This past summer, I posted an article here on some of the contraptions which were used for cooking during the Regency. But some of those contraptions have a more complex history and therefore merit more direct focus on their development. One of those is the tin roaster, which was actually developed in the early nineteenth century, and came into common use in many English kitchens during the Regency.
In honor of all those turkeys which will be roasted this coming Thanksgiving, the origins of the tin roaster …
Roasting is one of the oldest known methods for cooking foods, particularly meat, by placing it in close proximity to an open fire. This means of cooking was almost certainly employed by our earliest ancestors. Humans have continued to enjoy roasted meats and vegetables through all the succeeding millennia, right up to modern times. But the means used to roast meat and other foods has been constantly improved over the centuries, and continues to be improved even today, though we have left off using open flames for the most part. Today, our foods are more likely to be roasted in a gas or electric oven, though there remain the intrepid few who still roast before an open fire.
By the later Middle Ages, many people were beginning to have firebacks installed on the back wall of the firebox of their fireplaces. Firebacks were thick iron plates installed to protect the bricks at the back of the firebox, but also to reflect more of the heat back into the room instead of allowing it to escape up the chimney. Cooks with firebacks installed in their kitchen fireplaces eventually realized the heat radiated back into the firebox by fireplaces with firebacks was reducing the time required to roast a joint of meat or a large bird. Some of these more observant cooks also realized that a second heat reflector placed at the open mouth of the firebox could only further speed the roasting time of the meat they had on the spit. It was from this concept that the "hastener" was developed. The early hasteners were simply a sturdy, free-standing panel of wood to which had been attached a sheet of polished tin on one side. The meat to be roasted would be impaled on the spit, the spit rod would be placed in front of the fire, usually on hooks which projected from the andirons, and a pan would be set in the sand on the hearth under the roasting meat to catch the drippings. The hastener would then be placed as close as possible to the roasting meat at the fireplace opening. Thus, it would hasten the roasting of the meat.
It is estimated that the use of a hastener when roasting meat could reduce the cooking time anywhere from fifteen to thirty minutes for an average size roast or bird. However, it was also somewhat inconvenient to use, as the hot hastener would have to be moved out of the way every time the meat had to be basted or seasoned. But many people continued to use a hastener, since it ensured more even browning and there was no other alternative which would speed roasting and save fuel. Various experiments were made to improve the hastener over the years, culminating in the development of the tin roaster at the beginning of the nineteenth century The tin roaster looked rather like a barrel which had been cut in half from top to bottom, turned on its side and given four short metal legs. Though these devices were typically called tin roasters, most were actually made of iron coated with tin. Some were tinned both inside and out, others were only tinned on the inside, so the shiny metal could reflect the heat from the fire back onto the roasting meat. The later model roasters usually had a slot at each flat end into which a spit could be set, often with several notches, so the distance of the meat from the fire could be adjusted. Once the meal was on the spit, the open side of the roaster would be placed close to the fire-bed. Almost from the start, the majority of tin roasters had a built-in pan to catch the drippings as the meat roasted. Most roasters soon had another added convenience, a hinged door on the side facing away from the fire. This door was hinged along the top edge and could be opened to baste or season the meat without the need to move the roaster away from the fire.
Tin roasters came in more than one size, from quite large, perhaps as much a three feet across, to more modest models of perhaps only eighteen inches across. In most cases, they were the work of a local blacksmith, custom-made to fit the fireplace before which they would be used. The early model roasters were made to span the width of the fire dogs or the fire bars in the fireplace before which they would be placed, because the spit was hung on the fire dogs. But the later models included slots for the spit at each end, notched to adjust the distance from the fire of the roasting meat. The larger models could be connected to a spit jack, while the smaller ones usually had a hand-turned spit. Though tin roasters were first introduced in the early nineteenth century, they did not begin to become common until the Regency. Tin roasters were especially popular with those who cooked with an open fire, though they could also be used before a coal-burning grate. These roasters were most often found in the homes of the middle classes. The very wealthy would often have more sophisticated cooking facilities in their kitchens, thereby obviating the need for a tin roaster. But for those of more modest means, the tin roaster was a relatively inexpensive appliance which shortened the cooking time of their meats while ensuring they were cooked more evenly. The hinged door on the tin roaster also made it much more convenient to salt, season and baste the meat as it roasted. The built-in dripping pan was closer to the meat and caught nearly all of the drippings without risk of sand or ash falling into the pan. The drippings were considered and important part of roasting meat, as they could be used for basting the meat as it roasted and would be used to make sauces and gravies to be served with the roasted meat. Those who could not afford a tin roaster, or who were unwilling to change their cooking methods, chose to continue using an old-fashioned hastener.
There was some confusion regarding the name of this new roasting appliance. In some households, tin roasters were called hasteners, as had been their predecessors, even while old-fashioned hastener screens were still in use. But in others, they were called Dutch ovens, even though there was another widely-used cooking vessel already known as a Dutch oven. Regardless of the name given them, tin roasters increased in popularity as the Regency progressed. By the time the Prince Regent was crowned king in the summer of 1821, most households of any means were more likely to have one than not. The kitchens of the very old-fashioned might still have a fire-screen/hastener, while the poor, who could seldom afford meat to roast before their fires, had no need of any roasting equipment at all.
The next time you set the temperature on your oven, slide a juicy roast or a stuffed bird onto one of the racks and close the door, think about our Regency ancestors roasted their meats. The meat would have to be secured on the spit, the spit set into the tin roaster, which would then be placed at the mouth of the fireplace, as close as possible to the fire. If a spit-jack was available, the turning of the spit could be automated. But in many cases, it was turned by hand, a task assigned to a lowly servant in an affluent house, to a younger child in a more modest home. How many children today would be willing to sit by a hot fire and slowly turn the handle on a spit to ensure the meat for dinner roasts evenly? In some ways, the Regency was very different than modern times.
I would like to wish everyone a very Happy Thanksgiving!