Baking Victorian Bread

Years ago, when I was a Mark Bittman devotee, the no-knead bread craze hit. I hadn’t made bread before because I was scared of the process, which seemed like a sacred art of sorts. When Mark Bittman published his version of the no-knead recipe in the New York Times, I had found a bread recipe that even I could do. I had started my gluten-free-ish lifestyle by that time, but I still loved making bread for the sensory aspects: the smell, texture, how the bread transformed over the cooking process, and the joy that warm bread gave others.

However, my growing children demanded my time, and it was easier to buy bread at the grocery store bakery than to bake our own. That is until the pandemic hit and store shelves were stripped bare. Now, stuck at home, I, like many Americans, have been baking. I’ve found an updated version of my beloved no-knead recipe that makes wonderful bread. My children are amazed that I can actually bake. However, my teens are amazed whenever I show any kind of aptitude. This morning, as my latest baking project rose on the counter, I researched Victorian bread making. I’ve decided to excerpt from two books that are from the earlier decades of the Victorian Era because they explain how to make yeast.  

Let’s start with The Good Housekeeper, Or the Way to Live Well, And To Be Well While We Live, published in 1839 and written by Sarah Josepha Buell Hale, supposed author of “Mary Had A Little Lamb” and a long-time editor for Godey’s Lady’s Book.

ADVANTAGES OF BREAD MAKING. If you wish to economize in family expenses, bake your own bread. If this is good, it will be better as well as healthier than baker’s bread.

The rich will find several advantages in having a portion, at least, of their bread baked at home, even though the saving of money should not be an object. They can be certain that their bread is made of good flour. This is not always sure when eating baker’s bread. Much damaged flour, sour, musty, or grown, is often used by the public bakers, particularly in scarce or bad seasons. The skill of the baker and the use of certain ingredients-(alum, ammonia, sulphate of zinc, and even sulphate of copper, it is said, has been used !)—will make this flour into light, white bread. But it is nearly tasteless, and cannot be as healthy or nutritious as bread made from the flour of good, sound wheat, baked at home, without any mixture of drugs and correctives. Even the best of baker’s bread is comparatively tasteless, and must be eaten when new to be relished. But good home-baked bread will keep a week, and is better on that account for the health.

If the sponge be set at seven or half past, in the morning, and everything well managed, the bread will be ready to be drawn from the oven by twelve. Four or five hours of attention, then, is required ; but three fourths of this time might be employed in needlework, or other pursuits. Only half or three quarters of an hour, devoted to kneading the bread, is wanted in active exertion ; and this would be one of the most beneficial exercises our young ladies could practise.

I have dwelt at length on this subject, because I consider it as important as did “Uncle John,” that “ Girls should learn to make bread—the staff of life”–and that to do this well is an accomplishment which the lovely and talented should consider indispensable, one of the “ must haves” of female education.

There are three things which must be exactly right, in order to have good bread—the quality of the yeast; the lightness or fermentation of the dough ; and the heat of the oven. No precise rules can be given to ascertain these points. It requires observation, reflection, and a quick, nice judgment to decide when all are right. Thus, you see, that bread-making is not a mere mechanical treadmill operation, like many household concerns ; but a work of mind ; the woman who always has good home-baked bread on the table shows herself to have good sense and good management.

MAKING BREAD, A large family will, probably, use a bushel of flour weekly; but we will take the proper quantity for a family of four or five persons.

Take twentyone quarts of flour, put it into a kneading trough or earthen pan which is well glazed, and large enough to hold double the quantity of four. Make a deep, round hole in the centre of the flour, and pour into it half a pint of brewer’s yeast, or the thick sediment from homebrewed beer—the last if good, is to be preferred. In either case the yeast must be mixed with a pint of milk-warm water, and well stirred before it is poured in. Then with a spoon stir into this liquid, gradually, so much of the surrounding four as will make it like thin batter; sprinkle this over with dry flour, till it is covered entirely. Then cover the trough or pan with a warm cloth, and set it by the fire in winter, and where the sun is shining in summer. This process is called ” setting the sponge.” The object is to give strength and character to the ferment by communicating the quality of leaven to a small portion of the flour ; which will then be easily extended to the whole. Setting sponge is a measure of wise precaution-for if the yeast does not rise and ferment in the middle of the flour it shows that the yeast is not good ; the batter can then be removed, without wasting much of the flour, and another sponge set with better yeast.

Let the sponge stand till the batter has swelled and risen so as to form cracks in the covering of flour ; then scatter over it two table spoonfuls of fine salt, and begin to form the mass into dough by pouring in, by degrees, as much warm water as is necessary to mix with the flour. Twentyone quarts of flour will require about four quarts of water. It will be well to prepare rather more ; soft water is much the best ; it should in summer be warm as new milk ; during winter, it ought to be somewhat warmer, as flour is a cold, heavy substance.

