Hearth Cookery

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HEARTH COOKERY. The field of hearth cookery, in its most general sense, is immensely broad, encompassing standard kitchen practice from ancient human settlements to present-day cultures throughout the world. The twentieth century has seen the growth of this new study as historians and social and physical scientists worldwide have found it a source of illumination in traditional areas of research. Among them, one thinks of gender and work, family structure, economics and status, technology, ethnicity and acculturation, and health. Growing numbers of interdisciplinary publications attest to its value, as does its use in living history museums throughout the world. The traditional foods of the hearth have become fashionable in barbecue pits and smokehouses of both professionals and aficionados, in the recreated foods of brick-oven pizzas and artisanal bakeries, and in the restaurants of imaginative chefs using their dining-room fireplaces to simultaneously cook for their patrons and entertain them.

Despite vast differences between ethnic cuisines, this far-flung cookery practice may be described as a relatively simple array of basic cooking utensils used at a hearth, or fire-site. The hearth was usually situated at floor level and held the burning fuel (chiefly but not exclusively local wood); the flames, embers, and radiating heat did the work. More the exception than the rule, a few cultures developed convenient raised hearths, often built eighteen inches or so above floor level; despite this variation, the utensils and cookery principles remained the same. Where fuel was abundant, home brick or clay ovens were used as well. Until relatively recent innovations in fuels and technologies, hearth cooking was the predominant way (indeed, often the only way) of cooking.

The American Hearth

American hearths have existed since the Stone Age in various degrees of modernization. Pre-Columbian Native American cookery sites were usually simple, their utensils often fashioned artfully from natural substanceswood, clay, stone, bone, shell, and hide. The family cooking site was generally out of doors and typically consisted of a flat stone-lined shallow pit, sometimes holding a small tripod of stones to support rounded clay pots or stone griddles. This was commonly augmented by deeper cooking pits in which food was buried for steaming, and with smoking and roasting racks of wood. Indoor cookery, appropriate for inclement seasons or for security, was a simplified version in which smoke escaped through the roof.

The earliest Europeans in the New World brought a working concept of the hearth that was in many ways similar and had in common frequent use of clay pots, tripods or legged trivets, large rounded forms, and flat griddles. Major differences were largely a consequence of the Old World metallurgy hitherto unknown in the Americas, and they added clear advantages of strength, transportability, durability, and more subtle heat transmission.

Seventeenth-century American colonists, following European architectural innovation, improved on their earlier floor fires and roof smoke holes by installing fireplaces with extended stone or brick hearths and chimneys. This new workspace was safer, more flexible, efficient, and comfortable, but hardly simple. As temperatures directly over the flames often exceed 600°F (315°C), control of cooking temperatures was a technological challenge. Small three-legged clay, bronze, or iron pots were perched over small subsidiary fires or piles of glowing embers shoveled from the main fire onto the hearth. In addition, horizontal lug poles were installed high in the chimney; and from these hung iron trammels of several designs, their adjustable hooks capable of suspending pots at variable levels. The cook "turned" the temperature up or down by moving pots toward or away from the heat. In the early eighteenth century, innovative swinging cranes added the possibility of adjusting hanging pots and their contents without the work of lifting them.

Fire and Heat Management

Hearth cooking was characterized not so much by the recipes, which varied widely according to time and place, as by general knowledge of fuels and heat regulation and the maintenance of steady heat in the face of everchanging temperatures. Fires waxed and waned as fuels ignited, blazing up into flames, and then subsided into glowing coals or embers. Good cooks used this varying heat to advantage, shifting pots according to the state of the fire and the needs of the dish. For example, when boiling water, one hung the kettle close to the hottest flames, but when warming milk (which burns easily), one set the pot on the hearth away from the scorching temperatures and, along with stirring, may have rotated it 180 degrees periodically for even cooking.

The experienced cook judged cooking temperatures with sensory cluesvisual, auditory, olfactory, and tactile. Heat was estimated repeatedly through the cooking processes by holding one's hand between the fire and the pot, by the sounds of frying or boiling, and by the appearance of the coals.


