A variation on French rillettes, terrines, pâté and confit, potting is an old English technique for preserving meat or seafood by storing it under a layer of fat.
The food was traditionally cooked thoroughly to eliminate excess moisture, then packed into a ceramic pot. Meats with a lot of natural fat could be sealed under a layer of their own fat, while seafood was generally covered with a layer of clarified butter.
Food historian Alan Davidson explains that potting derived from medieval raised pies, the crusts of which were made from coarse flour and weren’t meant to be eaten but provided an airtight container in which to store and transport food. Food baked in a thick crust was sterile and so lasted quite a long time. The point where it started to decay however, was the top where the filling shrank away from the pastry lid as it cooked, allowing it to come into contact with air via the holes cut to allow steam to escape. This problem was overcome by pouring melted butter into the holes after the pie was cooked, thus sealing the top. It was a short step from this to doing away with the pie crust and packing a filling inside a reusable ceramic crock sealed with clarified butter.
Food was sometimes pounded into a paste with the fat or butter then potted, other times it was cut into chunks or, in the case of small prawns, peeled but left whole. Modern storage and preservation methods did away with the need for potting, but certain variations, such as potted prawns and some fish pastes have survived because people enjoy their flavour.
- Oily fish are generally poached or pan-fried then made into a paste with butter and potted. Try anchovies, mackerel, mullet, sardines or salmon.
- Shellfish, such as prawns and crabmeat, are better left with some texture and cooked in butter.
- Potted foods make great spreads or dips and are perfect picnic food as they’re easy to transport.
- Potting isn’t recommended as a preserving method today, so don’t store potted food for any longer than you would normally store meat or fish.