Despite Russia being the world’s third largest oil producer and exporter (at least until its invasion of Ukraine), its people have traditionally relied on the nation’s monumental expanses of loggable forests for their cooking fuel needs. Access to an essentially inexhaustible firewood supply has deeply influenced Russian culture, governing how food is prepared, which impacts the form factor the home’s oven and hearth takes, which in turn shapes the both home itself and domestic dynamics around it.
In her latest book, The Kingdom of Rye: A Brief History of Russian Food, prolific author and prominent food scholar Darra Goldstein turns her gaze onto a resourceful people who have overcome their climate, repeated famines, hunger, and political repression to establish a culture and cuisine of their own. If you are what you eat, Goldstein aptly illustrates what it means to be Russian.
Excerpted from The Kingdom of Rye: A Brief History of Russian Food by Darra Goldstein. Published by University of California Press. Copyright © 2022 by Darra Goldstein. All rights reserved.
Russia is not a quick-cooking culture. The nature of traditional Russian cuisine was in large part determined by the design of the masonry stoves that had come into use by 1600. These massive structures for both cooking and heating could measure up to two hundred cubic feet, occupying a good quarter of the living space in one-room peasant cottages. They were built of bricks or stone rubble covered with a thick layer of whitewashed clay. (For heating, wealthy families also had so-called Dutch stoves faced with beautiful tiles—even utilitarian objects provided an opportunity to display their prosperity and aesthetic taste.) Unfortunately, far too many peasant cottages fell into the category of “black,” meaning their stoves had no chimneys, and much of the smoke lingered in the air, to detrimental effect. More affluent peasants lived in “white” cottages in which the smoke was vented through a chimney.
Unlike other countries where fuel was scarce, resulting in the adoption of quick cooking methods, Russia boasted extensive forests and thus plentiful firewood. The thick walls of the stove retained heat very well, and many of Russia’s most typical dishes result from this property. When the stove was newly fired and very hot, with embers still glowing at the back of the hearth, cooks placed breads, pies, and even blini in the oven to bake. It took two to three hours to bring a cold oven up to temperature. Experienced cooks inserted a piece of paper to determine when the oven was ready for baking, based on how quickly the paper browned and burned. So central was bread to Russian life that oven temperatures were often described in relation to bread baking: “before bread, after bread, and at full blast” (vol’nyi dukh). As the heat began to diminish, other dishes took their turns: grain porridges that baked to a creamy consistency, followed by soups, stews, and vegetables, which were cooked slowly in bulbous earthenware or cast-iron pots. When the oven temperature had fallen to barely warm, it was just right for culturing dairy products and drying mushrooms and berries. During the winter, the stove was fired once or twice a day, and in summertime, only as needed for baking.
At the rear of the masonry surrounding the traditional Russian stove, high above the floor, is a ledge. This lezhanka (from the verb “to lie”) was the warmest spot in the peasant cottage. There, the elderly or infirm could find comfort, and children could laze like the beloved folk figure Emelia the Fool. Most stoves also provide recesses for storing food, kitchen equipment, and wood, as well as niches for drying mittens and herbs. The oven cavity itself is massive, large enough for uses well beyond cooking. The stove could become a makeshift banya when planks were set up along the hot interior walls of the oven, and this cleansing ritual endured well into the twentieth century. It usually took place on a bread baking day, when the oven was already heated, and was considered especially beneficial when steam from the hot water released the aroma of medicinal herbs. Some Russians took a “bread bath,” believed to have healing powers, by using diluted kvass instead of water to create the steam. In some regions of Russia women crawled into the oven to give birth, since it was the most hygienic place in the cottage. Beyond such practical uses, the stove played a highly symbolic role in Russian life, demarcating the traditional female and male spheres, with the cooking area to the left of the hearth and the icon-dominated “beautiful corner” to its right. And not surprisingly, given its importance in providing sustenance, heat, and health, the stove was believed to hold magical powers beyond the alchemy of transforming dough into bread. Mothers would sometimes place sick infants on bread peels and ritually insert them three times into the oven in hopes of curing them.
The masonry stove prevailed in Russian households both rich and poor until the eighteenth century, when Western-style ranges and the new equipment they required gradually came into use. Many Russian stoves were modified to include stovetop burners in addition to the oven, and in some households a cooktop range superseded the stove entirely. Saucepans and griddles largely replaced the customary earthenware and cast-iron pots perfect for slow cooking in the Russian stove. Cooktops also affected the way ingredients were prepared. In kitchens that could afford meat, large joints for roasting or braising gave way to butchered cuts like steaks, filets, and chops that could be prepared à la minute, often in more elaborate, if less natively Russian, recipes.
The Russian stove released deep, mellow flavors through slow cooking even as its low heat enabled culturing and dehydration, which produce intensified flavors that also characterize Russian cuisine.