Thursday, March 24, 2011

Colonial Baking & Ovens

How did the colonial American housewife bake her bread & cakes?

"The home brick oven--whether adjacent to the hearth in the kitchen or a separate structure outside--was designed and used exclusively for bread, cake, and pastry. If the niceties of regulating several fires on the hearth at one time challenged the skill of the cook, even more difficult was the proper regulation of the oven. One built a fire directly in it for the purpose of heating the walls, which had to hold enough heat long enough to complete that particular baking load. Since the oven had no flue, the fire smothered if the door was closed, therefore, the door was left partly open to supply oxygen for the fire and to allow the smoke to escape. The open door also allowed the cook to watch the fire. For even heat she stirred it periodically and pushed it about to different spots on the oven floor. When the fuel had burned to ashy coals, she raked them out and then tested the heat with her hand. If the oven was too hot, she allowed it to cool to the proper temperature; if it was not hot enough, she had to repeat the heating procedure with another fire. Using an oven peel to protect her hands, she put in the bread, which had been kneaded earlier and set to rise so as to be ready to bake when the oven was ready, and closed the door, not to open it again until she judged the bread done. small loaves could be baked directly on the bricks without scorching the bottom crusts. Large loaves or a very hot oven floor dictated the use of bread pans, as did cakes and pies of all sorts."
---Colonial Virginia Cookery: Procedures, Equipment, and Ingredients in Colonial Cooking, Jane Carson [Colonial Williamsburg Foundation:Williamsburg VA] 1985 (p. 71)

"Baking in the beehive oven has traditionally been an all-day task. Once one has done it, it is easily understood why colonial cooks only did one major baking each week. On baking day the family meal would most likely be a simple stew or cold meats and pies. The cook rose before dawn to set her dough and start the fire in the oven, and it would be nightfall before the products of her efforts would be finished and ready to grace the cupboard shelves. The procedure was time consuming but not complicated. The oven floor was, or should have been, swept clean with the long-handled hearth broom kept for this purpose. A small fire was started on the oven floor using the same principles used in starting a fire on the hearth. As the fire took hold, larger and larger pieces of wood were added to the oven. The oven door was closed between each addition of wood. After the largest logs were added to the oven, the door was closed and the fire allowed to burn to ashes. This process took anywhere from three to five hours, depending on the type of wood being used, the construction of the oven, and the efficiency of its draft system.

"When the fire had burned to ashes, the iron peel or a fire-shovel was used to remove any of the larger pieces of charred wood,. The hearth broom was dipped in water to keep it from catching fire, and the rest of the ashes were swept out of the oven. In a beehive oven with a built-n ash chute, the ashes could be pushed right down onto the hearth. There were many methods used by colonial cooks to test the readiness of the oven for baking. They might hold their arms just inside the oven opening and see how high they could count--less than five, too hot--more than fifteen, not hot enough. Sometimes the cook tossed cornmeal onto the oven floor. If it turned black immediately, the oven was too hot; if it turned a nice, even brown, then the oven was ready. Having determined that the oven was ready for baking, the items to be baked were placed into the various parts of the oven, dense breads in the middle, and light breads or cakes toward the front. This permitted easy removal when their cooking time was done done. The door was sealed and the food left to bake in the heat retained in these brick ovens.

"One essential piece of equipment for handling baked goods was the peel, a long-handled, shovel-like tool that permitted the cook safely to put breads and baked dishes into the heated oven and remove them once baked. Peels were either made of wood (similar to those used today by pizza bakers) or of sheet iron. When bread was to be baked without a pan, right on the oven floor, the dough was placed on the flat wide face of the peel and, with a twisting motion of the wrist by the cook, was turned off the peel onto the oven floor." ---Pleasures of Colonial Cooking, prepared by the Miller-Cory House Museum [New Jersey Historical Society:Newark NJ] 1982 (p. 14-16)

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Tracy - Simple Living
My love of vintage goods, antiques
and handmade primitives!
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Food in Colonial Times

Colonial meal structures/times were also different from what we know today. Breakfast was taken early if you were poor, later if you were rich. There was no meal called lunch. Dinner was the mid-day meal. For most people in the 18th century it was considered the main (biggest) meal of the day. Supper was the evening meal. It was usually a light repast. It is important to keep in mind there is no such thing as a "typical colonial meal." The Royal Governor of Virginia ate quite differently from the first Pilgrim settlers and the West Indians laboring in Philadelphia's cookshops.

