The Scientific Theory of Cocotte
Nothing could be simpler: you place a piece of meat, usually lamb or chicken, in a cocotte, and then add some chopped vegetables, salt and a few herbs. Put the lid on and cook over a very gentle heat. What do you get? Meat that is tender, succulent and packed with flavor.
This is the basic principle of the cocotte cooking method. “En cocotte”, as French people say, cocotte being a typical round or oval French cooking pot made from cast iron or stove-resistant ceramic. In the past, cocottes used to be placed over a fire and hot embers were thrown onto its lid, to ensure that the food was cooked all the way through. Today, thanks to the use of better materials and shapes conducive to perfect heat circulation, the cocotte is a utensil that is more widely available and simple to use. Nevertheless, modern cocottes preserve the most important characteristic of this cookware, that of requiring no liquid. This is the difference between cooking en cocotte and traditional braising.
Another difference is that when braising, small pieces of meat are used, while larger pieces and whole chickens are the protagonists of en cocotte preparations. Furthermore, the result is generally much more tender. So, to sum up: no liquid, a more authentic flavor, succulently tender meat and a simpler cooking method. Obviously, there must be a trick to cooking en cocotte so let's investigate and discover what science has to say about it.
What exactly is a cocotte?
To discover the secret of this ancient cooking method, the first thing to do is to take a closer look at the cocotte itself. It is made from a material that stores heat and releases it slowly, and this is the reason why a good cocotte is thick and heavy.
It is also important for its lid to be heavy so that, once in position, it fits firmly on the pot and "seals" it. In this way, the moisture level inside will remain constant, because only a minimum amount of water will be able to "escape". This is why it is advisable to place a sheet of tinfoil on top of the cocotte before covering it with the lid: in this way, it will act as a "seal" and you will be able to cook food in your cocotte at low temperatures and for much longer. Bear in mind that, in the case of chicken, the oven should be set at 120°C and left to cook for no less than two hours.
Conduction and Convection
From a scientific viewpoint, this slow cooking method, combined with the structure of a typical cocotte, optimizes the transfer of heat to the food. There is a phenomenon of conduction, first and foremost, in which heat penetrates the food, from its surface to its center. Then we have convection, in which heat is transferred from the moist air (inside our cocotte) to the food. Finally, there is the phenomenon of radiant heat, that is to say, the heat from high-energy waves which tends to heat the surface of the food (and spread thanks to conduction).
When combined, all of these phenomena gradually increase the temperature of the food inside our cocotte, without detracting from the natural moisture of the chicken or the delicious piece of lamb we are cooking. So, the muscle fibers have time to break down and tenderize the meat, without "watering down" any of its flavor.
Chicken en Cocotte
If you wish to enjoy the results of this extraordinary cooking technique, we recommend you try the following recipe for French-style chicken en cocotte.
First of all, dry the chicken thoroughly and sprinkle it with salt and pepper. Heat some oil in a frying pan and add a finely chopped onion, three cloves of garlic, celery and some bay leaves. Gently fry the chicken for 6-7 minutes on each side, just long enough to give it some flavor and trigger the Maillard reaction.
Finally, place the chicken in a cocotte, together with the onion, celery and some carrots chopped into chunks, cover with tinfoil and close the lid. Then place in an oven at 120 °C, and cook for no less than two hours. When the cooking time is up, leave everything to rest for half an hour in the cocotte and get ready to enjoy a fantastic chicken.