How Pots and Pans Turned Us Into Creative Cooks

After harnessing fire, kitchenware is the most important invention to food as we know it.

A silver, old, cracked saucepan rests on an open fire
Tina Stallard / Getty

From rainbow-hued, enameled stewpots to lightweight, nonstick frying pans, the metal and ceramic vessels we use to heat our food are such an everyday aspect of the kitchen that they’re easy to take for granted. But make no mistake: The invention of the pot was, after fire, one of the most important innovations in cooking. You’ll want to hug your favorite skillet after coming along with us on this journey, which ranges from some of the earliest clay pots ever found in what’s now the Sahara Desert, to the British round-bellied cast-iron number that kick-started the Industrial Revolution, to a legal challenge in Ohio that raised the question of Teflon’s health and environmental impact. Plus, can science help us find the perfect pot or pan? Listen in to find out.

In our last episode, we covered one of the most important innovations in human history: cooking food over fire. But, although cooking may have made us human, it is the invention of pots that made us into cooks. As Bee Wilson, the author of Consider the Fork and a frequent Gastropod guest, explains: “Pots led to cuisine itself. To me, it’s the great beginning of cookery.” Tens of thousands of years ago, the invention of pots brought with it life-changing benefits: prolonged cooking could slowly break down plants like yams and cassava that would have otherwise been inedible; the process releases more starches from foods and therefore more calories; long boiling kills harmful microbes and thus makes food safer; softened food like grains could be fed to babies, allowing children to be weaned earlier and leading to yet more children and early population growth; and finally, the ability to create dishes that were cooked slowly and indirectly, mingling many different ingredients, made the business of eating a lot more delicious.

But how did we get from those earliest examples of clay cooking containers to the incredible variety of shapes, sizes, and materials found in kitchen cabinets around the world today—and what stories can those pots and pans tell over the years? In this episode, Gastropod visits Blu Skillet in Seattle to watch a carbon steel pan being forged and smithed by hand. Julie Dunne, a.k.a. @thepotlady, a biomolecular archaeologist at the University of Bristol, describes her discovery of the earliest known pots used to cook vegetables. The metallurgist Richard Williams introduces us to Abraham Darby, whose breakthrough in cast-iron pot-making technology funded the R&D that led to the Industrial Revolution. The Brown University epidemiologist David Savitz joins us to discuss the question of whether or not the chemicals involved in Teflon pans cause health issues. Finally, the food-science guru Harold McGee, the author of On Food and Cooking, helps us answer a seemingly impossible question: What makes the perfect pan? Listen in now!

This post appears courtesy of Gastropod.