18th Century Spices: Ginger

June 7, 2015 in Feast or Famine, Living history, On White Wings: Traveling on the Tall Ships, Outlandish Recipes of the 18th century, Uncategorized by M C

Outlander STARZ set imageWhile I haven’t fallen through any stones lately I have 18th century days. And this was definitely one of those days.  Fresh ginger root is, along with lemons, one of those basics we just expect to find in the grocery.  In fact, it is one of those items you’d have expected to find in a marginally stocked store in 18th century Boston, and a decently stocked one of the same period in Burlington, VT. Ginger has been included in European cooking since, literally, the year one, or at least the first century, and by the mid-1700s is cultivated in China, Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean, as well as growing wild in parts of the southern colonies.  The plant dies at around 55F, but thrives nicely in temperatures above that.. so while roots would have been grown in New England, except in a conservatory, there would have been ready sources of ginger even during a blockade, coming out of the southern colonies, although likely it would have been pricey.

So when I couldn’t find ginger anywhere in the area I found myself as upset as any 18th century housewife with half a day invested in getting to the mercantile only to discover what roots they have limp and desiccated, hardly fresh at all.

And then I had a thought.. is this limp wrinkled thing what ginger looked like to an 18th century Vermont housewife?  How would ginger have been handled in the 18th Century?  And how would that ginger differ from the ginger available today?

This is no minor matter. Kevin Carter, blogging at Savoring the Past writes in his piece Current Challenges, struggles to determine what, exactly, a period recipe means when it calls for currants.. does it mean the berries, black or red currants? Or the little dried Zantes we’re familiar with today, which are, essentially, little seedless raisins? But leaving that confusion aside..

“John Payne chronicled how currants were processed in his 1796 travel journal, Geographical extracts, forming a general view of earth and nature. After reading that account, it really made me really wonder about their taste. Grapes of Corinth were first laid out on the dirt to cure in the sun. Then they were carried on the backs of horses and donkeys into the city where they were packed into underground cisterns until they were sold for export. At that point, men with bare feet (courteous enough to at least oil them first) stomped the raisins into kegs. The kegs were loaded onto ships and allowed to “cook” during their journey, often stinking up the entire vessel.”

Even if you get the currants right in a recipe, and correctly deduce the recipe’s author means “Zantes,” I think we can say with some confidence your end product isn’t going to match what your 18th century counterpart would have put on her table.  Not after those currants have been stored underground, stomped into a barrel, and “cooked” to the point of creating a stench!

Now.. my great great great.. well, a way back there.. grandfather sailed a trading clipper.  Family lore says he was a “captain,” and some artifacts do suggest he wasn’t a common sailor, but regardless of his rank I do know he collected pieces of trade silk from China, and silver from India.  So likely he brought back ginger and other spices from one of his trade runs.

ginger02But my great great was a New Englander.. and we are nothing if not thrifty.  Alright, we’re cheap. And here I have a large ginger root (found a week after the great quest for ginger began).

It’s bulky. And unlike the currants, which can be smashed into barrels, these bulky roots won’t squash well.  Worse, the roots in my local grocery store clearly show that ginger, left to its own devices on a long voyage, is going to dry out.  And as it does, your cargo is going to shrink, which means you’ll be arriving in port with rather less of a profitable spice in your hold than you left the exotic East with.

A sensible sailor would dry the ginger before packing it into the hold. So I decided to dry the ginger, to see how much water a sample of ginger root actually holds.

ginger04I set out three samples of ginger: chunks of whole roots, slices of whole roots, and slices of roots with the skin scraped off.

In 48 hours the root with the skin removed was impressively dry and ready for processing.  Two days later the root dried with the skin on was also ready for processing, but noticeably leathery instead of crisp.  The roots, now a good three weeks into the experiment, are not as fresh as they were the day I set them out.. but not even close to desiccated, nor ready for processing.  Leading me to wonder a) exactly how old were the roots in my grocery store and b) whether or not shipping fresh roots in the 18th century might have been much simpler than I originally supposed.  After three weeks of exposure on a sunny window these root chunks are still quite plump and reasonably fresh.


