Culinary History (Part 21): Ovens
Benjamin Thompson (1753-1814, Count Rumford) was a physicist & inventor who worked to improve English kitchens. He was not pleased at all with their design, both in terms of health and economics. In the 1790’s, he wrote, “More fuel is frequently consumed in a kitchen range to boil a tea-kettle than, with proper management, would be sufficient to cook a dinner for fifty men.”
He didn’t think it was worth it for the roast meat that England was famous for, and complained that English cooks had neglected the art of making of “nourishing soups and broths”. The main problem, he said, was that the hearth was open.
At this time, the typical English kitchen had a very long range (because of all the pots that had to be put on the fire). This meant that a huge, very tall chimney was needed, wasting fuel and making the kitchen extremely hot and constantly smoky. There were also cold draughts by the chimney.
To solve this problem, Rumford built invented his own custom-built closed range, which he installed in the House of Industry in Munich (i.e. the workhouse). It used far less fuel.
Rumford’s range had many small enclosed fires, instead of one large fire. Each pot had its own separate, closed fireplace. The fireplaces were built with bricks (for good insulation), had a door to shut them, and each had their own individual canal which took the smoke into the chimney.
But while Rumford’s design was a major improvement, it never caught to a wide audience. Part of the problem was that ironmongers (the main producers of cooking apparatus at the time) didn’t want to sell it, because it was made from bricks and not iron. (Later on, various “Rumford stoves” would be marketed and sold, but with no connection to the original.)
But it wasn’t just a marketing issue. People hate change, and they were determined to stick to the old ways. The English believed that open fires roasted, and bread ovens baked. You couldn’t mix the two together. In 1838, Mary Randolph said, “No meat can be well-roasted except on a spit turned by a jack, and before a clear, steady fire – other methods are no better than baking.”
Inventors kept working on spit-jacks for ages. In 1845, a patent was taken out for an electrically-propelled spit-jack, using two magnets. Even in 1907, the Skinners’ Company in London had a 3.3m-wide roasting range in the Guildhall kitchen. Progress was not so easily won.
Baking vs. Roasting
In the Middle East, this baking/roasting division did not exist. The Arabic word khubz means “bread”, and from this comes the verb khabaza, which means “to bake/make khubz”. But it can also mean “to grill” or “to roast”.
Mesopotamian bread ovens have been found dating back to 3000 BC (modern-day Pakistan, Syria, Iran & Iraq). They are round cylinders, made of clay. A fire is lit in the bottom of the cylinder; then dough is lowered through a hole in the top and slapped on the inside of the oven. A few minutes later, it has baked into flatbread, and is lifted out again.
These clay ovens are still used today in the Middle East, Central & South-East Asia, and in many rural areas in African countries. It is called a tandoor. Many other things are cooked in it, not just bread.
The tandoor cooks with intense, dry baking heat. Even poor households used them to bake bread. In Amarna (an Ancient Egyptian village from 1350 BC), half of the labourers’ houses showed traces of a tandoor. Unlike in medieval Europe, where it was believed that the only real bread was professionally baked, home-made bread was the preference. In medieval Baghdad, a marketplace inspector once remarked that “most people avoid eating bread baked in the market.”
Like the portable braziers of Ancient Greece, the tandoor was portable, and far better than building a fire in the hearth. They were also cheap. An “eye” at the bottom of the cylinder gave control over the level of heat, by opening & shutting. For example, a round Iraqi water-bread coated in sesame oil would be cooked in a moderate heat, but other breads needed extreme heat. The fuel is burned directly inside the tandoor, on the bottom, so temperatures can reach up to 480°C (most domestic ovens can only get up to 220°C).
The tandoor wasn’t just used for baking – it was also used for stewing, and for roasting as well. In the West, tandoori chicken (chicken marinated in yoghurt & red spices) is well-known, and it is cooked in a tandoor.
In Baghdad in the 900’s AD, the tandoor’s roasting capabilities were mostly used for “fatty whole lamb or kid – mostly stuffed…big chunks of meat, plump poultry or fish.” These were either laid on flat brick tiles, which were arranged on the fire; or put on metal skewers and lowered in from the top.
