American Bread Recipes from the 19th Century

These recipes were originally posted for people attending my Bread History and Practice Seminar #68 on American Bread, December 15, 2022. If you are attending the seminar, please make one of the breads that I am posting here so that we all have some experience with the taste and texture of the bread. Insights can be found in recipe details and in the taste and texture of the bread. I will be added to this section through Friday, December 9 so those of you enrolled in the seminar can bake a loaf before the talk. If you are not enrolled and are free Thursday, December 15, at 9am Pacific, then go to EventBrite.com an search on “William Rubel bread”.

Many 19th century American breads call for using boiling water or scalding milk for breads made with cornmeal and rye. Sometimes a recipe might call for mixing cornmeal and wheat flour with hot water or scalding hot milk. In the range of 150F (65C) the dough will gelatinize. This will convert starches to sugars and change the texture of the final product. As soon as my gelatinizing dough is mixed, I cover and put under the quilt in my bed to retain the heat for as long as I can.

The top bread is made with half cornmeal and half rye mixed with scalding hot milk. The second bread is made with cornmeal and wheat flour, but only the cornmeal is gelatinized, and the bottom bread is the same mix, but both flours are mixed together, as the corn and rye was in the top bread and mixed with water just off the boil. Clearly, it does not have as open a crumb. On the other hand, it is noticeably sweater in taste — more glucose was released in the gelatinizing process — and the dough is moister.

The following recipes are posted here.

Rye and Indian — common bread throughout the century . In this recipe 100% of the flour is scalded.

“Brown Bread” from the Frugal Housewife, 1840 and many many editions. The recipe records actual extemporaneous practice. Also, only the cornmeal is scalded — gelatinized.

Basic Baking Powder Bread — More referenced than written down in recipe form until later in the century,

Note: In recipes given in volume, I advise weighing the flour that you have measured by volume. When you mix meal or flour with scalding hot water or milk it will absorb much much more water than flours or meals mixed with cool or even warm water. The bakers math ratios of 60% to 80% liquid to flour by weight will not apply. Weight the flour you have measured by volume and pour over that boiling hot water or scalded milk that weighs 125% of the flour weight. Thus, if you flour weighs 500g and you are scalding it, then add 500g*1.35=625g hot liquid. I usually bake these denser loaves at 350F, 180C although when the spirit moves me I may bake a little hotter. Follow your instincts. Bread is done when the interior temperature is int he range of 205F, 96C or when a knife inserted into the bread comes out clean, as with cake.

Note: In the American North yellow corn was the preferred for cornmeal. This was probably not the case in the American South amongst either white or Black Southerners for whom white cornmeal was a common preference, but for today, we will not be focused on regional or ethnic cornbread variation.

Note: In practice, many American 19th century households made their own yeast nutrient solutions. These always had a hop tea base — so were always a little bitter. I have not experimented with the homemade yeasts. As many people did buy yeast from the brewer and towards the end of the century commercial yeast was common, our taste profiles are accurate. But, millions of households will have been making their own yeast which may have affected taste tonalities — only testing can tell us for sure. If you have the energy to make a homemade yeast, using Google Books and limiting the search to the 19th century you will easily find a recipe. Otherwise, we will focus on leavening systems in another talk with those systems being the focus.

RYE AND INDIAN BREAD: This is the recipe for a common multi-grain bread. It is delicious! Emily Dickinson, the American poet, made this bread for a local agricultural fair where she won ribbon for it. Fabulous with hearty winter meals, and always always as toast served with molasses.

BROWN BREAD from The Frugal Housewife, Maria Child, late 1830s and then lots and lots of editions.

The Frugal Housewife was an important book. Child is calling corn/rye bread “brown.” Later in the century “brown breads,” like Boston Brown Bread, often included molasses which made them visually more brown. As a term, I don’t think, the American “brown bread” is exactly equivalent with the British English “brown bread.” Focusing on differences might be helpful in offering insights into American bread culture. Child calls for a stiff dough — “as stiff as you can knead it.” You can do this if you like. I see this as a matter of personal taste. This bread is yeast leavened, nonetheless neither rye nor corn have the kind of gluten that will ever produce an open crumb. Child’s stiff dough emphasizes the density of the corn/rye mixes that she references. I would feel free to make a softer dough if you like. Different grinds will produce different textures. And, for sure, freshly ground flour will be best for this and all other of these mixed grain breads.

