Sir Hugh Plat’s Manuscript: An English Bread circa 1560

Manusript recipe by TT in Sir Hugh Plat's manusript book

This is one of the earliest bread recipes known to be written in English and this is its first publication.

The  recipe is found in a manuscript book mostly written by Sir Hugh Plat but as Malcom Thick points out in his book, Sir Hugh Plat: The Search for Useful Knowledge in Early Modern London, many of the food recipes, including this one, were written by an unknown author with the initials TT. Malcolm Thick believes that this recipe probably dates to the 1550s or 1560s. I am preparing these early manuscript bread recipes for publication. If you would like to be notified when this book will be available for publication please sign up for my mailing list.

Here is a first look at the first recipe in this important collection. The handwriting is  difficult to read. The transcription is by Malcom Thick who, through years of work with the manuscripts of Sir Hugh Plat, has acquired an enviable ability to read what to the rest of us largely looks like scribbles.

The paragraphs are numbered. This is paragraph 1.

1 Take 3 quart of a pound of fine searced flowr: 2 spoonefulls of new barme worke this together wth hotte licore and cover yt close and let it stand and rest one houre & yt wilbe risen enough, then worke yt & breake yt well make small loaves & sett into the hotte oven the space of halfe an hour or lesse

The colon following “flowr” in the first line means “in a ratio of.” In other words, for each 3/4 pounds of flour use so much barm, etc. A clearer transcription.

1 Take [for each] 3 quart of a pound of fine searced flowr: [use] 2 spoonefulls of new barme worke this together wth hotte licore and cover yt close and let it stand and rest one houre & yt wilbe risen enough, then worke yt & breake yt well make small loaves & sett into the hotte oven the space of halfe an hour or lesse

This is a recipe for rolls with a soft white interior, a close crumb, a neutral taste and a crispy crust. I emphasize that these are white rolls — white flour both being assumed for rolls and also implied by the instruction to refine what would have been freshly ground meal to the finest level possible by first sifting out the larger impurities with sieves and then when the flour was already reasonably refined, to sift it through a searce which was the class of sifters that included the finest screens, like those used to sift medicines and gunpowder for fireworks. While cheap flour refined to a whiteness that can be likened to the whiteness of snow was not available to bakers until the 19th century, this is an elite bread made in small quantities and could have been made with very white flour. It is a style of bread that is now out of favor but I think you will find that it is refreshing.

This core recipe makes “small loaves.” It was intended to be scaled up from the 1 pound of dough (4 4-ounce rolls) as needed. The amount of water is not specified but there was a general assumption that bread was made with roughly 50% water (including the yeast) by weight of flour. Thus, in this recipe, 12 ounces of flour is mixed with 6 ounces water, including the 2 spoonfuls of barm. In my most recent batch I needed to use 6 oz of water plus a tablespoon as the 6 oz didn’t quite let me incorporate all the flour.

What does TT mean by “small loaves?” There is reference in a later recipe to choosing between pieces of dough sized 5 ounces or 4 ounces. Thus,  I think that dividing the dough into thirds or quarters is the most likely interpretation for small loaves.

Conceptually, this should be understood as a master recipe. The baker is told how many people are coming to dinner, decides on a roll size, and scales the recipe to fit. I do think, though, that the very small size of this core recipe (1 pound of dough) suggests that it was often used for very small parties. As many of the early bread recipes — meaning recipes published well into the 18th century — call for pecks and even bushels of flour this early very small household-scale recipe offers a healthy reminder that people have always sat down to family-sized meals, or eaten as couples, and been served (if they could afford it)  freshly baked rolls prepared by their staff.

The weight of the spoonful of barm (the yeasty foam that rises to the surface in ale brewing) is given as 12 pennyweight in recipe number 2. There are 1.5 grams in each pennyweight which lets us calculate how much yeast is in the recipe. No mention is made of scoring the rolls before baking but scoring is probably assumed. The warm dough, lack of salt, and plentiful yeast produces a soft sweet tasting bread. Given the date for this recipe, assume that the barm is the yeasty sediment from unhopped ale barm.

