views updated May 17 2018


COOKING. Cooking often means the transformation of raw food by the use of heat. Conceived this way, cooking's contribution to human pleasure, culture, and survival could hardly be overstated. When interpreted more widely to include everything involved in the preparation of meals, cooking is even more extraordinarily time-consuming and far-reaching.

Cooking is so universal that it has even been proposed as the distinguishing trait of Homo sapiens. In a journal entry for 15 August 1773, social observer James Boswell noted that other species possessed the abilities of toolmaking and rationality, but "no beast is a cook," and his definition of humans as the "cooking animal" was the subject of much discussion and amusement at dinner tables. The paradigmatic cultural transformation of "raw" into "cooked" was brought into a more recent scholarly context by the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, who wrote in The Raw and the Cooked, "Not only does cooking mark the transition from nature to culture, but through it and by means of it, the human state can be defined with all its attributes" (p. 164).

Modern recipe books demonstrate cooking's great array of visual, olfactory, and gustatory effects. Increasing the attractiveness of food and altering its nutritional properties, cooking has served fundamental social and cultural purposes. Cooking made possible the agrarian mode of production, based on food storage. Even earlier, cooking widened the range of available food species and therefore of habitats, its origins traceable to the use of the first stone cook's knife.

Cooking has often been depicted as part of women's housework, which supports "real" (male or public) production. It has belonged, as stated by Simone de Beauvoir in The Second Sex, to women's dreary sphere of "immanence" rather than men's artistic, intellectual world of "transcendence." This split helps explain why cooking has been little studied in any systematic way. Authorities are far from agreed on the basic cooking techniques, and words are used carelessly, such as "roasting" when "baking" is, in fact, meant. The central purpose of cooking has hardly been discussed, let alone settled.

Here cooking will be examined in the context of its narrow definition as heating. Then other techniques, which include cutting, grinding, mixing, drying, fermenting, and attractive presentation, will be discussed. These techniques are grouped according to their broad outcomes, thus helping to identify cooking's cultural significance and social location. For further information on cooking's technical aspects, see particularly Harold McGee's On Food and Cooking; for information on its cultural and social aspects, see Michael Symons's A History of Cooks and Cooking.

The Use of Heat

When Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin assumed in The Physiology of Taste that the savory results of roasting derived from a juice in meat called "osmazome," his thinking was not all that unusual in the early nineteenth century. Later work has found instead that the pleasing taste results from a complicated set of changes produced through caramelization and the so-called Maillard browning reactions. Nonetheless, as Harold McGee argues in The Curious Cook, "Whatever it is about a roast that inspires such devotion deserves a name, and in the absence of a better one, osmazome serves admirably" (p. 296).

Roasting, baking, broiling, grilling, and frying reach the relatively high temperatures necessary for browning to be achieved sufficiently quickly. The relatively plain-looking and bland effects of boiling and steaming follow from their temperatures being limited to the boiling point of water, 212°F (100°C). Nevertheless, all heating methods alter the aroma, appearance, and texture of foods. Furthermore, heat can turn some otherwise poisonous or inedible substances into food, and change other nutritional properties, not always for the better.

The basic techniques of cooking (in the narrow sense) rely on the physicists' three modes of heat transferradiation, conduction, and convection. The glowing coals radiate at relatively high temperatures to roast a joint on the spit. When food is placed on a gridiron immediately over the radiant source, this is grilling. Broiling is similarly intense but from above. Energy is transferred to the food through conduction in the separate techniques of boiling, steaming, and frying. Gentle boiling (poaching or simmering) also relies on the circulation of heat through convection.

Practical methods combine all modes of energy transfer. In baking, the walls of the oven radiate heat, hot air moves through convection, and energy transfers through conduction. Nothing could seem more direct than roasting, until processes internal to the cooked article are considered, such as conduction of heat from the surface inward and steaming within the cavity of a fowl.

Cooking methods employ different mediums, most basically water, oil, or air. Food is boiled, poached, and steamed with water. Food is either deep-fried immersed in hot oil or shallow-fried on a layer of oil in a pan. Baking employs heated air. Again, practical methods combine mediums. An obvious example is braising, which expressly relies on frying and then, after adding liquid and closing the lid, poaching and steaming in the same container.

