The History of Baking: Existence and a Need for Cooked Food
It seems like that for as long as there has been the evolution of humans, there has been bread. It almost goes without saying that people could not have survived the long process of evolution without a food source, but in direct connection to the evolution or man and their technology, food evolution has followed suit. A big part of the food evolution is bread and the process of baking. It’s pretty much everyone’s favorite treat: A baked good. The practice of baking transcended the savory palette it had established and created a second place for baked goods in a meal: Dessert. The adaptation of baked goods such as cakes and cookies paved their way along with the rest of humanity acting as a necessity, economic giant, and as a creative outlet.
In our early history as a species, man “created” fire. With the knowledge of this heat source as well as an understanding of common grasses, grains, and seeds, early man was able to concoct a broth. This broth was made from soaking the grains in water, then mashing the two to create a paste. The first evidence of baking happened when humans took this broth and “baked” or roasted it over hot, flat stones producing the first unleavened flat bread. Later, this paste was roasted on hot embers, which made bread-making easier, as it could now be made anytime fire was created. As our ancestors were adapting and becoming steadily more advanced, this ability to prepare stable food helped adapt our eating habits and lifestyles with more and more focus on becoming settlers than hunters. By 3000 BC, ancient peoples were using a a mortar and pestle to mix the paste for their “bread,” and the cooking fires were shaped into rudimentary ovens, being placed on the ground with simple masonry construction used to hold the wood and/or food.
Some of the earliest known bakers were the Egyptians. As far back as 2600-2010 BC, Egyptians were baking bread. It is believed that they learned their bread baking techniques from the Babylonians. The Egyptians started exploring the relationship between certain wild yeasts and multigrain flour mixes. They were inspired to start experimenting with those wild yeasts until they came up with leavened bread. These breads and cakes were created in the shapes of animals and were used for sacrifices. Ancient Egyptians also developed and advanced form of ovens, which offered a far more reliable method of baking.
Other early records of baking as a cooking technique have appeared around the time of Greek scholar Aristophanes who lived from 450-385 BC. He wrote about the existence of honey flans and patterned tortes. He also wrote about an early Greek doughnut, or ring-cake, that was made from honey and flour called “Dispyrus.” This cake was then soaked in wine and was eaten when hot. The Greeks introduced their own rendition of cakes, called "plakous" (which means "flat") that were generally a combination of nuts and honey. The ancient Greeks also used a simple type of oven for making bread and other baked goods.
Greek and Roman culture are deeply intertwined thanks to the influence of the Greeks: It was the Romans who were able to take Greek knowledge of baking and technique and cultivate their own understanding, making Roman baking flourish. In about 300 BC, the pastry cook became an acceptable and respected occupation for Romans. These pastry chefs were known as “pastillariums” and were all part of the first pastry-cook’s association. Pastries were considered decadent, and Romans loved festivity and celebration, causing a raising popularity in the profession. Pastries were often cooked especially for large banquets, and any pastry cook who could invent new types of tasty treats, unseen at any other banquet, was highly prized. Around 1 AD, there were more than three hundred pastry chefs in Rome alone and in the 17th and 18th centuries in Europe, baking was a carefully controlled profession, managed through a series of Guilds or professional associations. To become a baker, people had to complete years of an apprenticeship - working through the ranks of apprentice, journeyman, and finally master baker. By having guilds, authorities could easily regulate the amount and quality of goods baked.
To bake bread, the Romans used an oven with its own chimney and had grain mills to grind grain into flour. The Romans baked "satura," or flat, heavy cakes made from ingredients like barley, raisins, pine nuts, pomegranate seeds, and sweet wine. Another popular cake of the time was "libum," the predecessor to the modern-day cheesecake, which was primarily used as an offering to the gods. In the latter years of the Roman Empire, yeast was introduced to cake-making, as well as butter, cream, eggs, spices, and sugar.
The earliest cookie-style cakes are thought to date back to 7th century Persia AD This was one of the first countries to cultivate sugar and cakes and pastries of various sizes were well known in the Persian empire. According to historians, sugar originated in either the lowlands of Bengal or somewhere else in Southeast Asia. Sugar spread to Persia and then through the Eastern Mediterranean. With the Muslim invasion of Spain, then the Crusades and the developing spice trade, the cooking techniques and ingredients of Arabia held influence and spread into Northern Europe.
Modern baking and technique gradually spread through Europe and the rest the world. It had been many cultures’ favorite technique for making creative new desserts and other meals for many years. Largely due to the influence of Rome, the art of baking became widely known throughout Europe, and spread to the eastern parts of Asia. Through the years, regular accessibility to ingredients improved. During the Renaissance period, the cake continued to evolve with the Italians introducing "biscuits." These thin, crisp cakes were considered to be the first sponge cakes, although they probably resembled a more of a cookie than a cake. By the middle ages, taller brick & mortar hearths, usually equipped with chimneys were being built.
The food to be cooked was often placed in metal cauldrons that were hung above the fire. In the mid-18th century, beaten eggs and baking soda and baking powder were introduced replacing yeast as the leavening agent of popular choice, and cakes were poured into molds or shape-setting hoops. The first written historical record of an oven actually being built was in 1490, in Alsace, France. This oven was made out of brick and tile, including the flue. In 1596, the first known cookbook called “Goode Huswife's Jewel” was written by Thomas Dawson.
Bakers often baked goods locally and then sold them in the streets from handcarts, which were very convenient shops on wheels. By doing this, a system of "delivery" baked goods to people's households, and demand for baked goods was developed. With more and more advances in baking technology, commercial consumption became easier. In Paris, the first open-air café of baked goods was manifested itself, and baking became an established practice throughout the entire world.
During this pastry baking evolution, inventors began making improvements to wood burning stoves with a special interest in containing the smoke that was being produced by older models.
Fire chambers were created that contained the wood fire, and holes were built into the top of these chambers that cooking pots with flat bottoms could be placed directly upon, instead of a cauldron. Around 1728, cast iron ovens really began to be made in quantity. These first advanced mass productions of ovens of German design were called “Five-plate” or “Jamb stoves”. In 1735, French architect François Cuvilliés created the Castrol stove (also known as the stew stove) which completely contained the fire. Cast iron stoves continued to evolve, as iron gratings where added to the cooking holes, in addition to modern chimneys and connecting flue pipes. In 1833, Jordan Mott invented the first practical coal oven called the “baseburner” which had ventilation to burn the coal more efficiently. Coal ovens were cylindrical and made of heavy cast iron. In 1826, British inventor James Sharp patented a gas oven, which was the first somewhat successful gas oven to appear on the market. Gas ovens were most popular by the 1920s and were found in most households. They had top burners and interior ovens and had enamel coatings making them easier to clean. It was not until the late 1920s and early 1930s that electric ovens began to compete with gas ovens even though electric ovens were available as early as the 1890s. The Carpenter Electric Heating Manufacturing Company invented an electric oven in 1891.
In the middle of the 19th century, when meals began to be served in courses (instead of rushing a variety of food dishes to the table at once), cake took its place as a dessert. Ovens got better, resulting in more uniform baking. Hand mixers replaced whisks, and then electric mixers replaced hand mixers. Today, we have an even wider range of labor-saving devices at our disposal, ranging from high-tech mixers and food processors to air-cushioned, nonstick bake ware that claims to distribute heat more evenly and prevent burning. There have been so many innovations to modern baking, which has always held firm ground throughout history as one (if not the) primary form of cooking.