What’s Cooking? Ovens Through The Ages

4 min read
What’s Cooking? Ovens Through The Ages

Mankind has always been cooking with ovens, not the ovens we know today of course.

Ancient people first started cooking on open fires on the ground, roasting pits, cauldrons and earthen kiln structures. It then progressed to a very simple masonary construction which was used to hold the wood or food. Ancient Greeks used simple ovens for making bread and by the Middle Ages, people had advanced to taller brick and mortar hearths, which had chimneys.

Imagine trying to bake without a temperature gauge, that is what our foremothers did, which they controlled by burning the right amount of wood to ash then testing it by sticking their hands in. Adding more wood for heat or leaving the door open to cool. Simple enough, however, they did run the risk of burning their hands off.

An improvised oven in 1965 during a Civil Defence exercise Soham Exodus at Chippenham Park.
An improvised oven in 1965 during a Civil Defence exercise Soham Exodus at Chippenham Park.

A very simple electric oven was invented way back in the early 1880s, however, didn’t catch on until the 1920s when electricity started improving; pre-electricity, it was mostly wood-fired hearths, gas or coal.

The type of food that was eaten in the early 1900s was all fresh and freshly prepared. There were no fridges to store the food in. It was simply a case of get it today and eat it today. However, for food like meat, milk and butter, a lot of steps were taken to keep it cool in the summer months. Like putting it in a bowl, wrapping it in a cold flannel and sitting it in a shallow dish of water.

Look how far we have come from the wood-fired hearths. Technology has really changed the oven since the 1920’s, here’s a look at the evolution of the kitchens most famous appliance, the oven.

What's Cooking? Ovens Through The Ages

Ancient people

Ancient Egyptians, Jews and Romans all used some form of stone or brick oven fired by wood. If you take a look at the pizza ovens we use today, you’ll notice similarities of then and now. Modern man has taken inspiration from back then and kept the tradition fully alive and cooking.



The first gas oven came to the kitchen in the 1800s; however, gas ovens were not common until the 1920s. Ovens still came in the form of a beehive-shaped brick construction with an iron door. The bricks absorbed the heat, and then released it to bake. You needed to build a fire to the correct temperature and put the bread pans either right in the coals or in front of them.

With each new batch of cooking that needed to be done (bread baking most popular), the fire needs to be rebuilt and retested to ensure that it was at the proper temperature before the next loaf could go in. That sounds very tiring and very dangerous if you had to do it with your hands.



Late 18th century saw the first electric oven; however, it wasn’t until the 1920s that it became popular, but only for a select few. A lot of housing was still not wired for electricity. So every type of heating was still being used in the 19th century, wood fires, iron ovens, gas and coal. In 1954, the first microwave oven was produced. However, the thought of getting zapped with radiation was a big fear amongst everyone. It took many years yet for the microwave oven to catch on.

Present day


Fast forward to 2016 and every kitchen is fitted out with the latest appliances and six-burner restaurant-style, stainless steel gas cooker or state-of-the-art electric oven. Hardcore chefs wouldn’t consider anything less. Even your average mum wants dual fuel capability gas burners for high heat and electric ovens for pin point control.

Gas and electric ovens are the main source of cooking in today’s modern kitchen, however, wood fires are still popular and very expensive, which is ironic. The hardest form of cooking 100 years ago and now to achieve a similar style is considered trendy and expensive.

Other than aesthetics, the biggest changes have been the resources we have used for heat. They’ve gone from wood, to coal, to gas, to electricity to microwaves.

Throughout the ages and with each change in heat source, safety has been improved as well as insulation and efficiency, and of course style.

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Michaella Tasker

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