The promotion of the "economy" stove by British Count Rumford (Benjamin Thompson) added to the confusion at the beginning of the nineteenth century, because he claimed to roast a joint in a "closed" oven, which both improved efficiency and kept flue gases separate. However, since oven temperatures were much lower than those emanating from open coals, his "roast dinner" was a misnomer. An equivalent twentieth-century misconception resulted with the microwave oven, which employs an entirely different sciencethe stimulated vibration of water molecules so that food heats up internallyso that the device is not really an "oven."

According to the massive Mrs. Beeton's Book of Household Management, published in England in 1909, the six cooking methods "commonly spoken of" are roasting, boiling, broiling, frying, stewing, and baking. These are the same methods listed in the general prologue of the Canterbury Tales more than five centuries earlier, when Geoffrey Chaucer claimed the cook was able to "rooste, and sethe [boil], and broille, and frye, / Maken mortreux [stews], and wel bake a pye." Although ten basic methods have already been discussed aboveroasting, broiling, grilling, baking, boiling, steaming, shallow frying, deep frying, and microwavingChaucer reasonably distinguishes stewing from boiling, and many modern-day cooks would also regard poaching as distinct.

Claude Lévi-Strauss's much-reprinted but, for many people, puzzling "culinary triangle" had three cooking methods placed at each corner (boiled, roasted, and smoked). By then finding places for another three (broiled, fried, and braised), he again assumed a total of six methods. He omitted baking, however, and added smoking, although this sort of drying and light tarring might be better listed under preservation methods. Stirfrying deserves its own place of recognition, and so do infusion (as in preparing tea), steam extraction (as in espresso coffee), and pressure-cooking. And yet another complication in this attempt at categorization is the fact that rice largely "cooks" by absorption. In the end, any list of cooking methods remains merely indicative and conveys only broad principles.

The Cooking Fire

Basic cooking (by heating) relies on various heat sources. Any list of principal cultural variants would have to include the spit, gridiron, grill (or salamander), boiling and stewing pot, enclosed braising pot, steamer, frying pan, stir-fry wok, deepfryer, vertical oven (tannu-r ), horizontal oven (baker's oven), range, and microwave oven. Some basic features can be demonstrated by discussing just four: the open fire, the stewing pot, the oven, and the brazier.

Although not necessarily the oldest method, the open roasting fire is primordially simple, with meat and other foods skewered on vertical sticks or rotated horizontally on a spit. Roasting was first used by hunters, has often been called the Homeric method since its use is cited frequently in the ancient stories of Homer, and has held a particular appeal for the British in recent centuries.

Historically even more important than the spit is the stewing pot. In this vessel various ingredients are combined for long, slow heating; sometimes, the pot's contents are just continuously replenished over days and weeks. Pots have typically been made of clay but variations have included rock depressions (heated by hot stones), leather pouches, and, increasingly, metal containers. The pot was associated with the emergence of a settled society where it was used for both storage and the slow cooking generally required by storable crops.

Dedicated clay ovens are nearly as old as pots, dating from at least seven thousand years ago. These "vertical" ovens are most familiar to English speakers as tandoor ovens (from the Hindustani). Many similar words used in and around the Middle East derive from the ancient Persian, Arabic, and Hebrew tannu-r. The classic version is a clay barrel containing the fire, entered from the top; it is characteristically used for flatbread placed briefly on the wall inside, so that one side browns through conduction and the other through radiation. Throughout Europe, the more familiar variation of this kind of oven has been the horizontal (or "baker's") oven often used to make leavened bread and sharing the floor with its fire in the simplest versions.

The brazier is another simple pot of burning dung or charcoal, on which appropriate containers are placed so that food is broiled, fried, stewed, or baked. Relatively efficient, it has been used when fuel is scarce and so has remained extraordinarily widespreadas common in ancient Athens as it has remained throughout Asia. An enlarged brazier with two or more apertures for heat is the range, fueled by wood, coal, gas, or electricity.

Most major English language dictionaries agree on the definition of the verb "cook" as "to prepare (food) by heating it," and the basic techniques and devices decribed here are commonly accepted. However, cooking plainly employs many other techniques. The development of artificial refrigeration in the nineteenth century only increased the importance of the removal of heat in certain preparations, such as freezing ice cream. Preparing mayonnaise, for instance, also involves combining oil and eggs entirely without heat.

