Chinese Technique of cooking with Clay

Joined Nov 15, 2000
I am teaching a Chinese Cooking Techniques class for the summer quarter. One of the techniques that I have researched is cooking with clay. In Ken Hom's Chinese Techniques, he recommends getting clay that has a high heat tolerance from a pottery supply place.
Has anyone ever worked with this type of cooking technique. Or should I just go with the clay containers that are available now.
Your comments are very much appreciated.
Thanks :confused:
Joined May 18, 2001
I think you need to differentiate between cooking in "clay pots" versus cooking in "clay", such as in making Beggar's Chicken.

For cooking in clay, most authors I have read suggest substituting flour and water mixtures for the clay. The idea being to seal the food totally so that it steams while it cooks. Since the "original" beggar didn't pluck his chicken beofre he wrapped it in mud, the bake mud helped pluck the chicken when it was removed. Once again, most of the recipes I read for this recipe also suggest wrapping the chicken in paper or foil before adding the flour "clay". If you are able to seal the chicken sufficiently before adding the clay, you may be able to get away with pottery clay.

As to the other "clay" cooking, traditional Chinese clay pots are low-fire pots that are only glazed on the inside. They are a Chinese equivalent of a saucepan. Although most sources say you can't use these pots on electic burners, I've been doing so for years without any problems. These pots are great for long cooking of simmered dishes. Seasonned clay pots seem to add a certain something to preparations, too! I also serve the contents directly from the pots -- they look nice on the dinner table.
Joined Nov 15, 2000
Thank you for your insight.The flour and water "clay" idea is quite interesting.Thank you too for the history behind the original Beggar's Chicken.
First I should clarify the technique I am using which is indeed called Beggar's Chicken, but the chicken is marinade then stuffed with veggies, pork and ham then covered with caul fat and sealed in 2 large lotus leaves and 6 lbs of moist porous, quick-drying type of clay that can take intense heat. The main purpose for this choice is for the dramatic presentation. Or the other suggestion is to use a clay pot thatI assumed was oven proof. I am familiar with the clay pots you are referring to. The type that the Japanese use for mizu taki and is prepared table side. I am pretty sure it is a different from the clay pot that Ken Hom refers to in his book. I think he is referring to the clay pot that is oven proof and is made out of a similar material as the clay. It is much deeper than the pot you refer to.
Joined Nov 20, 2000
Have you considered using a salt crust in place of the clay? It might be easier to obtain as well and I'm willing to bet, cheaper! The lotus leaves will prevent the salt from flavoring the chicken but will also help to impart an interesting flavor. Salt( not kosher) + egg whites to a paste and cover it well. Use just like the clay.
Joined Mar 13, 2001
Indians cook in a tandoor, an oven made of clay. I don't think they use clay pots at all. They often use a kind of wok, I don't remember the correct name but it looks like a wok.

Joined May 18, 2001

There are a couple of different styles of clay pots used in Chinese cooking. One style has a roundish bottom and the other is more angular. Here's a picture of the rounder style.
Both are glazed on the inside only and could be used in the oven instead of on top of the stove, if desired. I've also seen these pots referred to as "sand pots" as well as clay pots.

I find your description of Beggar's Chicken interesting. I'd never heard of caul fat in Chinese recipes before. The lotus leaves would impart a nice flavor to the chicken plus make it easier to separate the clay from the cooked chicken. It seems to me that the flavor imparted by the lotus leaves would conflict with the flavor imparted by the caul fat. Also, Chinese ham is quite different than Western-syle hams -- the closest being Smithfield hams which are quite salty and dry.

I hope you let us know how the dish turns out.
Joined Nov 15, 2000
Thank you all for your input.
The Chinese have a technique called Salt Roasting in which Chicken and Duck, most often, get roasted in coarse or rock salt. It comes out very tender and flavorful and not salty at all. I have had duck this way and it is delicious.
I got this recipe from "Chinese Technique" by Ken Hom with Harvey Steiman. Yes, you are right about the Chinese ham being closest to Smithfeild ham, which is what is recommended.As for the saltiness, perhaps it can be soaked? Hom explains that the caul fat is used to hold the stuffing in place and imparts richness to the chicken.Of course the caul could always be optional. I also found directions in the book about soaking the clay pot in cold water according to manufacturer's directions , drain it and put the chicken in it. Cover the pot and bake for 2 hours at 350oF.
This recipe should be pretty interesting for my class to do. I will certainly report back after we have done it in class. It may be a little while for classes have not even started yet. Thanks again for the input.

Just want to add this info I got after looking up Beggar's Chicken on Google.I found posts about using Roemertopf clay pots instead of clay to get the same effect.It is not a Chinese pot, but can be used as a substitute for the clay. It seems to be an unglazed clay pot that you soak in water and then can be put in the oven. This must be what Ken Hom was referring to .

[ June 04, 2001: Message edited by: logose ]
Joined May 18, 2001

I've never had to soak my clay pots -- they're not porous anyway -- and I've always used them on top of the stove -- not in the oven.

