Photo: Flickr/Eric McGregor
“I simply couldn’t cook without my…” Cast-iron frying pan? Ginsu knives? Immersion blender? Mickey Mouse Waffle Maker?Everybody who prepares food at home (or professionally, for that matter) has an implement or appliance or five or 10 of them that they consider essential to their culinary practices. But how many of these things really matter in the larger scheme of things? How many are truly essential, or at least very important, to the preparation — and the ultimate consumption — of food (and let’s throw drink in here as well, just to wash it all down with)?
Click here to see the inventions →
We were sitting around talking about this one day and came up with the obvious candidates: pots and pans, the knife, the oven, the (hey, we’re up-to-date around here) food processor… Then somebody said, well, what about the things nobody invented but somebody figured out or harnessed — like, er, fire, without which cooking as we understand it would never have been born? And what about methods of collecting food, means of storing or preserving it, ways of taming it? We started making a list, including not just things we have in our own kitchens (salt, four-sided grater) but also natural phenomena (fermentation) and specialised tools (sous-vide equipment — which we don’t have in our own kitchens yet).
We decided to leave out foodstuffs — miraculous innovations that became veritable building blocks of civilisation, like bread, wine, cheese, vinegar, bacon-cheeseburgers — though we did include two substances that we ingest, salt and gelling agents. We left out all the vehicles and devices with which food is planted and harvested (with one exception; see below); we omitted broad concepts like the domestication of animals and the development of genetic studies, though both have obviously had enormous effect on what and how we eat (among other things); we decided not to include means of conveying information about food, from the book to the iPad.
What we ended up with is a list of things that we, yes, simply couldn’t cook — or eat and/or drink — without. As usual with such compendiums, we have been both selective and subjective. We’ve probably missed some obvious and vital items, and we have frankly allowed ourselves to have a little fun here and there. Should you decide to assemble such a list yourself, of course, it would almost certainly not be the same as ours. We’d love to hear your nominations for things we should have included (use the “Add a Comment” box below). But first, take a look at what we consider to be The 50 Most Important Inventions (and Discoveries) in Food and Drink in the list below.
The idea of heating food, whether solid or liquid, to inhibit the growth of harmful bacteria, goes back hundreds of years, and may well have been first figured out in Japan or China. Controlled heat-treatment, designed not to kill all living things food might contain but to limit the number of potentially problematic microorganisms, was developed by the French chemist Louis Pasteur and his physiologist colleague Claude Bernard as a means of stabilizing wine. It came to be commonly used to treat not just wine and beer but dairy products, canned foods, and even bottled water.
Wood-fuelled ovens date far back into prehistory, and though designs improved dramatically over the centuries, they were still the only cooking option, even indoors, in many parts of the world -- where there were no gas lines -- through the mid-1900s. The earliest known use of the gas oven, however, was at a dinner party hosted by Moravian chemist Zachaus Winzler in 1802. In 1834, British inventor James Sharp began selling the first commercial gas ovens, and by the 1920s, appliances outfitted with thermostats and coated in enamel for easier cleaning were common.
Knives cut, but to render firm foodstuffs (cheese, lemon peel, raw vegetables, etc.) into shreds or powders, a grater is the thing. The first one, made of pewter and designed to turn rock-hard cheese into something edible, was invented in France in the 1540s by one François Boullier. Many variations have ensued, among them the four-sided love-it-or-hate-it box grater and the newly trendy Microplane. The latter, based on the carpenter's rasp, was invented in the 1990s by Arkansas toolmaker Richard Grace.
The original parchment, translucently thin animal skin prepared as a medium for writing, was probably never used in cooking; it would have burned. So-called baker's or cook's parchment may have been inspired by the look and feel of the original, but is actually heat-resistant, non-stick, silicone-coated paper, used to wrap food for baking or as a disposable non-stick surface. A variation, wax paper, invented (for non-culinary purposes) by French photographer Gustave Le grey in 1851, is useful for food prep but doesn't do very well in the oven.
The first tongs were probably just two unattached sticks used way back in prehistory to pick up hot food. Somebody, somewhere along the way, figured out how to attach them with a hinge, and by around 3000 B.C., metal tongs not unlike the ones we now use appeared. Tongs of whatever design are today more or less an essential instrument in nearly every kitchen, professional or otherwise.
The hefty culinary tome called Opera dell'arte del cucinare, published in 1570 by Vatican chef Bartolomeo Scappi, depicts a board with a series of inset blades for cutting food (it also contains the first-ever published image of a fork). Variations on the instrument -- named, though probably not until the 20th century, after a musical instrument, the mandolin -- became common in European kitchens thereafter. The first metal mandoline was invented in France in the early 20th century. Some chefs scoff that they can cut and slice as neatly with a sharp knife. But they can't.
