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Bible Dictionaries

Holman Bible Dictionary

Cooking and Heating

Only in recent times have cooking and heating become separated, so that central heating, for example, works independently of the microwave. In Bible times, the means of heating was the means of cooking. Heating was by open fire, and cooking was done at the same time. This is not to say that fire was always produced in the same way or that the methods of cooking were identical; it is the differences which provide the interest.

The basic focus for cooking and heating was the open fire. The bedouin encampment could be recognized by the fires at night outside and in front of the tents. The fire was laid in a hollow scooped out of the ground or on flat stones. The fire was ignited by friction or by firing tinder with sparks (Isaiah 50:7 ,Isaiah 50:7,50:11 ). Many of the stories of the Bible were preserved, originally as folk memories, remembered word for word around the camp fires lit for warmth on cool evenings in the arid climate or in the high terrain. The people of the Bible were fortunate because the white broom plant was useful in making fires. Its embers stayed hot for a long time and could be fanned into a blaze even when they looked dead. Less useful, but equally combustible materials were thorns (Isaiah 10:17 ), dried grass (Matthew 6:30 ), charcoal (John 18:18 ), sticks, and dried animal dung (Ezekiel 4:15 ).

When people of the Bible moved from tents and settled in houses, fires for cooking were still generally lit out-of-doors. If the house had a courtyard, the fire was made somewhere in the corner as the farthest place away from the smoke. Very few houses had a chimney; and even though the fire was put into an earthenware box or was contained in a metal brazier, there was no exit for the smoke. Life must have been quite miserable during the damp and cold winters of the Holy Land. A fire was necessary to keep warm, but the only window needed rough curtaining with a blanket. The smoke had little space to exit, so it blackened the rough ceiling and made the householders choke and splutter. Later better homes were provided with a chimney, and the houses of royalty actually had a form of central heating in which the heat of underfloor fires was ducted underneath paved rooms.

In patriarchal times food consisted basically of bread, milk products, meat, and honey. Wine was the most common drink. Cooking, therefore, consisted of the preparation of such foods. Grain (spelt, barley, or wheat—preferred in that order) had first to be cleaned and selected. It was necessary to remove any poisonous seeds such as darnel (tares Matthew 13:25 ). Then it was ground either in a pestle and mortar or in a hand mill. The hand mill was made of two disks of stone about twelve inches in diameter. The lower stone had an upright wooden peg at its center, and the upper stone had a hole through the center which fitted over the peg. A handle fixed to the upper stone allowed it to be rotated about the peg. Grain was fed through the central hole. As the upper stone was rotated the grain was crushed, coming out as flour between the two stones and falling onto a cloth placed below. Any woman could manage a hand mill, but it was much easier if two women shared in the task, sitting with the mill between them and alternately turning the handle (Matthew 24:41 ). It was a chore and was therefore given to the slaves when this was possible (Lamentations 5:13 ), but it was a chore which made a sound always associated with home. (See Jeremiah 25:10 .) The flour was mixed with water and formed into dough cakes in a trough called a kneading trough. Salt was added, and most days of the year, leaven was added too. Leaven was fermented dough from the previous day's baking. It took longer to penetrate the dough than if fresh yeast was used, but that was reserved for the time following the festival of Unleavened Bread, and the normal method was just as certain. Some of the grain was finely ground and was given a special name. It was the finely ground flour which was used in sacrificial offerings (Exodus 29:40 ).

Cooking consisted of the application of (relatively) clean heat. In some cases large flat stones were put in the hot fire. When the flames had died down, the dough was placed on the hot stones. In other cases, where the fire was placed in a hole in the ground, the dough was actually placed on the hot sides of the depression. Another common method was to invert a shallow pottery bowl over the fire, and place the dough cakes on the bowl's convex surface. It was many years before the pottery “oven” was invented. It consisted of a truncated cone which was placed over the fire. The cakes of bread were then placed on the inside of the cone at the top, away from the flames. Not until Roman times were pottery ovens in use where the firebox was separated from the cooking area by a clay dividing piece. This method was maintained for centuries. The cooking resulted in different shapes of bread. Some loaves were paper-thin and were most suitable for scooping food from a common pot (Matthew 26:23 ). Other loaves (John 6:9 ) were heavier, like biscuits, and a still heavier loaf is described in Judges 7:13 where it knocked down a tent.

As communities grew larger, the baker developed his trade and provided facilities for the whole village. His oven was tunnel-shaped. Shelves lined the sides for the dough, and fires were lit on the floor. It was possible for the housewife to take her own dough to be cooked in the communal oven, and possible for the children to collect hot embers at the end of the day for kindling fires in their own homes. (See Hosea 7:4-7 .) Jeremiah received a bread ration from the local bakery while he was in prison (Jeremiah 37:21 ).

Not all of the grain was ground. A metal baking sheet was sometimes placed over the hot fire and grain put on the metal surface. The grain “popped” and provided what the Bible calls parched corn (1 Samuel 25:18 ), which was used as an occasional snack.