Other important techniques will now be discussed under their broad outcomes, mainly shared by heating. For example, heat enhances pleasures, not merely taste but also texture by, among other methods, obtaining various concentrations of sugar syrup for soft fudges, firmer caramels, toffee, and spun sugar. Heating also supports two of cooking's other broad purposes, improved nutritional qualities and storage. Heating contributes less noticeably to an additional, presumably underlying task, food distribution.

Making Food Attractive

Cooks have become immensely skilled at enhancing the sensory appeal of food. Adding sugar, salt, and acid (such as vinegar) has a marked effect on flavor, although this might often be a side effect of some other desired out-come, such as preservation. Nonetheless, improved attractiveness has been the basic reason for many other simple additions, such as pepper, ginger, caraway seeds, mint, mustard, nutmeg, and vanilla. Spices typically modify aroma and taste, and sometimes they also impart a charming color, as with saffron. The English concept of "curry" does not do justice to the full range of spices ground and blended into much Indian cooking.

Subtly flavored saucesthe peak of grand French cookingare classically based on stocks, made by simmering bones to extract gelatin (especially veal because younger bones are rich in gelatin-producing collagen). A brown stock flavored with red wine and shallots then becomes a bordelaise sauce, and so on. Other sauces are prepared by emulsification, in which oil is so finely dispersed in another liquid that it remains suspended. For instance, mayonnaise is oil dispersed in egg yolks. Flavored with garlic, mayonnaise becomes aioli. Other emulsions are made from butter and cooked egg, notably hollandaise and its derivatives, such as béarnaise with tarragon. McGee suggests that the "fragrant sauce" for asparagus in La Varenne's cookbook of 1651 may be the first recorded recipe for an egg-based emulsified sauce.

The improvement in the organoleptic appeal of foodand sophisticated cooking involves much tasting and visual adjustmenthas been viewed as the essential purpose of cooking by ascetics and hedonists alike. Vegetarians have historically said that good cooking is necessary to disguise meat so that eaters might overcome their disgust. Likewise, the ancient philosopher Plato condemned cooking as the seduction of palates away from higher pursuits. In response, hedonists, whether on a par with Brillat-Savarin or not, have viewed cooking as not the devil's but God's gift.

A modern interpretation of this subject recognizes that food's attractiveness is for the most part socially conditioned, as proved by the wide variety of cultural taboos and preferences. Some groups, for instance, even embrace the poisonous reaction of chili. Thus, cooking does not enhance food's intrinsic attractiveness so much as transform it into a cultural or social symbol. Food has been "good to think" as much as "good to eat" (to borrow again from Lévi-Strauss in Totemism ). Elaborate French sauces are the unspoken language of opulence and "good taste," haggis indicates Scottishness, red meat exhibits maleness, and the avoidance of pork suggests religious commitment.

Along these lines, cookbook writer Elisabeth Rozin has talked of cooking being responsible for distinct "flavor principles," so that flavoring with soy sauce, garlic, brown sugar, sesame seeds, and chili, for example, identifies food as Korean. The Hungarian flavor principle is paprika, lard, and onions. In this way, cooking adds little national flags, so to speak. Such a system might even have a sound nutritional basis in that, as omnivores, humans rely on cultural markers for safe, balanced, or otherwise appropriate foods.


Nutritionally, cooking is a kind of predigestion. Although cooking can reduce the nutritional value of raw foods, it may also make otherwise inedible foods accessible by releasing the nutritive parts of some foods and rendering others safe. Techniques include removing protective shells from seeds and nuts, physically softening or chemically tenderizing what would otherwise be unchewable, making certain nutrients more readily digestible, leaching out harmful compounds or inactivating them, and destroying troublesome bacteria.

Traditional cooks have gained impressively precise and presumably hard-won knowledge of how to handle local species, such as the detoxification of older strains of manioc (or cassava). Even in the industrialized world, cooks know to peel potatoes that are turning green. Through nutritional improvements, cooking has widened the spectrum of available foods, thereby increasing human adaptability to habitats.

Just as significantly, cooking has enabled different modes of production. In his Geist der Kochkunst, Karl Friedrich von Rumohr recognized nearly two centuries ago that the development of human settlements and agriculture approximately ten thousand years earlier had relied on cereals not readily eaten in their original state. The same qualities that keep staples through the year tend to demand that they be processed, as when wheat is laboriously milled and then parched, boiled, or baked.

