Story: Cooking

Page 2. Cooking methods

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Baking is the cooking of food with dry heat, usually in an oven.

Baking of home-made cakes and biscuits is a distinctive feature of New Zealand cookery. Scottish migrants brought their love of baking and sweet foods (including confectionery) with them in the 19th century. In New Zealand this was elevated to a nationwide pastime, particularly once Henry Shacklock devised the Orion cast-iron range in 1873 – baked goods were much easier to produce in well-functioning ranges.

Last word on the pav

Both Australia and New Zealand claim pavlova, named after Russian ballet-dancer Anna Pavlova, as their national dish, but while both countries contributed to its evolution, detailed research by food historian Helen Leach established that the first known recipe for pavlova as we now understand it appeared in New Zealand. In 1929 The New Zealand Dairy Exporter published a recipe for ‘pavlova cake’, a large baked meringue cake. An Australian recipe book had used the name pavlova for a multi-layered jelly in 1926.

The abundance of locally produced milk, butter, cream and eggs was put to good use in baking, which was at the heart of the New Zealand tradition of hospitality. This arose in the early days of European settlement when food was sometimes scarce, and visitors and travellers expected to be fed in homes they stopped at during journeys. Biscuit tins were kept full so family, friends and unexpected guests always had something to eat. Cookbooks were replete with baking recipes.

Home baking was also on show at morning and afternoon teas attended by women, and exhibited at A & P (agricultural and pastoral) shows and church fairs. Baking declined from the 1960s as women increasingly entered the paid workforce and had less time to cook. However, baking remained an important element of cookbooks and underwent a modest revival in the early 2000s in line with renewed interest in domestic pastimes.

Another important baked food was bread. Early European settlers made their own and had to contend with unreliable, volatile home-made yeast. Later in the 19th century, cookbooks started to include yeast recipes, making the process more manageable for novices. Commercial yeast was available in the early 20th century. However, home baking declined as commercial production increased.

Ebullient sponges and blown-up mutton

In 1953 British writer Eric Linklater commented that ‘the New Zealanders, like the Scots, think that baking is the better part of cookery, and spend their ingenuity, exhaust their interest, on cakes and pastries and ebullient, vast cream sponges. Soup is neglected, meat mishandled. I have seen their admirable mutton brought upon the table in such a miserable shape that the hogget … appeared to have been killed by a bomb, and the fragments of its carcase incinerated in the resultant fire.’1

Roasting and frying

Like baking, roasting involves cooking with dry heat – traditionally over hot coals on an open fire. Roasting in an oven is really a form of baking. In New Zealand the ‘Sunday roast’ – usually lamb or mutton served with potatoes and one or two other vegetables – became an institution because New Zealanders traditionally ate a lot of meat. Frying was a quick way to cook smaller cuts of meat and sausages, bacon and fish.

Boiling and steaming

New Zealand vegetable cookery (like that of Britain) developed an unfortunate reputation because cooks tended to over-boil vegetables. Meats were also boiled or stewed and New Zealand inherited the British tradition of steamed puddings, which were less common in the 2000s. In the 2000s vegetables were far more likely to be steamed.


Preserving is the preparation of food for future use in a way that stops it from spoiling. Preserved food was an important part of the traditional Māori diet – for instance, eels were dried and birds were preserved in their own fat. Europeans preserved surplus food such as fruit by bottling in syrup or making jam. They turned pig meat into ham and bacon by curing with salt. Pickles and chutneys were a way of preserving vegetables and making tasty condiments. In the days when people kept hens, surplus eggs were painted with or immersed in preservative, for use when the hens stopped laying in winter.

Plenty of preserves

In rural areas, preserving was done on a large scale because women usually had to feed farm workers as well as family members. Adela Stewart, who settled in Katikati in the late 1870s, was a very resourceful woman and was able to produce large quantities of food with seeming ease. Each year she made between 200 and 700 kilograms of preserves. No wonder she described her storeroom as a ‘perfect picture.’2

Preserving was such an important element of domestic food production that during the Second World War, when sugar was rationed, an extra ration was allowed during the bottling season. Home preserving declined from the 1970s – working women had less time to devote to this time-consuming job and canned food was cheap and plentiful. Preserving recipes still appeared in cookbooks in the early 2000s, though in much smaller numbers. Food continued to be preserved using a standard household appliance – the fridge-freezer, increasingly found in New Zealand homes from the 1950s.

  1. Eric Linklater, A year of space: a chapter in autobiography. London: Macmillan, 1953, p. 207. Back
  2. Quoted in David Veart, First catch your weka: a story of New Zealand cooking. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2008, p. 73. Back
How to cite this page:

David Burton, 'Cooking - Cooking methods', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 25 July 2024)

Story by David Burton, published 5 Sep 2013