Fire temperatures were regulated by the choice of fuel. Most pine burns cool; osage orange and sassafras are very hot. Hard woods (for example, hard maples, oak, fruit, or nut), aged and split, were most desirable, but not without cost. In the American colonies, where wood was often abundant, firewood production demanded long hours invested in felling trees and then cutting, hauling, splitting, and stacking. Yet even with this apparently unending richness, there were places where people were forced to cook over peat (by the mid-eighteenth century, Long Island had depleted its forests) or buffalo chips (the prairies). These situations paralleled those of Ireland, India, China, and nomadic Asia, where similar substitutions were necessary. Consequently, the roaring kitchen fire, a necessity for producing beds of coals, was desirable but not always standard. Wood for cooking fires was sometimes conserved by fine splitting, which had added advantages of efficiency, faster ignition, and more responsive heat replenishment. In combination with flames and embers, assorted sizes of wood enabled the cook to prepare a number of dishes at one time, each pot at its most appropriate temperature.

In maintaining desired warmth, a variety of techniques involved adding, removing, and resituating fuel. For example, a log set into the flames creates a temporary barrier and a cool spot above it; but as it catches fire, it creates a hot spot. Similarly, enlarging the air channels inside the fire increases its rate of burning, while consolidating the fuel and cutting off air supply slows it down.

The Pots

The pots and their technologies were also players in temperature maintenance. Colonists imported or manufactured the designs from home that traditionally worked well with fire, and incorporated special features that added to their effectiveness. Some pots had their own legs for straddling the coals, or used high cooking trivets for that purpose. Larger kettles also incorporated swinging bale handles that hung them from a trammel and crane S-hooks. Many had rounded or bulbous bottoms that transmitted the heat evenly, without the angular corners in which food could burn. Their long handles allowed the cook to avoid the blasting heat of the central fire, as did a variety of long-handled forged hand utensils (spoons, ladles, skimmers, turners, forks, etc.). Like European antecedents, they were made of iron, brass, bell-metal, copper, tin, and ceramics. One New World adaptation, the cast-iron "American Dutch oven," boasted a heavy deep-rimmed lid to hold coals above and three stilt legs to straddle coals below.

Basic batteries de cuisine included assorted cast-iron kettles, water kettles, spiders (frying pans), posnets (saucepans), and griddles, as well as open kettles and pans of cast brass or bell-metal. These heavy pots worked well with wet cooking techniques. However, for dry-heat cookery and high-temperature processes such as frying and broiling, hand-forged metals, being better conductors, were formed into spiders (frying pans) and gridirons (broilers). Tin reflecting ovens made superlative roasters. An array of these pots was common in middling or average kitchens. One's economic status was reflected in the range of utensils: where less fortunate families were perhaps limited to a cooking kettle, water kettle, and frying pan, privileged families owned larger assortments and varied sizes of the basics, supplemented with specialized equipment such as wafer irons, chafing dishes, mounted clock jacks to turn roasts on heavy spits, decorative copper or ceramic molds, or hand-forged geared grinders.

The Cuisine

Cooking with fire has always had the potential for both simple and complex cuisines. The simple hearths of remote and rural areas or those of people of modest means have produced the one-pot dishes (simmered soups, porridges, or stews), roasted meats, and simple baking that have been the mainstay of daily cooking everywhere. At the other extreme are the culinary heights of the Roman and Ottoman empires, Persia, India, China, Mexico, France, and Italy, in which simple equipment and fuel have been no obstacle to fine sauces and elaborate confections. The early introduction of bronze and iron utensils in wealthier and more cosmopolitan urban civilizations enlarged the range of their hearths, enabling such possibilities as the high-temperature deep-fried kunafa, a crisp medieval Arabic bread. To this day, the hearth remains the center of food preparation in both primitive and modernized homes throughout the world and figures in such basic preparations as lightly crisped, griddle-baked Mexican tortillas or Moroccan flatbreads.

