The Magic of the French Daubière
By PAULA WOLFERT
Bulbous pots are ideal for cooking all sorts of meats, for turning tough cuts buttery soft. The French daubière, instantly recognizable by its tall, potbellied shape and distinctive lid, is designed so that the ingredients can be packed inside with only a small amount of liquid and then set over low heat to braise. The ingenuity of the pot lies in the way it slowly conveys heat up from the bottom, causing the tough connective tissues in meat, called collagen, to transform into gelatin rather than simply dissolve and melt away, as occurs when more direct high heat is applied during roasting in a hot oven.
In a daubière you use as little liquid as possible; the pot itself prevents the meat from drying out by controlling the temperature and recycling the moisture. Traditionally the cover has a little trough on its lid to hold water, which quickly evaporates and therefore must be replenished from time to time. As the water boils off as steam, heat is pulled off the lid, which keeps the top relatively cool, the same way evaporation of sweat cools our skin.
Because the shape of the pot ensures the top is cooler than the bottom, this continuous action recycles the aromatic vapors produced by the cooking meat and vegetables, which condense at the top and fall back onto the food. Juices left in the pot at the end of cooking are intensely flavored, concentrated, and syrupy.
Another benefit of the design is the way it minimizes shrinkage of tough cuts of meat, including beef shanks, cross ribs (the cut between the shoulder and the rib), and beef cheeks. Slow low-temperature cooking allows firm root vegetables such as turnips and carrots, not only to retain their shape but to provide flavor while absorbing some of the meat juices. Stable temperature and stable moistness are what endow a daube with its unique succulence.
In the old days, when the daubière sat in the fireplace embers, cooking over many hours, sometimes through the night, the final product was butter-tender meat. Since most of us will not be cooking our daubes in the fireplace, I’ve found the following method works well in the modern kitchen. I place a wet piece of crumpled parchment directly on the meat and vegetables and then set a tight-fitting lid over the pot, thus ensuring recycling of moisture.
Those who prefer to cook their daubes in an oven should warm the pot very slowly on top of the stove for an hour before moving it to a preheated 275°F oven. Since oven heat will surround the pot, the meat may shrink and cook too quickly. To prevent this, it’s a good idea, after an hour, to remove the cover, leaving the crumpled parchment in place and continue cooking until the meat is tender.
In his beautiful book From the French Country Table: Pottery & Faience of Provence, Bernard Duplessy advises readers on how to choose an earthenware daubière: “The daube must always ‘breathe’ and so it’s best for a daubière to be only partially glazed, leaving the lower half of the belly and the inside of the lid untreated. Resistant clay has to be used, as a daubière must withstand the heat of an oven. However, Madame Daubière is still not ready. Once home, it must be filled with water or milk. Placed upon a diffuser over a gas burner, it is then brought to a boil. Then, with each use, it is wise to rub the daubière inside and out with a clove of garlic. A magical and tasty hint.”
There is a reason I have two daubières: I use one for cooking meats (beef, lamb, pork, and wild boar) and the other for octopus.
The two most beautiful daubières I own were made by master potter Philippe Beltrando, whose studio is located in the Provençal town of Aubagne, France. Philippe and I have been corresponding for some years about why daubes taste better when cooked in clay daubières.
Excerpted from Mediterranean Clay Pot Cooking, by Paula Wolfert, copyrighted and used by permission of the publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.