Many Moroccan dishes take their name from a tagine, the clay or ceramic vessel in which they were traditionally cooked. Although urban Moroccans may be more more inclined to use modern cookware such as pressure cookers when making stews, tagines are still favored by those who appreciate the unique, slow-cooked flavor which the clayware imparts to the food. In addition, tagines remain the cookware of choice in many rural areas as a matter of cultural norms.
Before a new tagine can be used, it must be strengthened to withstand moderate cooking temperatures. How to Season a Tagine explains this process.
Cooking in a tagine is different than cooking in a conventional pot in a number of ways:
- The tagine doubles as both a cooking vessel and serving dish which holds the food warm. Since you won't be stirring during the cooking, take care how you arrange or layer ingredients for a beautiful table presentation.
- Note that tagines are traditionally eaten communally; diners gather around the tagine and eat by hand, using pieces of Moroccan bread to scoop up meat, veggies and sauce.
- A ceramic or clay tagine should only be used over low to medium-low heat to avoid damaging the tagine or scorching the food; use only as much heat as necessary for maintaining a simmer.
- The use of an inexpensive diffuser between the tagine and electric heat source is essential; a diffuser is recommended for other heat sources as well.
- Tagines may also be cooked over small fires or in braziers over charcoal. Be aware that it can be tricky to maintain an adequately low temperature with these methods. It's best to use a small quantity of charcoal or wood to establish a heat source, and then periodically feed small handfuls of new fuel to keep the fire or embers burning. This way you'll avoid too high a heat.
- You can use a clay or ceramic tagine in an oven; place the cold tagine in a cold oven on a rack, then set the thermostat to no more than 325° F (160° C) to 350° F (180° C).
- In many tagine recipes, vegetables and meats go into the vessel at the very beginning. This is different from conventional pot cooking, where vegetables are added only after the meat has already become tender.
- Some recipes may call for browning the meat at the beginning, but this really isn't necessary when cooking in a tagine. Most of my recipes do not call for this step.
- Oil is essential to tagine cooking; don't be overly cautious in using it or you'll end up with watery sauce or possibly scorched ingredients. In most recipes for 4 to 6 people, you'll need between 1/4 to 1/3 cup of oil (sometimes part butter), which will mix with cooking liquids to make ample sauce for scooping up with bread. Choose olive oil for the best flavor (it has health benefits, too!). Those with dietary or health concerns can simply avoid the sauce when eating.
- Less water is required when cooking in a tagine because the cone-shaped top condenses steam and returns it to the dish. If you've erred by adding too much water, reduce the liquids at the end of cooking to a thick sauce. A watery sauce is not desirable.
- Patience is required; let the tagine reach a simmer slowly and know that poultry takes about two hours to cook while beef or lamb may take up to four hours.
- Try not to interrupt the cooking by frequently lifting the lid to check on the food; that's best left for adding ingredients or to check on the level of liquids toward the end of cooking.
- Avoid subjecting the tagine to extreme temperature changes which can cause the tagine to crack. Do not, for example, add very hot liquids to a cold tagine (and vice versa); do not set a hot tagine on a very cold surface.
- Hot water and baking soda (or salt) are usually sufficient for cleaning your tagine. If necessary, you can use a very mild soap, but rinse extra well since you don't want unglazed clay to absorb a soapy taste. Pat dry, and rub the inner surfaces of the tagine with olive oil before storing.
- If you scorch something in the tagine and can't scrape the burnt residue from the bottom, try this method: Fill the tagine 1/3 full with water and place over a medium-low heat; add a tablespoon or two of baking soda and bring to a simmer. Leave the liquids to simmer for a half hour and see if the residue has loosened. If not, leave the baking soda mixture in the tagine overnight (off the heat, of course); often the long soak will do the trick.