The Fresh Loaf

News & Information for Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts

19th Century Breadmaking

Noodlelady's picture

19th Century Breadmaking

My interest in the 19th century comes from researching my family history. Four of my ancestors were soldiers during the American Civil War (1861-1865). This peaked my interest in doing more than just researching names and dates. I have been participating in living history events and reenactments (with my Civil War reenacting unit) and teaching the ways of a typical 19th century Pennsylvania German woman since 2000. I dress the part and strive for authenticity by using reproductions or originals items.

Preparing and cooking 1800s-style food (mostly Pennsylvania German food) became my passion. I first began by making homemade noodles (hence the nickname Noodle Lady) and drying herbs at my tables. Now I can prepare an entire meal using my cast iron dutch ovens and fry pans using a wood fire and coals. At first, I always made some sort of bread at home and brought it with me. Then I began baking potato rolls at events, which are now a staple with my beef vegetable stew, but I've always wondered about the homemade yeast my ancestors would have been using during that time period.

 Potato rolls baked in the Dutch Oven.

Potato rolls baked in the Dutch Oven


Sticky Buns

Sticky Buns (of course the "sticky" is on the bottom!)


So this year I began my first sourdough starter and read through almost every sourdough post on theFreshLoaf! Now a “teacup of yeast” in those old recipes makes sense! In June I was brave enough to take my starter with me to an event and bake a couple of loaves. People were fascinated. It sparked a lot of conversations. The loaves came out great. I had to have rye straw baskets to proof the dough in, so I took a class and made my own. This year I even grew my own rye straw to continue making baskets.

Dutch Oven Sourdough

Dutch Oven Sourdough


Sourdough in Rye Basket

Sourdough in Rye Basket

Of course I can't do a Pa. German impression if I don't have some kind of rye bread. I've made the recipe for Pumpernickel from P. Reinhart's book, "The Bread Baker's Apprentice" and received the greatest compliment...a German exchange student visiting one of my events tasted the bread and remarked that it reminded her of home. I was thrilled!

I now also have the opportunity to do cooking/baking demonstrations at the hearth in a farmhouse at a historic site. It's much better and more controlled when I'm not battling the wind or rain.



I continue to learn as I bake and feel more connected to the family members who came before me. And my collection of old cookbooks and "receipts" continue to grow!

In "Early American Cookery–The Good Housekeeper–1841" the author says, "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 judgement, to decide when all are right...the woman who always has good home-baked bread on the table shows herself to have good sense and good management."


breadnerd's picture

What a cool thing to do!  I love your photos, and your connection to the history makes it even better.  Thanks for sharing your pictures with us.



browndog's picture

Yes, this is fantastic, and you are now my hero, Noodlelady. (Oh, breadnerd is too, his little hobbit-sized mud oven is awesome.)

That sounds fascinating and so much fun, from the research to the reenacting to the baking and the eating!

I love old cookbooks but have never been brave enough to translate the receipts. 

Paddyscake's picture

great pictures, love the history. Growing up in New England it reminds me very much of Old Sturbridge Village, Plymouth Plantation and the multitude of historical societies in so many of the colonial towns.

ehanner's picture

Somehow I missed this post when it was made. What a fantastic piece of work and dedication to history. I take my hat off to you Noodlelady, you are an inspiration. The rye baskets look incredible. I take it you used them to raise the dough, proofing? I'm a bit of a nut for following details back to the beginning so I appreciate your dedication to the spirit of our ancestors.

Well done!


Noodlelady's picture

Thanks to everyone for the nice comments. History is FUN! 

Yes, I do use my rye straw baskets for proofing. This week I've used them to raise 2 sourdoughs for a work luncheon and 2 loaves (so far) for my church's bazaar to sell at the bake table.

ehanner's picture

Noodlelady, I want to be the first to try to encourage you to make a few more baskets. Please put me on the list for a round basket made in the same style. Gladly pay for your time and what ever you think is fair. I would love to be able to make that connection with history.


