Cooking with Fire

By Derven, Daphne | Whole Earth, Winter 1999 | Go to article overview

Cooking with Fire


Derven, Daphne, Whole Earth


I think we began doing it because cooking improved flavor. Browning meat over an open fire makes flavors intense and sweet. Steaming, such as by wrapping food in clay (tandoori) or wet leaves, contains the moisture, preserves the delicacy of flavor and foods' wonderful texture. (It receives the attention it deserves in the Asian kitchen; only in America is it looked upon as "simple.")

Early cooking took place over the open fire, using what was at hand. Sticks, ashes, smoke, leaves, stones. Spits and pits. Only later, containers were used to cook food with fire. When wicker baskets could hold water, cooks could boil food by dropping hot stones into the water until it bubbled. After the invention of ceramics, cooks could boil and stew in pots right in the open fire.

5,000 years ago: The people of Ur (ancient Sumeria) were cooking bread in ovens. They burned simple fuels in the oven, then swept out the ashes and put the bread in; it baked in re-radiated heat from the oven walls. Much of the process of obtaining food, building a fire, and cooking remained the same, passed from generation to generation.

About 600 B.C.E: Leviticus hints that pan frying (the use of vegetable oil to cook food) had been invented, complementing the styles of roasting/grilling, steaming/boiling, and baking. Frying would not become truly popular until the cast-iron pan.

About 300 years ago: A radical shift in iron technology; by the 1700s, cast iron (iron made with about 3 percent carbon) was used for stoves in Central Europe, but still primarily for heat, not cooking. Cooking remained separate in cast-iron troughs covered with grills fed by coal and charcoal, which replaced wood.

By 1802: Odorless natural gas joined wood and coal. It changed the taste and smell of meals. It powered the iron stove. The fuels for the flame became invisible, and, by the end of the century, would begin to disappear altogether.

By 1815: Home heating and cooking began to seriously merge. …

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