help protect the clay and promote even heating.

Chinese Clay Pot, 16 ounces

Town Ceramic Sauce Pan, With Lid, 24 ounces


In Korea, clay cooking pots are known as ttukbaegi (or ddukbaegi) and are used for many classic dishes, like soondubu jjigae, a seafood and tofu soup, or samgyetang, a chicken and ginseng soup. The pots vary in size and shape, ranging from small one-person dishes to larger family-style pots. The ttukbaegi is often placed on a wood trivet to bring to the table from the stove, where the residual heat from the clay keeps its contents bubbling and hot. In Korean Home Cooking: Classic and Modern Recipes, author Sohui Kim notes that if you don’t have a ttukbaegi to make soondubu jjigae, as per tradition, you should opt for the smallest pot that will fit all the ingredients for the soup, “as you don’t want the liquid to evaporate.” 

Korean Stone Hot Pot, 5.8 cups


This is the traditional clay pot in the Philippines used for cooking many dishes, including kare-kare, a stew thickened with peanuts. Palayok refers to the Tagalog word for “clay pot.” Other regions throughout the Philippines have different words for it, such as kulon in the Visayas. These clay pots can be glazed or unglazed, deep or squat, and they’re used primarily for soups and stews as well as for cooking rice. A classic shape and size features a domed lid and a deep base that bulges around the center, like a bean pot. 

Editor’s note: This pot is currently out of stock.


While nowadays they might be made from copper or other metals, a handi is a traditional clay pot used in North Indian, Pakistani, and Bangladeshi cooking. And due to the many languages throughout South Asia where they are used, clay pots go by many other names as well, such as chatti in the Indian state of Kerala. Biryani, a rice dish that’s layered with meat and spices, is one common use for handi, and therefore, these clay pots are sometimes called biryani pots. There’s a restaurant in Buffalo called, appropriately, Clay Handi, celebrating this cookware tradition; it also sells clay cookware.

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