There are three different types of cooking heat. In all of them (as physics requires), heat moves from the hotter area/object to the cooler one.
Radiant heat is used for grilling. It’s like when you put your hand above a heater, without touching it: the heat blasts out from it and warms your hand without you even needing to touch it. No contact is needed. A red-hot fire gives plenty of radiant heat from the flames and embers.
Conduction works through direct touch, from one object to another. This is like touching the heater, instead of putting your hand above it. Metals are excellent conductors; brick, wood and clay are poor conductors. For cooking, conduction is the type of heat transfer when you put a piece of meat in a pan.
Convection happens within a gas/liquid. The hot parts of the gas/liquid are less dense than the cool ones, but gradually it evens out (for density and temperature). This is like the heat of the heater spreading gradually through the room. For cooking, convection happens when cooking porridge or boiling water.
While any cooking method will use a combination of these forms of heat transfer, one will usually dominate, and it is this which makes the tandoor unusual – it uses all three at the same time. Radiant heat from the fire below, and from the hot clay walls; conduction from the clay to the bread, or the metal skewers to the meat; and convection within the hot air circulating in the tandoor. This is what makes this oven so versatile.
The old Western ovens were basically brick boxes. They used both about 20% radiation and 80% convection. Instead of the constant intense heat of the tandoor, their fire started off fierce (radiation) but then cooled down gradually, and convection took over. In fact, the food didn’t even usually get put in until the fire had cooled down.
Over the centuries, cooking methods evolved to make the best use of this type of heat transfer. Food was cooked in order – bread when the oven was hottest; then stews, pastries and puddings; herbs might be left to dry in it overnight, when the oven was barely warm.
In ancient & medieval times, bread ovens were huge, communal affairs. A manor/monastery kitchen had massive equipment to match the ovens – wooden spoons as big as oars; massive trestle tables to knead the dough on.
Bundles of fuel (wood/charcoal) were heaved into the back of the oven, taken from stoking sheds outside, and then fired up. When the oven was hot, the ashes were raked out into the stoking sheds. Then the dough was shoved in on peels – extremely long wooden spoons. Bakers worked almost naked because of the heat, like the turnspits.
By the 1700’s, baking equipment included wooden kneading troughs; pastry jaggers; hoops & traps for tarts & pies; peels; patty pans; wafer irons; earthenware dishes.
Baking oven & kneading trough.
Pastry jagger (American, 1800-50).
Peels in a medieval baker shop.
Modern patty pans.
Wafer iron (Italian, 1500′s).
Royal kitchen at St. James’ Palace (1819). There is an open-grate fire for roasting (back right); a closed oven for baking (front right); and a raised brick hearth for stewing & sauces (front left?) Each type of cooking was separate.
It wasn’t just the baking/roasting division that hindered the adoption of ovens. A fire is homey and comforting, and people were unsure about centering their home around an enclosed fire instead of an open one. Stoves were introduced in America during the 1830’s, but people said that they might be fine for heating public places such as bars or courthouses, but not their homes.
But they got used to it eventually. The “model cookstove” became the new focus of the home, and it was one of the great “consumer status symbols of the industrial age”.
The Victorian stove was a large, unwieldy cast-iron contraption. It had a hot-water tank for boiling; hotplates to put pots & pans on; a coal-fired oven closed with iron doors; and “complicated arrangements of flues, their temperature controlled by a register and dampers” linking all the parts together.
By the mid-1800’s, the “kitchener” was the essential object in an American or British middle-class kitchen. And like the home, the kitchen was now centered around the stove, instead of around the fire.
At Britain’s Great Exhibition of 1851, the Improved Leamington Kitchener won first prize of all the kitcheners on display. It used a single fire to combine roasting and baking. A wrought-iron roaster with dripping-pan was inside, but by closing the back valves, it could be turned into a baking oven. And it could provide the household with gallons of boiling water – for a kitchener wasn’t just for cooking, but also for warmth and hot water, and also for heating up irons.
The Leamington range was one of the first pieces of cooking equipment to become a household name in Britain. It ended up being used to refer to closed ranges in general. There were many other competing models, such as the Coastal Grand Pacific and the Plantress.