Six quarts (liters) of meal will make two good sized loaves of Brown Bread. Some like to have it half Indian meal and half rye meal; others prefer it one third Indian, and two thirds rye. Many mix their brown bread over night; but there is no need of it; and it is more likely to sour, particularly in summer. If you do mix it the night before you bake it, you must not put in more than half the yeast I am about to mention, unless the weather is intensely cold. The meal should be sifted separately. Put the Indian in your bread-pan, sprinkle a little salt among it, and wet it thoroughly with scalding water. Stir it up while you are scalding it. Be sure and have hot water enough; for Indian absorbs a great deal of water (weigh the cornmeal and add water just off the boil that weighs 125% the weight of the meal). . When it is cool, pour in your rye; add two gills of lively yeast (use 5g yeast per quart (liter) of meal), and mix it with water as stiff as you can knead it. Let it stand an hour and a half, in a cool place in summer, on the hearth in winter. It should be put into a very hot oven, and baked three or four hours. It is all the better for remaining in the oven over night.

THE BASIC BAKING POWDER BREAD

Baking powder breads entered the American bread tradition in the 1830s. Baking powder, one part bicarbonate of soda and two parts tartaric acid was developed in the 1850 as a commercial product. Prior to that bakers mixed these two powers on their own or use other soda salts and other acids. Saleratus, a common named alkaline salt you will find in early 19th century recipes is bicarbonate of soda — just plain baking soda. Sour milk, or molasses were common acids added to saleratus doughs and batters. The tartaric acid, sold today as “cream of tartar” reacts with heat which means that one does not need to rush frantically to get ones baking powder bread dough mixed and shoved into the oven because the initial reaction that you will see in this bread as soon as you add the milk to the dough is not the only leavening power in the baking powder called for in the recipe. It will rise in the oven with heat, so you have time to knead the dough enough to create a smooth top crust.

Soda leavened dinner loaf breads were common into the early 20th century. Up to the last decades of the 19th century there was confusion over both the healthfulness of yeasted breads, and the healthfulness of soda leavened breads. Thus, there were proponents of soda breads and proponents of yeasted bread. You will find anti yeast narratives in some cookbooks and anti soda narratives in others. Given that bread was the “staff of life” at least some people felt they were choosing between two less than ideal options until the last decades of the century, when I gather the science got sorted out.

As Americans in the 19th century thought that sour foods caused digestive problems soda leavened breads were considered ideal for “dyspeptics.”

What I think is important to understand is that there was no sense that a soda leavened bread was a lesser loaf to a yeasted bread. There were no sourdough breads in 19th century American bread traditions so the home baker’s choice was between soda or yeast. 

We know from a letter she wrote, that American poet Emily Dickinson learned how to make bread with a baking powder bread being her first loaf. She was given her bread lesson when she was fifteen on September 26, 1845.

Baking Powder Loaf in Bakers Math

100% flour

75% – 80% whole milk or water

4% baking powder

1-2% salt 

Ingredients by Weight for a loaf weight a little over one pound (580g)

Flour 350g

Water or milk 260g – 280g

Baking powder 14g

Salt 3.5g – 7g

Instructions

I recommend weighing out the ingredients before starting to assemble the dough. Baking powder consists of an alkaline salt (baking soda) and an acid (cream of tartar). The soda will begin reacting as soon as the dough is mixed with a liquid. The acid will kick in when the dough is heated. As the soda begins to produce carbon dioxide as soon as the dough is mixed, it is important to mix, knead lightly, form the loaf and get it into a pre-heated oven with purposeful dispatch. You don’t have to rush, but unlike with yeasted or levain leavened doughs which benefit from a rest between forming and baking, it is not a good idea to be drawn into a texting conversation until after the bread is in the oven. 

  1. Pre-heat oven to 180C 350F
  2. Butter or oil a bread tin.
  3. In a bowl, thoroughly mix the flour, baking powder, salt, and optional sugar.
  4. If the oven has reached temperature then
  5. Add the water or milk, and the optional melted butter or lard
  6. Mix in the bowl then
  7. Turn onto a floured board and knead sufficiently to develop enough gluten that you can form into a smoothly surfaced loaf.
  8. Form into rectangular shape that fits your bread tin. The dough should fill the tin to around the ¾ level. 
  9. Slip into the oven and bake until done, 40 to 50 minutes. .
  10. If the crust is not brown and you would like a brown crust then slip under the broiler for a few minutes. 

RYE BREAD (with milk and yeast)

This recipe from the very popular American Housewife, first published in the later 1830s and in print for decades, includes a recipe for a 100% rye bread made with milk, water is called out as a secondary choice, and yeast. Today, we are told in our cookbooks that rye must be soured in order to rise. But as there was no sourdough bread tradition in America in the 19th century, San Francisco’s Boudin bakery notwithstanding, people used yeast! I have not yet tested this. Please make this and let us know how it turned out.

