How To Care For Ceramics

Many people find the care and use of ceramic dishes, cookware and other vessels to be confusing. What can be used in the microwave, what can go into the dishwasher, how to clean them if they stain etc. So here is ceramics 101.

First of all it’s important to know if your ceramics are bone china, porcelain, stoneware or earthenware. Bone china and porcelain can look much the same; stoneware and earthenware can also look similar to each other. However there are differences.

Bone China
Bone China
Porcelain
Porcelain
Ironware
Ironware/stoneware
Earthenware
Earthenware

 Bone China

Bone china is the most white and translucent as well as being quite strong and chip resistant. It actually does contain about 50% cattle bone ash along with kaolin (a type of clay) and feldspar (mineral). It is Lightweight, lustrous, quite translucent and very strong.

General Requirements for Bone China

  • It is usually not ovenproof.
  • Can be warmed to 100°c (212° f)
  • Should not be exposed to a naked flame
  • Should not be exposed to rapid changes of temperature.
  • Should not be used in a microwave oven if it has metal decoration such as a gold or silver trim.
  • Should not be put into the freezer safe.
  • If there is a painted decoration on them they should be stored with paper towel between them to to prevent scratching.
  • Stains in tea cups or tea pots can be removed with a cleaning solution such as the sterilising solution used for baby utensil  (ex. Milton sterilizing fluid). Remember to wash and rinse them well  before you use them
  • Grey marks can be removed using cleansers specifically designed for the removal of metal marks from ceramic products (ex. Barkeepers Friend).
  • Never use abrasive scrubbers or cleaning powders when cleaning.
  • Verify with the artisan/maker that it is dishwasher safe (some – not all, are) and then use recommended/gentle detergents (ex. Finish Liquid).
    • Remove any labels before putting it in a dishwasher because the heat from the drying stage can make them very difficult to remove. It helps to soak in warm water with a small amount of dish soap for approx. 1hour.
Bone China
Porcelain on the left and bone china on the right.

 

Porcelain

Porcelain (aka china/ fine china) is made from kaolin that is fired at very high temperatures of between 1,200 and 1,400 °C. It is also quite strong due to the fact that when it is fired at these high temperatures it is vitrified (it basically turns into glass) and it is very hard even before it is glazed. It is durable, white, fairly translucent and has a non-porous surface.

The general requirements for porcelain are the same as for bone china with the exception that porcelain can often be used in the microwave, dishwasher, oven and freezer. However you must check with the artisan who made the piece to be sure. With popular “big” brands you can usually find something written on the bottom to tell you.

Porcelain

 

Stoneware and Ironware

Stoneware, is more opaque and not as strong as porcelain or bone china. It is normally made from stoneware clay, which is slightly grey or brownish, and therefore it is often glazed. It is normally fired at between 1180 °C to 1280 °C, and it can be fired twice in order to produce a better quality glazed finish. Ironstone is a very durable type of stoneware that was developed as an alternative to porcelain. Both stoneware and ironware are hardy, impermeable and often glazed for a nicer finish.

The general requirements for stoneware and ironware is the same as for bone china and porcelain except that should not be used in the freezer, oven or microwave unless the artisan/maker informs you otherwise or it is indicated on a stamp on the bottom of the piece.

Stoneware_Ironware
Stoneware on the right and ironware on the left. You can see how the ironware might have been used as an alternative to porcelain.

 

 

Earthenware

Earthenware is a type of clay that is opaque and quite soft when fired. It is easier to shape on the wheel than porcelain and it’s been used to make all sorts of pottery from the earliest times. It is very porous and therefore it must be glazed in order to be watertight. Earthenware can be fired at temperatures ranging from 950 to 1150 C depending on the desired finish. It is one of the oldest industrial materials in the world and to this day, natural ceramic is still one of the most popular materials.

The general requirements for earthenware is the same as for stoneware with the additional note that it is not a good idea to soak earthenware piece for long periods of time because they are quite porous.

 

Earthenware
Beautiful example of earthenware, you can see the rough bottom which is typical of earthenware pieces.

 

 

Three Mugs
Bine chine on the left, porcelain on the right and earthenware in the foreground.
Three mugs
You can see the difference in the bottoms.

 

mug
Even though this cup is porcelain it should be washed by hand to protect the surface finish which has been applied on top of the glaze.

 

 

Earthenware casserole
Emile Henry makes wonderful earthenware bakeware that cooks food well and washes clean easily.

 

Emile Henry
Here is the typical earthenware bottom.

 

Portmeirion
Portmeirion makes another well known earthenware line.

 

 

 

Read The Instructions

The care and use of handmade ceramics can  be confusing because there really are no hard and fast rules. For example, some earthenware can go into the oven and some cannot. That’s why you must ask the artisan/maker about the piece when you buy it and/or read their respective website instructions.

Many of the famous brands have been created to be safe for use in the oven, dishwasher, microwave and freezer. Sometimes they can even be used under the broiler for short periods of time. However a good rule of thumb is to never let them become dry in the oven (keep at least a little liquid in the dish) and never add cold liquid to the hot baking dish. If you need to add liquid make sure it is hot. The shock of cold liquid on the hot dish can cause it to crack or break.  Read the respective makers instructions and follow them carefully. If you do you will have the dishes to enjoy for a lifetime!

Ceramic dishes are a pleasure to use and they are often so beautiful that you can cook in them and them serve in them as well.  Read the respective makers instructions and follow them carefully. If you do you will have the dishes to enjoy for a lifetime!