Working Papers

I have a dozen feet of notebooks with research on English and French breads, from between 1550 and 1800, and American breads from 1620 to the end of the 19th-century. I have published a small book on bread called Bread but am working on a much larger history.

The working papers I publish here are ideas that I’d like to share with you but that might still be somewhat provisional. I welcome comments and suggestions.

I usually interpret historic recipes in terms of  “bakers’ math.” If you are not familiar with the system, it records recipes in the form of percentages. Flour is always 100% and the other ingredients are recorded as a percentage of the flour. Baker’s math makes it possible to easily scale recipes up and down, which is why bakers like it, but  importantly it lets one get a sense of the basic relationships between ingredients. For those of us interested in historical recipes it helps us see how recipes relate to each other. For example, if you find a recipe  calls for 45% water by weight of flour and another 75% water by weight of flour it is clear one is working with two very different styles of bread. If one recipe suggests a short rising time and another a longer rising time but then you notice that one has 4% yeast in relationship to the flour and the other 2% yeast you start to get a sense for how the recipes actually worked.

The problem with many historical recipes is often not that they don’t have measurements, most do, but with some other aspect of the recipe — like just exactly what flour is being called for or just exactly how is the recipe processed. Or, all that might be clear but one wonders why is this recipe in the the cookery book? Is it a recipe that is made a lot or is it an unusual recipe that the author hopes will interest the reader, but may not.

These working papers, though mostly about recipes, are intended to develop ideas, to follow where the old recipe leads, but are not designed to offer a simple recipe for you to follow. Read these papers for more general ideas and inspiration. I will be publishing more formal recipes on this web site and then also in subsequent books.

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