The History of 2 Great Food Inventions: Sous Vide & Cast Iron
Sous Vide & Cast Iron Notes
In this episode of Eat My Globe, our host, Simon Majumdar, shares the history of two of his favorite kitchen tools, the Sous Vide and Cast Iron. The former is a more recent invention, while the latter has been around for thousands of years, but his kitchen could not exist without both of them. Tune in to learn about their fascinating origins.
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EAT MY GLOBE
THE HISTORY OF 2 GREAT FOOD INVENTIONS:
SOUS-VIDE & CAST IRON
Why does Liam Neeson make really good pancakes?
I don’t know. Why does Liam Neeson make really good pancakes?
Because he has a particular set of skillets.
[Simon speaking in a Northern Irish accent] I have a particular set of skillets.
[Simon speaking in his normal voice] That’s my Liam Neeson impression.
[Simon speaking in a Northern Irish accent] Because he has very particular set of skillets.
I’m Simon Majumdar, and welcome to a brand-new episode of Eat My Globe. A podcast about things you didn’t know you didn’t know about food.
Now, I regularly receive requests to discuss the histories of ingredients, equipment, recipes or indeed people that are genuinely fascinating, but do not perhaps have enough detail to cover a whole episode on their own. So, I will often look to combine them in a single episode. So, if you have not yet listened to an episode I recorded a few seasons ago about the history of silverware and the history of the refrigerator, that is a perfect example, and one I would definitely recommend listening to.
The response was terrific, so I thought I would do it again. So, on this episode, we are going to look at the history of two things. One that I am certain many of the listeners to this podcast will use in the kitchen all the time. And, one that I think you should definitely consider using if you don’t already.
I hope you will enjoy these brief glimpses into their past, and if you have any more suggestions for this kind of episode, please do let me know.
THE HISTORY OF SOUS VIDE
Now, I was recently fortunate enough to be asked to give a keynote speech for an organization known as the International Sous Vide Association. Yes, there is actually an organization bringing together enthusiasts for this relatively new style of cooking. Very fine people they are too. I presented them some recipes from my travels around the world that would be perfect when prepared in this fashion. And, perhaps I shall share some of them on the Patreon page for this podcast.
Before I gave the talk, I decided that I should do more research myself, as although I use sous vide technique at home quite regularly, I was shamefully lacking in knowledge about how it had originated, and how what was once only found in high end dining establishments became what is now relatively commonplace in home kitchens. Or at least common place enough that you can buy sous vide systems in most big box stores.
It is a fascinating history, so I thought that sharing it would be the perfect place to begin this episode.
As always, before we go any further, let’s look at some of the definitions of sous vide, so we don’t have any confusion as we delve into its history.
Our chums at Merriam Webster define sous vide as
“relating to or denoting a method of cooking food slowly in a vacuum-sealed pouch at a low temperature so as to retain most of the juices and aroma.”
Which I think pretty much sums up the experience of cooking sous vide rather well.
The term “Sous Vide” are French words that translate to “under vacuum.” Those of you who are familiar with the designations of a culinary brigade might be familiar with the term, “sous,” from the title “Sous Chef” where it designates the chef who operates in the kitchen just under the level of the Chef de Cuisine or head chef and who is qualified to take over and lead the team when the Chef de Cuisine is absent. The term, “vide,” in French literally means “empty.” In its usage in sous vide, it means “vacuum,” and refers to the fact that in this style of preparation the air is usually removed from the container, usually a sealable bag, before the cooking process begins. So, basically, sous vide means to cook food in a vacuum in a water bath.
So, again, as I often like to do, let’s take a few moments to discuss how sous vide actually works. Which will again inform its history when we get there.
In my experience, I have cooked all sorts of protein, such as meat or fish, and vegetables, and even sauces using a Sous Vide machine. It is, as I have found, a very versatile way of cooking. I just place the food in a bag, which is then sealed using a vacuum chamber, such as the food sealer you might have at home and then placed submerged in a water bath.
