Vintage Baking: 25 Fascinating Facts
How long have people baked with yeast? How were cookies invented? The history of baking is as rich and layered as a devil's food cake. Learn some fun facts and pick up vintage-inspired recipes along the way.
The word cookies comes from koekje, a Dutch word meaning ‘little cakes.’ The first cookies were made with scraps of pie crust or drops of extra cake batter. Go back to basics with these slim sugar cookies.
Before commercial yeast, breads were raised naturally. A mix of flour and water, left to ferment, created a bubbling, yeasty ‘starter’ or ‘mother.’ Stirred into a dough, the starter created high, bubbly, slightly sour breads. Evidence of yeast baking was found in Egyptian ruins. Today, artisanal bakers often use sourdough for its complex flavor profile.
In 1859, Louis Pasteur peered through a microscope and discovered how yeast worked. Within a decade, commercial brands of yeast were established. Commercial yeast, more dependable but less nuanced than natural yeast, ushered in a modern era of baking.
Natural yeast was also used to leaven (raise) cakes and other baked goods—an incredibly finicky process. In the 1800’s, bakers began turning to chemical solutions. An early option, pearlash, made from lye and ashes, used potassium carbonate to produce carbon dioxide leavening. Unfortunately, pearlash smelled terrible and was quite caustic. (Try a modern molasses cookie, no lye needed.)
In 1846, baking soda became common. This leavener needed an acid ingredient in the dough to create bubbles. Sour milk was a popular choice. Baking soda still requires an acid to work today, which is why your recipe may call for buttermilk or lemon juice.
The invention of baking powder in the 1880’s finally allowed bakers to leaven dough without any extra ingredients. Baking powder contains baking soda along with an acidic ingredient, both activated with water. It’s almost the same today. Once you combine your dry ingredients and your liquids, get that cake in the oven quickly to get the best rise!
While chemical leavening agents were being perfected and introduced to the masses, home bakers experimented with other ways to raise their bakes. Whipped egg whites worked particularly well. We still leaven angel food cakes and some sponge cakes with this delicate method.
Fun fact: ‘pudding’ is an ancient word, and even featured in Homer’s Odyssey. Back then, puddings were grains and meat stuffed into animal skin or organs. Not quite the same! Savory puddings survived, though, and in Britain you can still eat kidney or steak varieties. Try our onion-laced pudding.
Early in the 19th century, pineapples were considered a luxury item. One could even rent a pineapple to use for a centerpiece, presumably returning it uneaten the next day. Our pineapple pie is still worth of a proud place on the table.
Recipes for strawberry shortcake date as far back as the 1600’s. Early versions often use a Native American method of bruising wild strawberries and mixing them with cornmeal to make a sweet bread. Today, shortcake is usually made with biscuits—unless you grew up eating a sponge or pie crust shortcake. Every camp is adamant that their method is right.
What’s the first fruit you think of when I say ‘pie’? If it’s apple, you’re in the majority today. However, in the early days of America, rhubarb was the most common pie. It’s even nicknamed ‘the pie plant.’
In the 1700’s, many puddings were closer to scrambled eggs or omelets, sweetened with fruit. These days, eggs tend to be savory. Give our maple-sweetened recipe a try.
A delicious east coast treat, maple sugar is a granular sugar made from (and tasting of) maple syrup. Its history is a political one: in the 18th century, it was marketed to northerners as an ethical alternative to cane sugar, which was harvested by slaves.
For many hundreds of years, recipes were shared orally, or by teaching, rather than written down. Cooks and bakers learned by watching their mothers, aunts and grandmothers cook. Even in written recipes (or ‘receipts’), measurements were general and techniques rarely explained. Some of our favorite recipes today are simple enough to learn by heart.
Chocolate is native to Central America. Early recipes often paired it with spicy cinnamon or chiles. Still delicious today!
Cool, soft, mild-flavored and pleasantly jiggly. Since the Victorian era, creams and jellies have been the height of sophistication for the home cook. (Though making gelled food dates back to the 1400’s, when fish jelly was unthinkably popular.) Think panna cotta, Bavarian cream, and molded Jell-O desserts. These days, they’re more rare but we think they should make a comeback.
Puddings might be the original comfort food. Boxed mixes have made the practice of making homemade pudding nearly obsolete. Don’t fall for it: there’s nothing as good as homemade (and it’s quite easy!).
Early bakers were far more frugal than modern cooks. Popular sweets were made from leftovers, crumbs, and ingredients gone slightly off. Think bread pudding made from old, dry bread; cobblers topped with crumbs; cakes made with sour milk; preserves and pies made with bruised and crushed fruits; and old rice or grains made into puddings.
Fruit is the oldest dessert. Fruit compote, or stewed fruit, is nearly as common. Every culture adds their own flavors. Find ginger-spiced compotes in Asia, rose water and honey-scented fruits in the Middle East, and cinnamon and vanilla in the US.
As early as the 5th century B.C.E. and through the 4th century, cookies were used in religious ceremonies and sacrifices. Amazingly, this occurred throughout the world: Greek, Babylonian, Aztec, Egyptian, and Germanic tribes all used cookies or small cakes ritualistically. Nod to this bloody history with our Halloween cookies.
Gingerbread is one of the oldest cookies, with Greek recipes dating as far back as 2400 B.C.E.(!) By the Middle Ages, gingerbread had spread across Europe and were popular with royalty. Queen Elizabeth I is often credited with the idea of decorating the cookies.
Today, cookies and milk are practically a food group for American children. The chocolate chip cookie, invented in the 1930’s by Ruth Wakefield at the Toll House Inn, is perhaps the most famous. Ms. Wakefield cut up a chocolate bar to stir into her cookies. By 1939, Nestle had invented chocolate chips. Try our walnut-studded spin-off.