How Victorians baked perfect bread by making their own yeast at home from scratch. 15 Victorian bread baking secrets that are still useful today!
The Victorians usually made their own yeast at home from scratch, even if commercial yeast was already available. However, the Victorians believed that wild yeast bread from scratch was better, healthier, more digestible and more flavorful. So they made their own yeast at home with hops, potatoes, flour, peas or grapes. Over the years, I’ve tried different spontaneously fermented bread recipes from the Victorian era: Some failed and some turned out delicious!
Find out how the Victorians made perfect bread with homemade yeast from scratch. And if you want to try some Victorian bread recipes, click on the links below.
Victorian Bread Recipes With Homemade Yeast From Scratch
Is Homemade Yeast Better Than Commercial Yeast?
‘Stock yeast [homemade yeast] […] is still used by many bakers, because they claim it makes a better bread […] distiller’s yeast is preferred by most of the bakers, because it is stronger, more uniform and reliable; not so readily influenced by atmospheric changes as the stock yeast.’ (Paul Richard’s Pastry Book, 1907, p. 99)
‘The older recipes for home made bread called for water only […] and no shortening is mentioned in any of them. They all used [homemade] stock and potato yeast. The more modern recipes mention sugar and lard, besides milk and also compressed yeast. […] It is significant that with the introduction of compressed yeast the recipes begin to change, and shortening and sugar is used. It seems to indicate that something was lacking in the breads after giving up the use of stock yeast and potato ferment, and the sugar and lard were added as an improvement.
Many old bakers assert that the old process makes a better bread, keeps it moister and gives a better flavored loaf. The family-grade bread […] is not so great in volume, but it is more substantial. The objection raised against some bakers’ bread is always: “It is too spongy and not substantial enough.” […] In days gone by […] home-made yeasts and ferments made a good moist and well-flavored bread, but as yeast making was not done scientifically it was often “hit-or-miss”; the bread was good some days but bad on other occasions. These [wild] yeasts gave flavor and moisture; the malt yeasts added sugar; the scalded flour or potato the moisture and aided the yeast.’ (Bakers’ Bread, 1918)
Long Or Short Fermentation?
‘Very rapid fermentation, which is produced by using an extra quantity of yeast, is by no means advantageous to the bread, which not only becomes dry and stale from it, but is of less sweet and pleasant flavor than that which is more slowly fermented.’ (The Ohio Cultivator, 1859, p. 62)
‘In setting sponge we may regulate the time to ripen the sponge by using more or less yeast, increasing or lowering the temperature of the water, or by using more or less flour, making the sponge stiffer or softer. […] It is not advisable to force or drive a sponge with a high temperature and little yeast; it is a better way for the purpose of saving yeast, to set the sponge at a normal temperature but give it plenty of time to ripen.’ (Bakers’ Bread, 1918)
Should I Use Whole-Wheat Or White Flour?
The Victorians preferred white bread therefore they usually made yeast bread instead of sourdough bread. However, the bran in whole-wheat flour helps yeast to grow. Therefore, in the Victorian era even white bread usually contained some whole-wheat flour or bran.
‘Yeast which is made in part of Graham flour [whole wheat flour] rises light sooner than that which is made of white flour alone, and does not affect the color of the bread.’ (The Young Housekeeper’s Friend, 1871)
‘The variety of flours used in the different parts of this country often make it difficult to work the same recipes equally well in all places. Bakers coming from the East find it hard to work with the flours of the West, and vice versa […]
Where different grades of flour are used it is best to use the stronger flour for the sponge and the weaker for doughing. […] A sponge of weak flour should be set tighter than a sponge of stronger flour. […] All dark flours [whole wheat flour] which contain more or less bran prove more rapidly than the white flours; they require less yeast, and also less proof in baking. The addition of molasses to some of these breads also accelerates the proving. […]
The usual test for flour is […] to take even quantities of the different samples, say one ounce of each, and mix with even portions of water into a paste. The flour which makes the stiffest paste is the strongest and yields the most bread.’ (Bakers’ Bread, 1918)
Why Scald The Flour?