137. Rye Bread.
Wet up rye flour with lukewarm milk, (water will do to wet it with, but it will not make the bread so good.) Put in the same proportion of yeast as for wheat bread. For four or five loaves of bread, put in a couple of tea-spoonsful of salt. A couple of table-spoonsful of melted butter makes the crust more tender. It should not be kneaded as stiff as wheat bread, or it will be hard when baked. When light, take it out into pans, without moulding it up—let it remain in them about twenty minutes, before baking.

RYE BREAD. (Jewish)

This 1892 recipe is from Mother James’ Key to Good Cooking: With Complete Instructions in Household Management, New York, Virginia E. James. It is an early example of an American Jewish Rye. Schiff, the married name of the woman who contributed her recipe to Ms. James book was likely Jewish, as Schiff is a German Jewish name. Note the amount of wheat flour in the bread, and the addition of sugar and fat, already customary in American bread. Ms. Schiff will not have been kosher as the recipe calls for lard.

One cake of compressed yeast dissolved in one pint (1/2 liter) of lukewarm water, or half water and half milk. Stir into this flour enough to make a nice batter, with one teaspoonful (5g) of sugar and one of salt. When risen sufficiently, work out into a good stiff dough, adding almost a tablespoonful (15g) each of sugar, salt, and caraway seed. Work up the dough with one tablespoonful (15g) of lard and a little lukewarm water. Set to rise as any other bread, and when risen work out again and put into well-greased pans. The pans should be long and narrow. Set to rise, and then bake. Rye bread should be worked considerably, and in proportioning the flour use two-thirds wheat flour and one-third rye flour. This is very nice.

-Mrs. Gus. Schiff.

FRENCH ROLLS, ELEGANT.

This 1892 recipe is from Mother James’ Key to Good Cooking: With Complete Instructions in Household Management, New York, Virginia E. James. French rolls were a longstanding high status loaf. Even at this time, they were sometimes rasped in which case the roll was baked super dark, then the crust rasped off, and sometimes returned to a hot oven to correct for any issues that developed rasping — as in breaking through to the crumb. This recipe does not call for rasping and it was rare at this time. I am suggesting this recipe for the sponge technique — a nice preferment thought will produce a good tasting yeasted bread. The call for “fine white flour” implies that all white flours were to the same, a hint that we may miss out on some nuance in 19th century American breads by assuming that all white flour was basically the same as our flour today. Yes, there were roller mills at this time.

Sift two quarts (2 liters) of fine white flour into a bread pan, and into the center pour a pint (½ liter) of warm water and a teacup of lively, fresh yeast (substitute 5g dried yeast per liter, roughly 560g of flour); stir it to a thin batter, sprinkle four over it, cover over with a thick cloth, and let the sponge rise until it breaks over the top of the flour. Dissolve a tablespoonful (15g) of butter in a pint (½ liter) of fresh milk, add one teaspoonful (5g) of salt, and pour the mixture into the sponge, with flour enough to make a soft dough. The dough must stand one hour to rise, make it into rolls, place upon baking pans, where they should remain fifteen minutes; then bake in a quick oven.

Instruction note: For the sponge, you have put 100% of the flour into a bowl. Make a hole in the center of the flour, pour the pint (½ liter) of warm water into that hole, and stir to make a batter and dust with flour. You will incorporate the water into the rest of the flour AFTER you see that the sponge is active which you will know when that dusting of flour cracks from the rising batter underneath.

This recipe calls for a total of 2 pints of liquid. 1 pint is warm water — the warmth is important — and the second pint is “fresh milk.” There was no refrigeration in 1892 so assume the milk was warm. It might also have been scalded before use. I suggest you warm your milk so it is a very warm warm, almost hot. The recipe is calling for roughly 1,120g of flour (two quarts/liters ate 560g each, a figure I found weight a quart of flour in my kitchen. The difference between a quart and an actual liter is too small to worry about in this recipe. 1 liter of water/milk weighs 1000g so as written this is a bread with a 90% hydration. You will be adding more flour after the melted butter and salt are added to “make a soft dough.” It is always easier to add flour to a wet dough than to add water to a stiff dough so this method insures that however much liquid your flour does or does not absorb, you will get to the soft dough the recipe calls for.

Contemporary breads usually have 2% salt by weight of flour. This recipe calls for roughly 1%. This is consistent with the low-salt custom for this type of bread for which we have recipes going back to the early 18th century.

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