10 Fascinating Facts About Cooking in the 18th Century

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The 18th century — the Colonial era of America — was a fascinating time for cooking. While most people didn’t yet have their own ovens, and often had to improvise, many people actually had a pretty decent knowledge of various cooking methods and would use as complicated a spicing regimen as their means would allow. Cooking would actually become less complex for a time during the industrial revolution years later, when many people had even less means, and less time to cook complex meals. Today, we are seeing a return of increasingly complex cooking, along with much more advanced tools to do so…

10. Cooking Puddings In Cloth Bags Was Actually An Incredibly Common Practic

Today, it’s easy for someone with no real skill or training to at least heat up some food and make something somewhat edible. In fact, most people today have the convenience of a microwave, something people from the 18th century would really have no conception of. However, back then, some people didn’t even have 18th century ovens, and they had to improvise.

One of the strangest, but still quite popular techniques was the method of cooking food in cloth bags. The bag would actually be a cloth of the right thickness, and would be boiled in water first to sterilize it. The bag would often be floured or buttered so the pudding could come out later, and then would be filled with the ingredients, wrapped up, and boiled for hours. A second pot was usually used to keep extra boiling water, so you could keep the main pot full at all times — this was important as larger puddings could take 7 or more hours to finish cooking using this method.

9. Food Preservation Methods Were One Of The Most Important Things To Know

In the 18th century there were, of course, no refrigerators or freezers, and preserving food was difficult. Some of the very rich could ship in ice if they wanted to, and preserve certain food, but even among the rich this was so expensive to keep up for more than the occasional treat that it would be considered extremely extravagant or perhaps even wasteful. For this reason, there are many different recipes from the time period that involve pickling, drying, and other interesting methods to keep foods good as long as possible.

The YouTube channel Townsends (see above), which tries out and demonstrates authentic recipes from the 18th century, has tried many different food preservation methods from the time period. While many of them are effective for preserving everything from strawberries, to eggs, to potted meat, the usual expected hold time in that period was still usually only a few weeks, or a couple months at most. Even putting something down in the coldest part of the cellar could only keep the temperature down so much, and they didn’t have perfect canning methods, so the average family didn’t expect preserved goods to stay edible for long. More than anything, it was to help make up for their imperfect refrigeration systems, which were usually just the lowest part of the house.

8. Nutmeg Was One Of The Most Popular Spices, And Shows Up In Almost Everything

Nutmeg is a spice that most people really don’t think that much of today. It’s one of many ingredients that often shows up in things that have “pumpkin” in their name, and it is said that if you use a whole lot at once, you can get kind of a delirious high — everyone who has tried this says it is horrible and we do not recommend it. Today it is cheap and plentiful, and unless you are in prison looking for an alternative to pruno, you don’t bother with the stuff outside of the occasional pie.

Some people see it show up a lot in 18th century recipes and wonder if people were trying to do drugs, but the truth is simply that it was a fad, and people wanted to show their status by putting it in everything if they could afford it. However, because demand was so great, that meant that fraudsters saw a chance to step in. There was a real problem during the 18th century in Colonial America of dishonest traders making wooden nutmegs, and selling them to unsuspecting consumers who would later realize they had been had for a pretty decent amount of money.

7. In The 18th Century, People Had A Taste For Flavors Like Rosewater That We Would Find Odd

For those who don’t know what it is, rosewater is pretty much what it sounds like — a water that is created by steeping rose petals. This fragrant essence is something most people would expect in perfumes, but it’s still used in Indian and Middle Eastern cuisine today; it’s even a commonly used flavor in Turkish Delights. However, it has fallen almost completely out of favor in Western cuisine. Apart from the occasional mention on some kind of fancy baking show, by someone who is played up as “taking a risk,” you never really hear about these kind of floral flavors anymore.

However, back in the day, floral flavors — and rosewater especially — were quite common in baked goods and sometimes other cooking as well. For those who wonder why it disappeared, it wasn’t so much because people lost their taste for it, but because bakers started replacing it with what they found to be a better ingredient for bringing out flavors: vanilla. Vanilla became the ingredient of choice in the 19th century as it became easier to acquire, and with artificial substitutes like vanillin that people can get cheap these days, vanilla is unlikely to be dethroned again anytime soon.

6. Suet, The Hard White Fat From Kidneys, Was A Staple Of 18th Century Cooking

Suet is a white fat that can be found on the kidneys of various livestock animals. It has a hard texture that cooks found great for holding together puddings, in particular — the reason being that due to its crumbly texture when prepared for cooking and its high melting point, it maintains its texture through a very long cooking process, essentially being the last part to finish cooking on the inside. The main point of using suet was to help puddings be a little more airy, instead of just a dense ball of flour, water, and other such ingredients.

