The 7 Most Important Inventions (and Discoveries) in Food and Drink

Maryse Chevriere
Maryse Chevriere

"I simply couldn't cook without my…" Cast-iron frying pan? Ginsu knives? Immersion blender? Mickey Mouse Waffle Maker? Everybody who prepares food at home (or professionally, for that matter) has an implement or appliance or five or ten of them that they consider essential to their culinary practices. But how many of these things really matter in the larger scheme of things? How many are truly essential, or at least very important, to the preparation - and the ultimate consumption - of food (and let's throw drink in here as well, just to wash it all down with)?

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What we ended up with is a list of things that we, yes, simply couldn't cook - or eat and/or drink - without. As usual with such compendiums, we have been both selective and subjective. We've probably missed some obvious and vital items, and we have frankly allowed ourselves to have a little fun here and there. Should you decide to assemble such a list yourself, of course, it would almost certainly not be the same as ours. We'd love to hear your nominations for things we should have included (use the "Add a Comment" box below). But first, take a look at what we consider to be The 7 Most Important Inventions (and Discoveries) in Food and Drink in the list below.

1) Salt

It was there all the time, of course, in rocks, in the ocean, in us… Our early ancestors must have noticed the pleasant tang of seawater, and maybe the way it preserved the dead things that floated in it, and at some point - at least 8,000 years ago but probably earlier - they figured out how to extract the salt. The next thing anybody knew, the salt trade and salt taxes were changing history; we were eating salads and collecting salaries; our food lasted longer and tasted better, and our blood pressure was through the roof.

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2) Fire

The earth was formed in fire, sort of, though not the kind you'd make S'mores in front of. Then things cooled down and people appeared and enough oxygen developed to allow a milder sort of flame. Archaeologists have found the remains of cooked food dating back almost two million years, but this might have been opportunistic: "Hey Oog, lightening kill bird, smell good, let's eat!" Our ancestors probably first figured out how to start (and, we hope, stop) fire at will about 400,000 years ago, and real cooking, with all that that entails, became possible

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3) Knife

The knife is considered to be the oldest human tool. Of course, we're not talking stainless-steel Wüsthofs here - more like hunks of obsidian or flint with their sides chipped into sharpness. Metal started coming into the picture around 2500 B.C., and the design and quality of blades fixed in handles became better and better. Knives may be our oldest tool, but they remain our most important for rendering food edible, usable from field or forest to kitchen to plate.

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4) The Spoon

How on earth did people eat soup before spoons were invented? Or ice cream? Food for thought. Spoons are ancient, in any case, though not as old as knives. The first ones were either hollowed out bits of wood or maybe small seashells or nut hulls (bigger ones were the first cups). The old-time Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans used elaborately fashioned and decorated spoons, but the modern version, with tapering bowls and long handles, didn't appear until the mid-18th century. Today, we not only eat but measure and stir with spoons, and of course they're also essential for flinging globs of Jell-O across the room.

5) The Pot

Without pots - and their flatter brethren, pans - our cooking options would be fairly limited. (Will you have that roasted or grilled?) That must have dawned on our prehistoric ancestors, because there is archeological evidence of early attempts to cook food in vessels made of stone, turtle shells, clay, even wood treated to withstand flame. Fire-hardened clay or earthenware vessels first appeared more than 15,000 years ago. Metal pots appeared soon after metal did, and by medieval times kitchens were typically stocked with iron pots, kettles and cauldrons whose basic design we would recognize today. The next thing you know, everybody was registering for that complete set of Calphalon.

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6) Fermentation

Fermentation, in the food and drink sense, is simply the conversion, by yeast or bacteria, of carbohydrates into alcohol and carbon dioxide. It occurs naturally: Leave fruit in a bowl for long enough and quite possibly the juice will ooze out, meet airborne yeast cells, and start fizzing, producing something that is technically wine, and probably tastes a lot like cheap Chilean Merlot. The human trick was learning to control the process and apply it to the making and/or preservation of all kinds of stuff - not just wine, beer, cider, and mead, but vinegar, yogurt, cheese, some sausages, sauerkraut, and kimchi, among other things without which life would not be worth living.

7) The Mortar and Pestle

This one-two punch of food preparation - a bowl of metal, stone, wood, or ceramic into which fits a blunt crushing tool - was known to the Romans a couple thousand years ago and also to the Aztecs (who called it a molcajete). Other early interpretations were used in India and Southeast Asia. In Europe, the mortar and pestle was first mostly a tool with which pharmacists crushed and mixed medicinal herbs and spices. Many cultures still use it to pulverize leaves and pods for cooking, and of course no sensible Italian would think of making pesto with anything else.

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-Colman Andrews, The Daily Meal