Your donabe is a wonderful, versatile tool for making hot pots, stews, sauces and rice. With the proper care, your Japanese donabe will last decades. According to folk wisdom, the older and more used that your donabe is, the better food made inside will taste. With that in mind, here are some donabe do’s and donabe don’ts.
Prepare your donabe for use
When you use your donabe for the first time (or the first time in several months), it’s important to prepare your donabe for use. This is called seasoning, and it’s dead easy to season your donabe. You could do it in about two hours. We have a full guide on how to season your donabe here.
Don’t shock the don!
Making the most of your donabe involves paying close attention to heat. Though a Japanese donabe can withstand the high temperatures of an oven, and the lows of a freezer, it can’t jump from one to the other! Because clay expands with heat, and contracts when it freezes, changing the temperature of a donabe pot too quickly means that the walls of your donabe don’t all contract evenly. This can lead to severe cracking and leaks.
Dry on the outside
Similarly, make sure that the outside of your donabe is completely dry before you put it over heat. The rapid evaporation of moisture can shock your donabe and lead to cracking. To help your donabe dry quickly, pat it down with a towel and leave it to dry upside down.
Wet on the inside
Hot, dry air is the enemy of a donabe’s inside, so fill it up with water! Too much dry air sucks the moisture out of donabe walls, and can cause – you guessed it – major cracks. For this reason, we recommend against deep-frying foods in your donabe. The temperature difference between the part of your donabe that’s submerged in oil and the part that’s exposed to air is too great to safely deep-fry in your donabe.
For that matter, we also caution against shallow-frying for the same reasons. Really, the best thing to do is make sure that your donabe is nice and steamy by filling it up with water. Of course, some donabes especially made for grilling or smoking, and are exceptions to this rule.
The art of ‘medium-high’
Though your donabe is highly resistant to ambient heat, directly exposing your donabe to flame will cause it to blacken. This is normal, and an authentic Japanese donabe is prized for a dark bottom blackened over years of use.
Sometimes, though, your donabe will blacken too quickly. If the bottom of your donabe is already very black after only a few uses, you are using too high a temperature on your donabe. Many donabe experts recommend cooking your donabe hot pot or donabe rice on ‘medium-high’, a mysterious temperature that you have to find by yourself through a little trial and error.
As cooking with gas can be an imprecise art, we have some tips for you to find this fabled ‘medium-high’. The easiest way to describe this temperature is that it’s a little hotter than what you would use to boil rice in a normal pot, and a somewhat less than you would use for a heavy wok or cast-iron pan. It’s about the same temperature you might use to quickly fry some vegetables in an inox pan.
Cleaning your donabe
Because donabes are porous, letting them stand in water too long is a recipe for a stained, mouldy donabe. Efficiently hand-washing a donabe is the recommended course of action. For some donabes, it may also be possible to wash it in a dishwasher. Either way, just wait until your donabe has cooled before you begin to rinse it with cold water.
You can remove most muck from your donabe with soap, a soft sponge and some water. For more stubborn, burned-on parts, simply submerge the spot in water and bring it to the boil for 10 minutes. If it’s really tough, applying baking soda before you boil the water can be useful to the process. Don’t use a harsh scrubber, as this could damage the enamel glaze.
Clay, like wood, absorbs odours, so please do not transfer your leftovers to a different container. Always make sure that your donabe is good and dry before you store it. This will help to prevent stains.
And don’t sweat the small stuff!
Sometimes your donabe gets a little chipped, or there’s a crack in the glaze, or there’s a burn mark. This is all a normal part of owning a donabe, and contributes to its wabi-sabi beauty. We recommend against trying to fix it – not only does this take away from the beauty it develops through use, but trying to glue a part back on may simply cause more parts to break off under the stress of heat.
If a donabe is really broken – for example, it leaks, or can’t be safely carried when hot – then it should be thrown away, or recycled for decorative, non-culinary purposes.