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Making Bread in Early America

By Patricia B. Mitchell

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!