‘Flour is used in the preparation of yeast – to furnish starch, albuminous matter (gluten), and phosphates for the growth of the yeast plant. […] The granules of starch are bound together into cells […] To rupture these cells and expose the starch to the action of the yeast the application of hot water is necessary. This process is generally called “scalding” the flour.’ (Manual for Army Bakers, 1910, p. 29f) ‘If the flour is not scalded, the yeast will soon become sour.’ (The Young Housekeeper’s Friend, 1871)
‘It really makes no difference whether […] the flour batter may be added to the hop tea, which should not boil thereafter; or, […] by adding sufficient hop tea to dry flour, and the remainder of the hop tea […] when both it and the batter have cooled to a temperature below that at which the yeast plant is killed (preferably about 90°F).’ (Manual for Army Bakers, 1910, p. 28f)
Soft Vs. Hard Water
‘Hard water retards fermentation, while a soft water accelerates it; therefore when hard water is used it is advisable to use more yeast. […] the water for doughing is usually taken several degrees cooler than the water for setting sponge.’ (Bakers’ Bread, 1918)
‘Fresh soft water should be used in the preparation of yeasts […] Long boiling of water removes the air which promotes fermentation. Salt water (that is, sea water) may be used in the preparation of doughs and sponges, no salt being added to the mixture. Hard water retards the working of yeast.’ (Manual for Army Bakers, 1910, p. 31)
Should I Add Salt?
‘Many bakers object to the use of salt in the yeast because salt checks fermentation. For this reason, if salt is used it is put in as a preservative after the yeast is ready for use to prevent souring. […] The addition of salt prevents the forming of too much acidity.’ (Bakers’ Bread, 1918)
‘Salt is used in yeast sometimes as a preservative, and it should be put in the yeast only after fermentation is complete. Where yeast is made fresh often, salt is better left out. In breadmaking it is used as a flavor, and also as a check on fermentation. Larger quantities may be used in the hot season to prevent souring. Salt should not be used in setting sponge; it is better if used in doughing.’ (Paul Richard’s Pastry Book, 1907, p. 99)
‘Salt may also be added to check undesirable acid fermentations that may set up accidentally in the yeast. In the absence of hops salt is always used and generally in addition to them. The amount is from 1 to 2 tablespoonfuls to each gallon of water. Used in small quantities, salt renders fermentation more uniform, thus giving a more even grain to the loaf. In larger quantities salt would retard yeast fermentation.’ (Manual for Army Bakers, 1910, p. 29)
Why Add Malt Or Sugar?
Victorian wild yeast starter was usually made either with potatoes or malt. Malt, as well potatoes, contain maltose which is yeast food, also known as yeast nutrients, which help the yeast to grow and make a delicious loaf of bread. Today, malt is still added to homemade and store-bought bread.
Related: Medieval Nuremberg Lebkuchen Recipe
Flour ‘should be strong in gluten – a deficiency in starch should be made up by the addition of sugar. Cane or malt sugar is best.’ (Manual for Army Bakers, 1910, p. 29f) ‘The addition of molasses to some of these breads also accelerates the proving. […] Sugar, glucose, molasses and malt extracts, potatoes and boiled cornstarch are yeast foods, and are used with yeast to make it grow and develop. For this reason it is added to yeast and ferment. […]
Bakers use malt extract, malt flour and yeast foods to improve the flavor and add moisture to the bread; these preparations also stimulate and quicken fermentation, saving sugar and lard. […] Sugar is used in breads to aid fermentation, to give moisture and flavor to the crumb and color and bloom to the crust. […] Malt extract is added to breads to act as a yeast food and act on the flour by softening the gluten and while baking acts on the starch, changing the starch into a form of sugar.’ (Bakers’ Bread, 1918)
Summer Vs. Winter Yeast Baking
‘Yeast develops best at a temperature of from 75° to 90° Fahrenheit. […] In the winter time yeast works slower and more of it is required to raise the bread. The strong flours require more yeast, or a stronger fermentation, than the weak flours. […] In the rarified air of high mountainous countries yeast raises quicker than in the low lands.’ (Paul Richard’s Pastry Book, 1907, p. 99)
‘During the hot season the doughs require a […] lower temperature, and the amount of salt may be increased to ten ounces for the pail; while during the cold winter months more yeast and less salt is the general rule.
To obtain uniform results in baking, a baker should use a thermometer and keep the shop at an even temperature. […] To obtain the right temperature for a dough to be set at 75°F, we take the temperature of the flour. Say it is only 50°F and the shop is 70°F; this would require the water to be about 102°F to make up 75°F in the sponge to allow for heat absorbed by the cooler shop. […] Higher altitudes […] require […] less leavening agents, and also less shortening and sugar.’ (Bakers’ Bread, 1918)
When Is The Starter Ready?
