Tagine (also spelled 'tajine') is the name of a Moroccan dish, as well as the clay pot in which it is cooked.
Tagine means any meal in one pot, cooked as a stew and served in the traditional clay tagine. It’s a dish with extremely tender fall off the bone meat or perfectly stewed vegetables sinking in the rich and thick sauce which is made with the addition of herbs, spices and dried fruits.
Moroccans will tell you there are a number of tagines. While the spices are often the same, the way that each cook uses them varies greatly. The spices used include some real staples of Moroccan cuisine such as garlic, ginger, saffron, cumin, paprika, turmeric, ras el hanout, black pepper, salt, and olive oil.
Some examples of classic tagine dishes are lamb stewed with dried fruits, chicken cooked with preserved lemons and green olives, or a fragrant fish made with fresh tomatoes, lemons and herbs.
What is a tagine?
The tagine (pronounced tah-jeen) has worked magic for centuries in Morocco. The pot, with its conical lid, holds moist, golden chicken with the tang of olives, succulent lamb in sauces sweetened with dried fruit, or thick fillets of fish brightened with herbs and spices. A tagine meant for cooking is a modest piece of pottery. Yet, it’s probably one the best pots for braising foods due to its qualities.
The bottom is shallow, shaped like a pie dish and glazed on the top. The lid is conical and glazed only on the outside, with a round handle protruding from the top. When food slowly simmers in a tagine the steam that rises hits the unglazed inside of the lid. But instead of condensing back into the food, as it would in a metal pot, it is absorbed by the unglazed clay, resulting in a concentration and reduction of the cooking sauce.
Due to that processes, the tagine makes a perfect cooking vessel. However, it also works as a beautiful serving dish as it is often colorful and painted or engraved with Moroccan patterns.
These days a lot of tagines are actually made in metal pots, having substituted the original clay tagine, but the cooking process results in the same delicious tagine.
Cooking in a tagine
The tagine is a very traditional way of cooking, dating back thousands of years. The first mention of such a pot can be traced back to the 9th century, when it was used throughout the Middle East and North Africa. It was popular in areas where water was in short supply - the cooking process means moisture is trapped and re-used, so only a small amount is needed.
You don’t need a fancy looking tagine to get cooking – the simplest one would work as good as any other. However, before cooking, ensure that you have a ceramic or clay cookware rather than a decorative serving one.
If you manage to get an authentic Moroccan tagine, don’t forget to soak it in water overnight or for at least a couple of hours before cooking. This reduces the risk of the tagine cracking. As any other clay cookware tagines can crack when exposed to high heat, therefore try to avoid using a temperature higher than 325° F (160° C) and try to avoid rapid temperature changes too. Another treatment used for new tagines is lightly coating it with olive oil. Don’t put any frozen foods into a pre-heated tagine and leave it to cool after cooking before washing it too. Get a tagine heat diffuser and make sure to use low heat if cooking on a stove.
Hand wash your tagine after cooking, and dry it. Try to avoid using conventional dishwashing liquids as tagines are made from porous material which would absorb flavors quickly and these may transfer to your dishes when heated.
If you don’t have a tagine yet – you can use a replacement, which could be a any kind of braiser, deep cast iron pan or a casserole dish. If you are using this method, make sure to cover it with foil or a lid while cooking.
Tagines are also the name of the dishes that are typically cooked in the pot, and the term refers to slow cooked savory stews, often made with meat or fish (the slow cooking process means that the meat becomes very tender), but you can also create a wide variety of delicious meals in the tagine, using many ingredients such as beans, couscous and a variety of vegetables.
Cheaper cuts of meat are often used for tagine as slow cooking makes them extremely tender and they just melt in your mouth. You can leave lamb cooking for hours without needing to do anything except to check its water levels occasionally. If the cooking liquid levels are low due to evaporation – just add a bit more. Normally you add olives and other additions 30 minutes before the dish is ready so that they keep their texture.