Hearth Cooking: An Ancient Cooking Technique Revisited

Hearth cooking flavors food from the fire. Learn how to cook on an open hearth, an ancient, practical and enjoyable culinary tradition.

| December 2008/January 2009

Hearth cooking is an ancient method that is rustic yet elegant, producing delicious, flavorful food.

Hearth Cooking: An Ancient Cooking Technique Revisited

We cannot know what dream the cat dreams while sleeping on the hearth in front of a gentle fire. We can only assume that in her obvious quietude that hers is a dream of contentment. Of our own dreams, of our pleasure at looking into flames, at feeling the moist warmth of a wood fire upon our face, there can be no question. Many a love has been kindled under the spell of the fire.

It is difficult to compare hearth cooking with cooking on a modern kitchen stove because the open hearth is so much more than a place to cook. The firelight casts its spell over the room and infuses everything cooked on the hearth with a touch of magic.

Hearth cooking is an ancient and wonderful craft. It is the craft that stands at the center of European cuisine. With few exceptions, all recipes that originated in Europe were first created on an open hearth and only adapted comparatively recently to the modern kitchen. All adaptations involve a shift, however subtle. When translating languages, even when the meaning of the words remains precisely the same, there is an inevitable shift in feeling, a shift in the poetry of sound: ocean, le mer, el mar, il mare. In making the move from the open hearth to the modern kitchen, recipes undergo two shifts: always a shift of poetry and often a shift in flavor.

Richer Food Flavor from Fire

Compared with the fireplace, the modern kitchen stove and oven, even taken together, are one-dimensional. As you begin to cook on your fireplace, and as you begin to adapt your repertoire from the kitchen stove to the open hearth, you will discover that your fireplace — or campfire or the familiar barbecue — are cooking tools of undreamed potential. When cooking with live fire, most everything can be made to taste better: stronger, deeper, richer, more striking.

If you don’t have a fireplace, or if it’s summer, then what to do? The household fireplace is really nothing more than a campfire that was brought indoors, moved against a wall, and then set under a chimney. Everything you can cook on a fireplace you can cook on a campfire — which means virtually every recipe in any cookbook. When I say campfire, I’m thinking of a fire that is built on the flat ground, not set down inside a pit. A barbecue and fire pit can also be used for hearth cooking, but the best and most flexible options are the traditional fireplace and campfire. That is because they offer the greatest range of access to all aspects of the fire: a level space in front of the fire, space on the embers beside the fire, easy access to the hot ashes that surround the fire, and, of course, the space directly over the fire, which makes it easy to tend.

7/5/2013 11:23:50 AM

Whic Joy of Cooking are you referring to please :-)

William Rubel
1/4/2010 6:53:32 PM

The string hangs in front of the fire -- never over it. You are cooking with radiant heat. The longer the string, and the thinner the string, the longer the bird will turn without being touched. As it loses momentum in one direction, and before starting up in the other direction, it will nearly stop. But you will usually find that there is enough energy in the system that you rarely need to touch the bird. Spit roasting usually entails a fairly slow turning. So, don't visual the bird whirling around. A slow turn is just what you want. This said, if the string is very long, like 20 feet, the bird might turn with a real rapid spin. A Thanksgiving I string roasted two turkeys for a friend. The ceiling was very tall. I was doing a million things and not paying much attention. At one point I came into the room and the turkeys were just whirling. I was annoyed since I prefer them going slower and thought someone had given them a shove. But, no, it was the physics of a long thin string. The string will never burn. The bird is a few inches from the fire or embers and it just can't get that hot.

1/14/2009 11:09:20 AM

Gina~ You should hang the bird to the side of the fire not in the fire, that way as the string unwinds it will turn the bird like a rotisserie, the string will not burn if it is on the side of the fire. You can add more coals to the side if needed. Don't forget to put a nice pot under the bird to catch the drippings! That is the way they cooked birds in Colonial Willamsburg. Just don't forget to wind that string up every so often. :)

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