The hypothesis of Catching Fire is that cooking food was a learned cultural practice that affected the physiological evolution of human beings. It used “external” energy to make eating and digesting food take less time and liberated people to get on with life.
Ceramic cooking vessels were the dominant technology in societies in which people had stable homes. They were/are heavy and might be fragile, as compared to metal. They were the dominant technology until metal could be mined, refined and worked at scale – economically accessible. The Romans had sophisticated ceramics – the decline of the Roman empire is marked in the archeological record by the decline of the quality of ceramics. Ceramic vessels have been regarded as primitive and superceded in most cultures and have hung on as a specialty method of cooking.
The metal cooking vessel was allowed food to be fried, roasted, boiled or braised. The combination of metal cooking vessels and reasonably safe and efficient stoves that created heat with electricity or fuel enabled people to work with raw ingredients and “staple” processed ingredients (e.g. rice, dried beans, flour) to cook. The kitchen stove in the 20th century, heated by electrical energy or gas, provided direct heat applied to base of the cooking vessel by elements or burners, and an oven. The top worked with metal vessels, primarily. The user had to set the energy level, monitor the time and temperature and work the food around the pan. It is better than cooking with wood or coal, but it required some skill and effort and used energy.
Cast iron was a dominant technology in 19th century Europe and America. Carbon steel became (and remains) was a popular material to make woks and karahis in Asia. Thick walled vessels were durable and managed to distribute heat evenly. Thin walled vessels were vulnerable to dents and dings, and could easily scorch food. Lighter and less expensive thin-walled, vessels dominated the markets in Europe and America for most of the 20th century. Technological innovations included stainless steel, clad (bonded layers of stainless steel surfaces over other metal that held and conducted heat) bases, multi-ply vessels, induction pans.
American and European tradition culinary writers favoured using heavy cast iron or steel pans to fry or roast to get the outer layers of some food to carmelize (brown), and using technique (e.g. deglazing) to get the carmelized matter out of the pan and into a sauce or gravy that would reach the plate. Enamel on iron and enamel on steel coatings make metal less prone to stick, more resitant to corrosion, and simplied maintenace and care. Bare iron had to be treated or seasoned. This was the folk wisdom of cooks, recited by culinary writers. Cast iron cookware was durable, which led to interest in restoring and using old cast iron ware. The modern manufacturers and culinary writers theorized, experimented and tested the principles of seasoning iron. The idea of seasoning by baking a coating of flaxseed oil became a dominant theory around 2010:
- Sheryl Canter’s Blog Posts:
- Cooks Illustrated
American writers favoured the large skillet to fry and sauté most food, and as shallow roasting pan – even as a substitute for a wok.
Teflon and other chemical non-stick coatings developed in mid to late 20th century had benefits and drawbacks. The coatings could be scratched during use or cleaning – the utensils have to be softer than the utensils that work with bare metal. Some coatings degrade if the pan is overheated, or under heavy use. Hard anodized aluminum is marketed as non-stick. There have been technical advances. True advances cannot be readily identified in the background noise of product marketing “reviews”.
A few pans and utensils and a stove will see most cooks through most tasks. A few specialty applicances can cook some food with less adjustment of stove temperatures and work over the stove. A flat bottom wok, with a durable non stick coating, is a versatile pan which can serve as a skillet, a deep sauté pan and a wok.