Making Bread at Home in 1821

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“Cottage Economy” by William Cobbett is the founding bible of self-sufficiency from way back in the 1820s. Reread this old story still relevant today on the notion that once upon a time, only a little while ago, people knew a better way of doing things that should not be forgotten. 
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"Give me, for a beautiful sight, a neat and smart woman, heating her oven and setting in her bread! And, if the bustle does make the sign of labour glisten on her brow, where is the man that would not kiss that off, rather than lick the plaster from the cheek of a duchess."

First published in the 1820s, Cottage Economy (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2000) by William Cobbett was written with the aim of instructing country laborers in the arts of “brewing beer, making bread, keeping cows, pigs, bees, poultry and others” and promoting his personal philosophy of self-sufficiency, which he viewed as the foundation of family happiness. Written with Cobbett’s typical wit — and bulldog curmudgeonliness — it deserves its reputation as the founding bible of self-sufficicney and one of the greatest rural reads of the English language. Stay tuned as we post, chapter by chapter, the entire Cottage Economy online. The following excerpt on the importance of bread is taken from chapter 3, “Making Bread.”

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Little time need be spent in dwelling on the necessity of this article to all families; though, on account of the modern custom of using potatoes to supply the place of bread, it seems necessary to say a few words here on the subject, which, in another work I have so amply, and, I think, so triumphantly discussed. I am the more disposed to revive the subject for a moment, in this place, from having read, in the evidence recently given before the Agricultural Committee, that many labourers, especially in the West of England, use potatoes instead of bread to a very great extent. And I find, from the same evidence, that it is the custom to allot to labourers “a potatoe ground” in part payment of their wages!

I was, in reading the above-mentioned evidence, glad to find, that Mr. Edward Wakefield, the best informed and most candid of all the witnesses, gave it as his opinion, that the increase which had taken place in the cultivation of potatoes was “injurious to the country;” an opinion which must, I think, be adopted by every one who takes the trouble to reflect a little upon the subject.

When we consider the effects in the rearing of a family, we shall find, that, in mere quantity of food, that is to say of nourishment, bread is the preferable diet.

Growing Potatoes versus Growing Grain

An acre of land that will produce 300 bushels of potatoes, will produce 32 bushels of wheat. I state this as an average fact, and am not at all afraid of being contradicted by any one well acquainted with husbandry. The potatoes are supposed to be of a good sort, as it is called, and the wheat may be supposed to weigh 60 pounds a bushel. It is a fact clearly established, that, after the water, the stringy substance, and the earth, are taken from the potatoe, there remains only one tenth of the rough raw weight of nutritious matter, or matter which is deemed equally nutritious with bread, and, as the raw potatoes weigh 56lb. a bushel, the acre will yield 1,830lb. of nutritious matter. Now mind, a bushel of wheat, weighing 60lb. will make of household bread (that is to say, taking out only the bran) 65lb. Thus, the acre yields 2,080lb. of bread.

As to the expenses, the seed and act of planting are about equal in the two cases. But, while the potatoes must have cultivation during their growth, the wheat needs none; and while the wheat straw is worth from three to five pounds an acre, the haulm of the potatoes is not worth one single truss of that straw. Then, as to the expense of gathering, housing, and keeping the potatoe crop, it is enormous, besides the risk of loss by frost, which may be safely taken, on an average, at a tenth of the crop.

Then comes the expense of cooking. The thirty-two bushels of wheat, supposing a bushel to be baked at a time, (which would be the case in a large family,) would demand thirty-two heatings of the oven. Suppose a bushel of potatoes to be cooked every day in order to supply the place of this bread, then we have nine hundred boilings of the pot, unless cold potatoes be eaten at some of the meals; and, in that case, the diet must be cheering indeed! Think of the labour; think of the time; think of all the peelings and scrapings and washings and messings attending these nine hundred boilings of the pot!