If you need a basic overview on what was served for colonial meals, this information will help:

"Breakfast. The Colonial American breakfast was far from the juice, eggs and bacon of today. The stoic early settlers rose early and went straight to the chores that demanded their attention. In frontier outposts and on farms, families drank cider or beer and gulped down a bowl of porridge that had been cooking slowly all night over the embers...In the towns, the usual mug of alcoholic beverage consumed upon rising was followed by cornmeal mush and molasses with more cider or beer. By the nineteenth century, breakfast was served as late a 9 or 10 o'clock. Here might be found coffee, tea or chocolate, wafers, muffins, toasts, and a butter dish and knife...The southern poor ate cold turkey washed down with ever-present cider. The size of breakfasts grew in direct proportion to growth of wealth. Breads, cold meats and, especially in the Northeast, fruit pies and pasties joined the breakfast menus. Families in the Middle Colonies added special items such as scrapple (cornmeal and headcheese) and dutch sweetcakes wich were fried in deep fat. It was among the Southern planters that breakfast became a leisurely and delightful meal, though it was not served until early chores were attended to and orders for the day given...Breads were eaten at all times of the day but particularly at breakfast."
---A Cooking Legacy, Virginia T. Elverson and Mary Ann McLanahan [Walker & Company:New York] 1975 (p. 14)

"Dinner. Early afternoon was the appointed hour for dinner in Colonial America. Throughout the seventeenth century and well into the eighteenth century it was served in the "hall" or "common room." ..While dinner among the affluent merchants in the North took place shortly after noon, the Southern planters enjoyed their dinner as late as bubbling stews were carried into the fields to feed the slaves and laborers...In the early settlements, poor families ate from trenchers filled from a common stew pot, with a bowl of coars salt the only table adornment. The earliest trenchers in America, as in the Middle Ages, were probably made from slabs of stale bread which were either eaten with the meal or thrown after use to the domestic animals. The stews often included pork, sweet corn and cabbage, or other vegetables and roots which were available...A typical comfortably fixed family in the late 1700s probably served two courses for dinner. The first course included several meats plus meat puddings and/or deep meat pies containing fruits and spices, pancakes and fritters, and the ever-present side dishes of sauces, pickles and catsups...Soups seem to have been served before of in conjunction with the first course. Desserts appeared with the second course. An assortment of fresh, cooked, or dried fruits, custards, tarts and sweetmeats was usually available. "Sallats," (salads) though more popular at supper, sometimes were served at dinner and occasionally provided decoration in the center of the table...Cakes were of many varieties: pound, gingerbread, spice and cheese."
---A Cooking Legacy (p. 24-28)

"Supper. What is there to say about a meal that probably did not even exist for many settlers during the eary days of the Colonies and later seemed more like a bedtime snack made up of leftovers?...In the eighteenth century supper was a brief meal and, especially in the South, light and late. It generally consisted of leftovers from dinner, or of gruel (a mixture made from boiling water with oats, "Indian," (corn meal) or some other meal). One Massachusetts diary of 1797 describes roast potatoes, prepared with salt but no butter. Ale, cider, or some variety of beer was always served. In the richer merchant society and in Southern plantation life, eggs and egg dishes were special delicacies and were prepared as side dishes at either dinner or supper...Supper took on added importance as the nineteeth century wore on. This heretofore casual meal became more important as dinner was served earlier in the day."
---A Cooking Legacy (p. 79-81)

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Tracy - Simple Living
My love of vintage goods, antiques
and handmade primitives!
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