The basic food to go with the bread was vegetable soup prepared from beans, green vegetables, and herbs. A large cooking pot was put directly on the fire and was used for this purpose. The pottage which Jacob gave to Esau was a lentil soup (Genesis 25:30 ). It was eaten by forming a scoop with a piece of bread, and dipping it in the central pot. When soups were made, the cook had to remember that ritual law forbade the mixing of seeds for this purpose (based on Leviticus 19:19 ). When a special occasion was called for, as at the arrival of a guest, meat would be added to the stock. Most meat was boiled or stewed in this way and was taken either from the herd or in the hunt. Boiling was the easiest way to deal with meat because ritual law required that the blood should be drained from the animal (Leviticus 17:10-11 ). It was therefore easiest to cut up the carcass before putting it in a stew. Meat was normally roasted only at festivals and very special days such as Passover (Exodus 12:8-9 ). It was sometimes roasted on a spit which was speared through the animal and supported over the fire. Since the main altar at Temple and tabernacle was a kind of barbecue in which the carcass was laid on a grill above a fire, it would be unusual if similar arrangements were not sometimes used domestically. Meat was always available from the sheep and goats of the flock, but the hunting of wild animals which came up from the jungle in the Jordan Valley was popular. Veal was served to Abraham's guests in Genesis 18:7 , while Gideon's guests ate goat meat (Judges 6:19 ). Milk, too, was used as a basic cookery material; but it was forbidden to stew a kid in its mother's milk (Exodus 23:19 ). The reason for this is not clear. Guesses have been made that the commandment was given for “humanitarian” reasons, or that the practice was somehow associated with magic in contemporary religious life.

By the time the Jewish people had settled in the Promised Land, additions had been made to their diet. While they were in Egypt, they had gotten used to some of the food which was popular in that country—cucumber, garlic, leeks, onions, and melons (Numbers 11:5 ). Some of these plants were uncooked and were used to eat with bread or as a salad. Others were cooked to give additional flavor to the cooking pot. The leek was a salad leek, and the cucumber the “snake cucumber” which was common in Egypt. With the growth of trade under the Israelite monarchy, these items became fairly common in the diet. In addition to onions and garlic, herbs were used in cooking to add to the flavor. Salt was collected during the hot season from the shores of the Dead Sea after evaporation had left it behind. Salt was used for preservation as well as for seasoning. Liberal use was made of dill, cummin (Isaiah 28:25-27 ) and coriander and sugar. Spicy chutneys were also prepared to give added flavor to the food. The charoseth used at the Passover was a chutney made of dates, figs, raisins, and vinegar.

The big difference when the settlement took place was that the Jews began to use fruit from the trees. They built plantations and orchards. Most significant in this respect was the olive. After the olives had been beaten from the trees and crushed in the olive press, the olive oil was used both for binding the flour instead of water, and for frying. A whole new era of cookery was opened. The woman from Zarephath who cared for Elijah needed only some flour (meal) and some olive oil to be able to survive through the time of famine (1 Kings 17:12 ). Other trees provided basic food which was eaten either raw or stewed—figs, sycamore figs, pomegranates, and nuts.

Milk has already been mentioned as a liquid for stewing meat and vegetables. It was also drunk for itself and used in the preparation of other foods. Some milk was fermented to produce yogurt. It is in fact still called “milk” in some versions of the Bible (Judges 4:19 ). Milk was used to make cheese (1 Samuel 17:18 ) and when placed in a skin bag to be shaken and squeezed by turn, butter was produced. Buttermilk was presumably used as well, but there is no mention of this in the Bible.

By New Testament times, fish was a common addition to the diet. Much of the fish was imported from the Phoenicians, who caught fish in the Mediterranean. Fishing industry also thrived on the Sea of Galilee. Fish was most commonly grilled over a fire (John 21:9 ) or was salted and eaten later. Magdala, the home of Mary Magdalene, was a well-known center for the salting of fish.

Wine was always available, even among the nomadic people. When entry to the Promised Land took place, it was possible for the people of the Bible to go into viticulture in a big way, and the preparation of the grapes was an important aspect of cooking. Some grapes were dried in the hot sun to become raisins—a substantial snack when they were needed. Most of the grapes however were crushed to obtain their juice. This was a long “cooking” operation. Picked between July and September, the grapes were placed in a winepress—a stone “tank” cut out of the ground with an exit hole in the bottom where the juice ran out and could be collected outside. The juice stood in the collecting vessels for about six weeks to allow natural fermentation to take place. It was then carefully poured off to leave any sludge undisturbed in the bottom and was placed in another jar, sealed except for a small hole to allow gases to escape until the fermentation process was complete. The wine was the natural and safest drink because water supplies were often suspect. Not all of the wine was used for drinking. The housewife sometimes boiled up the juice to make a simple grape jelly or jam, which was spread on the bread. This was so plentiful that it may well be the “honey” which is referred to in the phrase referring to the “land flowing with milk and honey” (Exodus 3:8 , Exodus 3:17 ).

Ralph Gower

Copyright Statement
These dictionary topics are from the Holman Bible Dictionary, published by Broadman & Holman, 1991. All rights reserved. Used by permission of Broadman & Holman.

Bibliography Information
Butler, Trent C. Editor. Entry for 'Cooking and Heating'. Holman Bible Dictionary. 1991.

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