This piddling amount of ginger is what remains, after drying of the smallest plate of ginger, the sample with the skin removed. The sample went from 1.5 oz to a paltry .15 ounces.  The middle sample went from 5.7 oz down to .35 oz.  after drying. That’s an amazing amount of water weight, to say nothing of volume.  But, as I say, several weeks into this the chunks are still maintaining shape and reasonable quality.. so likely roots were transported.  Certainly then, as now, there was a demand for fresh roots.

Meanwhile.. I have dried chunks of ginger here.  There are many scenes in The Outlander Series where we find various folks grinding roots with a mortar and pestle… and now, I have an excuse to acquire one!  Ironically, unlike the ginger finding a mortar and pestle, in fact, finding several among which to choose, took a single trip into town.


15 minutes worth of grinding later I have a most unsatisfactory version of ground ginger.  The ginger proves to be very fibrous and not at all easy to grind into a powder.  The skinned ginger does powder into a finer consistency than the ginger dried with its skin on, which tends to stay in the form of fibrous flakes, but neither are what we’d recognize as “ground ginger.”

The 18th century cook, however, did have a spice grinder.  And lovely elaborate things some of them were too.. inlaid with ivory or made out of exotic hardwoods. This is an English or Dutch 17th Century lignum vitae and steel coffee grinder made in multiple sections, the removable finial concealing the square shaft, the section below with removable lid for placing the beans, the base hollowed to collect the grounds. And don’t  I wish I had an authentic grinder to work with, but I’ll have to make do with a little modern coffee grinder.

ginger12Imagine my surprise to discover grinding ginger into a recognizable powder requires multiple passes through the grinder!  After three passes through I have a powder which loosely resembles a modern “ground ginger” but is nowhere near as fine.  In fact, it is substantially less dense than modern ground ginger.. I put it on an ancient set of scales to prove it.

ginger15 This scale comes from my grandfather’s estate.. who was also something of an amateur mad scientist, evidently this sort of thing is inherited. It looks shabby, but granddad was a perfectionist and it is his lab equipment was quality in its day and holding up rather well. The measuring spoons I used to figure volume are slightly less accurate, but it takes 1 3/4 teaspoons of 18th century ginger to equal, in weight, 1 teaspoon of the finer, denser, modern ground ginger.

While this is all fascinating.. what happens when you use this stuff in a recipe? I chose Outlander Kitchen’s Fiona’s Ginger-Nut Biscuits because, frankly, I’m addicted to them, and I’ve made them so many times I can (almost) do it without looking at the recipe. In the first batch I used 18th century ginger by volume and, on first excited nibble, found them sadly lacking in that ginger bite I’m so fond of. On the second I hit the ginger. It’s not “incorporated” into the dough as modern ground ginger is.. the effect is similar to the sea salt, where a bit of salt explodes on your tongue.

Batch two… went with ginger by weight. The recipe calls for 4 tsp.. to match the weight that’s 7 teaspoons of 18th century ginger. This time I got full ginger flavor (and then some) in every bite.. but the texture had a “health food” feeling to it. A bit of a “high fiber” texture between the teeth, as if I’d added something healthy to the biscuit to balance out the butter.

Modern ground ginger, sold in bulk at the local health store, runs $10.50/pound. Drying and grinding fresh ginger runs a surprising $4.07/pound, but my 18th century ginger is not as dense as the modern version, so if I calculate the cost based on what I’ll actually use, 1 3/4 teaspoons in a recipe instead of 1, the cost is still a surprising $7.13 per “pound.”

Which is a good thing.. because I bought an awful lot of ginger when I finally found it. So much ginger I decided to make an 18th century sparkling ginger fruit “small beer” or what is termed today a naturally carbonated soda… which turns out to be so ridiculously easy and fun it must be your next kitchen project with your kids.

I’ll tell you about it next week..  18th Century Ginger Beer (an improvement on Lizzie’s Hellbrew!)

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