Culinary Technology (Part 8): The Aristocracy
Petworth House (Sussex) is one of the grandest houses in England. It belonged to the Egremonts from 1150 (it is now managed by the National Trust). The current building is from the 1600′s.
Today, it has an enormous array of kitchen utensils, over 100 pieces in total. There are rows of saucepans and stewpans, with matching lids, lined up on dressers. There are stockpots with taps at the bottom (like tea-urns), sauté pans and omelette pans, a large braising pan with an indented lid to hold embers (so the food could be cooked from above at the same time).
The Petworth batterie de cuisine.
Copper braising pan (front); small steaming kettle with handle cover (back).
Particulary impressive is the wide variety of fish pans. In the old days, fish came from the Sussex coast. The kitchen has fish kettles, with pierced draining-plates inside, so that the fish could be lifted from the water it was being poached in, without falling to pieces. There is a fish fryer (a round, open pan with a wire drainer), and a specialist turbot pan (diamond-shaped, the same shape as the fish). There are several smaller pans for cooking mackerel.
Victorian copper fish kettles.
A tin fish kettle (cheaper than copper).
Modern fish kettle, with a better view.
The fish fryer probably looked like this.
Of course, not all of these items would have been in use during every era.
In 1624 (during the Stuart era), Petworth didn’t have any saucepans or stewpans. For boiling/stewing, they had a large fixed “copper” (a giant vat of boiling water, which supplied hot water for the whole household as well as the kitchen); nine stockpots (cauldrons), an iron cockle pan, a few fish kettles, and five small brass skillets (3-legged, to stand in the fire).
A brass skillet - not sure of the era.
The kitchen’s focus was on roasting, not boiling. They had 21 spits, 6 dripping pans, 3 basting ladles, and 5 gridirons.
Gridiron (not sure of the era).
Basting ladle (1745).
But by 1764 (in the Georgian Era), things were different. Only 9/21 spits were left. Petworth now had 24 large stewpans, 12 small stewpans, and 9 bain-maries & saucepans.
This increase in pans (both number & variety) was because of a new style of cooking. The old heavy medieval cuisine was on its way out, and a fresher, more “buttery” cuisine was on its way in. There were many new foods in the Georgian Era that the Stuart Era did not have. For example: frothy chocolate; crisp biscuits; sharp, citrusy sauces; the truffly ragouts of French nouvelle cuisine. And all of these new dishes needed new equipment to cook them in.
Hannah Glasse (1708-70) was one of the most well-known cookery writers of the 1700’s. She wrote that it was important to use the right pan when melting butter – a silver pan was best, she thought. (A type of thickened melted butter was beginning to be served as a universal sauce, to go with meat or fish.)
But by 1869 (in the Victorian Era), this was definitely not enough. The focus of the kitchen was finally moving away from spit-roasting – now the most important equipment was the copper pans, resting on steam-heated hotplates.
There were three steamers, for those foods that needed gentler cooking than boiling. The number of stewpans & saucepans had risen from 45 to 96. This was because of the huge variety of sauces, glazes and garnishes that were part of Victorian cuisine.
There isn’t much difference between a saucepan and stewpan. In the 1700’s, saucepans were smaller (like the left-hand one further up), suitable for furiously whisking sauces and gravies, after they’d been made in a stewpan, and sieved. Stewpans were bigger, and had lids. They could hold a lot of food, and they were the main pan for cooking the meal. However, the saucepan eventually overtook the stewpan.
In 1844, Thomas Webster wrote in An Encyclopaedia of Domestic Economy that saucepans were “smaller round vessels for boiling, made with a single handle”, and that stewpans were made with a double handle (one on the lid, and one on the pan). The metal of stewpans was thicker, and they had a more rounded base, which made them easier to clean.
(Nowadays, we don’t use the term “stewpan” – we say “saucepan” for pretty much every pan.)
The idea of the batterie de cuisine came out of the 1700’s. It was the opposite idea of the one-pot cooking – you should have a certain pan/vessel for each component of the meal. You can’t sauté in a slope-sided frying pan; you can’t fry in a straight-side sauté pan. You need a turbot kettle for poaching fish. You need the right tool for every job. This was influenced by France, and by the new professionalism of cooking during the 1700’s.
