DIY Yeast in Victorian America

DIY Yeast in Victorian America

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Long before factory-prepared yeast was sold in stores, Victorian housekeepers made their own.

Yeast, a fungi, naturally occurs on plant matter and in the air. Discovered aeons ago (Ancient Egyptians), yeast and breads made with yeast have been staples among many cultures for millennia. Europeans brought established know-how of yeast for bread, brewing, and fermenting to the New World. Euro-American women continued making yeast preparations for household use, same as their mothers.

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Kristin Holt | DIY Yeast in Victorian America. Photograph of homemade yeast. Image courtesy of Pinterest, originally from Our Heritage of Health.

Photo- Homemade Yeast: Pinterest.

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Victorian Americans Made Their Own Yeast

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Women’s Role in 19th Century Food Prep

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Throughout the Victorian era, the home was the woman’s dominion. Ideally, the home would be her only work, but poor women would often work in service or factories as well.

Middle-class men sought to earn a living while their wives and daughters took care of everything at home. This role of homemaker (then referred to as housekeeper) included many responsibilities: food, clothing, laundry, cleaning, and child-rearing (among others).

Her tasks involving food included: keeping a kitchen garden, tending fruit trees and flower beds, mowing the lawn, keeping chickens, butchering, milking, churning butter, baking, cooking, preserving (bottling, drying, salting), and beyond. Oh, and preparing three meals a day. And washing the dishes.

Women were prepared from early childhood by their mothers, sisters, aunts and grandmothers to understand and effectively complete her work. Vast knowledge was supplemented by information in cook books and newspapers.

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Kristin Holt | DIY Yeast in Victorian America. Photo: Potato Yeast Starter for Baking Bread, via Pinterest (original: Practical Self Reliance)

Photo- Potato Yeast Starter: Pinterest.

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Why DIY Yeast?

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A lady correspondent of the Maine Farmer says that aside from the advantage of healthfulness, bread well made from potato yeast will soon win converts to itself because of its superior lightness and delicacy of flavor. No other wears so well. It can be served in the form of hot rolls or biscuit, cold slices or toast, and in every way it is delicious… (emphasis added)

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~ Potato Yeast Bread, The Inter Ocean of Chicago, Illinois, 2 October 1875

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Basic Yeast Ingredients

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Water: Boil those potatoes and hops! Water as the liquid for extracting the yeast from potatoes (or other plant matter) no doubt assisted in keeping the yeast alive until eventual use.

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Potatoes: Potato water, it seems, attracted wild yeast while sitting out. The starchy water no doubt fed the live yeast, allowing replication and sustained life. Given the wild yeast had to come from somewhere (note the use of a “yeast starter,” below), some of that yeast came from the potato (though skinned and boiled).

Nearly all DIY Victorian yeast recipes start with cooked potatoes. I was surprised to discover one recipe that did not call for potatoes:

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Kristin Holt | DIY Yeast in Victorian America. A hop yeast recipe (without potatoes!) published in The Boston Globe of Boston, Mass. on October 26, 1896.

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Hops: Hops have been an important inclusion in homemade yeast recipes for hundreds of years. Note the Victorian use of “Hop Yeast,” as if the yeast actually came from the hop itself.

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Kristin Holt | DIY Yeast in Victorian America. Hop Yeast Recipe from The Boston Globe of Boston, Mass. on December 15, 1895.

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An 1894 reference to “pressed hops sold in drug stores” (Altoona, Kansas) claimed fresh hop flowers, harvested annually, to be superior. Hops were usually added to homemade yeast recipes to help preserve the yeast [Potato Yeast Bread, The Inter Ocean of Chicago, Illinois, 2 October 1875].

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Kristin Holt | DIY Yeast in Victorian America. Photograph of hops, courtesy of RitaE from Pixabay.

Photo: hops. Image by RitaE from Pixabay

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Salt: A gem buried within Home-Made Yeast (Altoona Journal of Altoona, Kansas, 13 July 1894) explains why salt is an ingredient in DIY Yeast in Victorian America.

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The large quantity of salt in this recipe assists in keeping the yeast sweet, and renders it necessary to use a smaller quantity than is otherwise usual in the bread.

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“Sweet,” the instructions say. Sweet, as in fit for use. Delicious. Good. The opposite of turning sour.

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Kristin Holt | DIY Yeast in Victorian America. Photograph of Victorian Alaska / Foggy Bottom Salt Shakers. Sold by Live Auctioneers.

Photograph of Victorian Alaska / Foggy Bottom Salt Shakers. Sold by Live Auctioneers.