The temperature of the water bath and the period of time for how long the protein is going to cook is managed by a piece of equipment known as am immersion circulator. The food item is then cooked at a designated low temperature, usually between 122 degrees Fahrenheit to 149 degrees Fahrenheit for a specified period of time before it’s ready to be served. The period of time it is cooked depends on the item, which can range from less than one hour for items such as fish, to over forty eight hours for something such as pork shank or beef short ribs. Manufacturers of sous vide equipment will have guidelines in the best times and temperatures.
From the scientific point of view, sealing the bag and placing it in hot water changes the physics of the cooking process. Whereas when using regular cooking conditions, the heat of the pan or your cooking medium, such as the oven or grill, can cause a big rise in temperature between the outside of the protein, such as a steak, and the core of the steak. In the sous vide method of preparation, the water bath is set maybe one or two degrees above the final core temperature desired, and because of the computer control of the immersion circulator the water will stay at exactly the same temperature for as long as you have set the machine for. There is almost no danger of over cooking at such low temperatures.
The vacuum sealing of the food prevents air getting into the food, which, if it does happen, can cause problems. So, food can be prepared well in advance. The only issue, for want of a better word, that people do have with sous vide is that this style of cooking does not add color to the food, as if you would if you were cooking in a more traditional way. So, for example, a steak will come out of its sous vide packaging looking a very sorry color of grey. Now, there are methods of combatting this, which include pre-searing before the protein is put into the vacuum bag or, as I prefer, adding that desired char by placing the steak in a screaming hot cast iron skillet for just a few moments before serving.
So, now we have a definition of and an explanation for sous vide. Let’s submerge ourselves – see what I did there? – in the history.
Well, it may surprise you that for the origins of sous vide, we have to go all the way back to the late 18thcentury and the work of an American born, British physicist, Benjamin Thompson, also known as the Count von Rumford. He is another of those fascinating characters we meet every now and again in Eat My Globe. He was a colonist who lived in the town of Rumford, now Concord, in New Hampshire. During the American Revolution, he remained loyal to Britain, and was actually a spy on their behalf. While the war was still underway in 1776, he escaped to London and left his wife and daughter behind.
Despite this initial setback, he led quite a remarkable life. He was knighted by George III and then became “Royal Scientist to the King.” He became a member of the Bavarian civil service, where he created a soup named, “Rumford’s Soup,” which was a nutritious way of feeding those in need, made of pearl barley, peas, potatoes and beer. Consequently, he was made a Count of the Holy Roman Empire. And, even with all of that going on, he found time to invent a double boiler, a drip coffee pot, and a style of kitchen range. Definitely a fascinating fellow.
As a scientist, he studied the relationship between heat and friction. In 1798, he wrote a book entitled, “An Experimental Enquiry Concerning the Source of the Heat which is Excited by Friction.” It was in this field that we see his relationship to our subject of sous vide.
While working on one of his inventions,
“Desirous to find out whether it would be possible to roast meat in a machine I had contrived for drying potatoes, I put a shoulder of mutton into it, and after attending to the experiment for three hours, and finding it showed no signs of being done, I concluded that the heat was not sufficiently intense and I abandoned my shoulder of mutton to the cook-maids.”
Apparently, for want of anywhere better, the maids left the mutton in the potato drying machine overnight, and when Thompson discovered it the next morning he found the meat to be
“not merely eatable, but perfectly done, and most singularly well-tasted.”
“the gentle heat over a long time had loosened the cohesion of its fibres, and concocted its juices, without driving off their fine and more volatile parts, and without rendering rancid and empyreumatic its oils.”
Now, while Thompson used air instead of water for his heat transfer, the end results, the consistent transfer of heat, and particularly his comments about the cohesion of the fibers and the juices would be immediately familiar to anyone who now uses sous vide as a method of cooking. Despite my research, I didn’t really see much evidence of this technique being used at the time. It appears more of a culinary anomaly than a big change.
However, lthough we can see the big bang, or should that be the big simmer, of sous vide cooking with Thompson, its next major move forward came in the 1960s with the invention of what was known as, “the Retort Pouch.” According to the US Department of Agriculture,
“A retort pouch is commonly defined as a flexible pouch for low-acid foods that are thermally processed in a pressure vessel, often called a ‘retort.’ The pouch is made of layered polyester, aluminum foil, and polypropylene. Commercial sterilization occurs at temperatures greater than 212 °F (100 °C), typically 240 to 250 °F (115. to 121 °C). The retort packaging is shelf stable at room temperature.”
