Steamed: The weird and wild world of winter radiator cooking

From 19th century kitchens to "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia," people really want to cook on their radiators

By Ashlie D. Stevens

Food Editor

Published December 14, 2022 10:00AM (EST)

Frying an egg on a hot radiator (Getty Images/Maciej Toporowicz, NYC)
Frying an egg on a hot radiator (Getty Images/Maciej Toporowicz, NYC)

Once the weather snaps cold and the great old pipes in even older buildings begin to clang and rattle as hot water turns to steam, someone, somewhere inevitably tries to cook using the heat generated by their radiator. This experimental "cooking" takes many forms, the results of which are often dutifully recorded and shared online.

"The microwave broke so I'm cooking my pizza on the radiator," wrote one Reddit user, fittingly in the r/collegecooking subreddit, who attached a photograph of a small frozen pizza perched on one of the vents of his dorm room radiator.

"This is amazing," one commenter said. "Did it work?"

"Yes it worked," the pizza cook replied. "Well sort of. It thawed the pizza and it was warm enough to enjoy, but the dough was raw."

Like the aforementioned pizza, most of these radiator cooking experiments seem to ride that line between a grave risk of food poisoning and a gross-out culinary meme akin to the nauseating "spaghetti table" TikTok trend. That's likely why the act of radiator cooking has been woven throughout the raunchy and irreverent "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia."

In the opening scene of the Season Three episode titled "Dennis Looks Like a Registered Sex Offender," Charlie (Charlie Day) attempts to become famous by holding his breath for more than seven minutes. Mac (Rob McElhenney) videotapes this effort while Frank (Danny DeVito) stands nearby "working the chicken parts" on a hot plate. Nearby, sandwich buns are toasting on the radiator.

"Take the buns off the radiator," Frank demands before all his hard work is knocked to the floor by a flailing Charlie. 

"I barely cooked it. I slapped it on the radiator to heat it up."

In the next season, radiator cooking resurfaces in the episode "Mac and Dennis: Manhunters." Dee (Kaitlin Olson) and Charlie become obsessed with a certain kind of, uh, hard-to-source meat, which they try preparing in a variety of styles. (Human meat — they thought it was human meat!)

"I barely cooked it," Charlie exclaims as he tears into a slice. "I slapped it on the radiator to heat it up."

"That's gross," Dee responds, "but it's so good I don't care."

Through the lens of "It's Always Sunny," cooking off the radiator denotes a certain kind of Depression-era scrappiness. (The characters are nothing if not scrappy and — occasionally — depressed.) At one point, however, some envisioned the radiator as the cooking instrument of the future.

In 1885, the inventor Louis C. Rodier (sometimes miswritten throughout texts as Louis G. Rodier) was granted a patent for a "combined radiator and heating oven." According to the patent application, the invention worked like this:

In constructing a radiator, the long looks and the short loops are so arranged with reference to each other that they will leave a space for an oven. This oven, I prefer to make separate, so that it may be readily introduced in place when the radiator loops have been put together. The oven is also preferably provided with one or more shelves. 

Though a patent was granted to Rodier, the idea of combining a radiator and an oven didn't appeal to many seasoned home cooks. Most already had ovens, and at the time, radiators were still relatively new. (The Bundy Loop, one of the most popular cast radiator systems, was developed by Nelson H. Bundy in 1872.) However, the idea of using a radiator as a kitchen tool didn't dissipate; it simply shifted from being used as a cooking device to a warming device.


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For instance, in 1892, the American Radiator Company was established through the merger of a number of North American radiator manufacturers. By the 1920s, its advertisements were commonly found in newspapers and magazines. One such advertisement showed a sophisticated couple having dinner in their dining room while a maid retrieved plates out of a radiator warming box.

The ad copy reads: "Warm plates are ready for serving and food kept hot during the meal add much to the enjoyment of the table and help digestion. Easier to have them than not where the house is warmed by American Radiators & Ideal Broilers."

To this day, many apartments and homes built in the early 20th century still have cast iron radiators with warming boxes. Whether said boxes are operational or not is a separate question, as many homeowners have shifted to central air conditioning and heating.

"Warm plates are ready for serving and food kept hot during the meal add much to the enjoyment of the table and help digestion."

Perhaps the most common modern culinary use for the radiator doesn't involve heating plates or desperate attempts to thaw frozen pizzas. Home baking pros, including Nigella Lawson, cite the radiator as a tool for proofing (or proving, depending on where you live) bread dough.

"An airing cupboard is usually a good place to leave dough to rise but dough can rise in most places (you can even leave it to rise in the refrigerator overnight) it will just take slightly longer at a lower temperature," Lawson writes. "A warm kitchen worktop, sunny windowsill or somewhere close to a radiator often works."

"Close to the radiator," as opposed to "inside the radiator," is a key distinction here; bread dough rises more evenly in an environment with a relatively stable temperature, which doesn't necessarily jive with the on-off nature of a radiator's heat. Don't get me wrong, it's possible, but as one commenter wrote on a Facebook post about radiators with warming boxes, "So the dough would either be cold as death or exploded all over the inside like a sweaty pig?"

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This touches on a key point about the safety, or lack thereof, surrounding radiator cooking experiments. While radiators do get very hot to the touch, they only reach about 140 degrees, which is plenty hot enough for bacteria to come alive, yet still not warm enough to fully cook food. Put simply, it's kind of a recipe for food poisoning.

That said, if the nostalgia or scrappiness of radiator cooking still appeals, there are a few options. One could lay a strip of aluminum foil over a cooled radiator and use the surface to warm plates once it heats. (I'm very hesitant to recommend that you put anything on your radiator due to the fire risk, but perhaps there are those who like to live more dangerously.)

One could also look into the wide, wonderful world of warming drawers, which seem like the natural evolution of Louis C. Rodier's 1885 invention. After all, in the words of American Radiators, it could "add much to the enjoyment of the table."

By Ashlie D. Stevens

Ashlie D. Stevens is Salon's food editor. She is also an award-winning radio producer, editor and features writer — with a special emphasis on food, culture and subculture. Her writing has appeared in and on The Atlantic, National Geographic’s “The Plate,” Eater, VICE, Slate, Salon, The Bitter Southerner and Chicago Magazine, while her audio work has appeared on NPR’s All Things Considered and Here & Now, as well as APM’s Marketplace. She is based in Chicago.

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