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Sugar: white or brown. A set of detailed instructions [Potato Yeast Bread, The Inter Ocean of Chicago, Illinois, 2 October 1875] claimed “white sugar keeps better than brown.” Other recipes contained in this article specify the use of brown sugar. Sugar fed the growing yeast.

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Kristin Holt | DIY Yeast in Victorian America. Photo of Victorian-style sugar cone (sugar loaf). Courtesy of Pinterest.

Photo of Victorian-style sugar cone (sugar loaf). Courtesy of Pinterest.

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Flour: Wheat flour, cornmeal, or Indian meal. Victorian American DIY Yeast recipes include “enough flour to make a thin batter” or “thicken with a little flour.” Contemporary sources include flour as a necessary “food” to keep the live organism (yeast) alive.

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Kristin Holt | DIY Yeast in Victorian America. Photo of three metal flour scoops. Courtesy of Pixabay.

Image by flockine from Pixabay

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Ginger: Sometimes homemade Victorian yeast recipes called for ginger.

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Kristin Holt | DIY Yeast in Victorian America. Photo of ginger root, courtesy of congerdesign from Pixabay.

Photo: ginger root. Image by congerdesign from Pixabay

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Kristin Holt | DIY Yeast in Victorian America. Two of these three homemade yeast recipes from The Homemade Cook Book, published 1885, call for ginger. One asks for "a little ginger," while the other, "one-half cupful of ginger."

Two of three recipes pictured here call for ginger. The Homemade Cook Book, published 1885.

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Yeast “starter”: “Fresh yeast,” meaning a teacupful (some recipes call for a pint) of the last batch. Don’t have any? Borrow from a neighbor. Or use commercially prepared yeast.

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A certain inexperienced housekeeper I once knew, actually kept up her courage to brew yeast seven times before she succeeded in making it rise, all because she set it in too warm a place. She has never failed of having good yeast since, but it is still rejoiced because of her own perseverance, and grateful to her neighbors for the loan of the requisite seven cupfuls for brewing!

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~ Potato Yeast Bread, The Inter Ocean of Chicago, Illinois, 2 October 1875

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Saleratus: This 1873 recipe includes saleratus.

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Kristin Holt | DIY Yeast in Victorian America. "Many prefer home made yeast to the yeast cakes." From Sterling Standard of Sterling, Illinois on October 9, 1873.

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Peach Leaves: Yes, I’m serious. But not all recipes had this unique ingredient. I imagine few recipes actually did. Check out Soft Yeast Recipe No. 2, below, from a woman named Z.T. Johnson, of Homewood, Kansas.

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Kristin Holt | DIY Yeast in Victorian America. Two "Soft Yeast Recipes" (one starts with a large handful of peach leaves to be boiled in water), published in Kansas Farmer of Topeka, Kansas on May 7, 1884.

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Corn: Scorched or roasted.

Scorched Corn: see the last of three yeast recipes from Our Home Favorite Cook Book, published in 1882:

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Kristin Holt | DIY Yeast Recipes in Victorian America. Three Yeast Recipes contained within Our Home Favorite Cook Book, published 1882. The third recipe calls for scorched corn (in addition to hops and potatoes).

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The first of two following 1892 recipes calls for a half-pint of yellow corn, roasted to a light brown:

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Kristin Holt | DIY Yeast in Victorian America. Two yeast recipes, including one calling for yellow corn (roasted to a light brown). From The Columbian Cook Book: Containing Rules for Plain and Fancy Cooking, Published 1892.

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Barley or rye meal:

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Kristin Holt | DIY Yeast in Victorian America. This "Yeast-Making and Keeping" recipe from Staunton Spectator of STaunton, Virginia (January 30, 1866) calls for "a sufficiency of barley or rye meal," in addition to hops. Note that this is one recipe that also gives instructions for yeast for beer-brewing... and it calls for no potatoes!

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DIY Yeast: Wet or Dry

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In 1891, despite the readily available yeast cakes in grocer’s stores, “a constant reader of THE SUNDAY DISPATCH wants a good recipe for home-made yeast.” This newspaper column provides two: one for liquid yeast and one for dry yeast. The homemade dry cakes are unique to any other examples I offer. Note that these dry cakes of yeast aren’t at all what modern cooks think of as a “yeast cake.”

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Kristin Holt | DIY Yeast in Victorian America. From The Pittsburgh Dispatch of Pittsburgh, Penn. on Feb 8, 1891. Part 1 of 2. Contains instructions for "good bread" plus recipes for both liquid and dry yeast to be made at home.