The US Army Natick R&D Command, Reynolds Metal Company, and Continental Flexible Packaging invented retort pouches, and the US military used them to replace C-Rations because they were lightweight and took up less space than canned goods. And if you want to know what C-Rations are, we have a great episode on the history of military rations on Eat My Globe, so do go and check that out.
As well as being used by the military, the retort packaging found many other uses in commerce. You can find them in your grocery store shelves where they are used to package chili, ham, tuna and so much more. They were also used by hospitals as a way of keeping food sterilized before serving. It is here that we see one of the oft forgotten people in sous vide history. Ambrose McGuckian, also known as “Mac,” was the head of A.G.S. Food Systems Inc. and had been charged with improving the food at Greenville Hospital in South Carolina. In 1969, before many of the others, he had written in the “Cornell Hotel & Restaurant Administration Quarterly” that,
“water bath cooking, in which the food product is first vacuum packaged in a plastic pouch and then immersed for a specified time in water heated to and maintained at a designated temperature.”
Hence, he hoped, to end some of the worst of hospital food.
However, it was not until the 1970s when the process began to find its way back into the culinary rather than the supply side of food.
In 1971, Dr. Bruno Goussault, said to be the “Father of Sous Vide,” “discovered” sous vide as the best way of cooking roast beef. Not only did it decrease the shrinkage, but it also increased the flavor. Now, Dr. Goussalt is still with us today, and is the Chief Scientist at Cuisine Solutions, a company that works with the restaurant industry to try to provide sous vide ingredients to be completed in the restaurants. Dr. Goussault also created CREA – or Culinary Research and Education Academy – to promote the use of sous vide in the fine dining industry and has, apparently, taught more that 80% of all chefs with 3 Michelin Stars. So, certainly in my experience, by the time of the turn of the millennium, sous vide was already a regular element in modern restaurants.
Another chef who has also been given the same moniker, “Father of Sous Vide,” is French Chef George Pralus. But Chef George’s story starts with French Chef, Pierre Troisgros, who passed away as recently as 2020 at the age of 92 years old, and was one of France’s most legendary chefs. Chef Pierre was recognized as the catalyst of France’s move to Nouvelle Cuisine, a lighter take towards French cooking. His restaurant in Roanne that he ran with his brother, Jean, maintained a level of 3 Michelin stars for fifty-two years. Extraordinary.
In 1974, however, Chef Pierre was more worried about finding a way to prepare the perfect foie gras, that delicious “fat liver” of duck or goose, that is controversial because of the way that it is grown, through a force feeding technique. Pierre was looking for a way to prepare this classic French delicacy in a way that did not lose any of the fat that he believed to be essential to the finished dish. Pierre turned to Chef George for help. George thought about the idea and decided to wrap the foie gras in plastic before poaching it. The result was that the ingredient did not lose a lot of fat. Chef George said,
“meat cooked this way loses only 8 percent of its weight while roasted meat loses about 20 percent.”
He also said,
“I find that I need much less seasoning . . . . This is a wonderful method for people on salt-free diets because the natural flavors of the foods are much more assertive. . . . Since the foods all cook in their own juices, the resultant liquid also makes an ideal base for a sauce.”
But, how did the sous vide machine move from being solely for the use of the Michelin starred chefs to being one that is now available to the home cook?
Cook’s Illustrated says the main reason is, as it is for so many things, the arrival of the internet. Also, I would imagine, this was accompanied by a general advancement of manufacturing technology. In the early part of this millennium, sous vide began to become an essential part of the kitchen equipment of many chefs such as Wylie Dufresne and Thomas Keller. Many of these chefs would share information on how they were using this and any other new forms of kitchen equipment on the early food boards. The most popular was one to which I belonged for a short while, and which is still going, called Egullet. And, food enthusiasts began to take notice of this new technique.
In 2005, Spanish chef, Joan Roca, published his book, “La Cocina al Vacio Sous Vide Cuisine,” on sous vide. At the same time, The French Culinary Institute asked Chef Dave Arnold to create a Culinary Technology Department to teach its students new techniques, such as sous vide.
