People in the Middle Ages --- the period between the fifth and 15th centuries --- enjoyed a good meal as much as we do. Depending on their wealth, medieval families' food was prepared by either the women, or by professional cooks, who used a wide range of tools --- including some early versions of implements still used today.
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A poor housewife cooked her family's meals at the fireplace, which was also the main source of heat. She baked her bread in a portable oven or a covered pot buried under hot coals. Originally, the kitchen and dining area in castles, manor houses and monasteries were one big room with a centrally located fireplace. Gradually, builders began placing kitchens in separate rooms and buildings to limit the risk of burning the entire house in a fire, as well as to keep cooking odours and noise out of other rooms. Medieval kitchens featured fire-resistant stone walls and floors, and three or four large fireplaces called hearths. Kitchens in separate buildings were connected to the dining room by covered walkways that protected the food from the elements.
Pots and Pans
A cast-iron cauldron was an essential item found in every kitchen. It typically had three iron feet or a removable tripod, and was placed directly on the hot coals or hung over the fire by a hook. Housewives also used earthenware pots placed in hot ash near the fire or hot stones in the coals. The professional cooks employed by nobles and merchants often used larger versions, and moved them closer or further from the fire with adjustable hooks. Housewives and cooks used their pots for boiling, stewing and deep frying. Professional cooks also used frying pans of varying sizes similar to frying pans used today. They were held directly over the fire or placed on a tripod.
Meat, fish and some types of bread were roasted over an open fire on a large skewer called a spit. Spits ranged in size; some were able to accommodate just a game bird while others could hold something as big as an entire ox. The spits were slowly turned by a menial servant called a scullion. The scullion sometimes protected himself from the heat of the fire with a shield.
Pies, tarts, breads and pastries were baked in ovens that were built into the masonry of the fireplace or as separate structures in a building called the bakehouse. They were heated by a wood fire. When the oven's walls were warm enough, the coals and ash were removed and baked goods were placed inside with a utensil resembling a giant wooden spatula, called a peel. Modern pizzerias still use peels when they bake pizzas.
A well-run medieval kitchen contained several pieces of equipment other than pots, pans and ovens. A large slotted spoon called a skimmer was used for removing small foods from boiling water. A multipronged tool called a flesh hook was used for removing boiled meat from the cauldron. Animal carcases were cut up with large knives called cleavers. The cook and his assistants used a variety of smaller knives for boning carcases, carving meat and chopping vegetables. Cooks ground dry ingredients for sauces with a mortar and pestle.
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