19th Century Ingredients & Recipes
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Family Recipes from the Modern
19th Century Cooking
While the simplest houses were one-room cabins, it was
common for middle-class homes in the South to feature
detached kitchen-buildings. This reduced the heat in the
house during the humid summer months, and also reduced
the chance of the house burning down.
The variety of food available to a family depended on many
different factors but, in general, wealthier families, and
families that had been farming longer, tended to have a
greater variety of food available.
Edwin Tunis, among others, has written about the different
classes of pioneers and farmers, and how their living
conditions improved over time.
The true pioneer often lived mostly as a hunter/gatherer,
raising a few crops, and living in a very simple cabin. They
might live on wild berries & plants, game, and perhaps
some corn or even free-range pork.
The farmer who followed him might have a slightly better
house and barn, better-fed animals, and raise more diverse
crops. These people might have access to the former
foods, as well as milk from a cow and a greater variety of
Succeeding farmers continued to better their conditions,
improving their houses, having better grades of livestock,
and growing different and more abundant foodstuffs. These
people might buy some wheat-flour or raise wheat, raise
more vegetables, keep chickens and other poultry, have
sheep and cattle, have a small orchard, and even buy some
refined sugar or even commercially-canned products.
Small-town professionals and merchants also had access
to a wide variety of foodstuffs, especially to commercially
Wealthy industrialists and planters had perhaps the greatest
choice of foods, having the money to purchase luxury items,
imported foods, and items requiring specialized
preparation by a chef.
Salt was critical, both for cooking and preserving meat. If a
salt-lick wasn't near, then the family bought salt.
Corn: The homesteader usually grew his own corn. It was
the basic food for man and beast. Corn was frequently
stored in a crib, a small building built off the ground. Dried
corn was ground into cornmeal. Some early settlers may
have used rocks, as the Native Americans did. If the settler
did not have a mill, he pounded the corn with a hominy
block. This was a short, hollowed-out, upright log that
functioned as the mortar. A smaller tree, attached at the top
to a sapling to help carry the weight, functioned as a pestle.
This pestle could be raised up and down to pound the corn.
The finest-ground product was cornmeal, and a coarser
product called grits. Cornmeal could be made into
cornbread, a wide variety of fried cakes, mush or used as a
Corn might also be made into hominy by soaking it in lye
(made from wood ashes) until it swelled and the hulls came
off, then washed repeatedly. (Caution: A little lye might put
you off your food for a long, long time. Maybe forever.)
Sometimes the hominy was dried and then ground into
(If you want to get confused, try to research "grits" vs. "hominy
grits." Different regions uses different terms and there's even
disagreement about how they are they made.)
For sweeteners, the farm family used local honey. In the
South, the family might grow a small patch of sugar cane
and boil it down. In certain parts of the north, they might tap
maple trees and boil down the syrup.
Some settlers were able to grow wheat. Those who couldn't
might buy a little white flour.
In addition to wild game, pork was the principal meat.
Hogs could be let loose to forage for acorns and other food
in the wild. A young one might be captured and penned for
Cooking over an open fire required utensils and vessels
designed for that use. Many of these tools are still being
produced today for camping and those who live without
A cast-iron dutch oven (pot) and a skillet were important,
although some homesteaders may have used Native
American pottery or even cooked in skins.
Some homes in the East and the homes of the wealthy
sometimes had ovens built into the bricks of the fireplace,
but not all homes had this convenience. The dutch oven
had 3 legs, and a lid designed to hold hot coals. Biscuits
and bread could be baked in these.
Skillets with legs (called spider skillets) were also very
basic cooking items.
A more complete set of early kitchenware might include
kettles (19th century "kettles" were pots), a teakettle, a grill
or griddle, several pots, a tin roasting oven, a spit, and a
"chimney crane" set into the chimney from which to hang
the pots and kettle.
Utensils made for cooking over the open fire had long
handles. Some utensils and fireplace tools could be made
by the local blacksmith.
As time passed, women used an increasingly complex
array of tinware, wooden-ware, and cast iron.
Pewter and crockery dishes were readily available,
although the simplest family might have to do with
home-carved wooden trenchers.
Gourds, grown in the garden, were widely used for
dippers, bowls, and other vessels.
Pails could be made at home using a burned-out section of
a small log (a "gum") and some people made their own
Milk sours quickly. If there was a cold spring or if the family
was lucky enough to have a springhouse (where the cold
water ran through stone troughs) then she might keep some
sweet milk there. Other families might lower a pail of milk
into the well to keep it cool.
Making butter and cheese were ways of preserving some of
the nutritional content of milk before it soured.
Other than the pail or some type of vessel in which to milk,
the woman usually required some type of milkpans.
Milkpans were usually flat pans in which the milk was
allowed to sit until the cream rose to the top. The cream
could then be skimmed and used for other purposes.
Sometimes the skimmed milk was drunk by the family, at
other times it was fed to pigs.
The woman also needed a churn if she wished to make
butter. These were probably commercially-made most of
the time, whether they were of wood or crockery. In addition
to the type of churn commonly seen, there were also barrel
churns mounted on rockers for churning a larger quantity of
The wooden dasher could be made at home, as could the
various butter paddles. The woman might also have a
wooden butter mold.
In order to make cheese, some rennet was added to the
milk to make it separate (curdle) into solids (curds) and the
clear liquid (whey.) In the 19th century, rennet was often
obtained from a suckling calf's stomach, but a
vegetable-based substitute can be made from various types
of plants, including thistles. (I knew there HAD to be a use
for those annoying things!)