Today, people don’t really cook stuff in pudding bags anymore, and so we tend to use other fats or oils instead. However, if you want to recreate old 18th century recipes, there are still ways to get your hands on some suet. If you live in the United Kingdom, you are especially lucky, as some traditional recipes still use it so you can find it in some stores. However, if you live in the United States, you will probably have to order it online.

5. Enslaved Cooks Were Incredibly Skilled And Brought Knowledge To The Enslaved Community

In 18th century America, the vast majority of black people were still enslaved and forced to use all of their considerable skills for no pay, beyond what it took to keep them alive. Many people tend to just think of them as field hands, but history often hides or doesn’t bother to highlight just how important the jobs given to enslaved individuals often were. One of the most important of these jobs, according to food historian Michael Twitty, was being an enslaved cook.

He explains that the enslaved cooks became a valuable source of knowledge and skill that their masters came to rely on, but also an incredibly valuable resource for the rest of the enslaved community. They could take back knowledge about cooking that allowed the community to make the best of every ingredient they had, they could pass on knowledge about literacy, and about anything else of note they had picked up. Many people are also unaware that enslaved black cooks basically created American barbecue, and perfected it back during colonial times.

4. Seasonal And Regional Food Were All People Had, So They Had To Learn To Get Creative

We have it remarkably easy as a society when it comes to food, as we can even get things shipped in out of region or out of season. But in the 18th century, they had to really just make do with what they had most of the time. We did mention food preservation earlier, but as we said, many methods were really only to keep the food long enough for the family to use it before it went bad, and not for longterm storage. Even things that were relatively longterm might not seem that long to us.

This meant that wherever you lived, whatever was seasonal was simply what you had to work with. Of course, this wasn’t unique to the 18th century, but was true for pretty much every time period before the industrial revolution and mass transportation (as well as refrigeration and freezing technology) really changed everything. Back in the day none of that was a reality and even the richest people would likely only ship in an occasional treat, or a large amount of one specific indulgence. For the most part, even the well off stuck to whatever was fresh and local to the region at the time.

3. “Cheesecakes” That Had No Cheese Were Common In 18th Century Cookbooks

Today, we tend to think of cheesecake as a concoction of cream cheese, eggs, sugar, and flavorings. Of course, while cream cheese is modern, that doesn’t mean cheesecakes are an entirely modern invention. There is evidence that cheesecakes using ricotta, cottage cheese, mascarpone and others existed long before cream cheese was ever a thing. However, if you traveled back to 18th century America (and Western Europe) and ordered a “cheesecake” you would probably find yourself disappointed.

There are quite a few recipes that pop up in 18th century cookbooks that call themselves a cheesecake, some using various flavors such as lemon, but the one thing that they all lack is any kind of cheese whatsoever. As far as those who study the cookbooks of the 18th century can surmise, these were called cheesecakes because they were made to have the consistency and texture of cheese, and also were usually made in a pie-like dish and kind of resembled a cheese wheel. These “cheesecakes” were certainly delicious in their own right, but we would be quite shocked at being served such a thing as a more traditional 18th century cheesecake in most countries today.

2. Raisins, And Other Dried Fruits And Nuts, Were Considered Luxurious Additions To Desserts

Today, you’ll often hear the common refrain, especially among children, that they really don’t like nuts in their confections or sweets. Even a lot of adults will turn up their nose at a sweet with nuts in it (Snickers bars aside, of course), and most people don’t even dare try to bake raisins or other fruits into anything besides cinnamon raisin bread or oatmeal raisin cookies — and even those aren’t safe from criticism. As far as most people are concerned, especially in the USA, fruit and nuts in confections is usually blasphemy, and fruitcake is at the top of the list.

However, back in the 18th century, they would think you crazy for passing up such a delicious, decadent, rich man’s treat that they could only afford once in a while. During the holidays, people were extravagant and stuffing their desserts with what was, to them, all the best toppings, while today, many people act as if eating such a food would be actual torture. People’s taste, and their desire for certain flavors and textures, has certainly changed a lot since the 18th century.

1. Eggs Appear In A Ridiculous Amount Of Recipes, And Form The Backbone Of Regular Cooking

Eggs are still one of the most common forms of food we eat, but they are the subject of hot debate. Researchers keep waffling (breakfast pun vigorously intended) about whether they’re good for us or not, and how many we should have a day. However, back in the 18th century, they were one of the most important food staples imaginable and pretty much everyone had access to eggs of some kind. They were prepared and eaten in many of the ways we enjoy them today, and a crucial ingredient in all sorts of savory dishes and baked goods.

To some this may simply seem like a no-brainer, but eggs have simply made up the backbone of baking for so long due to their leavening abilities, as well as their binding properties. The high protein and fat content in such a small package has always made it a staple for anyone looking to survive without the convenience of a modern grocery store. And while hens may not lay as many eggs in the winter, they do not stop production entirely, which gave some poorer families a near constant food source. Having a few chickens was also a lot more affordable than owning and raising game animals.

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