Recipes for American Bread 1620-2022 Talk October 27, 20202

Recreating historic breads enables us to taste the past. Sometimes, that tasting answers questions and sometimes the tasting inspires questions. The deeper one gets into a period, the more I think understanding the breads of the period yields insights. For example, I think it is probably significant that the 1840s bread, below that is made with rye and corn is made with boiling milk rather than boiling water. Perhaps in that enrichment of an humble bread we are seeing a divergence between American and European breads.

I am setting aside a fifteen minute period for attendees to show and talk about historic American breads. You may work from your own recipes or use ones I suggest. Please keep searches to 1899 or earlier. I am a little behind, as usual, so well be adding a couple recipes later today, Tuesday, October 25.

For the bread sharing I want to focus on cornbreads, and 19th century multi-grain breads. I think we should also look at 19th century white bread recipes that include sugar and/or oil. Both of those ingredients seem to be American innovations. A risky supposition, I know. If any of you know of 19th century ordinary wheat breads with sugar or fat (oil, butter, lard) that are not American, please let me know in the comments along with the date of the bread and your source. By “ordinary” I mean breads intended for the everyday table. A french roll, or brioche will always be enriched, but they are not for everyday. Thanks!

Ingredients: Yeast. American breads in the beginning of the 19th century were made with yeast acquired from the brewer, as was the 17th- and 18th-century practice. Commercial yeast is an appropriate substitute as the yeast species is the same as that used for brewing beer. Women living in isolated farmhouses would buy yeast in town and then extend it by making a yeast nutrient solution. They would use thus between trips to town — and never for more than a few weeks. I am including a typical recipe for this homemade yeast recipe. It always includes hops, so if you are interested in this starter, you will need hops. Lastly, by the second half of the 19th century commercial yeast was becoming common. This was sold as cake yeast and was commonly available by the last decades of the century.

Ingredients: Cornmeal. There are two forms of corn — dent and flint. Dent corn has a small dent in the seed while flint corn does not. The differences between a dent and flint corn become obvious when the corn dries. Popcorn and the colorful corns sold as “Indian corn” around Thanksgiving time in contemporary America are flint corns. As the name suggests they are hard — flinty. Dent corn is more starchy and is the most common corn used for pozole and cornmeal.

Ingredients: Molasses. Molasses was part of the trade in enslaved Africans. New England, as the center of American shipping was at the center of the transportation of enslaved Africans to the Caribbean. They dropped their human cargo and came back with molasses which fed a large rum distillery business. It was inexpensive, widely sold, and common in cornmeal dishes, including cornbread, and in some other breads, as

Metric Conversion: 1 quart is roughly 1 liter (100ml). In real life it is more like 950ml, but lets work simpler as there are so many variables with the meal it can’t matter. 1 pint(500 ml), 1 cup (250ml)


Virginia Ash Cake. Add a teaspoonful of salt to a quart [four liters] of sifted corn meal. Make up with water and knead well. Make into round, flat cakes. Sweep a clean place on the hottest part of the hearth. Put the cake on it and cover it with hot wood ashes.

Marion Cabell Tyree’s, Housekeeping in Old Virginia, Louisville, KY, 1879

Wash and wipe it dry, before eating it. Sometimes a cabbage leaf is placed under it, and one over it, before baking, in which case it need not be washed.—Mrs. S. T.

This recipe is for an incredibly basic cornbread. Not only is the recipe made with no adornment — nothing but flour, water, and salt, but it is baked in covered in the ashes of the fireplace, or baked in the ashes in a cabbage leaf. This style of cornbread is that of the poorest of the poor, including enslaved and emancipated Africans after the Civil War. If making this in your oven, then a workaround for ash baking could be wrapping in a cabbage leaf and baking covered in salt in a hot oven. Note that the meal is sifted, so if you make your own this is not whole meal. Also, I strongly advise missing with boiling water rather than cold water. That this recipe is in a cookbook in the 1870s attests to some real poverty.

This is an important cookbook. People will have read this recipe in very large numbers. Mary Randolph was a best-selling author is the southern recipe. Not necessarily different from Northern one, but when it comes to cornbread these recipes largely disappear from Northern cookbooks in the second half of the 19th century. I think this one is worth trying I said to the east of cornbread, which is not super common in the cookbook literature

INDIAN CAKE. Indian cake, or bannock, is sweet and cheap food. One quart [4 liters] of sifted meal, two great spoonfuls [20-25g per spoonful] of molasses, two tea-spoonfuls of salt, a bit of shortening half as big as a hen’s egg, stirred together; make it pretty moist with scalding water, put it into a well greased pan, smooth over the surface with a spoon, and bake it brown on both sides, before a quick fire. A little stewed pumpkin, scalded with the meal, improves the cake. Bannock split and dipped in butter makes very nice toast.