The average colonial American cook of moderate means had the skills and resources to turn out complex family meals, undaunted by fire-tending, stooping to floor or crane levels, and relatively primitive equipment. Her success actually had little to do with hearth limitations, depending more on the time of year and seasonal homegrown food availability, on access to imported ingredients (in particular, sugars, spices, and other flavorings), and on the amount of time and help she had for preparations. Seventeenth-and eighteenth-century European cookbooks used in the colonies show a wide array of recipes and varied techniques, among them boiling, simmering, roasting, frying, sautéing, fine baking, preserving, and candying.

By all historical accounts, among them Karen and John Hess's The Taste of America, and the experiences of such food historians as Sandra L. Oliver in recreating these recipes today, the food of accomplished early cooks met the highest standards of the modern palate. For example, roasting even unseasoned fowl and red meat in an open tin reflecting oven set against the fire produced a product far superior to that of its modern gas or electric counterpart. The technique produced a juicy and tender texture, good crust or skin, and slight smokiness, and generally enhanced natural flavor. Likewise, one's daily cornbread, prepared in a heavy Dutch oven, boasted delicate moistness and a wonderful crust unequaled in modern ovens.

American Hearth-to-Cookstove Transitions

In the 1790s, when over 90 percent of Americans were farming, hearth cooking was the sole means of meal preparation in both countryside and city. With the growth of cities in the nineteenth century and the gradual introduction of cookstoves, it survived in closest association with rural life. The new cookstove, developed and popularized in growing cities by 1850, presented a major force in women's changing social roles and the cuisine, but for many years kitchens reflected an overlap in the use of these technologies. Well into the twentieth century there were still communities, notably in remote areas of Appalachia, where hearth cookery sustained life.

The earliest kitchen hearths were associated with relatively small homes in which they were the focus of the house, and the center of much work and socializing. They offered not only cooking heat, but also a warm wintertime house. In time, and with the trend to enlarging American homes, they were distanced from expanded specialized dining and living rooms. At times they were relegated to a separate building (especially in the South and on wealthy farms or plantations), as families sought to remove themselves from the sounds, smells, and dangers of the work. The passing of the hearth in favor of the cookstove was not always lauded; some average families mourned the loss of the congenial kitchen fireside, fearful that both the cuisine and the family were doomed.

Social Implications

The experience of contemporary hearth cooks has added to the correction of past assumptions and misconceptions; for example, the experienced home cook could indeed produce delicious complex meals on a daily basis. There was no inherent danger in long clothingto the contrary, the natural fibers did not flame (only smolder), while skirts and sleeves provided comfort, insulating the body from the heat. There was more threat from tipped kettles and scalding.

In addition, the activity has reinforced the concept of a strong family unit: despite gender work divisions, there were clear advantages to social cooperationthe quality and quantity of family food depended on it. The large body of economically viable skills and knowledge that were specifically women's, the oral tradition of recipe and cookery transmission, the time and strength required, the daily distinctions between drudgery and creativity, and the need to juggle hearth tasks with other necessary chores are only some of the areas informing the current interpretation of social history.

If nothing else, in pinpointing individual and family behavior, it supports a strong case for individualization that surviving cooking manuscripts do not convey.

See also Iron Cookstove, The .


Note: Relatively little has been written on hearth cookery processes. Some information may be gleaned from a close reading of eighteenth-century cookbooks. Modern interpretations are sometimes included in the introductory chapters of facsimile editions and reprints of early works. Books on antiques or trade catalogs are helpful.

Feild, Rachel. Irons in the Fire: A History of Cooking Equipment. U.K.: Crowood Press, 1984. Study of English equipment and hearth processes that were the basis of cookery in most American colonies. Careful research, good illustrations.

Franklin, Linda Campbell. Three Hundred Years of Kitchen Collectibles., 4th edition. Iola, Wisc.: Krause Publications, 1997. Exhaustive illustrated compendium of the equipment, well-documented.

Glasse, Hannah. The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy. London: 1747; facsimile edition London: Prospect Books, 1983. Reprinted throughout the eighteenth century and used widely in the American colonies, with an American edition in 1805. Good source of recipes used by English-Americans.

