Utensils, Cooking

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UTENSILS, COOKING. Among professional cooks, cooking implements in the kitchen are referred to collectively by the French term batterie de cuisine. This includes all utensils involved in the preparation of food regardless of specific function or type of material (ceramic, metal, glass, wood). The range of utensils in any given kitchen speaks volumes about the elaborateness of the cooking that takes place there as well as the type of food prepared. There are also large cultural differences in the implements deemed necessary for food preparation, so the batterie de cuisine of a Chinese kitchen is quite different from that of of a kitchen of medieval Syria, ancient Rome, or a modern American hotel. From the standpoint of culinary history, the study of cooking utensils falls under two broad categories: archaeology for the ancient and medieval utensils, and material culture for objects of more recent date. Because of their beautiful design, cooking implements are also of interest to certain branches of decorative arts and antique collecting.

Archaeologists rely almost exclusively on utensils in their attempt to reconstruct cuisines of the past, especially when there are no written records to provide working recipes. It is known that the Roman cookery book of Apicius was originally illustrated with pictures of utensils because there are a few scattered references to these pictures in the surviving text. Medieval scribes did not bother to copy those pictures. If they had, modern food historians would have a better idea of what some of the mysterious implements mentioned in Apicius looked like. But the fact that the original cookbook contained pictures of unusual utensils is evidence in itself that certain recipes in Apicius were not familiar even to most educated Romans.

The Austrian food ethnographer Anni Gamerith revolutionized the study of cooking utensils during the 1970s when she published her studies about the relationship among food types, utensils, and heat source (open hearth or enclosed cook stove). Heat source determined the design of the utensils, and this functional reality determined the range of dishes that could be accomplished with that technology. To be certain, the batterie de cuisine of a typical farm kitchen or even of a well-equipped kitchen in an urban townhouse not only reflected the type of dishes made there but also inventoried the economic level of the household, where it fit into the larger social picture. The kitchen and its implements thus become critical keys in understanding the foods of the past.

Cooking utensils can be organized into several categories depending on their function and the kind of cooking that is done. The categories include preparation equipment; pots, pans, frying pans, and cauldrons; griddles and equipment for roasting and baking; utensils for tabletop cooking; and utensils used for charcuterie.

Preparation Equipment

Preparation equipment includes spoons, spatulas, meat forks, knives, cutting boards, scissors, and shears. Grinding, crushing, straining, sifting, and sieving implements are also part of this group, as are whisks and beating devices that range from the most primitive handful of twigs bound together with string to the most powerful food processors and blenders. Ceramic, glass, and stainless steel bowls fit into this category as well. Measuring devices vary from country to country, depending on the weight system used. Most countries use a metric system for measurement of both liquids and solids, although the actual number of units to the measure may vary. Home cooks in the United States use a system developed in the late nineteenth century that employs measuring spoons and measuring cups (different kinds for dry or liquid measuring), but the body of measurements used in American cookery (pounds, ounces, quarts, and so forth) dates to Elizabethan England and represents a system of measure that is both archaic and at odds with that of the rest of the world.

Pots, Pans, Frying Pans, and Cauldrons

Pots, pans, kettles, skillets, cauldrons, and frying pans are included among items that are placed on an open flame or directly over a heat source. These utensils have the longest history of use, as they were first used over open fires. There were also critical differences in their designs. A kettle, for example, was characterized by straight or outwardly splayed sides. It was generally used uncovered for boiling foods or reducing them to another consistency, as in the case of large copper apple butter kettles. On the other hand, a traditional pot bulged on the sides and featured a neck below the rim. It was often used for cooking several things at once and invariably included a wooden or tin lid. Pot lids were normally sold separately from the pot itself but were usually numbered to match the number on the pot, such as "5" for five gallons, or "10" for ten gallons. Cookpots (one word in colloquial American usage) were generally small and made of ceramic. They were employed in cooking foods that would be spoiled in color or flavor if they came in contact with an iron pot or kettle. Classic New England baked beans were originally baked in ceramic cookpots set on a trivet among the hot coals.

Frying pans were known in ancient Greek and Roman kitchens: téganon to the Greeks, patella to the Romans. The Roman patella survived in modern Spanish as paella and in modern Italian as padella. Frying pans were probably also used to prepare grain dishes, the antecedents of paella made with rice. Skillets were originally deep, much like modern sauce pans, but the term is used interchangeably with frying pan. It is common practice among American cookbook writers to forego the use of "frying pan" altogether in favor of "skillet," as in the phrase, "brown lightly in a skillet" rather than "brown lightly in hot fat in a frying pan." This word manipulation is an attempt to make the recipe sound more appealing and less fatty although the ingredients remain the same. Frying pans with legs, once common in open hearth cookery, were generally called spiders both in England and in America.

