Outlander Inspired: Sourdough Bread Recipe c. 1790

The oldest continuously operating company in the world is Kongo Gumi Co., Ltd., a Japanese construction company. Its 1400 year history makes King Arthur Flour Company‘s paltry 223 year history seem like small potatoes indeed, but King Arthur Flour is one of America’s oldest companies, and has in its inventory the very essence of early America.

KingArthur1In 1790 Henry Wood began importing fine English flour into Boston to provide the very highest quality flour to American bakers. The Colonies didn’t need English flour, in fact, as early as 1700, when fields were still being harvested with hand sickles, Pennsylvania was exporting 350,000 bushels of wheat and 18,000 tons of flour annually. In 1750 agricultural innovators began replacing the backbreaking hand sickles with the cradle scythe, a tool with wooden fingers which arranged the stalks of grain for easy collection while allowing the farmer to stand upright and swing the tool in an efficient arc. The cradle scythe tripled the speed with which a field could be harvested, and combined with new farming methods, including fertilizing fields and crop rotation, the colonies were not just net exporters of grain, but net exporters of tonnage in grain. And by the mid-1700s perfectly capable of producing sufficient flour, as anyone who has ever seen a mill pond or grinding stones can attest.

But fine white flour does not pour off a grinding mill. Fine flour is obtained by sifting, shaking out the finest and lightest flour, separating it from the coarser grind (and little particles of grit!). And likely not something done in any quantity in early Boston, hence the desirability of English white flour.

Shipping grain, and flour, back and forth across the ocean was nothing new. The flour traveled in barrels, there is one on the display floor at King Arthur’s Vermont headquarters.  There is a beautiful complexity in the shipping of a barrel of flour from a mill in England to a dock in Boston.   Someone hand carved oak pegs to pin a ship together.  Someone grew acres upon acres of flax.. for perspective, an acre of flax yields a bedsheet and a shirt.. how many acres did it take to equip a tall ship with sails? Miles upon miles upon lifetimes of linen thread were spun to weave those sails.

All so trade could roll back and forth, up and down, across the ocean from London to Boston.  And Boston bakers could have the finest of flour.

Bread requires yeast.  And yeast, in colonial America, came from beer brewers or Lactobacillus, the yeast which grows in sourdough starter.  Before pen was put to paper to write the words “We The People, in order to form a more perfect union..” the Wood family of Boston was feeding a little sourdough starter.

Likely their starter was alive when Boston held its tea party, and struggled along during the siege of Boston, when flour was perilously scarce.  The Wood family started selling their yeast along with their flour in 1790, and they’ve been doing it ever since.  Tucked into the refrigerators at King Arthur is not just a sourdough starter, but over two centuries of New England pride, thrift, and stubborn determination… in a little plastic jar.

18CThis sourdough starter was alive when Vermont was an independent country. It was likely alive when congress wrote the Constitution. It may well have been alive in 1777 when Vermont declared herself an independent country, and in 1776, when the Colonies sent their document to King George. In a refrigerator, in a little jar, is the taste of Revolution.

This is no small thing. While we can recreate recipes from early texts whatever we create likely will not taste the way it did at the time. The flavor of milk is determined by a cow’s diet. The consistency and butterfat texture is modified when that milk is pasteurized and homogenized. Unless you’re using heirloom seeds the vegetables from your garden are not consistent with what would have made it into the 18th century kitchen.

But this little sourdough starter has been around since the 18th century, and we can use it to create a close approximation to the bread of the period.

So.. let’s make some bread!

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