A Guide To Tagines
We explore the curious talents of this decorative, versatile Moroccan clay cooking pot.
Whether a decorative ornament on a shelf or bubbling away in the oven or on the hob, a tagine is a wonderful sight at work and at rest. Fashioned from clay, ceramic or metal, decoratively glazed or left rustic, this curious Moroccan cooking vessel lets you whip up a one-pot feast for everyone in the room, then invites you all to eat from it. Let’s take a look at the origins of this clever cooking dish.
Where does tagine come from?
The tagine (or tajine) is believed to have originated with the Moroccan nomadic people, who cooked in a single pot over an open fire wherever they lay their roots. This portable oven then doubled as a serving dish for whole tribes to dine together.
The word “tagine” actually refers to both the meal and to the vessel itself, and can be traced back to the reign of Harun al Rashid, a late eighth-century ruler of the Islamic Empire.
The popularity of the tagine soon spread across several North African cultures and today, it can be found on the hobs of homes all around the world. It’s a fixture on the menus of most Moroccan restaurants and a beautiful ornament gracing many a mantlepiece or dresser.
What is tagine?
A tagine comes in two pieces; a round, shallow bowl, where the ingredients, oil and liquid are placed and a tall, conical lid, which acts as a funnel. As the tagine warms, moisture from the food inside turns to steam, which rises up and is trapped inside the cone. The steam condenses at the peak and the moisture returns down the sides, basting the ingredients as it goes. This cyclical process intensifies the flavours as the food simmers, making it moist and slightly caramelised.
Tenderising and concentrating flavours
Traditionally, the tagine was made popular due to its ability to tenderise and cook lower-quality or tougher meats, which, while being cheaper or more abundant, are also the most flavoursome cuts if given adequate time to simmer. Tagines are ideal for cooking lamb on the bone, beef shank, bone-in short ribs and oxtail, with the clay pot “coddling” the meat to bring out the natural flavours.
How to use a tagine for the first time
A new tagine needs a little setting up before first use. Many chefs favour an unglazed pot for the earthy notes that diffuse from the clay, but it will need prepping via a process called “seasoning”. This is both to strengthen the pot and avoid the food taking on the raw clay flavour.
First, soak the lid and the base in water for up to six hours until the clay stops taking on liquid. Then dry carefully and rub inside and out with olive oil. Place the dish in a cold oven and warm it through on a low temperature for a few hours. Then leave to completely cool, wash again and brush once more with olive oil before use.
Do I need to season a glazed tagine?
Seasoning a glazed tagine is not as essential as unglazed, as there’s no risk of any raw clay contaminating the taste of the meal. However, the process does strengthen the tagine, so it is recommended anyway to prolong the life of the pot.
Rules for warming the tagine
As a nod to its nomadic roots, the traditional way of cooking with a tagine is on an open fire. To ensure the pot maintains a consistently low temperature, start with a small amount of charcoal or wood and top up just enough to keep the embers burning and the contents simmering.
Can you put a tagine on the hob?
The tagine is now more often found in an oven or on the stove top, using the lowest heat necessary to maintain a gentle simmer and avoid cooking too quickly and burning the food – or damaging the pot. If using an electric or induction hob, you will need an aluminium buffer to avoid the bottom of the pot directly touching the heat source.
One-pot flavoursome feasts
Far from being a show dish for special occasions, tagine can quickly become an evening meal staple, ideal for stews, casseroles, curries and chillies. In fact, any one-pot meal where low-and-slow cooking is best.
To channel the tagine’s native African fayre, add pulses to your dish like lentils and chickpeas, plus potato and aubergine to the meat, poultry or fish and layer up the flavour with aromatic spices like cinnamon, nutmeg, peppercorn or ground ginger. Other popular spices include ground coriander, paprika, cardamom and cassia, or you can purchase premixed tagine pastes and spice mixes for a blend of all of these aromatic flavours.