William Verrall (1715-61) was the chef & landlord of the White Hart Inn (Lewes, Sussex). He disparaged cooks that tried to make do with “one poor solitary stewpan” and one frying-pan “black as my hat”. He said that “a good dinner cannot be got up to look neat and pretty without proper utensils to work it in, such as neat stew-pans of several sizes” and various other things. He tells of “half of a very grand dinner” being completely spoiled “by misplacing only one stew pan.”
This obsession with pans was partially because of the English copper industry. Prior to the 1700’s, copper had been imported from Sweden. But in 1689, their monopoly had ended, and England’s production of copper increased greatly (especially from Bristol). And of course, now it cost less – so cooks could have many copper pans. The French word batterie actually means copper that has been battered into shape. By the 1800′s, batterie de cuisine had become the universal term to refer to cooking equipment (excluding fixed objects such as the oven).
The Victorian copper batterie was the apogee of the history of pots and pans. They were well-crafted, and made from high-quality metal; they were tailored to the specific requirements of cooking; and wealthy Victorians had huge kitchens, with many cooks.
Some have criticized the Victorians for boiling vegetables for too long, and reducing everything to a soupy mush. Victorian and Regency-era recipes say to boil asparagus for 15-18min; broccoli for 20min; carrots for 45min to an hour! But this actually made sense for the time, and didn’t actually wreck the vegetables.
William Kitchiner (author of The Cook’s Oracle) says to boil asparagus for 20-30min, which seems far too long to us. He also says, “Great care must be taken to watch the exact time of their becoming tender; take them up just at that instant, and they will have their true flavour and colour: a minute or two more boiling destroys both.” We tend to boil asparagus as individual stalks, whereas he says to tie it in a bundle – which takes longer to cook. But there is a lot more to the long boiling times than that.
Recipe-writers in the 1800’s were very keen on cooking scientifically. And the most important thing about boiling, they said, was that no matter how long you boil water for, it’ll never go above 100°C. This was noted by Robert Buchanan (an expert on fuel economy) in 1815, and cookbook-writers often quoted him on this. What was the point of boiling things hard, when it doesn’t raise the temperature any more? It was just a waste of fuel/energy.
William Kitchiner experimented with putting a thermometer in water “in that state which cooks call gentle simmering”. At simmering-level, the water was also 100°C – the same as if it was boiling. Logically speaking, it would be better to cook at a simmer, rather than a boil – same temperature, less fuel.
In 1868, Pierre Blot (Professor of Gastronomy at the New York Cooking Academy) criticized cooks & housewives who boiled “fast instead of slowly”. “Set a small ocean of water on a brisk fire and boil something in it as fast as you can, you make as much steam but do not cook faster; the degree of heat being the same as if you were boiling slowly.”
Simmering instead of boiling is good for meat. Kitchiner said, “The slower it boils, the tenderer, the plumper and whiter it will be.” But for vegetables (except for potatoes), it takes ages – especially because Victorian cooks liked to cook things in the smallest pan possible.
Kitchiner said that the size of the boiling-pot should be proportional to what it will contain. The reason for that, he continued, was that the larger the pot, the more space it took up on the fire, and the more water & fire was needed. This is true.
The Victorians were partially right, and partially wrong. It is true that boiling water won’t go above 100°C (unless under higher pressure, such as in a pressure cooker). But temperature isn’t the only important factor. Another factor is ebullition – how much boiling water bubbles. Heat transfer is determined by the temperature difference between the food and the heat source (water). Boiling water moves more chaotically, and transfers heat to the foot several times faster than simmering. Also, heat transfer is faster when there is more water in the pan (in proportion to the food). So Kitchiner’s small, simmering pot will take ages longer to cook than a modern-day large, boiling pot.
Another reason for the long cooking times was that Victorian vegetables were different from now – less tender. Their asparagus was stalkier, and their carrots & greens were tougher.
Victorian pots and pans, despite their craftmanship and variety, had a big problem – their material. Copper is a great heat conductor, second only to silver. But when it comes into contact with food (particularly acidic foods) pure copper is poisonous.
Tin is neutral, and their copper pans were thinly lined with it. Of course it wore down over time, exposing the copper beneath. Therefore, 1700’s & 1800’s recipe books often give the advice to “Let your pans be frequently retinned.”
But cooks probably put off retinning their pans as long as possible. In fact, cooks who didn’t realize that the copper was poisonous used its “greening” powers, using unlined copper pans to pickle green walnuts and green gherkins.