Add the water by degrees to the flour, mix them with your hand, till the whole mass is incorporated; it must then be worked most thoroughly, moulded over and over and kneaded with your clenched hands, till it becomes so perfectly smooth and light as well as stiff, that not a particle will adhere to your hands. Remember that you cannot have good bread, light and white, unless you give the dough a thorough kneading.

Then make the dough into a lump in the middle of the trough or pan, and dust it over with flour to prevent its adhering to the vessel. Cover it with a warm cloth, and in the winter the vessel should be placed near the fire. It now undergoes a further fermentation, which is shown by its swelling and rising ; this, if the ferment was well formed, will be at its height in an hour-somewhat less in very warm weather. It ought to be taken at its height, before it begins to fall.

Divide the dough into seven equal portions ; mould on your paste-board, and form them into loaves ; put these on well floured tin or earthen plates, and place immediately in the oven.

The oven, if a good one and you have good dry wood, will heat sufficiently in an hour. It is best to kindle the fire in it with dry pine, hemlock furze or some quick burning material; then fill it up with faggots or hard wood split fine and dried, sufficient to heat it-let the wood burn down and stir the coals evenly over the bottom of the oven, let them lie till they are like embers; the bricks at the arch and sides will be clear from any color of smoke when the oven is sufficiently hot. Clean and sweep the oven, throw in a little flour on the bottom, if it burns black at once, do not put in the bread, but let it stand a few moments and cool.

It is a good rule to put the fire in the oven when the dough is made up—the batter will rise and the former heat in about the same time.

When the loaves are in the oven, it must be closed and kept tight, except you open it for a moment to see how the bread appears. If the oven is properly heated, loaves of the size named, will be done in an hour and a half or two hours. They will weigh four pounds per loaf, or about that—thus giving you twentyeight pounds of bread from twentyone quarts (or pounds) of flour. The weight gained is from the water.

It is the best economy to calculate (or ascertain by experiment) the number of loaves of a certain weight or size, necessary for a week’s consumption in your family, and bake accordingly. In the winter season bread may be kept good for a fortnight; still I think it the best rule to bake once every week. Bread should not be eaten at all till it has been baked, at least, one day. When the loaves are done, take them from the oven, and place them on a clean shelf, in a clean, cool pantry. If the crust happen to be scorched, or the bread is too much baked, the loaves, when they are taken out of the oven, may be wrapped in a clean, coarse towel, which has been slightly damped. It is well to keep a light cloth thrown over all the loaves. When a loaf has been cut, it should be kept in a tight box from the air, if you wish to prevent its drying.

YEAST. It is impossible to have good light bread, unless you have lively sweet yeast. When common family beer is well brewed and kept in a clean cask, the settlings are the best of yeast. If you do not keep beer, then make common yeast by the following method.

Take two quarts of water, one handful of hops, two of wheat bran; boil these together twenty minutes ; strain off the water, and while it is boiling hot stir in either wheat or rye flour, till it becomes a thick batter; let it stand till it is about blood warm ; then add a half pint of good smart yeast and a large spoonful of molasses, if you have it, and stir the whole well. Set it in a cool place in summer and a warm one in winter. When it becomes perfectly light, it is fit for use. If not needed immediately, it should, when it becomes cold, be put in a clean jug or bottle ; do not fill the vessel and the cork must be left loose till the next morning, when the yeast will have done working. Then cork it tightly, and set in a cool place in the cellar. It will keep ten or twelve days.

MILK YEAST. One pint of new milk ; one tea-spoonful of fine salt, and a large spoon of flour-stir these well together; set the mixture by the fire, and keep it just lukewarm; it will be fit for use in an hour. Twice the quantity of common yeast is necessary ; it will not keep long. Bread made of this yeast dries very soon; but in the summer it is some. times convenient to make this kind when yeast is needed suddenly

Never keep yeast in a tin vessel. If you find the old yeast sour, and have not time to prepare new, put in salæratus, a tea-spoonful to a pint of yeast, when ready to use it. If it foams up lively, it will raise the bread, if it does not, never use it.

HARD YEAST. Boil three ounces of hops in six quarts of water, till only two quarts remain. Strain it, and stir in while it is boiling hot, wheat or rye meal till it is thick as batter. When it is about milk warm add half a pint of good yeast, and let it stand till it is very light, which will probably be about three hours. Then work in sifted [corn] meal till it is stiff dough. Roll out on a board; cut it in oblong cakes about three inches by two. They should be about half an inch thick. Lay these cakes on a smooth board, over which a little flour has been dusted; prick them with a fork, and set the board in a dry clean chamber or store-room, where the sun and air may be freely admitted. Turn them every day. They will dry in a fortnight unless the weather is damp. When the cakes are fully dry, put them into a coarse cotton bag ; hang it up in a cool dry place. If rightly prepared these cakes will keep a year, and save the trouble of making new yeast every week.

