The Fresh Loaf

News & Information for Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts

Colonial America bread baking

dumarest's picture

Colonial America bread baking

Thirded Bread --- from Ella Shannon Bowles and Dorothy S. Towle, Secrets of New England Cooking, M. Barrows, New York, 1947.

4 Cup White flour
4 Cup Yellow corn meal
4 Cup Rye flour
1 Cup Yeast, or 2 yeast cakes
1/2 Cup Brown sugar
2 Cup Milk, scalded
Water, lukewarm

Mix the ingredients, adding enough lukewarm water to make a dough that can be molded. Let it rise until it cracks open. In the morning shape into loaves, place in brick-loaf pans, and let loaves rise for 45 minutes. Bake in a slow oven, 325 degrees F., about one hour. This large recipe makes a number of loaves. (If you use yeast cakes, dissolve in one half cup of lukewarm water.)


This one requires explanation. Jo and I went to a lecture on early New England cooking, and copies of parts of this book were available - we took the bread item. Xeroxed of course, with a copy of the cover, and an illustration of an Indian with a basket of corn greeting a colonist in his field.

Now, history. In early New England, there was no wheat, not a New World grain - it was eventually brought from England. So bread was made with rye and cornmeal, and in fact the rye was meal not flour. When wheat became available the colonists moved to a bread more like what they were familiar with. But wheat was still a luxury, so the "thirded" method. That "white flour" I take to be wheat, and "white" seems to mean similar to the usual flour we use today - I debated using whole wheat flour but decided no. Now yeast - nothing like the packages of yeast we have now. I made in fact a 1/4 recipe, and used 2 yeast packages, added to the dry ingredient mixture. Brown sugar - used dark brown, almost certainly what the colonists would have used.

The rising instructions are confusing. "Let it rise until it cracks open" - and then "in the morning". I took that to mean make the loaf in the evening, although now "until it cracks open" is irrelevant - except to see that it actually does crack open. But go on as soon as it cracks open? but the instruction is "in the morning".

What I did was to make the dough in the afternoon. As a note, it took about 1/2 cup of lukewarm water to make a dough for the quarter recipe. It did in fact rise, and crack. To bed, and in the morning more cracked, but not any great rising. Shaped to a loaf (remember, I made 1/4 of the recipe, a single loaf). At the 45 minutes, it had risen a bit more. Into the oven at the specified temperature for an hour.

That loaf was not thick and heavy as I feared it might be, but firm and, while not soft, clearly risen. It was however very crusted, i.e., the crust was hard. That made it difficult to cut. The taste I found great, very tasty. Jo found it with a bitter aftertaste, and, while pleased, was not as enthusiastic as I was.

Colonial bread in 21st century Maine, and I declare it a success.


Janknitz's picture

More than likely, it was cold at night most of the year, and that would have retarded the dough to some degree so that it was ready for baking in the morning.

I'm fascinated by how things must have gotten done in such times.  My theory is that we eat toast for breakfast because the only bread available in those times would have been the leftovers from baking the day before--day old bread, which is much better as toast. 

So my curiosity is at what point of the day is fresh bread ready?  It must take time to shape and do the final proofing of the loaves, then heat the fire or what served for an oven hot enough to do the baking.  Perhaps the first fresh bead of the day was served at the midday meal and additional amounts were baked to have enough for the evening meal? 

Or, did someone have to get up VERY early, to bake the bread to be ready for the morning meal???

ericjs's picture

Anson Mills has a wheat flour (Red May) and a rye flour (Abruzzi) meant to actually duplicate colonial flours using heirloom strains from that era.

I've recommended their products in other threads, and so feel like I ought to disclaim that I'm not connected with them in any way, I'm just a big fan of their products. I haven't yet tried their colonial wheat or abruzzi rye though.


pmccool's picture


If you used 2 packages of yeast for 1/4 of the flour content, it might well be the source of the bitter taste your wife noted.  Note that the recipe calls for two yeast cakes (presumably the small packages of compressed fresh yeast).  Two packages of dry yeast would be equivalent to that.  So, your 1/4 size test bread contained a full-size quantity of yeast.

It is also possible that the rye flour or the cornmeal was past its prime and turning rancid.  That could also contribute to a bitter flavor.

Assuming that you have fresh ingredients, I'd say try again with the right ratio of yeast to flour.  You'll probably note a big difference in flavor.


dumarest's picture

But if those 2 packages correspond to 1 cup of yeast,. as given in the recipe, how to translate that to today's packaged yeast??

pmccool's picture

However, it seems reasonable to assume that the 1 cup of yeast is probably referring to a sourdough-style starter, or levain.  And since I'm guessing anyway, I'd guess that it is probably in the neighborhood of a 100% hydration starter; i.e., equal weights of water and flour.  That would have a batter-like consistency, which would pour easily for measuring by the cupful.

Here's the basis for my guesses:

1. It's an old recipe, originating from colonial times, per your initial post.  Commercial yeast would not have been available, so the baker probably kept a crock of sourdough starter (yeast, in their parlance) that they refreshed and used at each baking, maybe daily.  As an alternative, they might have used brewers yeast, but that would not have been available to everyone.

