history lesson, williamsburg cookbook

How to keep your own hearth fires burning

Even though I’ve thoroughly distanced colonial cooking from its original hearth application, I thought it would be useful to look at some of the tools used in hearth cooking. You know, in case you had a hankering to put your fireplace to good use.

1. Of course, you couldn’t get anywhere without your fireplace. Technically, this is the “hearth” of “hearth cooking,” the heart and soul of any good gentlewoman’s house. However, today we tend to refer to just that brick-lined area in front of the fireplace as the hearth.

(Plus a lovely costumed interpreter back in her college years.)

2. Then you need something to get those hearth fires going: firewood. Make sure it’s dry and that you build the fire the right way (i.e. don’t smoke out the inhabitants of the house).

3. You’ll also need an iron swinging crane with hooks to hold your kettles over the fire. The swinging part is key, so you can pull the whole system out instead of constantly reaching into the fireplace.

4. Just in case you’re not an expert fire-starter, it’s helpful to have a bellows. This allows you to pump air into the fire to encourage the flames.

5. Now for the tools that we still use today: a peel, for shoveling hot coals onto the hearth (more on that in a bit); a broom, for sweeping cold ashes from the hearth; and a poker.

Of course, you’ll start your fire very early in the morning, so you’ll be sure to have hot water and enough coals for cooking breakfast. Fires sadly take much longer to create heat than electric or gas ovens and stoves.

6. Okay. Now that your fire is good and hot, it’s time for the fun part: cooking!

You’ll heat up water in one of your kettles. This is helpful for washing the dishes or really anytime you need hot water. (But remember to set the water over the fire early in the morning, so you’re not caught with a kettle of cold water.)

The skillet is pretty self-explanatory: a good tool for frying and sauteeing. You’ll rest your hot pans on one of the trivets. The toasting fork is for, well, toasting stuff.

When you want to bake something small like a pie, or you’re working on a slow-cooking stew, your Dutch oven comes in handy. This is the original Dutch oven (with legs!). After you’ve spread hot coals on the hearth (with your handy peel), you set the Dutch oven on top, place your food inside, and cover. Then you arrange more hot coals on top–the rim keeps them from falling off. Make sure to recover with hot coals every so often so the temperature stays even.

7. For keeping skillets directly over heat for a long period of time, something like a gridiron (also called a spider) is particularly nice to have.

8. If you want to roast a chicken, you’ll need andirons (which we still generally see in fireplaces today) to support a spit.

9. Or you could use a tin kitchen. The tin kitchen sits on the hearth with the open side facing the fire, so the heat is reflected from the closed side of the kitchen. The meat turns on a spit within.

10. Finally, if you’re ready to do your weekly bread baking, you’ll want to fire up (heh) your bread oven, which is most likely a beehive-like hollow next to the fireplace. Make sure to build a big fire inside the oven so the logs have time to burn down to ashes. The inner bricks will heat up enough to bake bread.

And those are just the basics. We haven’t even begun to discuss how to do the washing up.

It’s posts like these that fill me with conflicting feelings. For one, I have a hard time believing that one summer I could use all these tools like I was in my own kitchen. Never a second thought about spreading hot coals over the hearth. For another, it makes me incredibly thankful for my gas oven and stove.

I know I occasionally conclude my posts with an appreciative statement like that, but really, this time I mean it. To have to wait only 20 minutes for my oven to preheat, instead of the several hours it might take for the logs to burn down into hot coals? It gives me a whole new appreciation for those colonial cooks.

Dutch ovenBrass kettlesSkilletTrivetToasting forkCrane, gridiron, andirons, fireplace toolsTin kitchenBread ovenBellows.


3 thoughts on “How to keep your own hearth fires burning”

  1. I wanted to let you know that I read all of your blog posts, but sometimes they are so eloquently hilarious that I just feel self-conscious posing a comment…Anyway, happy last month of school, pal!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s