Once curdled, the woman would heat the curds in various
ways in order to make different types of cheeses. The
easiest cheeses were the soft cheeses. Hard cheeses
required a cheese press to squeeze out the liquid, and they
took more time to age.
Pectin From Apples
Calf's Food Jelly
One of the differences we'd notice between
life now and life in the 19th century was in
the difference in packaging. Many staples
(salt, flour, sugar, etc.) were bought in bulk,
often in reusable cloth bags or in wooden
kegs or barrels.
|Making Butter: North and South
The usual "craft type" recipe for making
butter involves using pasteurized cream.
This is well-suited to people, who are not
used to drinking unpasteurized milk.
In the South, however, the traditional method
of making butter is different and well-suited to
a climate where milk cannot be kept "sweet"
for very long. Coming out of the Scotch-Irish
tradition, it involves letting whole milk (milk
with the cream in it) clabber and then
churning. This butter has tangy taste.
Today, many modern people are not
accustomed to the normal bacteria that 19th
Century people grew up with; that's why some
modern people get sick so easily when
petting farm animals. This butter-making
recipe is given for historical information only,
and I don't recommend it for practical use
except by people already accustomed to
drinking raw milk.
To make butter this way, you must have
unpasteurized whole cow milk (now only
available from your cow or from an approved
dairy). Scald your churn and dasher, and
then pour in the milk. Set your churn (cover
the top so that insects cannot get inside) in a
warm area until the milk begins to look solid.
This is the "Bonny Clabber" of Scotch
When your milk clabbers, you are ready to
churn. In winter, you can place your churn by
the fireplace or stove. In summer, you can
place it outside or on the porch.
Churn by moving the dasher up and down,
until you see solid pieces of butter in the
buttermilk. Remove these pieces with a
slotted spoon, retaining the buttermilk for
drinking (with cornbread) or cooking.
Press the pieces of butter together and then
work them in a dish of COLD water to get the
buttermilk out. This is when the 19th century
housewife used butter paddles. Continue to
work until the water stays clear. If you don't
work out the buttermilk, the butter will go
rancid more quickly.
After working the butter, it can be salted or
not, and then you may mold it or shape it if
|A boy churning with
a wooden churn. The
dash or dasher is the
wooden stick (with a
cross on the end) that
goes up and down.
Bonny Clabber & Baking Powder
The Clabber Girl website has some
interesting information about how clabbered
milk (an acid) along with potash (a base) was
once used as a leavening agent to make
quick-breads rise. Today's baking powder
causes a similar reaction, without having to
use soured milk.
19th Century Food preparation
involved a lot of steps. Coffee had to
be roasted and ground. Nutmegs had
to be grated. Poultry and fish often
had to be cleaned and cut up.
Sauces, such as ketchup, were often
made at home.
The fireplace could be quite large and was sometimes fitted with a metal chimney
crane. Hooks from the crane held pots and the teakettle over the fire. Some
cranes could be swung out, to make removing pots easier, and some could be
raised or lowered to adjust the heat. Other cooking vessels were used on the
hearth, set on a trivet over the coals, or even had coals placed on the lid.
Firedogs or andirons are the metal stand(s) that hold the wood.
Some farmers had small, simple mills called
querns, which were used for grinding
Some families had ovens built into
their fireplaces, other families had
to bake in cast-iron pots called
Churn and a
The Fireless Cooker
In many early homes, both men and women worked
hard. Wash day was especially hard for women, but
often women had to help in the fields during harvest as
well. During these times, women appreciated having a
simple meal- like a stew- that would cook slowly and be
ready at dinner time.
Apparently at some point someone discovered that a
pot of boiling food could be put into a box of hay or
other insulating material and the pot could continue to
stay hot for hours, cooking while the woman of the
house was busy. This method was thrifty, too, as it did
not require a constant outlay of fuel. As long as the
food had been boiled long enough (especially important
in the case of meats) and was hot enough, this method
By the early 20th Century this method had been refined
and commercialized into the "fireless cooker". Sort of
like a non-electric Crock Pot, the fireless cooker was
usually composed of a pot (or several small pots) within
a larger metal pot which might then be enclosed inside
a wooden box of some kind. These were commercially
made, but could also be made at home using regular
lidded cooking vessels along with a cardboard box and
newspaper for insulation.
Over the years, the fireless cooker came in and out of
fashion. They seem to have been most popular during
times when thrift was wanted or needed, such as during
Today, when so many people are looking for alternative
energy sources and ways to conserve electricity,
people are once again looking into the humble fireless
Vinegar is an article perpetually
wanted in a family, and to buy it is
expensive. The good housekeeper
should prepare it on her own.
Cider Vinegar- Put a pound of white
sugar to a gallon of cider, and shaking
them well together, let them ferment
for four months; a strong and
well-colored vinegar will be the result.
Sugar Vinegar- To every gallon of
water put two pounds of coarse brown
sugar. Boil and skim this. Put it to
cools in a clean tub: when about
lukewarm, add a slice of bread soaked
in fresh yeast. Barrel it in a week, and
set it in the sun in summer or by the
fire in winter, for six months, without
stopping the bung-hole; but cover it
with thin canvas or an inverted bottle
to keep out the flies.
Godey's Lady's Book April 1840, p. 155