Also, in the same year, Amanda Hesser in the New York Times wrote an article called, “Under Pressure,” where she declared,
“Cryovacking, which is more often called sous vide (French for “under vacuum”), is poised to change the way restaurant chefs cook. . . And like the Wolf stove and the immersion blender, it will probably trickle down to the home kitchen someday.”
And how right she was.
In a 2018 article, Cook’s Illustrated pointed out that Sous Vide and immersion circulators had began to appear on television cooking shows, including a show with which I am very familiar, Iron Chef America.
Demand grew, but as the article points out, the growth of use in the home was hampered by the fact that immersion circulators were simply too expensive for most people coming in at nearly $1,000 a time. That has all changed now, however, with budget immersion circulators being made available at well under $100 and, as I mentioned at the beginning of the episode, being available at most cookware and big box stores.
Which is the perfect way to suggest that, if you have not yet treated yourself to an immersion circulator, now is the perfect time.
I’ll see you in the water bath.
Hi everybody, this is Simon Majumdar, the creator and host of the Eat My Globe food history podcast. Now, those of you have been listening to the podcast since we began over two years ago – over 50 episodes so far – will know that we have never sought out sponsorship for the podcast. It’s very much been a labor of love. However, along the way, a large number of people have approached us suggesting they would like to support the podcast. And so, we have opened up a page on Patreon dot com to allow those of you who listen regularly to do just that. Any support we will get will allow us to purchase research materials, buy ingredients for recipes, and maybe, when we can get out and about, to bring you some very special in-the-field reporting. But, and this is really important. This is not just a one-way street. For varying levels of membership of our Patreon club, there will be access to fantastic Eat My Globe swag, including that incredible chopping board so many of you have written to me about, recipes based on historical periods about which we chat each week, video shout outs, signed pictures, and even along the way, some very special episodes just for members. So, if you’ve enjoyed the episodes of Eat My Globe you’ve listened to so far, and would like us to make many more into the future, do head over to www dot Patreon dot com slash Eat My Globe and consider taking out a membership. Any support will be much appreciated. Remember, that’s www dot Patreon dot com slash Eat My Globe. So, thank you very much, and keep listening.
THE HISTORY OF CAST IRON
Now, from a kitchen invention that is very modern, let’s move way back in time to look at the history of something that is now a kitchen essential for so many of us. Me included. And that is the history of cast iron, and in particular cast iron cookware.
It may be a surprise to many that, while we know that using cast iron has been a classic part of American cooking since the middle of the 19th century, it actually has a much longer history dating back thousands of years.
As always, before we start forging – see what I did there again? – our history of cast iron, let us look at a dictionary definition of what it actually is.
Heading back to our favorite definition chums at Merriam Webster, we see the definition as
“a commercial alloy of iron, carbon, and silicon that is cast in a mold and is hard, brittle, nonmalleable, and incapable of being hammer-welded but more easily fusible than steel.”
The term nonmalleable might be the one here that people may be unsure of and it simply means that it can’t be shaped or altered.
To be more specific about the alloy in question, the iron, which has been made by lessening the iron ore in a furnace, is alloyed with 2-4% of carbon, plus silicon, plus manganese, sulfur and phosphorous. The final result can be used for many things, but of course, we are going to specify its culinary uses.
For the original production of cast iron, we have to go back as far as 5,000 BCE. And, the melting and forging of metals was as important to humans as the farming of crops, and possibly the discovery and controlling of fire. On which, of course, the melting and forging of metals depended. As Doru M. Stefanescu put in their work, “A History of Cast Iron,”
“Civilization as we know it would not have been possible without the casting of metals in general and without iron casting in particular.”
The reason being that, although metal casting may later have had artistic and more benign functional use, perhaps its most important use was initially to create weapons to defend against attacks, or indeed to attack others. As well as for domestic use in the home and fields.
According to Stefanescu, metals were first found in an area north of the Black Sea, in the Carpathian Mountains in what is now Romania. It was about 5000 BCE when they began to cast metals and that metal would have been from copper. From about 3000 BCE to 1000 BCE, the metal would have been bronze, Which is an alloy of copper and tin. Hence the term, the “Bronze Age.” Tools and weapons made from bronze would have been used in much the same way as those made from copper, but would have been more sturdy. It would have been later around 1200 BCE, that iron became the metal of choice as people realized its greater availability and its superiority to copper and bronze. This began the period we now know as “The Iron Age.” It was an age that saw the widespread development of knowledge about iron metallurgy and large scale development of iron implements, including as I mentioned before, far more sophisticated and longer lasting weaponry than had previously been available.