"Pan" is a term of truly ancient origin, deriving from Celtic panna. The feature that distinguished it from other utensils was its flat bottom. This is why sauce pans and sauté pans, while very different in shape, are nonetheless called "pans." A versatile pan that combines the best of both the sauté pan and the frying pan has higher, sloping sides that are often slightly curved. This pan is called a sauteuse (literally a sauté pan in the female gender), an evasée (denoting a pan with sloping sides), or a fait-tout (literally "does everything"). Most professional kitchens have several of these utensils in varying sizes.

The cauldron evokes a vision of a huge pot boiling fiercely over an open fire. Actually the traditional cauldron was used in much more diverse ways, sometimes containing several different foods in smaller, sealed containers or wrapped in cloth. It is far more likely that the cauldron gently simmered than rapidly boiled. The word itself is of Celtic origin, and this one hearth utensil was universal throughout Celtic-speaking Europe. It was the symbol of hospitality, was used in religious rituals, and was often mentioned in Irish myths. Judging from archaeological evidence, the most ancient cauldrons were shaped like bowls. The Belgic Celts used cauldrons in the preparation of fish stews, which they made on board their fishing boats. These stews, called "chowders," were adopted by the Roman navy, survived through the Middle Ages, and have many counterparts. One unifying feature of all chowders prepared in a cauldron was the lining of cabbage leaves (later coarse dough) that separated the food from the metal, thus preventing it from taking on the taste of the pot.

Griddles and Equipment for Roasting and Baking

Griddles, grill pans, and irons for baking and toasting fall into another category of cooking utensil that also includes open outdoor and indoor grills and rotisseries. In one of the most effective rotisseries, the flame is arranged vertically, and the food is arranged on rods before the fire. These are most often used in commercial environments, including permanent food stalls in some countries. Griddles are used for pan grilling and for hearthside baking in much of the world, from the crumpets of England to the tortillas of Mexico, and the Hopi Indians used a special stone griddle to make piki bread. Irons are used for forming special cookies, but they also include hinged irons for making waffles, hinged and ridged irons for producing panini (a grilled sandwich that originated in Milan), and the characteristic shell design of the iron to form the French croque monsieur (a grilled ham and cheese sandwich).

Roasting pans and equipment include spits, dripping pans, and roasting pans for use in ovens. Skewers also fall into this category, as when they are used in a tandoor oven, although they may also be used for grilling.

Baking and pastry work calls for yet another set of equipment. Such items include plaques (baking sheets) and pans and dishes especially designed for this use. This category includes frozen and chilled desserts as well, bringing into play molds of various kinds. Bread baking often employs flat baking stones that permit the retention of heat and, in combination with steam, produce a crisp crust. Loaf pans are also employed in bread baking and dessert making.

Utensils for Tabletop Cooking

One classification that crosses over into table service is equipment for tabletop cooking. This includes fuel sources, such as spirit lamps, alcohol burners, Sterno (a commercial fuel), or butane. Tabletop or tableside cookware includes the chafing dish, in which a sauté pan is set over simmering water over a heat source, the oval skillet for finishing dishes over a flame at table side, and the Mongolian firepot. The latter is a device, frequently made from brass, in which a central chimney is set above a heat source. Liquid, usually broth of some kind, is heated and added to the pan that surrounds the chimney. Guests then cook their own food, such as a variety of meats, poultry, and vegetables, in the simmering liquid. Fondue pots, pottery for cheese fondue and metal for meat or fish fondues, are also used to cook at the table.

Utensils Used for Charcuterie

A final category of cooking utensils is those used for making charcuterie (pâtés, terrines, galantines, and sausages). These include grinding and stuffing equipment for sausages and specialized baking dishes for various kinds of charcuterie loaves. A terrine, as a utensil for baking the dish of the same name, may be pottery or enameled cast iron. Forms for pâté en croûte (loaves baked in pastry of some kind) often have designs in the sides to make the pastry case more attractive when baked.

Materials Used in Cooking Utensils

While fired clay, bronze, and iron pots were used for many centuries, copper pots were also found in the Middle East, Europe, and North Africa. In addition, porcelain, aluminum, stainless steel, and glass have become common, and newer materials develop as stove technologies change.

As hearths evolved, so did the designs for various kinds of utensils. As a wider variety of materials became available, some were judged better for specific kinds of cooking. Thus, although cooking utensils are sold in sets of different shapes and sizes but all made of the same material, some usually are better fitted to a specific cooking function than others. The function also depends on how well the metal conducts heat. Sometimes a great deal of heat is required, as in sautéing or searing meats. In some cases, slower heating but fine heat retention is needed. Utensils made of certain metals are preferred by expert cooks for the superior results they produce. For example, where it is important to conduct heat quickly and remove it just as quickly, as in sautéing to just the right degree of doneness, copper lined with tin, stainless steel, or nickel is excellent, and aluminum is a close second. That is not to say that utensils of other metals cannot be used for those purposes; they simply are not as effective.

