Imagine the following scene — flickering flames, the crackling of firewood and the smell of food. Learn more as we explore the history of cooking with fire. These sensory experiences have appealed to humans for thousands of years and are every bit as appealing today as they were then. Despite all of our technological advancements since, we still enjoy making use of the basic primitive elements such as fire to cook food, socialise, and bring us closer together.

Making use of wood for both warmth and cooking was essential to the advancement of human society throughout the years. In the following article, we'll explore the history of using firewood for cooking, and explore how these practices have shaped our lives individually, and how they have shaped human society.

Watch our YouTube video - The History of Cooking with Logs and Firewood

Early beginnings in the history of cooking with fire

Early humans controlled use of fire to their advantage is a significant milestone in human history. We quickly learned how to harness wood to our advantage which provided many different benefits.

Cooking with fire not only made food resources more appealing but also safer via the added benefit of the heat removing any harmful bacteria from cooked meals (compared to raw food). Meals could be cooking fish, cooking meat as well as vegetables, and bread, etc., There was also a corresponding reduction in eating raw food.

The use of wood as a fuel was a perfect fit for early humans given its abundance, ease of harvesting, and how good it is at producing sustained heat.

The significance to control fire for our survival and longevity as a species cannot be overstated. From providing heat for warmth, cooking, and improving general morale and mental health to the role it played in the domestication of pets like wolves/dogs. It also helped fend off and deter other predators that could otherwise pose a threat to human camps and settlements.

Cooking with wood through history

Throughout the history of wood burning, many different cultures developed their own unique and distinct methods for cooking using wood. From the open fires of primitive tribes to the more advanced wood-fired ovens of the Romans and Greeks, cooking with wood has always been a common thread that connected many different civilisations throughout the ages.

Romans & Greeks

For the Greeks and Romans, this form of cooking was not just about the cooked food itself. It was also much like an art form while also being a communal activity that brought people closer together.

Cooking with fire was popular 2,000 years ago

Cooking with fire was popular 2,000 years ago

The Romans were thought to have harnessed more sophisticated equipment to bake bread too, allowing for more varied dishes with more ingredients.

In this period, clay pots were used along with simple hearths. Although they had access to basic spices, many of the dishes produced were somewhat basic in flavour. The Greeks were renowned for their simple spit-roasting and grilling and making the most of the ingredients they had to hand.

The Middle Ages

As time progressed, so did the methods and means of cooking. In the Middle Ages, cooking took the role of becoming a repeated daily activity. This was in part due to the increased ease of use by way of static open hearths placed within the living area, and the increased access to various spices and food types.

Artist rendition of what a typical large cooking environment looked like in the Middle Ages

Artist rendition of what a typical large cooking environment looked like in the Middle Ages

These factors combined to allow for more complex cooking, and more complex flavours to come as a result which greatly impacted the quality of cooked food in this period.

Where the Romans and Greeks made use of clay to make their pots, people in the Middle Ages made use of iron cauldrons, cast iron pot cookware, roasting spits, and even early enclosed stoves. This eventually allowed for more control over cooking temperature, and consequently, the quality of the food that could be produced.

In addition to the use of Iron for cauldrons, it was common at the time to also see Iron roasting spits and griddles, although many other utensils for serving remained wooden.

Renaissance and early modern

As exploration and improvements in technology came, so did new and exciting recipes, more ingredients, and better methods of cooking. Potatoes, maize, and chocolate came to Europe via the Americas which allowed for a more diverse menu at the time.

Artist rendition of the Renaissance and early modern era, using wood for cooking

Artist rendition of the Renaissance and early modern era, using wood for cooking

Kitchens became more advanced to facilitate the newer types of food being cooked paired with an increased interest in architecture, design, and art. This also housed new cooking utensils and newer more sophisticated equipment such as cast iron stoves, which were more versatile than open hearths as they allowed better control over temperature.

Dining started to evolve, eventually resulting in many taverns and inns becoming more common. This showed a transition away from exclusively eating and dining in private settings in the home, to public and more social spaces.

Despite wood still being a primary source of fuel, hot coals and charcoal were increasing in popularity in certain regions where available. Stoves fuelled by coal became more common in the 19th century, although were still rare compared to wood-fired stoves.

With a growing interest in culinary arts, fuelled by the increasing influence of global cuisine, there was a significant rise in the publication of cooking literature, including small cookbooks and recipe books. These publications often featured recipes that showcased more advanced cooking techniques, reflecting the evolving culinary skills of the time.

