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5 most important breakthroughs in culinary history

People like to eat. Preparing meals and dining together is an important social pastime, and while different cultures each have their own cuisines, tastes, and local flavors, they almost all use the same culinary breakthroughs somewhere in their cooking process. Here are the five most important breakthroughs in culinary history.

5. The microwave

Man placing tray of leftovers into a microwave oven for reheating
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The microwave might be the newest invention on our list, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t change the world when it came out. Case in point: when the Energy Information Administration conducted their last survey on household appliances in 2015, they found that a whopping 96 percent of American homes have a microwave.

Microwaves were invented by accident by an engineer named Percy LeBaron Spencer. He worked for the Raytheon Corporation making vacuum tubes that produced microwave radiation for use in radar systems. One day, while testing a magnetron, he noticed that the chocolate bar in his pocket had melted. Rather than be upset about the messy laundry he’d have to do later, Spencer was intrigued and started to test how other foods reacted to the microwave radiation.

Spencer realized that microwaves could heat up food faster than any regular oven. He built a metal box that could produce microwave radiation inside of it. Since microwaves can’t penetrate metal, the radiation stayed inside the box. The first food cooked inside of a microwave was—naturally—popcorn.

The first true microwave came out in 1947. It stood 5.5 feet tall, weighed 750 pounds and cost $5,000, which would be roughly $57,800 today. Needless to say, families were rushing out to buy microwaves, but they were bought by several commercial kitchens that needed to reheat prepared frozen meals. As time went on, microwave ovens got smaller and more affordable—the first popular home model became available in 1967—until they were in almost every home in the U.S.

4. Salt

Wooden spoons holding white salts of various coarseness
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Salt, the original refrigerator. Thousands of years before the invention of the refrigerator, people needed a way to keep their food fresh for longer. They discovered that salt could do the trick.

Salt has two things going for it as a preservative. First, it absorbs water. Living things need water to survive. That includes bacteria, mold and pathogens. People around 6050 BCE might not have known about bacteria and pathogens, but they certainly realized that by adding some salt to their food, it would keep it from smelling bad in a few days.

The second thing salt does for food is kill microbes. Not only is salt toxic to most microbes because it soaks up the water in a substance, it creates different water pressures on both sides of the cell. While that pressure is minuscule to us, for tiny microbes, it’s deadly.

Salt was so important that it became one of the most coveted substances in ancient Rome, where it was even used as currency. The word “salary” comes from the Latin “sal,” meaning salt. People would literally be paid in salt—hence the idiom "worth one's salt."

3. Refrigeration

Open refrigerator with various foods and fresh vegetables contained within
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People in ancient China would harvest ice from frozen lakes to help with food storage as early as 1000 BCE. It wasn’t until hundreds of years later that the mechanized refrigerator changed the culinary world forever.

The world had to wait until 1920 to get an inexpensive, reliable, and safe form of refrigeration. Many had experimented with iceless refrigeration, dating back to the 1750s; Benjamin Franklin even dabbled with the idea for a time. Advancements were made slowly until a synthetic coolant called freon was invented.

Refrigeration and freezing quickly replaced salt as the standard method of food preservation. It didn’t affect the taste, kept food healthy, and could store frozen products almost indefinitely.

2. Cookware

Iron cooking pot with various foods placed on a wooden table
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It would be hard to imagine making a meal without the use of pots or pans. Before the simple pot was invented, people would just throw whatever meat or plants they wanted to eat on a hot surface. When it was done, they ate it. There wasn’t much in the way of variety or creativity. The invention of the pot allowed for the boiling of water and for more cooking creativity. Fire may have led to cooking, but pots led to cuisine.

The earliest known cooking pots have been found in Libya and date back to over 10,000 years ago. Throughout the centuries, civilizations have designed different forms of pots and pans to best suit their needs.

1. Fire

Up close view of meat and vegetables placed on grill, cooking over open flame
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Humans are believed to have used fire for warmth and to ward off predators as far back as 1.5 million years ago, but it was probably opportunistic—meaning they probably found the fire and helped keep it alive for their own benefit. Evidence suggests that humans likely didn’t start regularly using fire for cooking until perhaps 400,000 years ago.

But, once humans tamed fire, it became the absolute most important breakthrough in culinary history. Cooking meant that early humans could consume more meat and foraged goods, directly impacting their biological and social evolution. Without fire, there likely would be no culinary history at all!