From Open Fires and Cauldrons to 20th Century Innovations

These days few of us give much thought to our breakfast staples of coffee, toast and a poached egg or what it takes produce them. However, the ability to boil water, make toast and cook a perfect egg are premised on a raft of technological developments that we all take for granted.

The discovery of fire and early humans learning how to use it for cooking purposes, marked the beginning of big changes in our history. Cooking changed not only the type of foods humans consumed, but allowed mealtimes to evolve to become enjoyable, social occasions that we are familiar with today. For the first time, heat and food brought people together, and of course, fire also provided a source of light. Early cooking involved a simple outdoor fire where crude implements were used to cook or sear food, such as fastening or piercing meat to small branches or twigs. Bark was sometimes used as a vessel for cooking. Hunted game was hoisted atop a wooden framework or simply set upon a fire between stones. Pots and pans of any description did not yet exist, but there is archaeological evidence of food being ‘steamed’ in leaves. With only wood and rocks at their disposal, early humans used sharpened stones to cut food, and ground it with round ones.

Fire transitioned from outdoors to inside: originally being
placed in the centre of a room, so as not to burn the house down, under an opening in the roof to allow smoke to escape. In time brick and masonry fireplaces with chimneys would appear.

Following the discovery and use of fire for cooking, the next major step was the evolution of earthenware pottery as the first type of cookware. Simply put, earthenware pots were the first use of containers for cooking (other than perhaps human skulls), and changed the way we cooked forevermore. Though believed to originate in China, it is not known from what date the earliest pottery was used for cooking.


Cooking meant meat became more tender and easier to digest, but was also more nutritious and tasted better. The sense of taste actually resides mostly in the upper reaches of the nose, rather than the mouth, and heated food can more successfully transmit flavour to those receptors than cold food. Early humans soon learned cooked foods lasted longer than raw foods as the heating process also killed harmful bacteria responsible for decay. Cooking probably facilitated the consumption of more protein leading to our more rapid development. (See the Big Brain theory.) With the introduction of larger pottery cooking pots for use over an open fire, another significant step in early culinary evolution took place. Pottery manufacturing techniques improved, higher firing temperatures brought into being new types of ceramics, more suited to different cooking applications.

Metal cookware furnished the next development, with copper being the first metal to be used. Again it is not known exactly when this occurred, but the historical record shows basic copper implements appearing about 9000 BC.

Cauldrons were first made of clay, then from cast iron and later copper, and of a size suited to cooking large quantities of food requiring the boiling of water and liquids. This ‘technology’ allowed soups and stews to enter the diet for the first time. While China had been using cast iron in cooking for centuries, it wasn’t until the 1500s that Europeans adopted the method. Over time the open fire concept for the purpose of cooking food developed and in the 1740s, Benjamin Franklin invented the first fireplace insert, designed not only for warmth, but also for cooking.

Toward the end of the 18th century, the Industrial Revolution brought another giant leap forward. Steel and iron production expanded in ways never before seen, resulting not only in better quality metals, but also cheaper products because of mass production. While we traditionally think of the Industrial Revolution in the context of transportation, manufacturing and technology, it also had a profound effect on the development of the modern day kitchen.

Until then wood had been the sole fuel source, now the Industrial Revolution introduced coal as the ideal fuel for heating and cooking. Count Rumford devised his eponymous fireplace, and an oven that could provide several heat sources simultaneously, the temperature of which could be independently controlled. Jordan Mill’s design of 1833 offered even greater coal efficiency.

In 1826, the gas oven with top burners was invented by James Sharp and by the 1920s most domestic kitchens boasted one. 1892 saw the arrival of the electric range courtesy of Thomas Ahearn and by the 1930s the electric oven was competing with its gas counterpart, though the implementation of either was hampered by lack of infrastructure.

Dating from 1679, the pressure cooker was invented by Denis Papin, but was not widely adopted till World War 11, primarily for its fuel saving characteristics.

As cooking appliances continue to evolve, so did the pots and pans in which the food was cooked. Dutch ovens became popular, replacing clumsy, large and potentially dangerous vessels on the stove top. Most often made of cast iron, a Dutch oven is a heavy cooking pot with a tight-fitting lid, highly efficient at retaining heat and providing a more even heat distribution compared to cauldron type vessels previously used. While they are still popular, Dutch ovens were themselves replaced by frying pans and skillets as cooking habits changed yet again. While cooking vessels started out as clay pots and then cast iron or metal, recent times have seen other materials explored, such as stainless steel, glass, aluminium and stoneware, possibly coated with an assortment of non-stick formulations.

Materials used in cookware design have evolved to accommodate direct radiant heat sources of stove-top cooking and the gentler, more even heat of oven cooking. In short order, we progressed from open fires to fireplaces and wood-fired stoves, to gas and electric stoves and ovens. Probably the most significant invention regarding cooking and its evolution was the invention in the early 20th century of the thermostat, which allowed fine control of temperature.

The design of gas and electric cookers remained unchanged until the introduction of the convection oven in the mid 1940s when the then new fangled concept of circulating hot air as food cooked, resulted in the dual benefit of more even cooking and reduced cooking times. Domestic microwave ovens became available in the late ‘60s, although it was a decade before people warmed to them. Induction hobs started a bit of a revolution, becoming popular from 1970s, touted as safer and quicker than conventional cook tops, they also offered accurate and precise temperature control. Modern cookware materials and stoves brought options to how and where foods were cooked. Significantly, heat could be conveniently and more or less instantaneously controlled. A constant controllable heat source has many advantages over open flame cooking. For example, it is suggested that the original purpose of a pie’s crust was to insulate the contents from the flames of the open fire.

Now we are able enjoy a greater variety of flavourful foods, provided by advances in our cooking technologies, and available to the everyday cook. I am leaving the history of the barbecue where perhaps resides the vestiges of ancestral cuisine to another issue, but for now my particular thanks go to William Hadaway for designing the toaster in 1910 and to the anonymous inventor of the egg poacher.


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