The earliest iron casting began in the civilizations of Mesopotamia, such as Babylon, Assyria, and Chaldea. Their earlier forays in copper casting was, it is argued, part of the reasons why these civilizations began to experience significant growth and even build empires.
However, for our purposes, the next major stop is China. The iron age in China, did not begin until about 600 BCE, and is believed to have occurred when the country was visited by iron craftsmen from these Mesopotamian civilizations.
The Chinese effectively and frequently produced cast iron due to plentiful supplies of the raw material as well as the Chinese inventing blast furnaces around 200 BCE. The process of using blast furnaces allows for the absorption of carbon making a more sturdy product. Population growth, agricultural necessity and need for military weapons prompted this cast iron boom in China.
In China, there are four statues that stand before the Zhongyue Temple in Dengfeng that date from 1024 BCE that are made out of cast iron. We also later begin to see documents, including one in 531 BCE, requesting iron in order to create a tripod for a criminal code. Some of the older-known cast iron pieces, which include a pan and a stove, date back from the Han Dynasty between 206 BCE and 220 CE. Interestingly, this was also the same time period when the private enterprise of iron smelting was decreed to be a nationalized industry. That meant owned by the state. This also means that people did not freely trade cast iron, which likely explains why cast iron making did not arrive in Europe until about the 13th century CE. That, and because I’d imagine, they were too heavy to transport too easily.
In Europe, at around the same time, the ancient Greeks and ancient Romans did know about metal casting although there really was no evidence of it being made from that period. However, Alexander the Great’s dad, Philip of Macedon, had an iron spearhead made for his weapon. And, by the beginning of the final millennium BCE, we begin to see iron being mentioned in some classical texts such as “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey.”
The Romans too knew about iron and had mines throughout their empire where iron could be collected, such as in Andalusia in what is now Spain, and in Britain. However, despite the abundance of iron, the ancient Romans didn’t really exploit its use as much. Although, they apparently used iron clamps to hold together stone bridges as they built them, and iron ore to surface their streets.
Once the Roman Empire fell, usually given at around 476 CE, what skills there were with iron casting became known only to a small number of people. Cast iron mass production started in Europe around the 13th century. Before then, people mostly used wrought iron. The main difference between the two is that wrought iron is more prone to being shaped, whereas cast iron has more carbon, which results in a strong but potentially more brittle product.
The earliest known cast iron products in Europe are the cast iron water pipes at the Dillenberg Castle in Germany that were apparently cast in 1455. Thereafter, in the 1500s, we begin to see cast iron cannons being made around Europe.
From the cookware point of view, cooking pots in Europe were made then from brass until the beginning of the 18th century. At the time, brass was so expensive that people made provisions in their wills to ensure they were passed on when they died.
In 1707, a 29-year-old British industrial pioneer named Abraham Darby, a brass maker by trade, fixed an iron furnace owned by a Sir Basil Brooke in the village of Coalbrookedale. As he worked on the furnace, he discovered that the coal could be used to make cast iron, which was much cheaper, and much more easily available than charcoal. He applied for a royal patent that year and received the 380th patent to be granted ever at that point. The patent reading,
“A new way of casting iron bellied potts, and other iron bellied ware in sand only, without loam or clay, by which iron pots, and other ware may be cast fine and with more ease and expedition, and may be afforded cheaper than they can be by the way commonly used, and in regard to their cheapnesse may be of great advantage to the poore of this our kingdome . . .”
Because of this new method of molding pots in a mold made only of dry sand, an increased volume of what could be produced and at an affordable price for most became possible.
Darby began selling cast iron kettles, pots and cauldrons at local fairs to great success. And, indeed, by the mid-18th century, Darby’s cast iron cookware had been exported to what would be the United States of America. Unfortunately, for him, he did not live to see the long term success of his discovery, as he was to pass away at the young age of 39. However, for many, this discovery was one of the key starting points of the Industrial Age, and put Great Britain in a very favorable position, as good quality iron could now be made anywhere where coal and iron ore were found together, situations that were very prevalent in Great Britain.