Harrison, Molly. The Kitchen in History. New York: Scribners, 1972. Broad sweep of kitchen evolution, with some detail on equipment and processes.

Hess, John L., and Karen Hess. The Taste of America. New York: Grossman Press, 1977. Evaluation of cuisines then and now.

Lecoq, Raymond. Les Objets de la Vie Domestique: Utensiles en Fer de la Cuisine et du Foyer des Origines au XIXe Siecle. Paris: Berger-Levrault, 1979.

Martha Washington's Booke of Cookery and Booke of Sweetmeats. Transcribed by Karen Hess. New York: Columbia University Press, 1995. Heavily researched and annotated sixteenth-century English cooking manuscript; intermittent discussion of early implements.

Oliver, Sandra L. "Introduction" and "The Buckinghams: Saltwater Farming." In Saltwater Foodways: New Englanders and Their Food at Sea and Ashore, in the Nineteenth Century. Mystic, Conn.: Mystic Seaport Museum, Inc., 1995. Equipment and processes.

Randolph, Mary. The Virginia Housewife: or, Methodical Cook. Washington, D.C.: Davis and Force, 1824; facsimile edition with Historical Notes and Commentaries by Karen Hess. Columbia, S.C.: University of South Carolina Press, 1984. First Southern American cookbook. Fine recipes for the hearth.

Sloat, Caroline. "Hearth Cookery." In Old Sturbridge Village Cookbook, edited by Caroline Sloat. Chester, Conn.: The Globe Pequot Press, 1984. Equipment and processes for the modern historian at the hearth.

Alice Ross

The Dutch Oven

The history of certain pot forms is informed by early recipes. The following cooking directions seem to suggest an early Dutch oven, and what was also known as "bake kettle" technique.

"To bake an apple [egg] fritter" . . . place a little fire on the lid and let it bake this way."

De Verstandige Kok ( The Intelligent Cook), Amsterdam, 1683

One hundred fifty years later, Mary Randolph described the use of a Dutch oven as a bain marie in her recipe:

"To Make Custards Fill the custard cups, put on the covers, and set them in a Dutch oven with water, but not enough to risk its boiling into the cups, Do not put on the top of the oven."

Mary Randolph, The Virginia Housewife, 1824, p. 180

Fireside Cookery

The following is a selection of wonderful recipes from the original eighteenth-and nineteenth-century sources:

Batter Cakes

"Boil two cups of small hominy very soft and add an equal quantity of corn meal with a little salt, and a large spoonful of butter; make it into a thin batter with three eggs, and a sufficient quantity of milk, beat all together some time, and bake them on a griddle or in waffle irons . . ."

Mary Randolph, The Virginia Housewife, 1824, p. 171


"Make a very thin batter with eggs, milk, butter, and powdered loaf sugar, to your taste; pour it into waferirons, bake them very quick, without browning; roll them as you take them from the irons."

Mary Randolph, The Virginia Housewife, 1824, p. 173

Not all fireside cookery was that simple. This somewhat more complex dish was offered by Hannah Glasses's Art of Cookery, 1747.

A Jugged Hare

"Cut it in little Pieces, lard them here and there with little Slips of Bacon, feafon them with a very little Pepper and Salt, put them into an earthen Jugg, with a Blade or two of Mace, an Onion ftuck with Cloves, and a Bundle of Sweet Herbs; cover the Jugg or Jar you do it in, fo clofe, that nothing can get in, then fet it in a Pot of boiling Water, keep the Water boiling, and three Hours will do it, then turn it out into the Difh, and take out the Onion and Sweet Herbs, and fend it to the Table hot."

Hannah Glasse, The Art of Cookery, 1747, p. 50

Kitchen Equipment

The nineteenth-century overlap of hearth and cook-stove technologies is most apparent in early trade catalogs. For example, Catalogue of Savery & Co.'s Castings (Philadelphia: circa 1855) offered assorted stovetop griddles and kettles (flat bottoms, no legs), and various three-legged hearth pots such as skillets, griddles, kettles, Dutch ovens, and spiders (pp. 425).