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What’s Cooking – Breads and Leavenings

rollsJuly 29, 2019

Bread, of some form, was a staple for most Iowa farming families, beginning with Native American cultures. The Ioway made unleavened corn bread baked on hot stones around their open fires. Pioneers used both corn meal and wheat flours for bread. They baked bread in cast iron bake kettles set in the coals of the open hearth. Pearlash, eggs, saleratus, an early chemical leavening preceding baking soda, and home-created yeast starters were used to leaven bread. After settlement, woodstoves made baking easier and Iowa cooks had more options. A farm wife could use her basic bread recipe to make more interesting things: Cinnamon rolls, onion and garlic breads, braided loaves and more! By 1860, commercial cake yeast, baking soda and baking powder were available, along with many types of specialty flours. This week the museum’s food historians explore the variety of quick breads, flat breads, and yeast breads made in the past. Wednesday, the Tangen House will bake Cardamom Buns. Thursday and Friday the 1850 Pioneer Farm will work with various period leavenings and cast iron bake kettles. The 1700 Ioway Farm staff will make cornbread on Thursday.

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“What’s Cooking” Program Presenting Sponsor – Hy-Vee


Yeast is a single celled fungus that has been used for thousands of years in the making of beers, wines, and baked goods. Yeast cells feed on the sugars in things like fruit juice (in the case of wine) or flour and sugar, in the case of breads. Yeast feeds on the sugars, releasing carbon dioxide in the process. These bubbles of gas cause dough to rise. In the 1850s, women living in larger cities might have the opportunity to buy brewer’s yeast. On the Iowa frontier, this wasn’t usually the case. Instead, a home baker had to find ways to capture and grow natural yeasts. She had to create what is sometimes called a starter. Milk or potatoes, for example, could be encouraged to grow yeast cells. In her 1846 book, Miss Beecher’s Domestic Receipt Book, Catherine Beecher offered these options.

Milk Yeast
One pint of new milk, and one teaspoonful of fine salt. One large spoonful of flour. Mix, and keep it blood warm an hour. Use twice as much as the common yeast. Bread soon spoils made of this.

Potato Yeast
By those who use potato yeast, it is regarded as much the best, as it raises bread quicker than common home-brewed yeast, and, best of all, never imparts the sharp, disagreeable yeast taste to bread or cake, often given by hop yeast. Mash half a dozen peeled boiled potatoes, and mix in a handful of wheat flour, and two teaspoonfuls of salt, and after putting it through a colander, add hot water till it is a batter. When blood warm, put in half a tea-cup of distillery yeast, or twice as much potato, or other home-brewed. When raised, keep it corked tight, and make it new very often in hot weather. If made with hop water, it will keep much longer.

In 1857, French scientist Louis Pasteur established the fact that yeast was indeed a living organism. This detail helped brewers to develop better ways to create and maintain cultures of yeast. Charles and Mac Fleischmann, the sons of an Austrian brewer, applied this new knowledge and created a dry, compressed cake of baking yeast. The pair settled in Cincinnati, Ohio and launched a yeast company in 1868. They introduced their product to a wide audience by sponsoring a bakery booth at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876.

baked rollsQuick breads, such as biscuits, do not use yeast for leavening at all. Instead, these foods get their lift from chemical leavenings such as baking soda. Saleratus, a common chemical leavening popular in the 1840s and 1850s, was the term for potassium bi-chloride. In the late 1850s, baking soda, sodium bicarbonate, gradually pushed saleratus out of the market. A Harvard scientist Eben Horsford put his chemistry to work and patented the first baking powder in 1856. He discovered how to mix baking soda with the acidic compound mono-calcium phosphate and cornstarch for improved lifting while baking. Many cooks were initially suspicious of the chemical creation and avoided the new invention. Baking powders were changed and improved upon by various companies throughout the end of the 19th century, finally reaching general acceptance at the turn of the century.

Basic Baking Powder Biscuit
2 c. Flour
3 tsp. Baking Powder
½ tsp. Salt
¼ c. Lard (or other shortening)
¾ c. Milk
Measure dry ingredients. Cut shortening into dry ingredients, then add liquid. Roll out dough to about ½” thick and then cut out biscuits. Bake in a hot oven for about 10 minutes.


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1700 Ioway Farm   1850s    1900 Farm   From Field to Table   In the Kitchen   Recipes   What’s Cooking

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