This ensured the necessity of another nutritional achievement of cooking, the provision of balanced meals. The typical cuisine of agrarian societies has two building blocks: the staple and its accompaniment, a relish or sauce. The main stored agricultural product, such as wheat, corn, and potatoes, is bland, starchy and nutritionally incomplete. The staple is enlivened and supplemented by an appropriate sauce made from a little meat (fished, hunted, or taken from the herd), an animal byproduct (such as cheese), or a legume or vegetable.

The ancient Athenians, for example, based their meals on the sitos of barleycake and wheaten bread or perhaps lentil soup. The opson then provided extra proteins, vitamins, and interest, in the form of a salad of bitter herbs, cheese, eggs, fish (fresh, salted, or dried), or, less frequently, meat. Eventually, the desirable opson was fish. A gourmand was called an opsophagos, a topping-or sauce-eater.

As another example, Chinese cuisine divides a meal into fan and ts'ai. In a narrow sense, fan means "rice" or "cooked rice," and ts'ai means "greens" or "vegetables." In a broader sense, fan includes all cereal and starchy dishes, among them porridge, steamed bread, dumplings, pancakes, and noodles. And, ts'ai refers to the accompaniments, whether made of vegetables, meat, or fish. As explained by anthropologist Eugene Anderson and others, fan is "grain foods" and ts'ai "dishes to go on rice." The two types of food have to be in balance, although more fan might be consumed at home and ts'ai dishes would be more numerous and prominent at feasts or on special occasions.

Although anthropologist Sidney Mintz has wanted to further divide agrarian cuisines into "core/fringe/ legume," nutritionist Daniela Schlettwein-Gsell finds enough nutritional wisdom in the typical combinations of "core" and "fringe," as when wheat is complemented by leafy green vegetables. Polenta con funghi (cornmeal with mushrooms) exhibits a remarkably balanced nutrient density, as do the combinations involved in southern Italian pizza, Swiss raclette, Anglo-Indian kedgeree, North African couscous, Chilean empanadas, and so on.


Settled society was made possible by stored food, which typically was not just cooked to be made edible, but often was also preserved in the first place. Preservation methods include drying, chilling, sugaring, salting, pickling, fermenting, and storing in sealed containers (often under fats and oils). They slow down deterioration by such means as removing moisture, altering acidity, and closing off oxygen. Cooking by heat has also played a role, killing microorganismsbacteria, yeasts, and moldsthat compete for the food, a process exploited in pasteurization.

Fermentation actually uses microorganisms in a controlled way to help convert raw materials into more stable forms, such as wine, beer, cheese, leavened bread, fish sauce, sauerkraut, and soy sauce. For example, in making wine, yeasts transform the sugars in grape juice into alcohol and carbon dioxide, until the yeasts have nothing to survive on. Cheese-making converts excess spring milk through lactic acid fermentation, during which the protein coagulates, and the solid mass can be retained because of its reduced moisture, together with extra saltiness and acidity.

Since the earliest division of labor between the sexes, women have generally been more intimately involved in cooking than men. However, baking, brewing, vinification, sauce-making, and the like have become important spin-offs of cooking performed by specialists, often (but not always) men. While the cooking of women has had a domestic focus (home and hearth), that of men is generally more public, or market-oriented. In recent centuries, food production has been rapidly industrialized, so that now much cooking, whatever its form, has been taken over by factories.


Meals are essentially sharing occasions and, in serving them, cooking should be seen as distributive at heart. Cooking employs a range of food-dividing techniques, including counting, weighing, and other forms of portion control. As Michael Symons has argued in A History of Cooks and Cooking, the most characteristic distributive activity has to be cutting, and the most obligatory distinctive culinary tool is the knife.

The classic American cookbook, Joy of Cooking, includes in its listing of essential kitchen equipment: two paring knives, one bread knife, one meat knife and grapefruit knife, along with such possible variants as spatula, two graters, wooden chopping bowl and chopper, meat grinder, doughnut cutter, biscuit cutter, pancake turner, apple corer, vegetable slicer or parer, can opener, and kitchen shears. These are used in peeling, coring, and chopping food into suitable pieces for cooking; they are also used to carve meat, slice bread, and cut out biscuits for all to share.