The Etruscans used stone rolling pins 3,000 years ago, and clay and wood cylinders have been utilized for centuries in various parts of the world to flatten dough, crush grains and herbs, and perform other culinary tasks. A man named J.W. Reed invented the standard modern rolling pin, with the roller pierced by a central rod attached to handles on either end, in the late 19th century.
Cork is the outer layer of Quercus suber, the cork oak, a tree widely found in Portugal (which produces more than half of the world's cork) and around the Mediterranean basin. This pliable, porous pith creates a perfect barrier between liquids and air, and as early as the 1700s cork began to replace oil-soaked rags as a stopper for containers of wine and spirits. The first corkscrew, which arrived around the same time (fortunately), was apparently inspired by the gun worm, a device designed to extract bullets from rifle barrels. After all these years, cork is slipping at least a little out of fashion as screw-cap bottles become increasingly popular, even for premium wines. Cork-soled shoes, on the other hand, are all the rage.
Andrew Meikle, a Scottish millwright, invented the thresher in 1778, as a way of mechanically removing grain from its husks; it didn't work very well, but he kept trying and a few years later he finally got it right. Threshers separate wheat, peas, soybeans, and other small grain and seed crops of every kind from their chaff and straw, and are a key component of modern agriculture.
Weight is a measure of worth in oh, so many ways. Elementary balance scales were being used in southern Asia 5,000 years ago. Spring scales didn't come into common usage until the mid-19th century, at which time they promptly became indispensable on farms and in retail shops among other places. Accurate electronic digital scales are a child of our own time, not much more than 20 years old. Though many chefs and home cooks scorn precise measurement in preparing food, scales are essential, for presumably obvious reasons, in commercial food production and in baking (even at home) -- and are also required for the realisation of most so-called 'molecular' creations.
The earliest restaurants -- as opposed to inns, which were places you'd stop on the way somewhere and hope there was a pot of stew on the fire -- seem to have appeared as early at the ninth or tenth century A.D. in both China and the Islamic world. On the other hand, the word 'restaurant,' from the French verb restaurer, meaning to restore (presumably meaning to make you feel better), dates from Paris in 1782, where it was coined by a Parisian gastronome named Antoine Beauvilliers. He opened the Grand Taverne de Londres in the French capital with a chef poached from the aristocracy and a menu that actually let customers choose what they wanted to eat (a quaint custom which has since disappeared in many trendy eateries). Pictured here: The French Laundry.
Forks used to be farming tools (think pitchfork) and then maybe cooking tools (food wouldn't slip around on the spit if the spit had two prongs instead of one). Smaller forks, for spearing pieces of meat and other foods at the table, most probably weren't widely known until at least the tenth century A.D., and didn't become standard ta
If you boil the water out of murky water, only the murk remains -- and if you collect the water, you've got distilled water. The Greeks starting doing that about 2,000 years ago. Arabs in the ninth century refined the process and invented the alembic still, variations on which are used to this day, though mainly to make perfume. A 13th-century Valencian physician and alchemist named Arnaud de Villeneuve is often credited with having figured out that if you distilled wine, boiling off all that pesky water and getting down to the good stuff, it was probably going to be party time. Brandy, whisky, and (much later) Grey Goose L'Orange appeared subsequently.
In 1795, Napoleon 'An army travels on its stomach' Bonaparte offered a cash prize for anyone who could devise a way of preserving food for his soldiers in the field. Fourteen years later, chef and confectioner Nicolas Appert stepped up to claim the reward -- not with cans but with sterilized bottles. Actual tin-plated cans -- so sturdy that they reportedly had to be opened with a hammer and chisel (and sealed with lead, which tended to poison frequent canned-food eaters) -- first appeared in England in 1818. 40 years later, Ezra Warner of Connecticut patented the first metal can opener. Spam arrived in 1926.
Chopsticks -- whose name apparently derives from a Pidgin English term meaning 'fast' -- originated three or four thousand years ago in China and subsequently became popular eating utensils throughout Asia. They're basically tongs that use the human hand as a hinge and are often made of bamboo resistant to heat. Knowing how to use chopsticks properly is now considered an elementary skill among non-Asian food lovers.
To get wine out of grapes, cider out of apples, and oil out of olives (among other things), you must crush the fruit really hard. The first presses for these purposes were apparently beams with platforms on one end onto which heavy stones could be loaded. The screw press, dating from around the third or fourth century A.D., was a major improvement; it could be turned by man or beast with a lot less energy than hefting big rocks around required. Today, of course, electricity is involved -- but the basic idea remains the same.
