Having worked for many years in a kitchen shop, I saw the ongoing popularity of several products. One of the most intriguing was the Romertopf clay baker. A more recent product that always held my attention was Emile Henry’s Flame Top, also a pottery product, but made slightly differently. I always wondered if they could be used for the same purposes and I finally took the chance to do a head to head comparison.
First let’s look at a bit of background on each product.
Introduced to the international market for the first time in 1967, Romertopf represented a new, yet old cooking method, which steams foods, allowing it to braise in its own juices. It allowed you to prepare meals without using additional fat and became an example of the new trend toward healthy cooking.
This product, as you may or may not know, is a simple clay baker, made in Germany, that harkens back to the time of the ancients who cooked in terracotta pots. In fact, the name translates from the German as Roman Pot.
The pots are manufactured from natural indigenous clay found in and around the factory location of Ransbach-Baumbach, an area known for its ceramic traditions, so that it truly can be labeled “Made in Germany”. This company is proud of the clay raw materials which they feel helps in the baking process.
The terracotta baker must be soaked for about 12 hours before the very first use and after that each time before use for about 10 – 15 minutes. The pores in the ceramic material absorb enough water when soaked sufficiently so that when it is heated slowly, it creates a mild layer of steam, both in the oven and on the inside of the baker. You may have read comments on the internet where some people feel that the lid doesn’t fit properly, but the two – four millimeter distance between the top and bottom is not a mistake. In fact this slight gap serves to regulate the pressure in the closed pot which allows excess steam to escape. It is this design that the company feels locks in flavor and nutrients throughout the cooking process.
After soaking the baker, you need to place the Romertopf in a cold oven and then allow the oven to heat to the target temperature gradually. The ideal temperature for cooking is between 375°F and 500°F (190°C and 250°C).
One word of caution here: many modern “gourmet” or high-end ovens use the broiler to come to temperature quickly. If this is the case for your oven, check with the manufacturer before using this product. My oven does this, but there is a way to work around the normal heating process and your oven will also likely have a special procedure to follow. If you cannot override this broiler heating function, you cannot use the Römertopf as the clay baker will shatter from the direct flame.
This brings me to the next thought. The Romertopf can only be used in the oven or microwave NOT on an open flame, cooking plate or grill. Avoid sudden temperature changes like putting a hot baker on a cold surface or a cold baker on a hot one as this will cause it to crack.
These bakers, which come in various sizes, allow you to create one pot meals with little to no effort. You can bake bread, braise, stew or simmer foods using Romertopf. The sizes are based on the number of persons it will feed like the small model for 2-4 persons, just over 3 lbs. of meat. The other models typically sold are the standard model for 2-6 persons, or about 5.5 lbs. of food and the big model which can accommodate large fowl or game, suitable for up to 11 lbs. of meat. There are many sizes available but these three will be most commonly seen in kitchen or hardware shops.
To clean a Romertopf all you need is hot water and a stiff brush, but you can use a little baking soda to cut any stubborn grease. Do not clean the baker with scouring powder or metal scouring pads as this may block the pores of the clay, reducing its cooking ability, and the cleaning agent could end up in your food.
Emile Henry Flame
The Emile Henry Flame Top products are made from the same quality Burgundian clay as their other baking dishes. The company feels the high metal content in the local clay gives their baking dishes and stewpots great ability to diffuse and evenly distribute heat as they cook or bake. The Flame products are formed from specially fired heat-resistant ceramic which can be used with gas, electric and halogen heat sources. They can be used on induction heat only with a special induction plate. The Flame Top products can be used in the oven or microwave and can also be used on grills and under broilers. They can even be stored in the freezer and can withstand temperatures down to -125°F (-20°C). This cookware can sit on a very hot open flame for an extended period of time without any ingredients in the cook pot, and will not crack, discolor or break. During a product demo, I saw a company representative pour water into the extremely hot empty pot and it still didn’t crack.
Another benefit is that these pots are about 30% lighter than comparable metal cookware products. The lids come with raised dimples on the under side of the lid which enhances the cooking by evenly distributing evaporated juices directly back into the cooking food. This self-basting technique produces a more thoroughly cooked, tender and moist dish than pots with traditional smooth lids, which force liquids to run down the sides of the pot, contributing to uneven cooking.