I have here spoken of a large quantity of each of the sorts of food. I will now come to a comparative view, more immediately applicable to a labourer’s family. When wheat is ten shillings the bushel, potatoes, bought at best hand, (I am speaking of the country generally,) are about two shillings (English) a bushel. Last spring the average price of wheat might be six and sixpence, (English;) and the average price of potatoes (in small quantities) was about eighteen-pence; though, by the wagon-load, I saw potatoes bought at a shilling (English) a bushel, to give to sheep; then, observe, these were of the coarsest kind, and the farmer had to fetch them at a considerable expense. I think, therefore, that I give the advantage to the potatoes when I say that they sell, upon an average, for full a fifth part as much as the wheat sells for, per bushel, while they contain four pounds less weight than the bushel of wheat; while they yield only five pounds and a half of nutritious matter equal to bread; and while the bushel of wheat will yield sixty-five pounds of bread, besides the ten pounds of bran. Hence it is clear, that, instead of that saving, which is everlastingly dinned in our ears, from the use of potatoes, there is a waste of more than one half; seeing that, when wheat is ten shillings (English) the bushel, you can have sixty-five pounds of bread for the ten shillings; and can have out of potatoes only five pounds and a half of nutritious matter equal to bread for two shillings! (English.) This being the case, I trust that we shall soon hear no more of those savings which the labourer makes by the use of potatoes.

Making Bread at Home Saves Money

As I have before stated, sixty pounds of wheat, that is to say, where the Winchester bushel weighs sixty pounds, will make sixty-five pounds of bread, besides the leaving of about ten pounds of bran. This is household bread, made of flour from which the bran only is taken. If you make fine flour, you take out pollard, as they call it, as well as bran, and then you have a smaller quantity of bread and a greater quantity of offal; but, even of this finer bread, bread equal in fineness to the baker’s bread, you get from fifty-eight to fifty-nine pounds out of the bushel of wheat.

Now, then, let us see how many quartern loaves you get out of the bushel of wheat, supposing it to be fine flour, in the first place. You get thirteen quartern loaves and a half; these cost you, at the present average price of wheat (seven and sixpence a bushel,) in the first place 7s. 6d.; then 3d. for yeast; then not more than 3d. for grinding; because you have about thirteen pounds of offal, which is worth more than a 1/2 d. a pound, while the grinding is 9d. a bushel. Thus, then, the bushel of bread of fifty-nine pounds costs you eight shillings; and it yields you the weight of thirteen and a half quartern loaves: these quartern loaves now (Dec. 1821) sell at Kensington, at the baker’s shop, at 1s. 1/2 d.; that is to say, the thirteen quartern loaves and a half cost 14s. 7 1/2 d. I omitted to mention the salt, which would cost you 4d. more. So that, here is 6s.3 1/2 d. saved upon the baking of a bushel of bread. The baker’s quartern loaf is indeed cheaper in the country than at Kensington, by, probably, a penny in the loaf; which would still, however, leave a saving of 5s. upon the bushel of bread. But, besides this, pray think a little of the materials of which the baker’s loaf is composed. The alum, the ground potatoes, and other materials; it being a notorious fact, that the bakers, in London at least, have mills wherein to grind their potatoes; so large is the scale upon which they use that material. It is probable, that, out of a bushel of wheat, they make between sixty and seventy pounds of bread, though they have no more flour, and, of course, no more nutritious matter, than you have in your fifty-nine pounds of bread. But, at the least, supposing their bread to be as good as yours in quality, you have, allowing a shilling for the heating of the oven, a clear 4s. saved upon every bushel of bread. If you consume half a bushel a week, that is to say about a quartern loaf a day, this is a saving of 5l. 4s. a year, or full a sixth part, if not a fifth part, of the earnings of a labourer in husbandry.

How wasteful, then, and, indeed, how shameful, for a labourer’s wife to go to the baker’s shop; and how negligent, how criminally careless of the welfare of his family, must the labourer be, who permits so scandalous a use of the proceeds of his labour! But I have hitherto taken a view of the matter the least possibly advantageous to the home-baked bread. For, ninety-nine times out of a hundred, the fuel for heating the oven costs very little. The hedgers, the copsers, the woodmen of all descriptions, have fuel for little or nothing. At any rate, to heat the oven cannot, upon an average, take the country through, cost the labourer more than 6d. a bushel. Then, again, fine flour need not ever be used, and ought not to be used. This adds six pounds of bread to the bushel, or nearly another quartern loaf and a half, making nearly fifteen quartern loaves out of the bushel of wheat. The finest flour is by no means the most wholesome; and, at any rate, there is more nutritious matter in a pound of household bread than in a pound of baker’s bread. Besides this, rye, and even barley, especially when mixed with wheat, make very good bread.