Kristin Holt | DIY Yeast in Victorian America. From The Pittsburgh Dispatch of Pittsburgh, Penn. on Feb 8, 1891. Part 2 of 2. Contains instructions for "good bread" plus recipes for both liquid and dry yeast to be made at home.

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Milk Yeast: An Alternative Method

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This Milk Yeast recipe is created in the morning to become bread loaves by evening. No potatoes, no hops, no ginger, no grain.

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Kristin Holt | DIY Yeast in Victorian America. An alternative method (without making a batch of yeast): Milk Yeast. Published in The Boston Globe of Boston, Mass. on March 21, 1895.

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Use the Correct Equipment

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Whatever you do, don’t prep your yeast in an iron kettle.

A porcelain-lined kettle or a bright tin vessel should be used in making yeast, as iron burns it dark.

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~ Yeast, The Inter Ocean of Chicago, Illinois, 2 October 1875

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Another yeast maker agreed with the porcelain kettle or bright tin vessel:

Do not cook hops in an iron kettle, but in one of graniteware or bright tin. The flavor of hops is so pungent that it is liable to infect any food cooked after it, and it is a good plan to have a small kettle for the purpose of cooking hops.

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~ Altoona Journal of Altoona, Kansas, syndicated from St. Louis Republic, 13 July 1894

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The variety of newspaper articles provided in this article encourage both a “warm enough place” to allow the yeast to set, then “store in a cool place.” One article, referencing summertime heat, urges storage in the icebox. The cellar would do in wintertime to keep the yeast from freezing, while maintaining a cool-enough temperature. Most recipes instruct “store in a cool place.” Other cool places included the spring house, the ice house, or down the well.

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This 1875 yeast recipe calls for “a two- or three-gallon earthen crock (tin, glass, or stoneware chill too soon) with a lid fitting well to the rim.”

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Kristin Holt | DIY Yeast in Victorian America. Good Yeast -- Unfailing Recipe published in The Milan Exchange of Milan, Tennessee on November 4, 1875. Article credited to Country Gentleman.

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Notice this 1895 housekeeper shares her yeast recipe in The Boston Globe, and “I put mine in a 2-quart glass can.” Sorry to disagree, with the 1875 “no glass” rule.

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Kristin Holt | DIY Yeast in Victorian America. Yeast Recipe from The Boston Globe of Boston, Mass. on March 21, 1895. This housekeeper uses a two-quart glass can for storage.

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Victorians Commercialized Yeast

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Kristin Holt | DIY Yeast in Victorian America. Image of a Safe Brand Yeast Trade Card, credited to Victorian America. For sale on Amazon.

Safe Brand Yeast Trade Card, credited to Victorian America. For sale on Amazon.

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Factories sprang up throughout industrialized regions in Victorian America. The Industrial Revolution saw the mass-production of everything from toothbrushes to margarine. The advent of factory-prepared yeast was certainly seen as a labor-saving effort for housekeepers (read: women’s work). Home bakers, in areas where commercially prepared yeast was available, cautiously tried the new product. Others continued to make homemade yeast, as evidenced in the numerous recipes published years later. Note that many essentially claimed homemade yeast to be superior.

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Kristin Holt | DIY Yeast in Victorian America. Advertisement for Dooley's Yeast Powder, from The Daily Commonwealth of Topeka, Kansas on August 23, 1871.

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Kristin Holt | Victorian Yeast Bread: Easier After the Centennial by USA Today Bestselling Author Kristin Holt.

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More Victorian DIY Yeast Recipes

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Kristin Holt | DIY Yeast in Victorian America. "Yeast for Hot Weather," given originally in Morgan's Trade Journal. Published in Racine County Argus of Racine, Wisconsin, 15 July 1869. Note the user's experience: "I kept this two months in a cellar where the thermometer raged between 90 and 104 degrees."

This recipe differs from others of its era: potatoes are added three days after hops are boiled, salt and sugar added, and floured. “This yeast is very strong.”

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Kristin Holt | DIY Yeast in Victorian America. Homemade Yeast recipe with instructions. From The Independent of Riley, Kansas on October 13, 1881.

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Kristin holt | DIY Yeast in Victorian America. Sweetened Yeast recipe from Our New Cook Book and Household Receipts, Published 1883.

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Kristin Holt | DIY Yeast in Victorian America. Potato Yeast Recipe from Our New Cook Book and Household Receipts, published 1883.

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Kristin Holt | DIY Yeast in Victorian America. Homemade Yeast recipe from Our New Cook Book and Household Receipts, published 1883.

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Kristin Holt | DIY Yeast in Victorian America. Hops and Potato Yeast Recipe from Our New Cook Book and Household Receipts, published 1883.

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DIY Yeast in Victorian America