A brief history of baking

When did people in Britain first start baking bread, cakes and biscuits? What ingredients and equipment did they use, and was baking expensive? Here, food historians Professor John Walter and Dr Sara Pennell explore the history of baking…

A woodcut of a woman thought to be baking bread, printed in 1497. In the Middle Ages baking was a luxury few were able to enjoy, but those who could afford a wood-burning stove would start with bread. In the 15th century Britain saw explosion of expensive spices, such as saffron, and sweetened dough became popular. (Photo by SSPL/Getty Images)

Middle Ages

In the medieval period baking was a luxury few were able to enjoy. But those who could afford a wood-burning stove (and to heat it) would start with bread. The better the quality, the higher up the social order you were

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Ovens were not a standard fixture in any household, so bread-baking never really entered the home in the medieval period, says Pennell. It was a niche, commercial activity. For example, you had bread-bakers in London.

Rich people ate fine, floured wheat bread. But if you were poor you cut your teeth on rye and black bread, says Walter. Only the very wealthy ate the cakes we tend to think of today. But they were much heavier – 10 to 20lbs. This was subsistence-focused baking, with an emphasis on bread and pies.

“If you were wealthy, your baked goods would be rich in exotic colour. But if you were poor, you were grateful if you could afford meat for your pie,” says Walter.

A Franco-Flemish depiction of a couple taking baths in adjoining tubs, c1275. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

15th century

Britain saw an explosion of expensive spices, such as saffron, in the 15th century. Sweet dough, with lots of cream and butter, started to be enjoyed by those who could afford it

The wigg – a small bun made with sweetened dough and herbs and spices – became popular.

But mince pies were made with minced beef or mutton, and biscuits were “the equivalent of Ryvita – pretty nasty stuff,” says Walter.

Meanwhile, gingerbread was made with breadcrumbs.

Mince pies were made with minced beef or mutton in the 15th century. (Photo by Neil McAllister/Alamy Stock Photo)
Mince pies were made with minced beef or mutton in the 15th century. (Photo by Neil McAllister/Alamy Stock Photo)

16th and 17th centuries

Baking was transformed in the 16th and 17th centuries by globalisation, which heralded an explosion of treacle and currants. Plump cake and bready dough with lots of butter, cream and raisins became popular

Economic growth prompted an emerging middle class, and baking ‘trickled down’, says Walter. Amid growing wealth and social change, people could think about eating things other than bread, and imitate the upper-class diet.

Baking became more accessible, and so more people started to bake cakes and biscuits.

By the late 17th century sugar was cheap, and so you saw the emergence of mince pies as we know them, made with sugar and spices. And with the refinement of flour you saw the development of gingerbread as we know it.

An illustration depicting the preparation of bread for Passover, printed in 1695. (Photo by Culture Club/Getty Images)
An illustration depicting the preparation of bread for Passover, printed in 1695. (Photo by Culture Club/Getty Images)

From the 16th century came the first cookery literature, in which you start to see recipes for things we might recognise today as small, yeasted cakes and buns, says Pennell. They would be eaten as part of the dessert course, to help you digest the rich meal you had eaten beforehand.

You also started to see the emergence of kitchen equipment, such as the ‘cake hoop’ – that is, a cake tin. The tin was lined with buttered paper.

But cakes were made with ale and were very solid. The modern-day equivalent, in terms of the yeast-bread-based dough, would be a lardy cake. Seed cakes were also popular.

Pastries, too, were considered fashionable in the late 17th century. The English prided themselves on their pastry-making and it was considered a skill all good housewives should have, says Pennell. London cookery schools also began to teach pastry-making – it was a fashionable skill.

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An advertisement poster for Coombs’ aerated pastry flour. (Photo by mooziic/Alamy Stock Photo)

18th century

Cake-making soared in popularity in the 18th century, but the industrial revolution from 1760 saw a return to more stodgy baked goods

The 18th century was when cake-making really took off, says Dr Pennell.

The Art of Cookery, written by Hannah Glasse and published in 1747, contained a catalogue of cake recipes. Integral to this was the development of the semi-closed oven. “The development of baking is as much to do with technology as it is taste,” says Pennell.

Fast-forward to the industrial revolution and Britain saw a return to heavy baking, where the working class ate bread and jam, says Walter. But at Easter, Christmas and other seasonal occasions, a richer diet would be available to even the poorer members of society.

Merchants and shopkeepers could afford ovens by the 18th century, and to bake.

A 19th-century painted glass rolling pin and wooden pastry jigger. (Photo © Emma Kay)

19th century

Convenience food grew in popularity in the 19th century, and the advent of baking powder saw cakes become lighter

As more working-class women were employed in the 19th century, they had less time for elaborate food preparation, says Walter. “We often think of the ‘fast food culture’ as being a recent thing, but women in Britain in the 19th century increasingly relied on convenience food such as pasties and pies.”

Meanwhile, the introduction of baking powder saw the style of cakes change from dense, yeast-based bakes, into cakes made with flour, eggs, fat and a raising agent.

Professor John Walter is Emeritus Professor in the Department of History at the University of Essex, specialising in popular political culture in early modern England.

Dr Sara Pennell is a senior history lecturer at the University of Greenwich who specialises in social and cultural histories of 17th and 18th-century Britain, with particular interests in food cultures, health and architecture.

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This article was first published by History Extra in October 2013