A richer Indian cake may be made by stirring one egg to a half pint [250ml] of milk, sweetened with two great spoonfuls [20-25g per spoonful] of molasses; a little ginger, or cinnamon; Indian stirred in till it is just about thick enough to pour. Spider [iron frying pan bake oven embers in front of the fire or on top of your kitchen stove] or bake-kettle [Dutch oven in front of the fire with embers over and under or bake in the oven at a moderate temperature] well greased; cake poured in, covered up, baked half an hour, or three quarters, according to the thickness of the cake. If you have sour milk, or butter-milk, it is very nice for this kind of cake; the acidity corrected by a tea-spoonful of dissolved pearlash. It is a rule never to use pearlash for Indian, unless to correct the sourness of milk; it injures the flavor of the meal. Nice suet improves all kinds of Indian cakes very much.

The Frugal Housewife. Dedicated to Those who are Not Ashamed of Economy. 1830. Lydia Maria Child

“The Frugal Housewife” by Lydia Maria Child is a book of immense importance in early Northern America. This work went through 33 printings! Lydia Child is worth looking up in the Wikipedia. Her approach to life — frugality — used to be a central American cultural idea in New England. Amongst other claims to fame, in addition to having written this important cookbook, she was an abolitionist, a novelist, and a poet. Her recipes, focused on frugality for this of us “not ashamed of economy” are worth looking at.

This recipe is a bit complex the way it is written. Lots of options. I like it for that. Offers a sense of the improvisational approach you can take to your cornbread. Pumpkin? This is not a common addition. Neither common is the addition of ginger and cinnamon. Worth a try! Substitute baking powder for saleratus. I feel that the reference here, and in other recipes, to this basically unleavened bread or cake as being a “bannock” ties the bread back to European bread traditions. The barley bannock was a flatbread associated with Northern England and Scotland —areas with poor agricultural land.

I will offer also the group of recipes published by Elihu Burritt as part of his 1848 famine relief. There are a few cornbreads and then many recipes that employ cornmeal. You will note that many of these recipes offer enriched cornbreads and other cornmeal dishes. These recipes were collected from American housewives by Burritt as a gesture for British and Irish housewives who were stressed by the famine in one way or another. He also raised 1.2 million dollars in todays dollars, so he had another program to directly assist those dying of hunger. I encourage at least some of you to try one of the puddings.

For the many group members who work in the metric system, 1 part is roughly 4 liters. One liter is roughly 4 cups. Two cups makes a pint.

Multi-grain Breads

RYE AND INDIAN BREAD. Sift two quarts [2 l] of rye, and two quarts [2 l] of Indian meal, and mix them well together. Boil three pints [1.5l] of milk; pour it boiling hot upon the meal; add two tea-spoonfuls of salt, and stir the whole very hard. Let it stand till it becomes of only a lukewarm heat, and then stir in half a pint of good fresh yeast; if from the brewery and quite fresh, a smaller quantity will suffice. Knead the mixture into a stiff dough, and set it to rise in a pan. Cover it with a thick cloth that has been previously warmed, and set it near the fire. When it is quite light, and has cracked all over the top, make it into two loaves, put them into a moderate oven, and bake them two hours and a half.

Directions for Cookery, in its Various Branches (1840)
Miss Leslie, Directions for Cookery, in its Various Branches (1840) Piladelphia. 

Incredibly, Directions for Cookery went into sixty editions! Sixty! I think it is fair to assume that this recipe codifies a long-term practice of making breads with rye and corn. It was well into the 19th century before wheat flour was cheap enough in New England to be universally available for the family’s standard bread. They ate cornbread and mixed grain breads that included cornmeal. This recipe has a 2:1 ratio, for rye to corn, but I think it is safe to assume that different bakers will have favored different ratios. I would feel free to do the same. The use of milk is of interest. I can’t think of any European recipe for a bread of lower status grains being made with milk. If you know of such a bread, please use the comments to tell us something about it. Thank you! Milk. But! It has to be boiling! That is because the non-enriched version of this recipe — which you also may want to try — is made with boiling water. The boiling water or milk turns some of the starch to sugar. Milk, being naturally sweet, will augment the bread’s natural sweetness – I think! I haven’t tested this recipe — so, someone, please do!