Tagine spice mix example
Moroccan cooking is packed with colour and flavour in no small part down to the spices. A Moroccan staple is Ras El Hanout, which combines at least a dozen spices, sometimes up to 80, in combinations that will vary from family to family, shop or restaurant. Spices found in Ras El Hanout include cumin, clove, cinnamon, nutmeg, peppercorn, fenugreek and dry turmeric, and it’s popular in recipes like sweet and spicy lamb mrouzia, couscous tfaya and spiced goat stew.
How to use and cook with a tagine
There is a trick to how you fill a tagine to ensure the protein doesn’t stick to the bottom and burn. Make a base layer of juicy vegetables like onions, celery or carrots to cushion the meat or fish. Then place more veg around the sides and add a decent dash of olive oil, plus water or a broth, which blends with the food’s natural juices and the spices to make a rich sauce. After a couple of hours, if the liquid has thickened, add a splash more liquid to keep the contents bubbling.
Do you put water in the top of a tagine?
Not all tagine lids have a hole in the top and those that do are designed to release steam rather than take water. The tagine should need less water than other one-pot dishes and stays moist due to the steam created while cooking.
Avoid extremes of temperature
While a tagine is a very strong cooking pot (unless dropped), be careful not to subject it to extreme temperature change, as this could cause it to crack. Don’t add very hot liquid to a cold tagine, or very cold liquid to a hot one. Be careful not to set a hot tagine on a very cold surface, or vice versa, and if you’re using a clay or ceramic tagine in an oven, place the cold dish onto the rack and gently raise to a moderate temperature.
Tagine is a very versatile mode of cooking. From a vegetarian feast to whole joints of meat, fillets of fish or pieces of poultry. Throw in beans or handfuls of uncooked rice to soak up the moisture and flavours and experiment with dried fruits and nuts. Popular tagine dishes include Moroccan chicken, lamb shank with apricots, kofta meatballs and vegan berber. It’s difficult to name a “classic” tagine dish, though, as it’s historically famed for whipping up delicious one-pot feasts from ingredients that are in season or readily available from the kitchen or to forage.
Can you cook rice in a tagine?
While rice is more commonly a side rather than an ingredient of a tagine, some recipes do state to add rice to the pot, where it steams along with the rest of the ingredients. Simply sprinkle the rice on the top of the meal and keep simmering until it’s plumped up.
What to serve with tagine
Brown white or saffron rice are a staple side for tagine, but it’s by no means the only option. Tagine can be enjoyed with bread, couscous, traditional Arabic tomato and cucumber salad, fresh green salad, olives, potato cakes, the options are limitless. If you have leftover tagine, it’s great the next day as a flatbread pizza topped with halloumi.
Do you need a tagine to make a tagine dish?
If you don’t have a tagine pot, you can achieve similar results in a slow cooker, pressure cooker or crockpot. So it’s not essential, but a tagine is a hassle-free and authentic way of slow-cooking flavoursome meals without having to regularly watch, top up with water or stagger your ingredients according to cooking times.
Where to buy a tagine
They can be bought at supermarkets, in markets and online in a range of sizes, from individual, serving one or two people, to large, which will feed eight. Glazed and unglazed are the standard styles, but you can also find aluminium camping-style tagines and heavy cast iron pots which don’t crack, but can be expensive.
How to serve tagine
The base of the tagine is traditionally used to serve the meal, so pay some thought to the final presentation when adding ingredients. The pot is never stirred, so arrange the contents in presentable layers, garnishing with bell peppers, olives, citrus wedges and tied herbs.
Once your meal is cooked, remove the tagine from the heat source and leave the pot to cool for at least 15 minutes. Popular at dinner parties and family meals, diners traditionally gather around the dish and eat by hand, using bread to scoop up the meat, vegetables and sauce. Alternatively, serve up the tagine with rice or potatoes. Once the meal is complete, carefully wash and dry and return pride of place, back on display.
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