Few people upon the face of the earth live better than the Long Islanders. Yet nine families out of ten seldom eat wheaten-bread. Rye is the flour that they principally make use of. Now, rye is seldom more than two-thirds the price of wheat, and barley is seldom more than half the price of wheat. Half rye and half wheat, taking out a little more of the offal, make very good bread. Half wheat, a quarter rye and a quarter barley, nay, one-third of each, make bread that I could be very well content to live upon all my lifetime; and, even barley alone, if the barley be good, and none but the finest flour taken out of it, has in it, measure for measure, ten times the nutrition of potatoes. Indeed the fact is well known, that our forefathers used barley bread to a very great extent. Its only fault, with those who dislike it, is its sweetness, a fault which we certainly have not to find with the baker’s loaf, which has in it little more of the sweetness of grain than is to be found in the offal which comes from the sawings of deal boards. The nutritious nature of barley is amply proved by the effect, and very rapid effect, of its meal, in the fatting of hogs and of poultry of all descriptions. They will fatten quicker upon meal of barley than upon any other thing. The flesh, too, is sweeter than that proceeding from any other food, with the exception of that which proceeds from buck wheat, a grain little used in England. That proceeding from Indian corn is, indeed, still sweeter and finer; but this is wholly out of the question with us.

Cry, indeed, they must, if he will persist in giving 13s. for a bushel of bread instead of 5s. 9d. Such a man is not to say that the bread which I have described is not good enough. I am for depriving the labourer of none of his rights; I would have him oppressed in no manner or shape; I would have him bold and free; but to have him such, he must have bread in his house, sufficient for all his family, and whether that bread be fine or coarse must depend upon the different circumstances which present themselves in the cases of different individuals.

The man with a large family has, if it be not in a great measure his own fault, a greater number of pleasures and of blessings than other men. If he be wise, and just as well as wise, he will see that it is reasonable for him to expect less delicate fare than his neighbours, who have a less number of children, or no children at all. He will see the justice as well as the necessity of his resorting to the use of coarser bread, and thus endeavour to make up that, or at least a part of that, which he loses in comparison with his neighbours. The quality of the bread ought, in every case, to be proportioned to the number of the family and the means of the head of that family. Here is no injury to health proposed; but, on the contrary, the best security for its preservation. Without bread, all is misery. The Scripture truly calls it the staff of life; and it may be called, too, the pledge of peace and happiness in the labourer’s dwelling.

As to the act of making bread at home, it would be shocking indeed if that had to be taught by the means of books.

[This was written in 1821. Now (1823) we have had the experience of 1822, when, for the first time, the world saw a considerable part of a people, plunged into all the horrors of famine, at a moment when the government of that nation declared food to be abundant! Yes, the year 1822 saw Ireland in this state; saw the people of whole parishes receiving the extreme unction preparatory to yielding up their breath for want of food; and this while large exports of meat and flour were taking place in that country! But horrible as this was, disgraceful as it was to the name of Ireland, it was attended with this good effect: it brought out, from many members of Parliament (in their places,) and from the public in general, the acknowledgment, that the misery and degradation of the Irish were chiefly owing to the use of the potatoe as the almost sole food of the people.]

How to Make Bread

I observed that I hoped it was unnecessary for me to give any directions as to the mere act of making bread. But several correspondents inform me that, without these directions, a conviction of the utility of baking bread at home is of no use to them. Therefore, I shall here give those directions, receiving my instructions here from one, who, I thank God, does know how to perform this act.

Suppose the quantity be a bushel of flour. Put this flour into a trough that people have for the purpose, or it may be in a clean smooth tub of any shape, if not too deep, and if sufficiently large. Make a pretty deep hole in the middle of this heap of flour. Take (for a bushel) a pint of good fresh yeast, mix it and stir it well up in a pint of soft water milk-warm. Pour this into the hole in the heap of flour. Then take a spoon and work it round the outside of this body of moisture so as to bring into that body, by degrees, flour enough to make it form a thin batter, which you must stir about well for a minute or two. Then take a handful of flour and scatter it thinly over the head of this batter, so as to hide it. Then cover the whole over with a cloth to keep it warm; and this covering, as well as the situation of the trough, as to distance from the fire, must depend on the nature of the place and state of the weather as to heat and cold.

