Ever wonder why the only breads frontier people ate were cornbread and biscuits? I'm here to answer that question.
It is impossible (to my knowledge) to bake yeast breads on an open hearth. The reasons are simple. An inability to keep the heat even, and no room for the bread to rise as it bakes. I worked for four years as a tour guide at Kent Plantation House in central Louisiana and Kent is one of a small handful of plantation museums with a working open hearth kitchen. I learned a lot about cooking in an open hearth. I also learned cornbread baked in a Dutch oven is the closest thing to tastebud heaven we'll ever know on this earth.
The first step is coals. Lots and lots and lots of coals. Preferably made with oak. Pine has too much pitch in it, makes a lot of smoke, and clogs up the chimney.
The curly thing in this picture is a trivet. Coals are piled underneath, the skillet goes on top, and then the lid goes on. The round thing to the right of the trivet here is a lid with a lip on it. This lip keeps the coals from falling off the lid. Most iron pots and skillets in the 19th century had two lids. A domed one and a lipped one.
Coals on top of the skillet create the rest of the heat to cook the cornbread. Or the biscuits or the cake. Yes, you can bake a cake on an open hearth and it is very good. The coals have to be replaced at least once during baking, on top and bottom. You can also fry things on an open hearth, and my sister makes an amazing peach upside down cake. Just make sure and use liberal amounts of butter to keep the cake from sticking.
Many plantation cooks wore wooden shoes, and their skirts were shorter than everyone else's. While cooking in the kitchen where I took these pictures, my sister once caught her shoe on fire stepping on what looked like a dead coal. More than one cook at Kent has caught her skirt or apron on fire.
Since you obviously can't use potholders or an apron around live coals, what do you use? S hooks. Called S hooks because they look like an S. Every blacksmith made hundreds of them. They come in all sizes from three to four inches long to over a foot. They were also used to adjust the distance between the soup pot on the crane and the coals beneath.
Baking and cooking on an open hearth was very time consuming and very dangerous. Because of the fire danger, on plantations the kitchen was always a separate building. That often was not practical on the colonial frontier. Heat was another reason the kitchen was separate in the South. Even in October here in Louisiana it gets up in the 90's and the temperature in Kent's open hearth kitchen can easily top 100 degrees. Up north heat wasn't as much of a concern, and there often wasn't enough room to build a separate kitchen.
If you ever have the chance to see an open hearth kitchen in action, take it. It's an amazing experience that pictures cannot capture.