In Chinese cooking, the tou (cleaver) is employed to chop meat and vegetables. The quick stir-frying characteristic of this cuisine requires that the ingredients be cut up into same-size, relatively small pieces. Nonetheless, the chopping and slicing also make the food highly distributive. The cleaver allows diners to put aside their knives and rely on chopsticks and spoons. Chinese observers have a point when they view the Western use of table knives as dangerous and barbaric, and cutting up as best left to preparation in the kitchen. The first sharp cutters, made specially from pebbles, date back to approximately two million years ago, which makes the cook's knife about twice as old as the cook's fire. The stone cutters used in scrounging and dividing up flesh heralded the "cooking animal," and innovations in knife-making technology contributed to the names of the Stone, Bronze, and Iron Ages.

The importance of sharing sustenance through meals gives the cutting or carving of foodstuffs and therefore kitchen knives a central place in human life. They are essentially generous instruments. However, the very success of cooks' knives has led to their being overlooked, because the division of food goes hand in hand with the division of labor. Meals are the mechanism by which people share not merely food, but also the associated tasks; everyone brings their contribution to the table.

Unfortunately, while the value and importance of cooking have not always been recognized, specialists have aggrandized their in many ways subsidiary trades and tools, as when men distributed meat through such rituals as temple sacrifice and courtly carving. The fundamental instruments of humankind's social interaction with nature, knives, have thus cut people off from each other and their world.

See also Beeton, Isabella Mary; Boiling; Brillat-Savarin, Anthelme; Broasting; Couscous; Dinner; Frying; Grilling; Lunch; Pizza; Preparation of Food; Presentation of Food; Roasting; Serving of Food .


Anderson, E. N. The Food of China. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1988.

Brillat-Savarin, Jean-Anthelme. The Physiology of Taste. Translated by M. F. K. Fisher. New York: Knopf, 1971. Originally La Physiologie du gout, Paris, 1826.

Goody, Jack. Cooking, Cuisine and Class: A Study in Comparative Sociology. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1982.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude. Introduction to a Science of Mythology, Vol. 1: The Raw and the Cooked. Translated by John and Doreen Weightman. London: Jonathan Cape, 1970.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude. Introduction to a Science of Mythology, Vol. 3: The Origin of Table Manners. Translated by John and Doreen Weightman. London: Jonathan Cape, 1978. One of many sources for the "culinary triangle."

McGee, Harold. Science and Lore in the Kitchen. New York: Scribners, 1984.

McGee, Harold. The Curious Cook: More Kitchen Science and Lore. San Francisco: North Point, 1990.

Mintz, Sidney W., and Daniela Schlettwein-Gsell. "Food Patterns in Agrarian Societies: The 'Core-Fringe-Legume Hypothesis'." Gastronomica 3 (Summer 2001): 4052.

Mrs. Beeton's Book of Household Management. London: Ward, Lock, 1909. The authors are unaknowledged. Isabella Beeton only lived to supervise the original Book of Household Management, 1861.

Rombauer, Irma S., and Marion Rombauer Becker. The Joy of Cooking. Indianapolis, Ind.: Bobbs-Merrill, 1953.

Rozin, Elisabeth. Ethnic Cuisine: The Flavor-principle Cookbook. Brattleboro, Vt.: Stephen Greene, 1983. Revised edition of The Flavor-principle Cookbook (New York: Hawthorn Books, 1973).

Rumohr, Baron von. The Essence of Cookery: Geist der Kochkunst. Translated by Barbara Yeomans. London: Prospect Books, 1993. Originally attributed to his cook, Joseph König, 1822.

Symons, Michael. A History of Cooks and Cooking. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2000. Also Blackawton, Totnes, Devon (U.K.): Prospect Books, 2001. Original title was The Pudding That Took a Thousand Cooks: The Story of Cooking in Civilisation and Daily Life, 1998.

Symons, Michael. "What's Cooking?" Petits Propos Culinaires 67 (June 2001): 7686.

Michael Symons


views updated May 18 2018

cooking Required to make food more palatable, more digestible, and safer. There is breakdown of the connective tissue in meat, softening of the cellulose in plant tissues, and proteins are denatured by heating, so increasing their digestibility. See also: boiling; broiling; coddling; devilled; fricassée; frying; grilling; roasting; sautéing; simmering; steaming; stewing.


views updated May 29 2018

cook·ing / ˈkoŏking/ • n. the process of preparing food by heating it. ∎  the practice or skill of preparing food. ∎  food that has been prepared in a particular way: authentic Italian cooking. ∎  [as adj.] suitable for or used in cooking: cooking oil.