The fancier stoves were as much about fashion as they were about practicality. But it wasn’t just about “keeping up” with everyone else. Part of the reason for the stove’s popularity was the Industrial Revolution, which created a coal & iron boom, and flooded the market with cheap cast iron. Ironmongers loved this type of stove (unlike Rumford’s brick stove) because it was made almost entirely out of iron, and so were its accessories. And new versions were always coming out, so they were constantly selling new stoves, as people wanted the latest ones.
Back in the mid-1700’s, a new method of cast-iron production had been discovered, which used coal instead of charcoal. John “Iron-Mad” Wilkinson’s invention of the steam engine pushed production even further. A generation later, cast iron was everywhere. And kitcheners also supported the coal industry, because they were almost all coal-fired (rather than wood, peat or turf).
Coal wasn’t a new fuel for kitchens. The first “coal revolution” happened back in the mid-1500’s because of a wood shortage. Industry expanded rapidly during the 2nd half of the 1500’s, and timber was essential for the production of glass, iron and lead. Timber was also required for ship-building (the English were at war with the Spanish at that time). So there was less wood for kitchens, and many converted to “sea-coal” (called that because it was brought by sea), albeit reluctantly.
In rural areas, the wood fire was still used, and the poorer folk in the city and countryside made do with whatever fuel they could find.
The switch to coal changed the way open hearths were set up. Previously, the kitchen fire had really been a bonfire, with andirons or brandirons to stop the burning logs from rolling out onto the floor. And that was all. It was dreadfully dangerous.
A Saxon archbishop in the 600’s AD said that “if a woman place her infant by the hearth, and the man put water in the cauldron, and it boil over and the child be scalded to death, the woman must do penance for her negligence but the man is acquitted of blame.” The open fire was especially dangerous for toddlers, and also women, because of their clothes. Medieval coroners’ reports show that women were more at risk for accidental death at home than anywhere else.
Kitchen fires were common, because houses were made of wood. The Great Fire of London was caused by a kitchen fire at Pudding Lane. The city was rebuilt with brick, and the new houses had coal-burning grates.
With coal, a container or improved barrier was needed, to stop it going everywhere. A metal grate was used to solve the problem, called a “chamber grate” or “cole baskett”. Now the open fires were slightly more enclosed, and a bit safer.
More kitchen equipment was needed. A cast-iron fireback protected the wall from the fierce heat of the fire. Fire cranes swung pots over the fire, and off it.
Firebacks (Victorian & 1300′s).
The biggest change was the chimney. In the 2nd half of the 1500’s, more chimneys were built. Because of the disgusting coal fumes, wider chimneys were needed to carry away the smoke. The increased levels of smoke may have contributed to the high incidence of lung disease among the English. It was certainly terrible for people’s health.
Back to the Victorian kitcheners. While it was a technological improvement, it wasn’t much of an improvement in terms of practicality. Many of the early cookstoves were poorly-constructed and gave off terrible coal fumes, unlike Rumford’s ideal stov. A letter to The Expositor in 1853 called them “poison machines”, and spoke of three people who had recently died from the fumes.
And they were inefficient, too. American promoters claimed that they saved 50-90% on fuel (compared to an open hearth), but a great deal of heat was wasted. The problem with stoves being made of iron was that they weren’t insulated (again, unlike Rumford’s stove). Lots of heat was being radiated out into the kitchen, and the cook had to deal with not only that, but also the soot and ash dust.
kitchener certainly wasn’t labour-efficient. In fact, it was often
worse than an open hearth in this case. Getting the fire going was
just as difficult, and polishing & cleaning the range took ages.
In 1912, the wife of a policeman listed her daily duties for the
range (excluding the actual cooking):
- Remove fender and fire-irons.
- Rake out all the ashes and cinders; first throw in some damp tea-leaves to keep down the dust.
- Sift the cinders.
- Clean the flues.
- Remove all grease from the stove with newspaper.
- Polish the steels with bathbrick and paraffin.
- Blacklead the iron parts and polish.
- Wash the hearthstone and polish it.
The real improvement would be the gas oven.