By the 1760s, Britain had many, many Cynder furnaces across the country, which not only produced iron for cookware, as Darby had originally done, but produced the boilers for the steam engines and the rails they rode on that powered the Industrial Revolution.
One of the first iron foundries in what was to become the United States was the Saugus Iron Works that was built in Lynn, Massachusetts in 1646, which is now a national historic site. There, the first American iron castings of the Saugus pot was created. It only lasted until about 1668, but soon, other small iron foundries began to operate in other parts of the colonies.
By the 19th century, particularly after discoveries of large deposits of iron ore near the Great Lakes, the United States was producing vast amounts of iron products. These included stoves and cannons, and even coffins, as well as building the iron rails that were so essential to the expansion of the railroad system.
After the Civil War, we begin to see cast iron cookware becoming more available, and the first company to make it on an industrial basis began operation in 1865. The company was named Griswold, and was based in Erie, Pennsylvania. It operated for nearly one hundred years before being acquired by Wagner Manufacturing, another cast iron cookware company, in 1957.Another company is one that I still use today, which is the well-known company of Lodge. Lodge was opened by Joseph Lodge in 1896 in South Pittsburg, Tennessee, as Blackrock, before suffering a major fire in 1910. They recovered from this and is currently the largest and oldest cast iron cookware producer in the USA right now.
Cast iron cookware became immensely popular throughout the 18th and 19th centuries because of their affordability. However, in the 20th century, their dominance began to be challenged as new materials such as Teflon and other pans with nonstick coatings began to become available.
However, I am delighted to say that in recent years, cast iron pans are making a huge comeback, growing to $176.1 million worth in 2018, and continuing to grow. I have to admit that I love using my cast iron cookware, and I have skillets, oven pans, and griddles, and flat tops that I use for just about every type of cooking that I do.
Now before we go, hopefully with us all inspired to go and use our cast iron pans, or to buy one if we do have any, let’s look at that one worry that folks often have when using cast iron pans, and that is their cleaning and maintenance. Particularly as there is now a growing hobby of seeking out vintage cast iron pans and restoring them to be used today.
A vintage cast iron pan, usually one that was made before 1957, would have been made in the traditional way of being cast in sand-based molds, and the surface would have then been hand-polished to give the cooking surface an almost glass-like, mirrored appearance. It is a process that is pricey and takes a lot of time – up to three days.
Modern methods of production are a lot quicker and made by machines in around 90 minutes. This modern method also removes the polishing step. Modern methods have also meant that cast iron pans now come pre-seasoned to acknowledge that people don’t necessarily want to spend the time to season their own pans.
In the end, I think the differences between the two types of pan is down to preference. I prefer the modern kind, but I totally understand those who don’t.
As for maintenance, I take a very simple approach to maintaining my cast iron pans. First of all, I use them most every day when I am at home, which definitely helps. Secondly, I clean them in hot water with a tiny amount of dish soap, and the rough side of a dish sponge. I dry them immediately on the stove and, when completely dry, I wipe them with a very small amount of oil. I don’t know if this has any scientific basis, but my pans seem to be doing just fine. As I am now going to prove as I go and prepare lunch for my lovely wife.
Hey, wait. What about me?
What? Well, you don’t get nothing. Oh, was that supposed to be a joke?
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Thank you and goodbye from me, Simon Majumdar, we’ll speak to you soon on the next episode of EAT MY GLOBE, a podcast about things you didn’t know you didn’t knowabout food.
The EAT MY GLOBE Podcast is a production of “It’s Not Much But It’s Ours” and “Producer Girl Productions”
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and is created with the kind co-operation of the UCLA Department of History. We would especially like to thank Professor Carla Pestana, the Department Chair of the Department of History and Doctor Tawny Paul, Public History Initiative Director, for their notes on this episode. Also, a huge thank you to Sybil Villanueva for her help with the research and the preparations of the transcripts for this episode, which can be found on the website.
Published Date: May 30, 2022
For the annotated transcript with references and resources, please click HERE.