People of the time also capitalised on the improved access to a variety of spices from different parts of the world, because of expanded global trade. This period marked a significant shift in the culinary landscape, blending traditional techniques to cook food resources with new, exotic flavours and ingredients. Just a few examples of new spices include:

  • Allspice – various mixes were available, but this was most often cinnamon, clove, and nutmeg
  • Cardamom
  • Cayenne pepper
  • Chilli powder
  • Curry powder
  • Paprika
  • Vanilla

Modern era

Through the period commonly referred to as the Modern era, improved equipment became more widespread such as cast iron stoves. Although many still cooked foods with wood, there were other fuel sources available with different stoves in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Wood-fired cooking still has a place in modern day kitchens

Wood-fired cooking still has a place in modern day kitchens

Wood-fired cooking still has a place in modern day kitchens — Photo by Cathal Mac an Bheatha on Unsplash

This period in the history of wood burning saw open-hearth cooking become less common due to the more efficient and superior methods for cooking food that improvements in technology brought to homes.

However, wood-fired ovens still to this day are very popular in certain settings. Whether it's for making bread or cooking pizza, a surge in popularity came for artisanal cooking due to the benefits gained by cooking at high heat, and the impact wood can have on the flavour of such food.

Wood-fired cooking is still enjoyed by millions of people in outside settings such as:

  • BBQs hosting a BBQ with family and friends
  • Open fire - cooking over an open fire while camping

Festive snacks such as S'mores are also cooked on wood fires or wood stoves due to convenience, and the experience itself. The widespread use of BBQ is evident all over the world. Texas is a great example that is known for its traditional BBQ which incorporates wood and charcoal to gain that distinct smoky flavour we all know and love.

Wood burning for heat

Aside from cooking, using wood fuel has been essential for providing heat to humans for thousands of years.

In the harsh cold early winters, a warm wood fire was likely the only real defence against the elements. Over time, the methods of burning wood for heat changed and evolved, with the development of stoves and fireplaces that were more efficient and safer to use.

In the modern world, using wood for cooking and heat generation is still prevalent although we are more cognisant of the environmental implications of burning fuels. Improvements in wood burning technology have made it possible for us to continue to burn these fuels, with a reduced impact on the environment and our health.

This is made possible through certification schemes such as ClearSkies for eco-design stoves and fireplaces. The "Ready to Burn" certification also ensures that qualifying firewood contains a moisture content below 20% which produces fewer PM2.5 type emissions.

Despite our advancements in technology and appliances, there has been a resurgence in the popularity of wood-fired cooking. This is in part due to the unique flavour, and the fact that it connects with a primal part of our history.

Firewood is the gift that keeps on giving as, in addition to the benefits we've covered, it can also have a huge impact on your mental health. Many studies have been done that revealed that sitting in front of the fire can lower your blood pressure and evoke a trance-like state.

The cost of living crisis has resulted in a surge in popularity when it comes to wood burning stoves. This was due to the price of gas and electricity skyrocketing forcing people to seek other methods for heating. Not only are these stoves incredible for heat output, but they can also be used to cook stews, potatoes, and other healthy meals.

Conclusion about the history of wood burning

The history of cooking with fire highlights the ability that humans must utilise their environment for protection, warmth, and survival.

Throughout the years, these practices have not only provided warmth and fed us but have also shaped our cultures and societies. As responsible people, we must ensure that going forward we choose the right types of firewood to burn and ensure that focus on sustainability.

This highlights why eco-design stoves and Ready to Burn firewood sourced from sustainable woodland are so important. This is to both ensure the wood comes from sustainable woodland and to ensure the types of wood burned produce minimal PM2.5 emissions allowing for us to all enjoy the benefits of wood burning while staying healthy and protecting the environment.

Do you have any cooking tips of your own for those looking to cook food using wood burners and stoves? Let us know in the comments section below, we always love hearing how our customers are using wood-fuel stoves to create amazing dishes while generating a cosy, lasting warmth.

Contact us

We hope you enjoyed this article about the history of cooking with fire. Why not buy some of our kiln dried logs for cooking food? Available options include alder, ash, beech, birch, hornbeam, and oak, which can be bought in various sizes including bags, nets, and crates.

You can also contact us to buy pizza oven logs, smoking wood chunks, BBQ packs, charcoal, and briquettes, which are all options for cooking with fire. Call us today to discuss any clarifications or questions about cooking with wood at (01905) 954 736. You can also email us through our contact us page.