When you perceive that the batter has risen enough to make cracks in the flour that you covered it over with, you begin to form the whole mass into dough, thus: you begin round the hole containing the batter, working the flour into the batter, and pouring in, as it is wanted to make the flour mix with the batter, soft water milk-warm, or milk, as hereafter to be mentioned. Before you begin this, you scatter the salt over the heap at the rate of half a pound to a bushel of flour. When you have got the whole sufficiently moist, you knead it well. This is a grand part of the business; for, unless the dough be well worked, there will be little round lumps of flour in the loaves; and, besides, the original batter, which is to give fermentation to the whole, will not be duly mixed. The dough must, therefore, be well worked. The fists must go heartily into it. It must be rolled over; pressed out; folded up and pressed out again, until it be completely mixed, and formed into a stiff and tough dough. This is labour, mind. I have never quite liked baker’s bread since I saw a great heavy fellow, in a bakehouse in France, kneading bread with his naked feet! His feet looked very white, to be sure: whether they were of that colour before he got into the trough I could not tell. God forbid, that I should suspect that this is ever done in England! It is labour; but, what is exercise other than labour? Let a young woman bake a bushel once a week, and she will do very well without phials and gallipots.

Thus, then, the dough is made. And, when made, it is to be formed into a lump in the middle of the trough, and, with a little dry flour thinly scattered over it, covered over again to be kept warm and to ferment; and in this state, if all be done rightly, it will not have to remain more than about 15 or 20 minutes.

In the mean while the oven is to be heated; and this is much more than half the art of the operation. When an oven is properly heated, can be known only by actual observation. Women who understand the matter, know when the heat is right the moment they put their faces within a yard of the oven-mouth; and once or twice observing is enough for any person of common capacity. But this much may be said in the way of rule: that the fuel (I am supposing a brick oven) should be dry (not rotten) wood, and not mere brush-wood, but rather fagot-sticks. If larger wood, it ought to be split up into sticks not more than two, or two and a half inches through. Bush-wood that is strong, not green and not too old, if it be hard in its nature and has some sticks in it, may do. The woody parts of furze, or ling, will heat an oven very well. But the thing is, to have a lively and yet somewhat strong fire; so that the oven may be heated in about 15 minutes, and retain its heat sufficiently long.

The oven should be hot by the time that the dough, as mentioned, has remained in the lump about 20 minutes. When both are ready, take out the fire, and wipe the oven out clean, and, at nearly about the same moment, take the dough out upon the lid of the baking trough, or some proper place, cut it up into pieces, and make it up into loaves, kneading it again into these separate parcels; and, as you go on, shaking a little flour over your board, to prevent the dough from adhering to it. The loaves should be put into the oven as quickly as possible after they are formed; when in, the oven-lid, or door, should be fastened up very closely; and, if all be properly managed, loaves of about the size of quartern loaves will be sufficiently baked in about two hours. But they usually take down the lid, and look at the bread, in order to see how it is going on.

And what is there worthy of the name of plague, or trouble, in all this? Here is no dirt, no filth, no rubbish, no litter, no slop. And, pray, what can be pleasanter to behold? Talk, indeed, of your pantomimes and gaudy shows; your processions and installations and coronations! Give me, for a beautiful sight, a neat and smart woman, heating her oven and setting in her bread! And, if the bustle does make the sign of labour glisten on her brow, where is the man that would not kiss that off, rather than lick the plaster from the cheek of a duchess.

And what is the result? Why, good, wholesome food, sufficient for a considerable family for a week, prepared in three or four hours. To get this quantity of food, fit to be eaten, in the shape of potatoes, how many fires! what a washing, what a boiling, what a peeling, what a slopping, and what a messing! The cottage everlastingly in a litter; the woman’s hands everlastingly wet and dirty; the children grimed up to the eyes with dust fixed on by potato-starch; and ragged as colts, the poor mother’s time all being devoted to the everlasting boilings of the pot! Can any man, who knows any thing of the labourer’s life, deny this? And will, then, any body, except the old shuffle-breeches band of the Quarterly Review, who have all their lives been moving from garret to garret, who have seldom seen the sun, and never the dew except in print; will any body except these men say, that the people ought to be taught to use potatoes as a substitute for bread?

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