As the company advertises, I have found the stewpots perfect for braising, browning and slow cooking just like you would use an enamel coated cast iron Dutch Oven.
Before you use the pot the first time, you need to season it by adding 1 inch of milk to cover the bottom of the dish. Let the milk simmer for five minutes, remove the dish from heat and allow it to cool before cleaning. For those who are Vegan or lactose intolerant, you can also simmer one quart of water with 1/2 cup of rice for five minutes instead. The Flame stewpots do not need any other special treatments after the initial seasoning. You use them just like you would any other cooking pot.
Some people get concerned with small cracks that form in the glaze. When heated, the Flame Top cookpot expands slightly and this creates small, thin cracks in the glaze, which are especially visible on light colored cookware. These small cracks are not a flaw, but are proof that the Flame cookware is resistant to temperature change and are a sign of longevity.
Emile Henry products are easy to clean by hand or in the dishwasher. Burned on residue may be removed by soaking the cookware for 10 minutes, but I have never had a problem getting the pot clean after use.
Romertopf, Emile Henry Head to Head
The cook-off comparisons occurred over a period of time that included many months of off and on usage in the shop doing demos, at home and in my mother-in-law’s oven. But I will only talk about one dish, the Country Chicken recipe included in the Römertopf instruction booklet that comes with each baker. It is your classic roast chicken with onion, potato, carrots and fresh herbs.
The first or baseline recipe was prepared in the Romertopf in my mother-in-law’s standard 30″ gas oven. I soaked the baker for 20 minutes while I prepped the food. This included trussing the chicken, seasoning it and dicing the vegetables into large even pieces. I then put everything in the pot, placed the cover on the base and baked it for 85 minutes, being careful not to start the oven until the baker was inside.
After 85 minutes, I pulled the Romertopf from the oven and lifted the lid; the fragrances filled the kitchen and nearby dining room. The skin was not browned like a roasted chicken, but if you want the skin darkened, return the base, without the lid, to the oven and let it crisp.
I served the chicken on one platter and the vegetables on another. The results? Awesome!! It brought back memories of Sunday dinners growing up at home. The chicken was moist and delicious and the vegetables, having cooked in the natural juices, were just a delight to eat. Everyone went back for seconds on the veggies.
The Romertopf lived up to its billing of producing a truly delicious, easy to make dinner.
The Emile Henry Flame stewpot was next, prepared a short 3 days later at home. I followed the recipe from Romertopf instruction book to the letter and cooked the meal at the exact time and temperature as before.
The result? A spot on match! A moist, delicious chicken and yummy vegetables. One pot to clean, no fuss or muss in creating a delicious meal.
I wasn’t sure how the Flame Top would compare but I was impressed with its ability to cook exactly like the Romertopf. Looking back, I don’t know why I thought it would perform any differently since both are ceramic pots with lids, which seal in flavor and natural juices.
There are differences and advantages in each:
Pros: Inexpensive price – the 3qt model serving 2-6 persons costs only $40. Easy to use and clean. Light weight. Produces healthy delicious meals in one pot. Larger, more varied sizes than Flame Top. Even if you need to replace it due to breakage, you can still buy 3 of these for the price of one Flame Top.
Cons: The lid (more than the base) can break or crack easily, even when cared for properly. I saw this happen with some regularity in returns at the kitchen shop where I worked and it happened with the well seasoned one I owned. Not usable in any cooking medium except the oven and microwave.
Pros: More versatile than the Romertopf, as it can be used on virtually any cooking medium, including the grill and with the induction disk even an induction cooktop. Available in more colors to match your decor and less apt to break. I often reach for the Flame Top instead of my Le Creuset for slow cooking because of its lighter weight.
Cons: More expensive the Römertopf – the 7qt round pot can cost $180-230 and the 6.5qt oval pot $200 – $225. Not as large of capacity as Römertopf can be.
If I had to choose, I would select the Emile Henry Flame stewpot because of its versatility. Yes it is more expensive, but I can use it in so many more ways that I think it makes up for the cost; plus it is more durable in the long run.
If cost is a concern and you don’t have any oven performance constraints (you are able to start it in a cold oven) or don’t mind having to soak it each time you use it, then you will be very happy with the Römertopf. Trust me performance is not the issue, Römertopf performs exactly as advertised!