The tagine, an iconic vessel synonymous with Moroccan cooking, resembles a casserole dish with a distinctively conical lid. It’s traditionally made of earthenware and used directly on the stovetop to cook meat and vegetables, which are served over couscous. The conical lid directs moisture toward the center of the dish, helping food to cook more evenly—traditionally items such as lamb shanks are placed standing in up in the middle of the dish.
You can make a stoneware tagine for use in the oven or even on a grill, but to cook traditional recipes on the stovetop you’ll have to find a suitable clay body. True Moroccan tagines come in two variations: fancy decorated ones that are used for serving and not actually for cooking in; and simple, inexpensive ones that are used on the stovetop or over an open fire.
I’m not aware of any clay manufacturers that recommend using their earthenware on the stovetop. However, if you want to use a clay that really is suited for this purpose, try micaceous clay. Available from New Mexico Clay (www.nmclay.com), micaceous clay is a low-fire clay that has had a large percentage of powdered mica added to it to increase its ability to withstand thermal shock. This clay is used by potters in New Mexico to create high-end cookware that withstands many years of stovetop cooking. You can order the pre-made clay body or you can just order powdered mica and wedge (about 20%) of it into regular earthenware clay.
Throwing and Trimming the Base
To make a medium-sized tagine, center a 3-pound ball of clay, flatten it out to a disk about 10 inches in diameter, then open it up, leaving only inch for the floor. You want a flat bottom without a trimmed foot for this type of ware. Bring the clay out, compressing the floor and keeping it level. When you pull up the wall, allow it to flare out just a bit, and don’t try to make a sharp corner where the wall meets the floor. A gentle curve here helps protect the clay from thermal shock. Make a simple gallery by using a rib to widen the top half inch of the wall (1). Support the top edge with a finger on the outside to keep it vertical. This kind of gallery is easier to clean and to serve from than a gallery with a flange that projects inward from the lip. It’s also much easier to burnish this form, if you want to do so. Use calipers to measure the width of the gallery (2). Remove the form from the wheel and allow it to stiffen up to leather hard.
1 Create a 10-inch wide bowl with a slight curve where the floor meets the wall. Pull out the top -inch to create a gallery.
2 Measure the diameter of the gallery with calipers in preparation for making the lid.
3 Turn the leather-hard pot over and trim it to round out the transition from floor to wall. Use a rib to smooth the trimmed area.
4 Throw the lid upside-down as a tall narrow bowl. Flare the rim slightly and make it a bit larger than the caliper measurement.
Next, turn it upside-down and trim it to create a smooth curve where the floor transitions to the wall (3). Your goal is to have the thickness consistent throughout the entire piece, to avoid thermal shock.
Throwing an Upside-Down Lid
The lid is the tricky part of this form. You’ll want to start with at least 3 pounds, possibly a bit more. There are two ways to throw a tall cone; right-side-up or upside-down. Most potters throw it upside-down, which means making a very tall conical bowl with a very narrow foot.
Once you’ve thrown as tall of a bowl as you can get with your clay by pulling as much clay as possible up from the foot, use a rib to widen the rim until it fits your caliper measurement (4). To avoid disappointment, make it a tiny bit wider. The rim of this form may shrink slightly more than the rim of the base—pots don’t always shrink evenly and a wide flared rim often pulls up and in if it’s not carefully covered as it dries. You don’t want your lid to end up too small, but if it’s too big, it’s easy to trim it to fit. When both pieces are leather hard, turn the bowl form over (right side up), trim off the excess clay, and throw a knob onto it (5). Score where the knob will be placed with magic water, add a lump of clay, and carefully center the added clay and shape it into a knob.
5 Center the lid (which was thrown upside down) right-side-up when it is leather hard, trim off any excess clay and add a knob.
6 To throw a lid right-side-up, pull up a bottomless ring slightly wider than the measurement, then collar it to a tall closed form.
7 To burnish the bone-dry tagine, you’ll need a brush, a rag, some water, a smooth stone, and slip containing fine powdered mica.