This recipe produces a terrific roll. Period diners may have let the rolls sit a day before eating them (they let bread sit) and they may  have chipped off the crispy crust (they to-us insanely thought that bread crust was hard for the stomachs of refined people to eat). This said, this bread has a distinctive character and I hope yo make it.

As these are working papers what I am offering here is a bit of my working out how to present old recipes. For myself, I hate reading redactions that don’t explain where they come from. What I am playing with here is the idea of offering the same recipe with increasingly modern-style revisions — always true to the underlying text — but with increasing levels of the type of recipe detail that we have come to expect.

Here is the recipe offered again but this time written with standard spellings and minor changes in language

For each 3/4 pound of finely sifted flour: 2 spoonfulls or 24 pennyweight of new barm, work this together with hot water and cover it close and let it stand and rest one hour and it will be risen enough, then work it and break it well, make small loaves and set into a hot oven the space of half an hour or less.

Here is a version that sticks close to the original, but is written in a more modern language and includes information that TT assumed his readers knew but is still close enough to the original that it might make more sense to someone familiar with historic practice than to a modern baker.

For  four 4-ounce rolls, place 3/4 pound (12 oz) of unbleached all purpose white flour in a bowl, work together with 38g of new barm together with enough water that is 90F to 110F to a stiff but supple dough with a temperature of around 78F, cover and let stand for one hour, which is enough time for it to rise, and then knead it by hand and further work the dough under a brake or with your feet until it is very smooth and elastic, make into rolls and immediately without proofing set into a hot oven to bake for at most thirty minutes.

And again, but with yet more detail for the modern baker.

Put 12 ounces of freshly ground wheat sifted and bolted to produce white flour into a bowl or use 12 ounces unbleached white flour, preferably purchased in bulk.  Add 2 spoonfuls (38g or a little over 1oz) fresh unhopped ale barm or 7g dried ale yeast (or 7g bread yeast if you can’t buy ale yeast) mixed with 1oz water and 5 oz warm (90F) to hot (100F) water to produce a supple yet stiff dough with a dough temperature of around 78F. Mix, adding small amounts of water if needed. Cover, let stand one hour, which is enough time for it to rise. Work well by hand and then use a brake or a rolling pin to work the dough until it is supple, elastic, and even a little whitened by the working. Let rest for a few minutes and then form into rolls. No mention is made of how to score the rolls so score as you like, or match to a period print or painting, if you know of one. Immediately, without giving the bread time to proof,  put into a hot oven (425 to 500F) and bake for no more than 30 minutes.

Here is the original recipe in baker’s math:

Freshly ground and sifted white flour: 100%
Fresh unhopped ale barm: 10%
Water 90F to 110F: 40%

Here is the recipe with modern ingredients:

Unbleached white flour: 100%
Dried ale yeast: 2%
110F water to hydrate yeast: 20%
Water 90F to 110F: 30%

3 thoughts on “Sir Hugh Plat’s Manuscript: An English Bread circa 1560

  1. Fantastic. As a hobby I make my own sausages, bacon and salami (I also hand make my own bread using organic stoneground flour). I have decided to try and replicate the oxford sausage that Mrs Beaton described. For this I need some bread crumbs. She wrote about oxford sausages in 1851. I do not know how I would get best approximation of the flour and if I should use modern brewers yeast or fresh yeast!


    1. Apologies for this late posting of your comment and reply. For the purposes you are making of it I’d use any unenriched white bread. A bread made with flour, water, salt, and yeast, only. No sugar and no fat. When making your own bread fresh yeast is always better — I think it has warmer taste — but I can no longer buy it where I live — so second best is the kind of dried yeast that is rehydrated first in water. If you want to get more authentic to the period then use the sediment left over (or the foam on top) of a batch of ale. Rinse with distilled water to get out as much of the free hops you can. The beer yeast in this form, barm, will taste bitter from hops no matter what you do to it. But for the sausage recipe I wouldn’t go that step.


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