The kitchen fireplace has undergone many transitions since the reliance on it from the pioneering and homesteading era to current day society, where the fireplace functions primarily as a decorative rather than necessary feature. Changes that have occurred in fireplace design have reflected the changes in needs and technological advances that have taken place over the years.
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Since the 1800s, the kitchen fireplace was the most significant aspect of old-fashioned country kitchens. Old country kitchen fireplaces were most often made of stone, with a hardened dirt floor, which served as the foundation for the fire pit. The pioneer kitchen fireplace was often the central focus of the home, being necessary for heating and food preparation. Because of their necessity for cooking, the original kitchen fireplace had a very large hearth, and with open access to the fire, as multiple parts would be used simultaneously for cooking. By the 1700s, developments led to the fireplace being made shallower and taller. The overall shape of the fireplace led to increased circulation and ventilation, as well as better heating.
Until the advent of the modern cook stove, the kitchen fireplace was where the majority of cooking and food preparation took place. While in the summertime there may have been some cooking that took place outside, the kitchen fireplace became a necessity for many housewives during the pioneer era as it allowed for the preparation of multiple types of food in one space. Often there would be a cauldron or a hanging pot for making the main course of the meal (if it was a stew), or a spit if the primary course was a roast. Potatoes and other root vegetables could be buried in the coals of the fire to slowly cook. They could make bread using the ambient heat of the fireplace -- much like in modern day wood pizza ovens -- with the fire and coals forming a semicircle around the loaf.
Tools and Utensils
Cooking utensils for a kitchen fireplace from the pioneer era closely resemble modern utensils for outdoor cooking. They often include cast iron cookware, such as skillets, cauldrons and dutch ovens, which would be hung from a metal chain on a tripod so it could be placed over the hottest flames. Other utensils include tongs to quickly remove items safely from the fire, and seasoned wood boards or loaf tins for making breads. Another common item was the two-sided mesh toast holder. The mesh allowed the flames to toast the bread on either side, and the long handle allowed cooking from a safe distance.
Ambience and Decor in Contemporary Society
In modern kitchens where fireplaces are not necessary for cooking or heating, they primarily serve a decorative purpose, or, in some instances, for preparing speciality food items such as pizzas or roasted peppers. Among contemporary kitchen fireplaces, the French country kitchen fireplace and the wood fire pizza oven are perhaps the most well known. Modern versions of a kitchen fireplace still have a wider and more open hearth, as well as having a flat surface for the bed of the fireplace. However, they are more often built with brick, and have a cast-iron or metal frame that provides greater insulation. The bed of the fireplace tends to be made of heat resistant concrete.
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