8 Brush a layer of slip onto part of the pot. Don’t worry if it goes on lumpy.
Throwing a Right-Side-Up Lid
If you find it difficult to throw a bowl tall and wide enough, throw it right-side-up instead. For this method, once your clay is centered, you’ll open all the way to the bat and bring all the clay out into a ring as wide as your caliper measurement (or a bit wider). Bring the clay up and inward, alternating pulling up and collaring in as necessary to bring the form into a cone. Just make sure you’ve brought as much clay as possible up from the base of the cone before you get it too narrow to get a hand inside. Close the top of the cone, then shape it into a knob (6). If necessary, you can wait until it’s leather hard, then add a knob. You’ll have to turn it upside down in a chuck and trim any excess clay from the bottom.
Glazing or Burnishing
If you’re using stoneware, glaze it normally. Just don’t use it on the stovetop. If you’re using regular earthenware clay, you can use low-fire glazes or terra sigillata on the interior and the exterior. An unglazed exterior surface is more traditional, but, glazing the pot will make it easier to clean. Caution: Neither clay body is recommended for use on the stovetop.
If you’re using micaceous clay, you can burnish it. Burnishing makes the surface easier to clean and less porous. Adding extra mica to a slip and applying it to the surface before you burnish makes it more resistant to thermal shock. The tagine will be beautiful and functional without this step, but burnishing adds surface interest.
9 Use a damp rag to smooth the surface of the slip. Rub the wet slip with your fingertips until it’s smooth and slightly burnished.
10 Rub the surface with a polished stone. Burnish in sections. Do the interior, exterior, and bottom of the base section.
To make slip for burnishing, take your throwing slip, screen the lumps out, and stir some powdered mica into it (7). Note: When you order clay from New Mexico Clay, you should also order some 60-mesh mica with it to use for this step. Don’t worry about exact quantities; mica will flake out of the slip as you burnish it. You just want to load up your slip so you have plenty of extra. Brush this slip onto your bone-dry pot (8), then wipe the surface with a damp rag to smooth it out (9). As the slip dries and soaks in, use your fingertips to smooth the surface even more. It will actually burnish quite well with this step, and you could quit at this point.
But, to take it a step further, rub the surface with a polished stone until it gets glossy and very smooth (10). Tip: Look for a stone that has been highly polished and has no nicks. If the surface of the pot gets too dry, the stone will scratch it. Don’t try to do the whole pot at once, work in sections, or it will dry out too quickly. Burnish both the interior and the exterior, and do the underside as well. The purpose of burnishing is to make the pot less porous and more resistant to thermal shock, so the bottom of the pot is the most important part.
On the inside of the lid you can apply slip and rub it until it’s smooth and slightly shiny. I sign the inside of the lid to avoid weakening the bottom of the pot.
Decorating and Firing
Bisque fire micaceous clay to cone 010. You have many options if you want to decorate your tagine. You can add Mason stains to terra sigillata and paint patterns before bisque firing. You can also decorate it with china paints after the bisque firing, then re-fire it to cone 017. Or you could do a horse-hair raku firing, reheating the pot to 1300°F (704°C) and applying horse hair to the hot pot. You could blacken it by heating it to 1650°F (899°C) in a raku kiln, and moving it into a reduction barrel with hardwood shavings (not newspaper—newspaper doesn’t burn hot enough to fully blacken micaceous clay).
Curing and Cleaning the Tagine
To seal the pot, you can heat it and rub it with olive oil, repeating several times. Even better, pour an inch of milk into it and heat it until the milk boils. When cool, pour out the milk and scrub it with baking soda. Casein, a protein in milk, will be drawn into the pores of the clay to make it less porous. If you have an electric stove, use the tagine on a diffuser.
You can use the tagine directly on a gas burner, but either way, never turn the burner on high. Always clean earthenware with baking soda, never soap, and never put it in the dishwasher. Soap or dishwasher detergent might soak into the pores of the clay and leave a bad flavor. To fully dry and sterilize your pot after washing it, place it on a hot burner to steam it dry. Don’t store it with the lid on, as any residual moisture might encourage mold.
Sumi von Dassow is an artist, instructor, and regular contributor to Pottery Making Illustrated. She lives in Golden, Colorado. Check out Sumi’s book, In the Potter’s Kitchen, available in the Ceramic Arts Daily Shop, https://ceramicartsnetwork.org/bookstore/in-the-potters-kitchen.