Wood Fired Cooking
During the pioneer years, every kitchen had a primitive, open fired hearth that was the sole means of cooking. Cast iron ware was hung on an iron rod and suspended across the open fire for boiling food in a large cauldron. The heat required for accurate cooking temperatures was regulated by the size of the fire. The suspended cauldron could also be raised or lowered over the fire; to maintain the required heat. For baking breads and biscuits; the dutchoven was placed on the floor of the hearth, on a bed of hot embers. The lid of the dutchoven was first heated and then more embers were placed atop the lid to maintain the heat for cooking. It took approximately 20 minutes to bake biscuits this way. You also had to avoid any drafts that might blow the embers around or cool the temperature of the pot. Herbs and food were also hung near the hearth for drying purposes. Recipes; or receipts as they were called then, were passed along on how to cook in these open hearths. Now just imagine the preparation and skill required to cook this way and put food on the table! Imagine even cooking in Mama’s kitchen!
Cast Iron Stoves
By the mid 1800’s cast iron stoves became the more efficient and safer way for cooking. The fire was now contained inside the stove with a cooking surface on the top for boiling. They were still fired by wood which still required skill to maintain a good heat for baking and boiling. However; it must have made things much easier for women to have a stove top to cook on. I sometimes think of the heat generated by these stoves in the summer time when this is was the primary means for cooking meals. Would be some hot!
Families passed down their techniques for wood fired cooking over generations. Recipe books were not in existence then and women used handwritten notes such as above for records of favorite dishes. Cooking instructions were very basic with basic ingredients. Their notes indicated the type of wood fire required to cook at proper temperatures. Like cook over a small or large fire.
Out of convenience and necessity; in the early years, most prepared meals were boiled. The meals were farm to table and consisted of basic ingredients like potatoes, carrots, onion, beets and turnip. Therefore; a hearty stew was the backbone of every meal in each home.
These were hard times and pioneers worked very hard in their gardens; to grow enough food to sustain their families for the year. So during these times there was absolute zero waste. Food preparation was pre-planned with the next days meal in mind. So; for example, the bones from a roast beef or chicken dinner; on one day, was saved and boiled for a broth for a stew os soup; for the next days meal.
Now depending on the families origin; these stews were all similar in the basic root vegetables; but with minor variations. The Irish stew was traditionally made from lamb or mutton but depending on the availability of the meat; a beef stew was popular as well. To this broth you added cut up potatoes, onion, carrot, salt, pepper and parsley; if you had it. Chicken stew; made from the bone broth and thickened with a bit of flour, had the same root vegetables but with turnip and cabbage also. Chicken fricot was the French Acadian version of a chicken stew but the consistency of the broth was thinner. Dumplings made from flour and milk were often added to the top of the fricot instead. To this stew you added cut up potatoes, onion, carrot, salt, pepper and savory was also the herb of choice. Yum!
Soups were also a main meal then with all the same ingredients required but just cut up finer.
Today; we are all still enjoying a hearty boiled dinner like our ancestors! We are using the recipes handed down to us from our mothers and their mothers and so on. All cooking from Gramma’s kitchen! Of course; we can add whatever veggies we prefer, can or cannot grow it ourselves, can add any herb we prefer and don’t have to fire up a stove to do it But it is oh so good! Love a hearty soup or stew especially in our cold weather! Do you have a favorite! Think of cooking in Gramma’s kitchen when you do. She would be oh so proud!