Tagines: Moroccan Magic
Tagines are like slow cookers or dutch ovens and are intended for low temperature slow cooking. Terracotta tagines have been around for centuries in North African cooking, and there’s a reason for that: it's porous, so it takes on the flavors of whatever you’re cooking. And the longer you cook with it, the better the flavour of your dishes. We find out how new-fangled North American tagines compare to their traditional Mediterranean counterparts.
The term tagine (ta-jean) is used to describe both the earthenware vessel used for cooking, as well as the food it cooks. (E.g. vegetable tagine, lamb tagine)
Traditional tagines were designed to sit all day over the embers of a charcoal fire, circulating heat around the food like a convection oven.
Traditional tagines are made of terracotta, which is porous and absorbs the flavours of meals made in it. For this reason, many Moroccan home cooks have separate tagines for specific dishes so unwanted flavours aren’t transferred.
The tagine doesn’t create the flavour, but it works with the spices to seal the flavour into the food.
Tagines can also be used on the stove top with a heat diffuser over the burner, or in an oven at 250-325F.
Because the base is both a cooking vessel and a serving dish, it is made very heavy to withstand constant use and hold leat longer.
The top of the tagine is shaped like a dome or upside-down funnel, which acts like an oven or closed chimney. The extended bulb or flute at the top stays cooler and can be used as a handle.
- Hot steam condenses on the cool lid and drips back down into the dish, braising the food inside and creating a flavorful sauce, and the best part? Everything is done at the same time.
In North America, you may have to order a traditional terracotta tagine from a merchant overseas. Luckily for the internet, it can be done in a few easy clicks.
If you do order one, or are lucky enough to visit North Africa to purchase your own, be sure to buy one that is unglazed, since some glazes may include lead.
North American versions of tagines are also available in metal, enamel cast-iron, or glazed ceramic.
If purchasing a terracotta tagine, be aware that some are decorative and only used for serving or décor, and so are not equipped to handle the heat. The more elaborate patterns and colours in the glaze, the more likely it’s for serving only. For cooking, look for a plain terracotta tagine with little decorative elements.
Terracotta tagines should be washed with mild soap & water only, and if needed scrubed with baking soda and/or vinegar. They also should be oiled (seasoned with olive oil) after each use.
While on our Moroccan adventure, we invited two local chefs to help us test our North American tagines against the traditional Moroccan terracotta tagine. We tested:
- Gourmet du Village (ceramic, unglazed base): $90
Tweed & Hickory
- Le Creuset (enameled cast iron): $230
- Traditional Moroccan tagine (unglazed terracotta): $20-50
The Moroccan Bazaar
(Note: all prices are approximate and in Canadian dollars)
We made the same dish in our three tagines and cooked them all day. When they were ready, we all taste tested to see if there was a difference.
The traditional tagine definitely worked better as far as reducing the liquid and creating a thicker sauce. The flavour was also markedly different. While the food from North American versions tasted fine, there was definitely a difference compared to the real thing.
OUR TOP PICK
If you’re serious about cooking authentic Moroccan food in a tagine, you’ll want to use a real traditional terracotta tagine.