Cooking in the Regency. How did they do it?
I’m not a camper, so the concept of doing more than roasting marshmallows over an open flame is too complicated for me to fathom. I am sure for many of my readers, rustic styles of cooking are not a mind-boggling challenge. Even so, could you bake a cake without the ability to regulate heat with a knob? And what about cooking a multiple-course feast for the Prince Regent?
Mad skills were necessary to cook over open flames in fireplace-type stoves and bake in ovens lacking modern temperature control knobs and timers or nothing would be cooked correctly. Of course, for thousands of years, people had no choice and did develop the culinary skills to create elegant meals. Nevertheless, cooking in such a way was dangerous and produced lots of smoke, and the heat source was erratic and undependable. How did they do it? As always, a brief history of cooking apparatus aids in comprehending how a Regency Era kitchen worked.
Brief History of Ovens and Stoves
OVENS, that being the enclosed object wherein bread and so on are baked, date back to the flatbread Tandoor ovens of ancient India. Ovens of clay, brick, or stone with a compartment to burn fuel segregated from the compartment to bake leavened bread are “newer” comparatively, but still an ancient invention. This does not mean they were common and found in every household. Up until the 15th century in England, due to the simplicity of grains and limited import of exotic additives, people baked basic bread recipes. This would either be done in a Dutch oven (more on these baking kettles later on) placed in the open fireplace, or by the village or castle community baker who often was the only possessor of a large, stand-alone oven. With wood the only reliable fuel source and not always easy to acquire, burning enough to heat an oven for extended periods of time was inefficient unless baking in bulk.
As the subsequent centuries unfolded, globalism in terms of trade and exchange of culinary styles created a need to perfect baking. One way was to have recipes conform to the available cooking techniques already in use, such as the above noted Dutch oven, while also designing unique cookery to meet the need, such as “cake hoops” and pie dishes. Another way was to build small ovens inside the already existing massive kitchen fireplace. These add-on ovens required less labor and cost, and the smoke fed into the main chimney. With newly constructed kitchen fireplaces of the 16th to 17th century onward, the ovens were placed to the side of the main fireplace with its own fuel source and chimney flue, and the advantage of being centrally located and surrounded by heated bricks.
The four examples below are from historic homes in England and America with early ovens built into the fireplace.
Enclosing the flame in a chamber of brick-and-mortar and covering with an iron plate was the next important step in controlling the flame, generating a stable heat, and reducing wood consumption. The invention of the STOVE did not happen as long ago as you may think. The first real stove that completely enclosed the fire was the Castrol stove invented by French architect François de Cuvilliés in 1735. The invention of this type of stove — meaning one with a flat cooking surface — led to increased production of pots and pans with a flat bottom. Not that flat bottom pans did not already exist to sit atop trivets placed into the flames, but most cooking pots were rounded, like a cauldron, and hung high above the flame.
Also in the early decades of the 1700s, cast iron production improved to the point where room heating stoves became available to a greater degree, and in 1790 the first true working kitchen cast iron stove was invented by Benjamin Thompson (AKA Count Rumford). The Rumford stove was excellently designed but so huge that only the largest kitchens could hold one. Other inventors took up the cause, the most successful of the compact cast iron stoves being the Oberlin stove patented in 1834. These stoves, as well as the ones to follow, included an oven built-in.
Hopefully, this mini-history lesson, along with the images, paints a clearer picture of what the Regency Era kitchen contained for the cook and staff to use. Now on to a few of the many cooking techniques and helpful gadgets.
Cooking Techniques & Gadgets
The low-tech and most common method for roasting meat was to hang the haunches and poultry from metal hooks over the flames. (see image to the right) The cook, or her assistant, manually turned and moved the meat to the desired temperature zones as needed. An absolutely essential time-saving invention for evenly cooking large hunks of meat or lots of meat at the same time was a device to turn the meat-laden spits.
Roasting jacks came in a variety of types (hand crank, clockwork jack, bottle jack, spit-jack) some of which were quite simple, while others were huge and complex. The most infamous type was the turnspit dog, a wall-mounted circular cage inside of which a small dog (usually a terrier mutt) would run (akin to a hamster in a wheel) as the power source to turn the roasting spit. The poor animal would run as long as was required to fully roast the meat. This was a pre-industrial device considered an improvement over a young servant boy or girl standing by the fire and manually turning the hand crank variety for hours on end. Thankfully, both methods were obsolete by the end of the 18th century.
The bottle jack derives its name from the shape: the mechanism housed inside a brass cylinder shaped like a bottle. It was an improvement over the clockwork jack because it was spring driven, wound by a key, and ran for a longer length of time before needing to be re-wound. The meat swung in a gentle clockwise and counterclockwise rotation, and if used in conjunction with the half-barrel, metal reflecting-oven facing the fire, an even heat radiating from several sides resulted in better roasting in a shorter amount of time. The latter meant it was also an efficient use of fuel.
The clockwork spit-jack was a vast improvement in technology. A weight attached to a string worked by gravity and needed to be re-wound every so often. By far the most common automated jack, there were dozens of makers with a wide variety of styles. The top of the line invention was the automated spit-jack. The short video below shows one from the 17th century in action.
The images below show spit-jacks in era cooking ovens, as well as assorted racks and pots. The larger the fire area, the more roasting racks and spits there would be. In the image below (the kitchen in Bristol) the spit-jack is the brass object mounted in the upper right corner, the dangling weight pulley turning the meat, and there is also a bottle jack off to the right side. The kitchen at Brighton Pavillion has a much larger fireplace with multiple racks spanning the width. Four weights are seen, the clockwork jack device in the upper left corner by the hood. Take note of each scene in its entirety, such as the hanging pots and kettles; food items hanging and stored in jars, baskets, and barrels; the ready-at-hand stirring utensils, bellows, and pokers; the huge center table and numerous side tables; and the high ceilings and windows.
The array of trivets, roasting racks, toasting tongs, pan stands, hooks, and fireside ovens fashioned and used to cook food in and around an open fire are truly endless. Cast iron was by far the most common metal these cooking implements were made of.
The collage below shows a few, enough to give an idea of the range from simple to some that are rather ornate. The other images of kitchens show a whole bunch more.
To see even more kitchen gadgets and cooking implements, visit my Pinterest page where I have several boards devoted to the Georgian kitchen and food. Sharon Lathan’s Pinterest
Food prep in the past or present is a topic that is never-ending. I hope I’ve shared a few basics and y’all have learned something new. I shall end with the promised information on Dutch ovens. Rather than taking the time to explain about kettle baking in a Dutch oven (and doing a poor job of it) watch this excellent video by Jas Townsend of Savoring the Past.