Two cakes will make yeast sufficient for a peck of flour. Break them into a pint of lukewarm water and stir in a large spoonful of flour, the evening before you bake. Set the mixture where it can be kept moderately warm. In the morning it will be fit for use.

Let’s cross the ocean to England and look at yeast made from potatoes, as well as, a time-table for baking rolls. This excerpt comes from  The Young Cook’s Assistant, and Housekeeper’s Guide, published in 1841.

To make Yeast or Barm.

Boil three pounds of potatoes, in as much water as will cover them, to a mash, and pass them with the water through a sieve (take care in paring the potatoes that all the eyes are picked out); then add more water, till it is about the thickness of common yeast. Put in six ounces of lump sugar, and when nearly cold, add four table spoonfuls of good yeast: stir it in at the time, but not after. Let it stand twelve hours in a rather warm place-any part of a room where there is a fire will do. Then put it in a cold situation, and in twelve hours it will be fit for use. Put it in a jar, and tie a paper over: it will keep a week or ten days.

Another.

When good potatoes are not to be had, use a flour paste made about as thick as gruel. Add to every pint of it, when nearly cold, one ounce of sugar and a spoonful of yeast. Work it as the potato yeast, and keep it in a jar. As this is seldom made except in hot weather, it will not keep more than three or four days. It must stand in a cold place, but not in ice, for that destroys the strength of the yeast.

Rolls for Breakfast. The last thing over-night take three pounds of fine flour, rather more than half-a-pint of potato yeast, or of the paste-yeast, a little salt, and two eggs: then warm a little milk (which in hot weather should boil and get cold again), and make a light dough of it; set it on the kitchen table all night, covered with a cloth. The next morning turn it on the dresser, mould it over, and make it up in whatever shape you want it. Twists are made by taking a bit of butter on the dresser instead of flour, and rolling out a long thin length of the dough: then cut it in lengths and turn it in whatever shape you fancy, or may have seen. Place them on the baking-sheet and set it by the fire half-an-hour, to rise, while the oven is heating. For French rolls, put a piece of dough in each shape, set them to rise, and place them in the oven ten minutes before the others, as they must be rasped. The very small fancy twists, &c., should be brushed over the top with an egg, beaten with a little milk, before you set them to rise. Bake these in a slow oven, as they should be coloured but very little.

Buns. Take a piece of the dough made for the rolls; dissolve a bit of butter in a very little warm milk, beat it together, and mix with the dough. Add a little sifted lump sugar, one egg, a little allspice, carraway seeds, and currants—any or all of them, as approved. It must then have an hour to rise; after which, take a little flour on the dresser, and make the buns in whatever shape you please. Place them on the bakingsheet, and set them by the fire to rise. Brush them over with the eggs and milk as prepared for the small rolls, or sift a little white sugar on the top; for which purpose whisk the white of an egg, brush it over, and then sift the sugar upon it. These must have rather a slow oven, and will take a little longer baking than rolls of the same size.

Household Bread. The potato yeast is best for this purpose; and moist sugar will do if lump is a consideration. For a bushel of flour use the quantity of yeast that two pounds of potatoes make, with a handful of salt, and lukewarm water. First make a hole in the middle of the flour, put in the yeast and salt, and three quarts of water, and stir it up to a stiff batter: this is what is called the sponge. Shut it up two hours, and then make it into dough with warm water, but not very stiff.

Cover it up again another hour, or an hour and a half, and in the meantime heat the oven; then take out the dough on the moulding-board before the oven, and mould it in pieces the size of half a loaf: give it a good moulding, and leave it on the board before the fire, at least half-an-hour; it will then only require making into loaves, when the oven is ready. If you make eight loaves of a bushel of flour, they will take three hours and a half baking. Take care the oven is hot, and while it is heating frequently scrape one side and turn the fire over to it, and then scrape the other side. You need not shut the door at first, if too warm.

French Cottage Bread. French bricks are made of the same dough as rolls, or they may be made of a piece of the bread dough. Mould it well, and put it into a tin shape-it should be only half full-set it by the fire, and it will rise to the top. Do not shake it in putting it into the oven. Bake according to the size of the tin used: all kinds of bread ought to be well baked.

2 Replies to “Baking Victorian Bread”

  1. Love Bittman’s bread recipe! Especially since I don’t have to bake it in Victorian times — such work!

  2. Yeah, I won’t even attempt a sourdough starter, so I don’t think Victorian living is for me.

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