As for the caul fat, the cavity of the chicken could be skewered closed. If the skin is not in contact with the lotus leaves it won't have as much of this flavor.
Joined Nov 15, 2000
It is obvious you never used theRomertopf pot I am referring to. These are not your sand pots, which you are right and you do not soak. Romertopfs are not even Chinese. They are just substitutes for the clay, just like the flour and paste are. The results seem to be the same.
As for as Caul fat is concerned, sometimes we have a time getting that in at school. Whenever that is ordered the market buyer has problems procuring it so it may not be a problem anyway.
Here are a set of instructions referring to the Romertopf clay pot that I got from a web site specializing in these pots.

"This special porous clay is unglazed, allowing it to breathe during the cooking process.

Food cooked in a clay pot requires no liquid unless specifically called for in a recipe. The result incorporates all-natural juices, the full flavor and taste, and all the essential nutrients and vitamins are retained.

You can cook all types of foods without adding any fat.


Before using the first time, wash thoroughly with hot water. Do not use soaps.

Before each time you use it, completely immerse the top and bottom in water for 10 to 15 minutes.

After adding all the ingredients, place your Romertopf in the center of a cold oven.

Do not add cold liquids once the Romertopf is hot.

Recipes usually can be converted for clay pots by increasing the cooking temperature by 100 degrees Fahrenheit, and deducting one-half hour of cooking time.

Romertopf is ideal for the microwave. Because microwave ovens vary to such a great degree, use the oven manufacturer's guidelines for cooking times.

To keep it in top condition for many, many years, take care not to shock it by moving it from one extreme temperature to another.

Use mitts or pot holders to move it when it is hot, and place it on a trivet, mat or folded dishtowel when moving it out of the oven.

Cleaning is a snap. Use hot water only, and a stiff natural bristle or nylon brush, or a nylon scouring pad to clean after each use. Do not use soaps; a little baking soda will cut any grease.

When not in use, keep the Romertopf in a place where the air circulates. Place lid upside down on top of base when storing, to allow air to circulate inside the bottom of the roaster.

Don't use the Romertopf on an open flame or hot cooking plate. It is designed for oven and microwave use only."

I hope this clarifies things for you.

:D :)
Joined May 11, 2001
I certainly could be wrong about this, but somewhere in my trivia-filled head, aren't Romertopf pots the traditional way to cook ratatouille? My mom used to make this yummy dish quite often but just in a pyrex casserole.
Joined Jun 21, 2009
In reading your post I would suggest the Romertopf clay bakeware. They do not contain lead or cadmimum are porous unglazed, and thus allowing the pot to breathe during the cooking process.

I would avoid purchasing clay unless the merchant could guarantee the clay to be "Food Safe", containing no cadmimum or lead.

Foods cooked in Romertopf clay cookware cook in ther own natural juices. Soaking the pot in water allows you to cook with out additional water or fats. Foods turn out juicy and tender.

Good Luck,

Joined Feb 26, 2007
Romertopfs are great - got one for our wedding many many moons ago and it works even better now than it first did (or maybe my cooking got better )


Staff member
Joined Mar 29, 2002
In my experience, a romertopf is rather different from cooking sealed in soft clay which is NOT porous, nor their claypot/sandpot dishes. I've seen claims for it but to my thinking, and experience, they don't cook the same.
Joined Jun 6, 2007
I enjoy investigating traditional cooking techniques and I came across a similar technique that you describe here about cooking in wet clay.

The technique I read about was in a wilderness survival book that explained how to bake a fish in clay on coals when pots and pans are not readily available.

I found a similart reference at this site for fish.
link: Clay-baked Fish

Apparently just plain river clay will do the trick so potting clay would be considered superior quality (I assume).
Luc H.
Joined Dec 21, 2012
I am sorry to disillusion you, but are you at all familiar personally with the cooking of the Indian subcontinent?There are several styles of cooking that DEMAND cooking in CLAY POTS, which have nothing to do with a tandoor, a clay oven on Pan-Asian provenance oven sunk into the earth [kunda] or raised above it].

For example, from the area around Pakistan including Sindh and the northern plains of India we have the series of dishes called HANDI : handi kababs, handi chicken, various cuts of meat and offal cooked together in a handi, an unglazed clay pot of a specific shape and of a fired red clay that contributes to a particular organoleptic effect.

Moving to Kerala in the deep south, we have a quite different shaped "chatti" of clay that fires to another bronzed black color, and here fish dishes with many strong souring agents are cooked in such vessels, never in metal.

Going to Bengal, rices, dals and many other foods are preferably cooked in clay over a wood fire to imbue them with a characteristic "country" flavor, as well as a texture impossible any other way. The clay vessels are washed, and covered with a slip of fresh clay on the outside before being reused, each time.

It is not useful to scold someone who has brought up a valid query when one is oneself completely ignorant. Please allow yourself the space and humility to acquire valid knowledge before taking that supercilious tone.

So, Svadhisthana, in matters jyeSthA and mUlA, you are quite right!!
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