Medieval cooking methods

How you cook food depends on what kind of fuel and utensils are available. Medieval Europe generally had metal pots and wood fires, so most cooking methods had to do with boiling something.

Our classic image of medieval cooking is of a boar roasting on a spit, in a huge fireplace over a generous bed of coals and logs. This did happen, but it was restricted to the castle kitchens. Most people had little meat, and meat was much more often boiled. All households had at least one pot of copper or iron, and better-off kitchens had pots of various sizes and shapes. They ranged from frying pans with legs to hanging cauldrons to small saucepans.

In the Mediterranean region, the metal-working industry depleted forests faster than in Northern Europe, so at an earlier stage, cooks had to make do with less fuel. They could make quick, hot fires with a small amount of charcoal, just enough to boil water for a little while. This is probably why pasta caught on as a main food. Flour and water were shaped into thin, fast-cooking strips, dried, and then cooked within five minutes once the water was boiling.

A margin illustration in a 13th century Bible provides us with an interesting view of how fire could be maximized in a time of scarce fuel. Instead of cooking stew or soup in one large pot over one large fire, the cook in this image is standing near a central fire in which five or six tall, narrow clay vases stand among the flames. Of course they weren’t vases, but we have no modern parallel among cooking utensils. Pottery was less expensive than metal, so it was used where possible. Making the “pots” tall and thin was more efficient than sticking with a single, squat pot; it allowed one fire to heat many pots quickly. Here is a Renaissance woodcut that may show the same method.

Pottery could also be lidded and placed into the coals and ashes of an older fire. It was the medieval crock-pot method, but it was also how to do home baking. Baking is distinguished from other cooking methods by keeping the food surrounded by uniform heat. A lidded pot buried in coals served to bake small breads fairly fast. Towns had professional bakers; people could bring sourdough loaves to be added to the communal oven or buy bread directly.

But the basic food of Europe always began by boiling something…

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