The traditional tagine is a two-piece clay vessel consisting of a base and a tall, conical lid. In Arabic the word tagine describes the meal as well as the cooking vessel in which the dish is prepared. Additionally the term refers to both cooking and serving tagines.
Foods cooked in the tagine are quite healthful because low temperatures destroy fewer nutrients and very little oil is required in the preparation. The long, slow cooking process is similar to the modern electric slow cookers. Aside from being nutritious, the clay from the tagine imparts an earthy flavor to the dish.
This style of cooking is common in North Africa cuisines of Tunisia, Morroco and Algeria and dates back centuries. The tagines were placed over charcoal and left to cook slowly for hours. Common recipes include lamb tagine, tagine chicken and numerous vegetable tagine dishes.
Tagines come in two basic varieties, the cooking tagine and the serving tagine. It is important that you purchase the correct type of tagine for your needs.
Cooking tagines may look the same as a serving tagine so it is important to purchase your tagine from a reliable source. If you are buying online make sure the description states that the tagine was designed for cooking. Cookable clay tagines are made from a different clay body that is a refractory clay (clay with a melting point above 1600°C); designed to take the heat of cooking without shattering. While many of the cooking tagines tend to be simple solid colors and overall less decorative that is not always the case.
Some cooking tagines have "steam release" holes in the lid. Hand made, rather than manufactured tagines may not have a steam hole because the lid does not fit tight to the base and steam can release during the cooking process. Manufactured tagines are more apt to have tight fitting lids and require the steam hole.
The handmade cooking tagines, as well as any earthenware ceramics will craze with use. Crazing gives the surface a "crackled" appearance but does not affect the functionality.
Serving tagines tend to be more decorative and don't usually have a steam-release hole in the top. Do not try to cook in a serving tagine because most likely it will break.
Some tagines may contain lead or cadmium. Make sure you purchase your tagine from a reputable source that can provide independent lab testing showing the product is lead and cadmium free. If someone gives you a tagine or you buy one on an auction site you should assume it is not lead free and use it accordingly.
example of serving tagines by le souk ceramique
The traditional tagine is hand-made from eartheware clay but there are other options. Le Creuset, produces a tagine with a cast iron base and a glazed ceramic top. The cast iron base provides excellent heat distribution and can be used on gas or electric cook tops. Emile Henry manufactures a line of heavy-duty glazed-clay tagines that can be used directly on gas or electric cook tops. Unlike the hand-made version the Emile Henry tagine is less prone to crazing.
Tagines are produced in a variety of sizes from very tiny "spice" or "individual portion" up to large family-size pots. A cooking tagine should be a minium of about 8" to 10" and up to 12".
Preparation will depend on the type of tagine. Here are some general instructions but always follow the instructions provided by the manufacturer.
Food is place in the base of the tagine, the lid placed on top of the base and the tagine is placed on a cooktop or in the oven. As the food cooks the steam rises and is trapped in the lid so the food remains moist.