For long, slow cooking, heavy cast iron holds heat evenly and permits simmering at relatively low temperatures, as does clay (although, except in the case of the Japanese donabe cooking pot, clay utensils cannot be used over a direct flame). Steel, on the other hand, has low conducting properties and is useful for foods to be cooked in a large amount of boiling water, for example blanching vegetables. Ceramic and glass materials may be used for baking and are also used in tempered-glass double boilers.

Some metals, notably copper, aluminum, and iron, interact with foods cooked in them and must be lined with another metal to be used safely with food. Copper can be used unlined for boiling water, melting sugar, and beating egg whites. Since acid and eggs interact with copper, pans used to cook them are generally lined with tin, nickel, or stainless steel.

Iron and aluminum, like copper, interact with some foods. Unlined cast iron or aluminum interacts with eggs and acidic foods like tomatoes. Cast iron is often enameled to reduce this problem. Aluminum can be lined with stainless steel, which is nonreactive. Some aluminum is treated to make its surface nonreactive.

One of the finest materials for slow simmering in ovens remains low-fired clay. It holds heat well and even imparts a flavor or quality that metals cannot provide to a dish. For higher-heat work, such as soufflés, highly fired porcelain is preferred by some cooks, although others use glass or tinned steel.

The thickness of the material used in a utensil also affects the quality of the results. Thin metal utensils tend to warp easily over heat. Thin pottery, porcelain, or glass breaks easily and does not hold heat. Thickness, however, also implies weight. Professional-weight copper utensils are heavy, especially in larger sizes, as are cast iron ones. This is one of the reasons lined or anodized aluminum is preferred by some cooks.

Form and Function in Cooking Utensils

Function determines the shape of a pot or pan nearly as much as the material from which it is manufactured. In sautéing, for example, a wide pan with three-inch straight sides and a long handle permits the food to be shaken and tossed easily without falling from the pan. Moisture evaporates quickly, preventing food from being steamed rather than sautéed. Pots used for long braisings, on the other hand, have higher sides to concentrate the contents and prevent evaporation. Such vessels have closely fitting lids as well. Stockpots are traditionally tall in proportion to the diameter to minimize evaporation during the long, slow simmering process. Some stockpots in professional use for restaurant work, however, are wider than they are tall to allow evaporation of a large amount of liquid and concentration of flavor.

Professional kitchens also have the challenge of handling large amounts of food that make enlarged utensils heavy and awkward. Giant stockpots either turn on gimbals for easy pouring or have spigots at the bottom to draw off liquid. Braising devices for banquet work are often large, rectangular devices, four feet long and two feet wide or more, and are arranged on gimbals so the pan can be tilted easily. Overall, the utensils and cooking equipment of the large, professional kitchen have a far more industrial appearance than cooking utensils used in a home.

Differentiation of Use in Forms of Cooking and Cooking Utensils

The anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss notes, in both The Raw and the Cooked (1969) and The Origin of Table Manners (1968), that in certain tribes, some cooking functions were reserved for men and others for women. In his example, the roasting function (representing something that was somewhere between raw and cooked) was reserved in certain tribes to men, while boiling (which represented something that was well cooked and was even associated with the start of decay) was reserved to women. Lévi-Strauss also mentions that roasts are more often served to guests or at feasts, while boiled or simmered foods are considered everyday food. In the Middle East, cooking methods associated with hunting, roasting, or grilling over a campfire were reserved for men. The tradition has become common among Americans, where many men handle outside grilling at home.

Cooking utensils sometimes are reserved for special functions related to religion. The Jewish laws of kashruth dictate that separate utensils be used for dairy meals and for meat meals. They further direct that either a completely different set of utensils be used for the feast of Passover or the utensils be ritually prepared for Passover by a special boiling process. This grouping of utensils by food type was also practiced by many peasant societies in Europe, especially in areas where ceramic utensils predominated. Since pottery absorbs food flavors (onions and fats in particular), many households maintained separate utensils for fish, meat, and milk preparations.

See also Ancient Kitchen ; Apicius ; Cooking ; Cuisine, Evolution of ; Etiquette and Eating Habits ; Gamerith, Anni ; Greece, Ancient ; Hearth Cookery ; Iron Cook-stove ; Kitchen Gadgets ; Preparation of Food ; Rome and the Roman Empire .


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