Containing liquids presents a set of problems; but when the liquids are heated to cooking temperatures, often to boiling, there’s another set of problems. Wooden buckets and barrels don’t work for cooking, even if a Girl Scout can boil an egg in a paper cup.
Medieval Europe had two solutions to the problem: metal and ceramic. Both were watertight due to metallic bonding. Both had been shaped under greater heat than anyone needed for cooking, so they would not be changed by mere cooking temperatures. Both could be molded into good sizes and shapes.
But when we imagine a big iron kettle hung on a tripod, with a big fire under it, we’re not quite correct.
During the Middle Ages, iron was the most expensive high-tech metal. At the start of the period, iron was used in small, strategic amounts, like to put an edge on a wooden tool. It was too expensive to make the entire tool out of iron, so a wooden shovel or hoe might get an iron edging that kept the wood from wearing down so fast. Iron made horse shoes and plow blades, both of which were crucially important in the sudden expansion of grain farming in order to support more animals—specifically more horses. After that, iron production was about creating steel for weapons, and then large-scale buttresses for supporting buildings.
Iron remained very expensive during this whole time; it was used only when no other metal would do. It’s not that there were no iron kettles; but iron cooking pots were too expensive for most kitchens until coal made iron affordable. Copper and its tin alloy, bronze, had been the great metal achievements of the ancient world. Nobody used them for weapons now, so cooking pots were typically made of copper, tin, or alloys of copper and tin, like brass and bronze.
Cooking containers came as frying pans, little sauce pans, big soup pots, and various slotted spoons and meat forks. (Forks weren’t part of tableware until much later, but long-handled ones were used in the kitchen to reach into boiling broth and pull out meat.) Wealthy kitchens, at castles and big monasteries, probably did have a large iron pot as well as an array of copper pots and pans of all shapes and sizes. Middle class people, the craftsmen in towns, had several sizes of copper pots and pans.
People who worked for wages or who farmed treasured the one copper pot that got handed down in their family, often as part of a daughter’s dowry. The poor were more likely to have ceramic cooking pots, whether glazed or unglazed. A cooking pot didn’t need to be pretty, it only needed to be strong. Most places in Europe had enough pottery-firing skill to make cooking pots out of their local clay.
Ceramic cooking pots came in two kinds. One is familiar to cooks today: the squat, wide pot with a cover. We call them bean pots or casseroles. Medieval home cooks used these pots a great deal, as they were not expensive and could be used to make a variety of foods. They were not placed into ovens; they were buried in hot coals and ash, sometimes in a little pit. The cover allowed the food to be immersed in burning heat from all directions. Inside, the cook might have a kind of bread, pudding or stew.
The other kind of cooking pot looked like a very large, tall flower vase. It was wide enough to allow cooks to stir the contents, but it was generally narrow. Instead of hanging a pot over the fire, cooks placed these ceramic vases right into the fire. Wood was built up around each one. The pots were removed from the fire with two poles squeezed around the flared mouth; they were large enough to require two men to heft them, even if they had not been hot.
next: containers for dry things