Historic American Rye and Cornmeal Bread, 19th Century New England

William Rubel

RYE AND INDIAN BREAD from Miss Leslie’s Directions for Cookery, 1840

This is a fabulous bread of a type that few of us have made. By volume, it is a 50/50 mix of rye and cornmeal. As with many 19th century American breads, it is mixed with milk. In this case, milk that has been scalded, so just shy of boiling. The bread is yeast leavened. It is packed with flavor. Toasted and served with molasses it makes a brilliant toast. This is a denser, more flavorpackeyd bread than we are used to at dinner, so you will need to work out how it fits into your dinner meal. Emily Dickinson, the great American poet, made this bread and even entered it into a local fair where she won a prize for her version in 1856.

Sift two quarts (liters) of rye, and two quarts (liters) of Indian meal, and mix them well together. Boil three pints (1.5 liters) 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 (.25 liter) of good fresh yeast ; if from the brewery and quite fresh, a smaller quantity will suffice (use 5g dried yeast per liter of flour). 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. — Miss Leslie, Directions for Cookery, in its Various Branches (1840).

Note: This recipe is given in volume. Rye weighs less than cornmeal so the weight is not 1:1.

Size of a single loaf.

220g rye flour

280g cornmeal

350g scalding hot milk

5 g


  1. Mix the rye, cornmeal, and salt in a bowl.
  2. Scald the milk.
  3. Pour over the flour scalding hot milk. Mix with a wooden spoon.
  4. If you had been working the original recipe with its 4 liters, one gallon of flour, it would have taken much more time to cool than will this small batch. Glucose is released by the starch grains when it is held in the range of 150F, 65C. There is no evidence that they would have purposely sought to prolong the gelatinization process, on the other hand, lengthening or shorting the time the dough is hot would affect both flavor an texture so I think we can probably assume that some bakers had preferences.
  5. Thus. At this point, you can either quickly cover and let cool slowly to maximize the effect of gelatinizing the flours with the hot milk or continue mixing with the wooden spoon to help it cool and then being kneading. Rye flour is sticky so rye bakers often work with a bowl of water next to where they are kneading. It is important to keep your hands totally dough-free. Rinse off any dough that is sticking so you are always working with clean hands. During this period, people kneaded dough for a long time, so don’t skimp on the kneading.
  6. Cover, and let rise in warm place, it is by the fire in the original, until the dough cracks on top.
  7. Gently form into a loaf which you should set into a pre-greased pan. When the dough has begun to rise again, then bake in moderate oven, 350F, 180C.

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