‘The sponge [homemade yeast starter] rises up evenly, and when it reaches maturity it shows bubbles. After some time the bubbles burst and give off gas and the sponge drops in the centre, and when it is down about two inches it is ready for doughing. This stage is termed the “first drop.” If a sponge is not taken at this stage it begins to rise again after some time, and then drops again; this is the “second drop.” […]
Many bakers like to take the sponge on the second drop, and claim it is better for the stronger flours to use it at this stage; it makes a larger loaf, gives more expansion. But I prefer to take sponges on the first drop, because it gives a better flavored loaf. A sponge should not be taken when it is rising; after it has attained the drop it should be taken going down and before rising again.’ (Bakers’ Bread, 1918)
Second Rise – When Is The Dough Ready?
‘Fermentation periods of flours vary, and the best way of timing a straight dough is to watch the fermentation closely […] the first rise of the dough represents three-fifths of the total time of fermentation, or 60 per cent.
As a rule doughs are allowed to rise well the first time in the trough to the point where they lose elasticity – show signs of weakening; then the doughs should be folded in well from ends and sides, or punched and folded in to expel the accumulated gases, forming a solid mass again. This point requires close watching, as dough should not be allowed to fall of its own accord’ (Bakers’ Bread, 1918).
‘In mixing the sponge […] it should not be toughened, simply mixed so that water, flour and yeast are well incorporated.’ (Bakers’ Bread, 1918)
‘What size should the loaf be? […] loaves scaled two pounds kept their flavor, in fact had a better flavor than the loaves scaled one pound, also retained moisture longer and consequently had better keeping qualities.’ (Bakers’ Bread, 1918)
Baking The Bread
‘The baking of the loaf has for its object to kill the ferment, to heat the starch sufficiently to render it easily soluble, to expand the carbon dioxide and drive off the alcohol, to stiffen the gluten, and to make chemical changes which shall give a pleasant flavor to the crust. […] The long, slow baking gives a yellow tint, with the desirable nutty flavor, and crisp crust. Different flavors in bread are supposed to be caused by the different varieties of yeast used or by bacteria, which are present in all doughs, as ordinarily prepared.’ (The Profession Of Home Making, 1911)
To bake bread ‘properly, is attended with some difficulty to those who are not skilled in the art. The first care is to see that the oven be sufficiently heated, yet not to such a degree as to burn the crust. If a green vegetable turns black when put in, the oven will scorch the bread ; in which case it must stand open till the heat has somewhat abated’ (Domestic Encyclopedia Or A Dictionary Of Facts, And Useful Knowledge Vol 1, 1802).
In the Victorian era, breads, especially Vienna breads, were often steam baked. Steam baking bread means that the bread is baked in a pan with a closed lid, just like the Pullman loaf and similar breads today. If you don’t have a bread pan with a lid, you can also use a Dutch oven to steam bake bread in the oven.
‘Although some food experts say that the crust is the best part of the bread […] the public in general prefer a soft, thin-crusted bread. […] This soft crust […] is produced by covering the panbreads during baking with another pan; or have pans made with a cover to fit […]
It is best to set the moulds in a pan with about one to two inches of water in it, to prevent browning too much on the bottom. In some bakeries a tin box is used, a little higher than the brown bread moulds, large enough to hold a dozen moulds, with a tight fitting cover. The bread is set in, the box filled half full with boiling water, the cover put on, and put in the bake oven and the bread is steam-baked for three hours. About the time the water is boiled off the bread is done.’ (Bakers’ Bread, 1918)
Keep Yeast Starter Or Make It Fresh Every Time?
‘All yeast is better and more powerful for being fresh. It is better to make it frequently, (the trouble being little,) than to risk its becoming sour by endeavouring to keep it too long. When sour, it becomes weak and watery, and tastes and smells disagreeably, and will never make light bread; besides being very unwholesome.
The acidity may be somewhat corrected by stirring in some dissolved pearlash, saleratus, or soda, immediately before the yeast is used; but it is better to have it good and fresh, without the necessity of any corrective. Yeast should always be kept in a cool place.’ (Miss Leslie’s New Receipts For Cooking, 1852) ‘When yeast has a strong tart smell, and a watery appearance on the surface, it is too old for use.’ (The Young Housekeeper’s Friend, 1871)
‘Stock yeast [homemade yeast starter] will keep for a long time in an even, cool temperature, but atmospheric changes tend to weaken it more or less. Most of the bakers prefer to make fresh stock yeast once or twice a week. […] When stock yeast gets old and weak, the hop liquid loses its clearness, gets muddy, but it shows more in the ferment and the sponge and does not rise as high as is usual with fresh stock. […] In the baked goods it appears in large irregular holes in the crumb and a dull reddish color in the crust. […] (Bakers’ Bread, 1918)