– The Historic Foodie (a.k.a. Victoria Rumble)
Take a brief moment to think about every dish you serve which has been browned under the broiler to make it more visually appealing or to cook quickly under direct intense heat. Ask yourself would the mac and cheese with the nice buttery bread crumb topping look as good when you send it to table if you didn’t brown it first?
Next ask yourself how you might go about browning the top of any dish if your broiler suddenly went on the fritz.
The odd looking tool pictured above was used for browning the surfaces of such dishes. It was made of cast iron with a round, flat, but relatively thick plate attached to a long handle which made it possible to grasp the cooler end of the handle without getting so close to the heat of an open hearth fire. The plate could rest on the two short legs while pushed into the hot coals so that the cook did not have to hold up its ample weight during the heating process.
Less often the plates were square rather than round. This writer has found no illustration of a salamander with a square heating plate. – Norwak, Mary. Kitchen Antiques. 1975. Praeger Publishers.
Salamanders without legs somewhat resemble a metal bread or oven peel except that they are much smaller and shorter than a peel.
During use, the red-hot round plate could rest on the legs and the dish could be passed underneath it, or if, say the dish was taller than the plate while resting on the legs, the salamander could be turned over and held by the cook who passed it over and around the surface of the dish.
Salamanders were not as common in Colonial era kitchens as many other tools and finding an original today is a rare treat. A good blacksmith can make one that will rival a rare and expensive original.
Receipts which instructed the cook to brown the surface of a dish were being published by the early to mid 18th century, but for several decades yet the writers would not automatically assume the cook possessed a salamander. Some receipts told the reader to heat a shovel, meaning a hearth-side fire shovel, till it became red hot and toast the dish with it by passing it over and around. Other books called for a salamander to be used in the same manner, while still others told the cook to use whichever was available.
The definition of a fire shovel from the 1770’s was, “an instrument to throw coals on a fire with”, nothing was said about the type of metal the shovel was made from. – A New Complete English Dictionary. 1770. Edinburgh.
Diligent research revealed, however, that fire shovels were made of iron, and therefore conducted heat as well for the job of browning as the salamander, accomplishing two tasks for the price of one tool. – Boswell, John. The Scot’s Magazine. Vol. 30. March 1768.
“They roast or parch it in a fire shovel, or such like iron instrument…”. – de Thévenot, Jean. The Travels of Monsieur De Thevenot Into the Levant. 1686. London.
In 1723, John Nott’s cookery book instructed the use of a red hot shovel in a dozen receipts, but made no mention of a salamander. – Nott, John. The Cooks and Confectioners Dictionary. 1723. London.
The following receipt is somewhat unique in that it offers the cook the option of cooking on a bread peel, also heated until red hot, and to brown the surface of the eggs with a red hot fire shovel. It does not mention a salamander.
To broil Eggs. After heating an Oven Peel red hot, blow off the Dust, break the Eggs on it, and put them into a hot Oven, or brown them on the Top with a red hot Fire-shovel: When they are done, put them into a Dish with some Gravy, Elder-Vinegar, and grated Nutmeg; or Vinegar, Pepper, Juice of Orange, and grated Nutmeg. – The Lady’s Companion. 1743. London.
In a book published in 1737, a dish of oysters was to be browned with either a salamander or a shovel.
Scallop-Shells of Oysters. Set and beard them, season them lightly with Pepper, Salt and minced Parsley: Butter the scallop-shells very well; then, when your Fish or Oysters are neatly laid in, pour their Liquor, thickened with grated Bread, over them, let them grill half an Hour and brown them with a red hot Salamander, or Fire-shovel: You may garnish a Dish of Fish with them, or serve them by themselves for the second Course. – The Whole Duty of a Woman. 1737. London.
Cookery books continued to instruct in the use of a red-hot salamander or shovel for browning a dish into the early 20th century. For example, Frederick Vine’s 1907 book contained nine receipts which used a red hot salamander, but there was no mention of using a shovel. – Vine, Frederick. Practical Pastry: A Handbook for Pastrybakers, Cooks, and Confectioners. 1907. London.
Next time a historic receipt speaks of a salamander you will have a visual to associate with the tool and an understanding of how it was used.
Blissful Meals, Yall, The Historic Foodie
Rebecca T-S said:
Thank you for such an illuminating post. It’s amazing the lengths that cooks go to for presentation. I cannot imagine using a shovel to brown the top of a dish though. The physical strength the average 17-19th century cook wielded in the everyday execution of her duties is astonishing when you think about it.
It really is. I have an 18th century iron waffle maker with long handles and an 18th c. wafer iron with long handles (articles soon forthcoming) – it’s all I can do to use either one because they’re really heavy. The salamander was similar in weight. There are a couple of historic sites where I’ve done extended programs of a week to two weeks at a time for several years. Anyone can do a day or two and not be too worse for wear, but by the time I carry water, bring in the wood and stack it, then feed that wood into the fire, and lift heavy pots of food I’m exhausted after that length of time. Then for our ancestresses we should factor in the work of laundry, and making things we take for granted like soap and candles it is really mind-boggling what they went through to keep a household running. Thanks for the comments – I’m glad you’re enjoying the posts!
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Mike Dash said:
Hello, thank you for the info on salamanders! I want to make one, and wanted to ask if you know the overall length. My research says the disk end might typically be 3-4″ diameter, so I’ve got that part. Do you have any info on the total length? Thanks! – Mike
I haven’t seen any documentation of actual length in inches, but remember you want it long enough to put into the coals without getting too close and long enough to handle without it being too hot to hold. The one I have is maybe 30 inches or so. I haven’t actually measured it but that’s a close guess
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