Noodlelady's picture

I use my dutch oven just like the oven in my kitchen. Most of my baking is done in the 12" dutch oven. I preheat the pot with coals underneath and coals on the lid, sometimes it's only as little as 15 min. I raise the loaves in my rye baskets covered with a cloth then I place them carefully into an earthen pie plate (not preheated). The plate then sits elevated on 3 small stones in the dutch oven. I re-cover and bake. I usually check the bread before the usual time they would be done in the oven at home. Sometimes the coals are really hot and it gets done faster and sometimes it takes twice as long. It's always an experiment!  

The potato rolls I raise in a lightly oiled earthen pie plate or a metal pan that they will be baked in and cover with a cotton towel. I place them in the dutch oven on the stones and bake, usually 15-20 minutes, sometimes longer depending on the heat of the coals. I have baked them directly on the bottom of the cast iron, but they tended to get too dark. I think that our ancestors found that out too. Reading old cookbooks is where I got the idea to put stones in the pot. They could've also used an iron trivet in the bottom. 

The potato roll recipe is a convenient one for me since I tend to take lots of other stuff with me to reenactments. I prepare the dough at home and bring it along. That way I don't have to take all the ingredients with me. It can be made even up to 5 days before you use it. 

1 package active dry yeast
1 1/2 cups warm water
1 cup unseasoned lukewarm mashed potatoes
2/3 cup sugar
2/3 cup shortening
2 eggs
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
6 to 7 cups all purpose flour 

Dissolve yeast in warm water in large bowl. Stir in potatoes, sugar, shortening, eggs, salt and 3 cups of flour. Beat till smooth. Mix in enough remaining flour to make a dough that easy to handle. Turn dough on lightly floured surface, knead till smooth about 5 min. Place in a greased bowl; turn greased side up. Cover bowl tightly, refrigerate at least 8 hours but no longer than 5 days. 

To bake rolls: Shape a 1/4 of the dough recipe into 1" balls (for lots) or I usually make 8 to 9 balls and place into a lightly greased 9" pan. Brush with softened butter. Let rise 1 hour. Heat oven to 400°F. Bake till golden about 15 min. 

I alter the recipe method slightly by splitting the dough into 4 pieces and placing each into a plastic food storage bag after kneading. Then I refrigerate. I can then grab 1 bag or two to take with me to an event and most of the work is done ahead. Of course the plastic bags and my cooler are hidden at all events! 

Now that I have my homemade yeast I should try this recipe with that. Most old cookbooks don't give entire instructions for something like bread recipes, because most people knew the steps for making bread. An 1858 cookbook has a recipe very similar to the one I use and they call them "breakfast rolls" due to their sweetness. It probably rose overnight (or very early for a few hours) and were baked just before breakfast.

KipperCat's picture

What a fascinating explanation!  The huge walk-in fireplaces in some of our earliest homes are making more sense  now.

Noodlelady's picture

Of course not all their baking was done in cast iron dutch ovens. The baking was done in a bakeoven once or twice a week and if something else was needed during the week, then it was done in the dutch oven. Once the coal or wood stove was accepted into the home and the hearth and bakeoven were abandoned, then the batches became smaller and done more frequently, similar to what we do today. Many Pennsylvania Germans continued to use their bakeovens for baking, finding the woodstove gave the baked goods an off-taste and was much too small.

okieinalaska's picture

Cool! I have always wanted to do those reinactments. It seems like it would be a great family activity.  My kids would love it!

I like to do family research as well but never found any relatives that served in the civil war although I did manage to find one very distant relative who served in the revolutionary war! Luckily someone on my Grandmother's side of her family did a family history book and it includes a copy from the rolls? he was in the 10th Caroline Regiment. His date of enlistment was 5 Aug. 1777. 

Here there are some  renaissance type reinactments but none for the civil war or even the revolutionary war.  : (

Thank you so much for posting about your breads etc.  Please be sure to post more, would love to see pics of you in your costume as well. : )

Amy in Alaska