Tagine (təˈ ZH īn or tay-jean) is a cooking vessel traditionally used in North African countries such as Morocco and Tunisia. Nomad travelers prepare stews, thick soups and vegetables which they allow to simmer in these vessels like a portable oven over coals. Tagines have a heavy, circular base with a conical shaped lid. They are fabricated to withstand constant use and retain heat long after being cooked. Its dual purpose base functions as a cooking vessel and a serving dish.
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Identify the material used in fabricating the tagine. Traditional tagines are hand-made terracotta with individual characteristics added by the creator. These varieties of tagines tend to be painted or glazed. Highly decorated tagines are for serving rather than cooking. Terracotta tagines must be seasoned prior to use. Modern versions include a combination of iron and ceramic, stainless steel or cast-iron. Cast-iron offers heat retention, sturdiness and easy cleanup. The stainless steel style improves heat distribution.
Examine the lid. It should rest snugly inside the bottom. Pick out a tagine with a conical lid that creates a tight seal when closed. If well-sealed, the lid will trap and circulate flavors like a steamer. It will keep heat and moisture inside during cooking, slowly simmering so that the dish will be more flavorful. Find a tagine with a knobbed lid. While cooking, the knob stays cool allowing the cook to remove the lid without scorching his hand.
Choose a tagine that is versatile in the kitchen. The traditional tagine works on low heat, hot coals or at a low oven temperature. Terracotta tagines must be hand washed. Over time, crackling of the glaze may occur. However, it is considered a natural occurrence and does not harm the vessel's cooking ability. Other tagines go directly from stove to table. More recent designs are formed from silicone and are microwave safe.
Look at contemporary versions that replicate traditional ones but have greater versatility. They move easily from stove top to oven and occasionally to microwave and freezer. They can withstand high heat. Some are dishwasher safe. Look at safety standards. Most are lead-free but not all. Some can be used on direct flame while others require a heat diffuser. Cast iron tagines do not require seasoning while terracotta does require planning prior to using.
Consider glazing. Some tagines are entirely glazed except for the bottom of the base. This style must be used with a heat diffuser. Other brands come in a colorful variety with glazing only on the outer lid. Look for lead-free glaze as certain glazes contain high lead levels. If using weekly, purchase the unglazed style which over time provides an earthier flavor. If used infrequently, it does absorb surrounding odors which will transfer into the food.
Measure the circumference of the base to roughly determine serving size. Base sizes range from 8 to 16 inches and serve between two to twelve people. For a single serving, select one that is 10 inches wide. When serving two to three persons, consider a tagine that is 12 inches wide. Sizes are also referred to as small, medium and large or by quarts. The base may be shallow or deep depending on the food it is intended for.