The Frying Pan

By dr. Janny de Moor, 10 february 2011.

You only stop to think about a frying pan when you need a new one – do you choose one with a long-lasting non-stick surface, a cast-iron one or maybe stainless steel? After all, it is the sort of pan that is too common for words. What is unusual is that a flat pan with a handle in which we fry anything, is called by the Dutch specifically a (pan)cake pan (koekenpan), while neighbouring countries speak of a frying pan, (Brat)pfanne, poêle/sauteuse. When did they start to do so, and why? This simple question immediately lands us in the middle of the history of daily life and automatically brings us to the museums that cherish this often neglected aspect of our culture, museums such as Boijmans - van Beuningen Museum. Considering the ordinary....that is what fascinates me as a culinary writer.

The written sources

Och, dat lant van Cockaengen is so [goet]!

Het regnet daer in allen hoecken

Vladen, pasteyen ende pannekoecken.92

(Oh that land of Cockagne is so[good]!

In every corner it rains

Custards, pastries and pancakes)

It is true that this quotation does not mention the pan, but it does show that the pancake was part of the perfect life. 'Cockaengen' was the Land of Plenty. The text certainly goes back to 1485. Around the same time the pancake was included in the printed dictionary of Gerard van der Schueren as 'Pankoike, struyve, placenta, liba'.93


An engraving by Albrecht Dürer, The cook and his wife, shows a cook holding a metal frying pan and a wooden ladle in his hand. The oldest use of the word coeckenpan  is to be found in probate inventories for inheritance purposes dating from 1637. 94 Culinary historian Joop Witteveen has demonstrated that koecke-pan in the literature of cooking was not used until the Verstandige Kock (The Sensible Cook) (1669), in which both the more expensive brass type, whether or not tin-plated, and the earthenware type are mentioned together. Before  then a frying pan was called just that - a bakpan orpanne. The Keukenboek (Kitchen Book) which is a a fifteenth century manuscript, deals with couken in de panne. Witteveen gives numerous examples in which this sort of panne was used in the same way as the present day ‘koekenpan’. Things remained so until the nineteenth century and the development of the iron industry when people began to worry about unhealthy and taste-impairing cooking equipment, and started to cover cast iron and plate steel with enamel. Earthenware was lead-glazed, brass that was not tin-plated was poisonous and iron rusted.95

Unwritten history

Archaeological evidence

The archaeologists I consulted when writing an article on the pancake in the Low Countries,96

all agreed that the oldest frying pans excavated in the Netherlands date from the twelfth to thirteenth centuries. Sadly there is nothing from the Roman period. At this time the base of this earthenware (grey or red) frying pan was slightly rounded. In the fourteenth century that changed when close to the bigger towns we got red earthenware and frying pans with a flatter base and lead-glaze, just as the Romans (who incidentally put lead filings in their wine to give it a good red colour) had made them. The handle was hollow and it is thought that a wooden handle was placed in it, but none has been found and the hollow could also have had been for cooling.

The finds from sunken inland-waterway vessels, excavated in Flevoland, are extremely interesting. As marine archaeologist Karel Vlierman rightly says, the inventories reflect the utensils of the ordinary man more than the cookery books intended for the wealthy that Joop Witteveen discusses.97 The low earthenware pans, often with three feet, had a handle that slanted slightly upward and date from the fourteenth to the nineteenth centuries. In wrecks dating from 1600 on, iron and copper pans have also been found, but the earthenware frying pan remained in use until at least 1900.

Prints and paintings

koekenpanPrints and paintings from the Boijmans van Beuningen Museum collection show that pans like these were used to make pancakes. The 'De Pannekoeckebackerij' [Pancake baker] was painted by Pieter Aertsen in 1560 . It is one of the first non-religious paintings of the time. The woman with the headscarf uses exactly the same earthenware frying pan that was to be found in Utrecht in the fifteenth to sixteenth centuries. She is putting the pan on the hot pot-hook above the fire. She does not look very happy about it, but there is probably a moral message in this. It might seem incredible, but this way of making pancakes was still in use in Holten (Overijssel) until into the twentieth century.98

But there is more. According to Eduard Trautscholdt in an article in Pantheon 1961,99 , this painting is the first in a long series of depictions of pancake makers. In his opinion, to well into the seventeenth century the woman is the 'Urmutter' (Primeval Mother). She is to be found, for instance, in the works of Adriaen Brouwer, Rembrandt, Gerard Dou, Nicolaas Maes, Gabriel Metsu, Jan Steen. Naturally this lady would not have been depicted so often as this scene did not occur so widely and frequently – and that it did, is apparent from the following pictures. It is not surprising then, that in this period the word cake was joined with pan.