The French (OK, the Gauls) may have made the first wooden barrels, figuring out how to heat and bend staves of wood and bind them into pot-bellied form with rope and later metal bands. The Romans adopted the idea, finding barrels a great improvement over the clay pots and amphorae they had been using for wine, oil, and other substances (they were bigger and more stable, and didn't have to be sealed with resin). Barrels turned out to be ideal for storing and shipping everything from wine and whiskey to pickles, olives (and their oil), herring, and cured pork.
The earliest fish hooks, made out of wood or bone, date back at least 9,000 years. The use of metal for hooks and later the mass production of them standardized the basic designs. Most commercial fishing no longer depends on such rudimentary technology -- though 'line-caught' has become a buzzword on restaurant menus -- but the impact of the fish hook on the ability of humans to sustain themselves cannot be underestimated. (And what about the spear, the bow-and-arrow, the gun? you might ask. Sure, they've helped us assuage our hunger too, but unlike the fish hook they are also instruments of conflict, facilitating conduct that is, frankly, pretty much the opposite of harvesting dinner.)
This one-two punch of food preparation -- a bowl of metal, stone, wood, or ceramic into which fits a blunt crushing tool -- was known to the Romans a couple thousand years ago and also to the Aztecs (who called it a molcajete). Other early interpretations were used in India and Southeast Asia. In Europe, the mortar and pestle was first mostly a tool with which pharmacists crushed and mixed medicinal herbs and spices. Many cultures still use it to pulverize leaves and pods for cooking, and of course no sensible Italian would think of making pesto with anything else
Fermentation, in the food and drink sense, is simply the conversion, by yeast or bacteria, of carbohydrates into alcohol and carbon dioxide. It occurs naturally: Leave fruit in a bowl for long enough and quite possibly the juice will ooze out, meet airborne yeast cells, and start fizzing, producing something that is technically wine, and probably tastes a lot like cheap Chilean Merlot. The human trick was learning to control the process and apply it to the making and/or preservation of all kinds of stuff -- not just wine, beer, cider, and mead, but vinegar, yogurt, cheese, some sausages, sauerkraut, and kimchi, among other things without which life would not be worth living.
Without pots -- and their flatter brethren, pans -- our cooking options would be fairly limited. (Will you have that roasted or grilled?) That must have dawned on our prehistoric ancestors, because there is archeological evidence of early attempts to cook food in vessels made of stone, turtle shells, clay, even wood treated to withstand flame. Fire-hardened clay or earthenware vessels first appeared more than 15,000 years ago. Metal pots appeared soon after metal did, and by medieval times kitchens were typically stocked with iron pots, kettles and cauldrons whose basic design we would recognise today. The next thing you know, everybody was registering for that complete set of Calphalon.
How on earth did people eat soup before spoons were invented? Or ice cream? Food for thought. Spoons are ancient, in any case, though not as old as knives. The first ones were either hollowed out bits of wood or maybe small seashells or nut hulls (bigger ones were the first cups). The old-time Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans used elaborately fashioned and decorated spoons, but the modern version, with tapering bowls and long handles, didn't appear until the mid-18th century. Today, we not only eat but measure and stir with spoons, and of course they're also essential for flinging globs of Jell-O across the room.
The knife is considered to be the oldest human tool. Of course, we're not talking stainless-steel Wüsthofs here -- more like hunks of obsidian or flint with their sides chipped into sharpness. Metal started coming into the picture around 2500 B.C., and the design and quality of blades fixed in handles became better and better. Knives may be our oldest tool, but they remain our most important for rendering food edible, usable from field or forest to kitchen to plate.
The earth was formed in fire, sort of, though not the kind you'd make S'mores in front of. Then things cooled down and people appeared and enough oxygen developed to allow a milder sort of flame. Archaeologists have found the remains of cooked food dating back almost two million years, but this might have been opportunistic: 'Hey Oog, lightening kill bird, smell good, let's eat!' Our ancestors probably first figured out how to start (and, we hope, stop) fire at will about 400,000 years ago, and real cooking, with all that that entails, became possible.
It was there all the time, of course, in rocks, in the ocean, in us… Our early ancestors must have noticed the pleasant tang of seawater, and maybe the way it preserved the dead things that floated in it, and at some point -- at least 8,000 years ago but probably earlier -- they figured out how to extract the salt. The next thing anybody knew, the salt trade and salt taxes were changing history; we were eating salads and collecting salaries; our food lasted longer and tasted better, and our blood pressure was through the roof.
NOW WATCH: Briefing videos
Business Insider Emails & Alerts
Site highlights each day to your inbox.