The Quartern Loaf : Recipe for William Rubel Bread History Seminar #21, March 25, 2021

The thing about the Quartern Loaf is that as far as I can tell, it is the one of the most important British breads. But, but be honest, before focusing on the bread for this talk, I had thought of it as a super minor bread. One of n real importance.

I was wrong.

This said, it is easy to see at first I missed it. Despite having been common enough in the late 1600s to be mentioned in a trial, and that both E. Smith and Hannah Glasse, two of the giants of 18th Century cookery books, mention Quartern Loaves as if everyone had them, and from this same early 18th century period there are books for farriers that call fo the use of a Quartern Loaf in the formulation of horse medicine, and that doctors in the same period describe in a medical text a buttock tumor in terms of the size of a Quartern Loaf, it is not the Johnson’s Dictionary of 1755. It barely in the current edition of the Oxford English Dictionary with most of the references from 21st century sources. And yet, for nearly 300 years, from the 1650s (a guess) to the 1930s, this was a named loaf, and for long periods of time it was one of the most important breads sold by bakeries. .y, it came to one of the few remaining regulated breads.

A quartern was defined in British 18th century bread laws as one fourth of a 14 pound peck. This peck is based on a bushel of wheat weighing 56 pounds. As a peck is ¼ bushel, and a quartern is ¼ of a peck, the quartern of grain weighs 3.5 pounds.

As we have discussed in my talk on the Assize for Bread, the underlying concept always was that one purchased a certain amount of grain which was then processed into flour. A quartern loaf begins with 3.5 pounds of grain milled to whole meal flour. The Quartern came in three grades. The top grade was made with the “whole of the wheat” which is a low grade white flour. The bread was not white white, but a little brown or grey. This is my favorite grade of flour. You can sometimes get this flour from a specialty mil. You can make by it by sifting whole meal flour you produced with your own mill through a 50 mesh or 300 micron screen.

The Quartern Loaf traditionally started with a quartern of grain — 3.5 pounds (1590g). The top grade Quartern was made with whole meal flour sifted to an 80% extraction by milling to 2.8 pounds or 1270g with a 21 shilling cloth, roughly a sieve with 50 wires per inch or 300 microns. This is the “whole of the wheat” which is the lowest grade white flour.

There is no strict recipe for a Quartern Loaf. The bread was a size, not a recipe. For most of its life it was made with lesser grades of flour. However, by 1900 it was made with modern white flour, so if can’t buy or make the 80% extraction flour of the bread’s earlier history you can make it with unbleached white flour for the version common to its last fifty or so years.

For leavening systems you can use yeast with a sponge method, direct dough method (just add the yeast all at once), or with a sourdough starter. If you are working within the British baking system, then use a yeast sponge or just add the yeast all at once when you do your main mix. However, if you would like imagine yourself running a bakery in London serving the French community, then, regardless of the year, make your loaf with a sourdough or levain starter.

Quarterns were sold as full or half-quarterns. The final loaf weight for this recipe is supposed to be around 4 pounds 4 ounces for a quartern or 2 pounds 2 ounces for a half quartern. A 1822 British law set bread weights to even pound increments. It took some time, but eventually, a quartern loaf weighed 4 pounds and a half quarters 2 pounds.

Full QuarternHalf Quarter
flour100%1,270635
yeast1%136
salt1.7%2211
water70%889445
Dough weight2,1931,097
Shrinkage10%219110
Finished weight1,974987
Back to ounces7035
back to pounds4.42.2

If using tins, then use a 4# tin for the full sized Quartern Loaf. These are sold at Amazon.com. A 2 pound loaf tin appropriate for the Half Quartern Holds 6 cups of water, 1.5 liters.

Bake the 4 pound Quartern for 2 hours (I have tested this) at 175C (350F). I did not test the half quartern. I estimate 1.25 hours.

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