On the painting by Barent Gael, 'De pannenkoekenbakster in de buitenlucht' (The outdoor pancake maker), you see just such a woman making pancakes beside the road. The mixing bowl and spoon are next to her and the customers are already on their way. This is a good illustration of the fact that pancakes have been ‘street food’ from at least the seventeenth century (see also Gerard Dou below). The Woordenboek der Nederlandische Taal (Dictionary of the Dutch Language) mentions the street cry 'de Koek de Flenze'.100 Various examples the mixing bowl (leupen) shown, can be found in Zutphen’s Municipal Museum that is in the principal pancake area in the country.

Gerard Dou, the ‘fijnschilder’ (smooth and very detailed painter) from Leiden and Rembrandt’s first pupil, liked to picture daily life. In 'De Kwakzalver' (The Quack)

from 1652 he is in top form.Pancakes were obviously so popular that you could buy them on the market where the quack plied his trade. Presumably he lured his customers to him with the pancakes because Meester Kackadoris (the charlatan) traditionally must be much like him. The pancake maker can clearly do two things at the same time because she is also wiping a child’s bottom – people were not so fussy in those days.

Now we move on to the next century with a lesson from Jan Luiken who discussed household utensils in order to instruct the Dutch in his book Het leerzaam huisraad, vertoond in vijftig konstige figuren, met godlyke spreuken en stichtelyke verzen, (Educational household goods shown in fifty artistic figures, with religious mottos and instructional verses) published in Amsterdam in 1711. Here we can see a group of people eating pancakes; it has the title of De Pan[The Pan] and as caption John.3:3. Ten zij dat iemant wederom gebooren worde, hy en kan het Koningryke Gods niet zien. [No-one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again]. The comparison is with the wheat that has now become a delicious pancake. That, of course, would be nice, but we are concerned with the pan that here is made from iron with a nice long handle, just as can be seen in an Rembrandt etching in which an old woman is making drie-in-de-pan (three-in-the pan = drop scones/Scotch pancakes).


While all sorts of pancakes have been developed over the centuries, from the nineteenth century the cast iron frying pan, sometimes enamelled on the outside, has remained the same, even during the fashion for aluminium in the twentieth century. Stainless steel is the newest thing, along with copper with a layer of stainless steel over. And there are all types of coatings including cast aluminium to prevent sticking. These pans – for now – are too new for the museum, but there will always be frying pans while there are children, big and small.


92 Herman Pley, Dromen van Cocagne, Middeleeuwse fantasiën over het volmaakte leven,Amsterdam 1997.

93 Teuthonista of Duytschlender,  Keulen 1477 (herdrukt Leiden 1896).

94 E.F.L.M. van de Werdt, "Eijne zilveren scale ende oere beste tinnen canne", Materiële Cultuur tot circa 1800, in: H.J.J. Lenferink (red.), Geschiedenis van Kampen, deel 1, Kampen: IJsselakademie, 1993 p. 77.

95 Joop Witteveen, Kookboeken over kookgerei van de middeleeuwen tot de twintigste eeuw, in:Quintessens, wetenswaardigheden over acht eeuwen kookgerei, Catalogus Museum Boijmans-van Beuningen, Rotterdam 1992, pp. 14-32 en 74-75.

96 Janny de Moor, The Flattest Meal. Pancakes in the Dutch Lowlands. in: Harlan Walker (ed.), The Meal: Proceedings of the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery, Blackawton 2002.

97 Quintessens: Wetenswaardigheden over acht eeuwen kookgerei, Catalogus Museum Boijmans-van Beuningen, Rotterdam 1992, pp. 50-59.

98 Jozien Jobse-van Putten, Eenvoudig maar voedzaam. Cultuurgeschiedenis van de dagelijkse maaltijd in Nederland. Amsterdam 1995, p. 286, foto Openluchtmuseum, Arnhem.

99 Eduard Trautscholdt, 'De oude Koekebakster'. Nachtrag zu Adriaen Brouwer, in: Pantheon, Internationale Zeitschrift für Kunst XIX (1961), Heft 4, 187-194.

100 Woordenboek der Nederlandse Taal s.v. Flens.

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