Many Moroccan dishes take their name from a tagine, which is the clay or ceramic vessel in which they were traditionally cooked. Although urban Moroccans may be 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 that 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, you must season it so it is strengthened to withstand moderate cooking temperatures. Once the tagine is seasoned, it is easy to use. But there's more to know―cooking in a tagine is different from cooking in a conventional pot in a number of ways.
The tagine doubles as both a cooking vessel and a serving dish that keeps the food warm. Dishes served in a tagine are traditionally eaten communally; diners gather around the tagine and eat by hand, using pieces of Moroccan bread to scoop up meat, vegetables, and sauce. Since you won't be stirring during the cooking, take care how you arrange or layer ingredients for a beautiful table presentation.
Tagines are most often used on the stovetop but can also be placed in the oven. When cooking with a tagine on the stovetop, the use of an inexpensive diffuser between the tagine and the heat source is essential. A diffuser is a flat metal paddle that sits between the burner and the tagine and, as the name says, diffuses the heat so the ceramic doesn't crack and break.
The tagine should also only be used over low or medium-low heat to avoid damaging the tagine or scorching the food; use only as much heat as necessary to maintain a simmer. Tagines may also be used over small fires or in braziers over charcoal. It can be tricky to maintain an adequately low temperature. 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.
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), and do not set a hot tagine on a very cold surface. If you use a clay or ceramic tagine in an oven, place the cold tagine in a cold oven on a rack, then set the temperature to no more than 325 to 350 F.
Some recipes may call for browning the meat at the beginning, but this really isn't necessary when cooking in a tagine. You will notice that tagine recipes call for adding the vegetables and meats to 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.
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 and its health benefits. 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 into a thick sauce because a watery sauce is not desirable.
It can take some time to reduce a large volume of liquid in a tagine. If the dish is otherwise done, you can carefully pour the liquids into a small pan to reduce quickly, then return the thickened sauce back to the tagine.
When using a tagine, patience is required; let the tagine reach a simmer slowly. Poultry takes about 2 hours to cook, while beef or lamb may take up to 4 hours. Try not to interrupt the cooking by frequently lifting the lid to check on the food; that's best left toward the end of cooking when you add ingredients or check on the level of liquids.
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 the unglazed clay to absorb a soapy taste. Pat dry and rub the inner surfaces of the tagine with olive oil before storing it.
If you scorch something in the tagine and can't scrape the burned residue from the bottom, try this method: Fill the tagine 1/3 full with water and place over medium-low heat; add 1 or 2 tablespoons of baking soda and bring to a simmer. Leave the liquid to simmer for 30 minutes 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.