2. Somewhere along the line, after commercial yeast became widely available, someone updated the recipe.  Instead of using one cup of yeast (starter), the baker could use two packages of the fresh yeast then available at their grocery store.  Another guess: probably the small packages of compressed fresh yeast that are, what, maybe an ounce in size?

Given all of that, today's baker could certainly use the original recipe, with their own starter.  Or they could use today's most widely available forms of commercial yeast, which are active dry yeast or instant dry yeast.  Or they could use the small packages of compressed fresh yeast, if they can find it (it isn't nearly as easy to find in stores today as it used to be a few decades ago).  In terms of leavening power, a packet of dry yeast will provide a similar fermentation boost as a single package of the compressed fresh yeast.  Leaving others to argue the relative merits of fresh vs. dry yeast, you and I can approach the two commonly available package sizes of each as being equivalent for making bread.


Mini Oven's picture
Mini Oven

I love that instruction!  It is a time reference for a rye sourdough.  If the temp is warmer it will crack sooner, if cooler later.  If you start sooner, then cool it down so it cracks later.  If later, warm it up so it cracks sooner.  I like it!   "A dough that can be molded" sounds so much like a rye.   I love the pan discription too!  If they turn out like bricks, the excuse is built in.  Morning starts when the sun comes up and chores begin and there is enough light to see.

While we're guessing... I think cake yeast and/or instant yeast change the recipe too much.  Maybe a nice adaptive effort but the taste would be very different.   Would be interesting to compare them.  If I made this with instant yeast I would think one package would be more than enough however I would only add it after a 10 hour rye/corn/liquids  pre-ferment.  Or reduce the yeast so it can rise overnight (12 hours) at room temp.


Wild-Yeast's picture

A piece by Patricia Mitchell on bread making in early America:

Imagine how hard our ancestors worked to produce a loaf of bread! Often the procedure began with sowing the wheat, rye, corn, or other grain. (Some individuals bought or bartered to get the grain.) After growth, cultivation, and harvest the cereal plant had to be cleaned (the outer covering or chaff removed). Then the grain had to be ground into flour. This might be done by hand using a mortar and pestle or hand mill, or the grain was taken to a grist mill for grinding.

When the flour was finally ready for baking, the next obstacle to overcome (for breads which needed to rise) was the production of some sort of yeast or starter. If one lived near a brewery one could buy yeast. Other possibilities for making bread starter included planting hops and eventually harvesting the plant “before the September winds blow over them.” (These plants could be dried for future use.)

The hops were cooked with a mixture of water and potatoes, strained, and then perhaps sugar, salt, and some older starter (if available) was added. Flour was stirred in. At this point "rubs" or yeast cakes could be made by adding enough cornmeal to make a stiff dough. This dough was pinched off, the pieces allowed to dry, and later softened in milk or water to use. Alternatively, the starter could be used within a day or so when it bubbled and became active, or it could be stored in a cool place and kept for several weeks.

Now the housewife had the flour and “riser.” Next she needed water from the well, heated over the fire, or milk from the cow. Salt and sugar were often scarce and expensive, but possibly could be purchased. Molasses, honey, or maple syrup could be used. (If these substances were home-produced, much more labor was entailed.)

Finally, the breadmaker had her ingredients assembled. Next she mixed and kneaded — all done manually, of course. The dough rose…. She built a hot fire in the bake oven — whether adjacent to the hearth or a separate brick or stone structure outdoors — using dry “oven wood.” After the blazing fire died down, the ashes were swept out, the flue closed, and the bread inserted in the brick-lined oven, using a long-handled shovel, known as a “peel.” The door was closed. Experience, and a knowledgeable sense of smell told the baker when to open the door and remove the baked bread. — No easy task, but delicious results!



Mini Oven's picture
Mini Oven

Too much work for one person and therefore I'm not likely to believe one person did it all or developed or propagated a bread culture on their own.  Bread is also a symbol of community support.  I don't think anyone did all the work unless they were completely cut off from the rest, even then there would be a family approach and short cuts like biscuits, dumplings and flat breads. 

There were community baking ovens and there were dutch ovens to bake bread in open hearths which were very common.  When a group of people start living in one place, they start separating their individual talents into different jobs and traded with one another for the common good.  It is a group survival behavior.  Many colonists came over in groups speaking the same language and coming from near or same villiages.  Individuals landing in the new world would seek out others to form groups.  Where there was a need, the person with the talent or the ability to learn filled that need and found his/her place.  As time goes on needs change and tastes change, availability of ingredients change and demands change.  

The demands of the consumer changes the demands on the baker.  I actually think the demands on the baker are getting tougher with time.  Demands for more variety, better taste, more exotic ingredients with more nutritional value, meeting a more varied population that doesn't tolerate the added cost involved because they believe all bread is basic. 

So what is now happening?  Are we turning into control freaks that want to privately control our bread from start to finish now that we are learning more good and bad about the ingedients?  I think the colonialist were less concerned with taste and more concerned with survival, less rocks/sand in the flour and that grain/flour hadn't moulded or spoilt.  Then again they had sourdough.