Cornmeal wheat bread, yeasted. Yeast Bread, No. 2. One cupful of Indian meal [250ml], two quarts of flour [2l], one pint and a half of boiling water [750ml], one table-spoonful of sugar, one teaspoonful of salt, half a cake of compressed yeast. Pour the boiling water on the Indian meal. Stir well, and set away to cool. When blood warm, add the yeast, salt and sugar to it. Stir this mixture into the flour, and proceed as for yeast bread, No. I.

Maria Parloa, Miss Parloa’s New Cook Book, New York, 1882.

Maria Parola was a huge cookbook author in the last decades of the 19th century. We see here, again in a Northern Cookbook, a maslin bread that uses cornmeal as the second grain, in this case, along with wheat. Wheat rye mixtures were a fixture in Northern European breads since Roman times. This is not a common structure now. Note the use of boiling water with the indian meal. This converts starches to sugars and softens the meal.

For instructions, after the hot cornmeal mixture has cooled, you proceeded with mixing, let rise, form into loaves, proof as usual, and bake in a moderate oven.

Brown Bread. One cupful [250ml] of rye meal, one [250ml] of Indian meal, one [250ml] of molasses, two [500ml] of flour, one pint and a half [750ml] of sour milk, a teaspoonful of soda, an egg, one teaspoonful of salt. Mix the dry ingredients together. Dissolve the soda in two table-spoonfuls of boiling water. Add it and the milk to the molasses. Stir well, and pour on the other mixed ingredients. Beat the egg and add it. Mix thoroughly, and pour into a well-buttered tin pan that holds two quarts. Steam four hours, and then put in the oven for half an hour.

Maria Parloa, Miss Parloa’s New Cook Book, New York, 1882.

I chose this Brown Bread because the instructions are clear. This is now called “Boston Brown Bread.” Steamed “brown breads” made with multiple grains — this one is rye, corn, and wheat — sweetened with molasses and steamed were common in this period. You can feel free to improvise ratios. A common is a the “thirded” bread ratio of 1 part each of the three flours. Steam by placing in a buttered mold, a 20th century tradition is to use an empty can, in a saucepan with water coming up the side of the mold around half way. Cover the top well — use foil, for example, and tie with a string so no steam can get in. Bring the water to a simmer, cover, and check in a few times to insure you don’t simmer the water away. Test for doneness after four hours. In Boston it will have been served with baked beans. This was part of the sabbath meal — something you could put in the bread oven in the evening with the food ready Sunday morning.

Wheat Breads Enriched with Fat and/or Sugar

I am including this one master recipe for a bread circa 1889. This is a master recipe, clearly written for people who know how to make bread. It is a guide to improvisation, especially as concerns the liquid. Note that this uses quite a lot of sugar — 3 tablespoons — and 1 tablespoons of fat. It is my sense that sugar and fat in everyday white breads was a consequence of changes in commercial baking. I cannot prove this at this time. At the least, it indicates a national taste for breads that are soft — both the sugar and fat produce a soft crumb — and at least sometimes also being subtly sweet, which I am pretty sure this bread will be. I have not tested it myself. This is a recipe that is very different from what one will find in Europe at this same time — a clear example of how American bread was now its own style reflected in recipe.


Ingredients in the following proportions will make about 3 ½ pounds of

bread. The liquid may be milk, water, potato water, or any combination of these.

2 ¾ cups liquid.

½ to 1 ounce (1 to 2cakes) yeast. 

3 tablespoons sugar.

4 teaspoons salt.

2 tablespoons fat.

About 2 1/4pounds, or 2 ¼ quarts, sifted hard-wheat flour.

From these ingredients bread may be made by various methods. The common standard ways, known as the straight-dough and sponge methods, are described here, and suggestions are given for varying them.

Florence Beeson King, Adele Blackly Freeman, Homemade Bread, Cake and Pastry, U.S. Department of Agriculture, 1889

I would make the with a straight dough system which is to say, mix all the ingredients together, knead, let rise to double in bulk, as usual, then degass, form into loaves in buttered tins — American bread from this period is always in a tin — and when the loaves have begun to rise again bake in a preheated moderate oven. Americans did not like crispy crusts so this is not for a hot oven. There are many American bread recipes that call for brushing the top crust with water when it is taken out of the oven to insure it stays soft.

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