Back when baking didn’t mean buying bread
December 20, 2006
Want a loaf of bread? You go to the store. A birthday cake can be bought at a bakery, but in the early days, baking was a real challenge.
The settlers and miners didn’t have those luxuries. Most of them didn’t know how to bake a loaf of bread, especially the men who came West to mine.
A cooking vessel called a Dutch oven was handy to have at a campsite or ranch house. The early sheepherders made a respectable loaf of bread in the coals of their campfires using a Dutch oven. After it baked, they used the same iron pot to make a good stew.
Flour was crude, and measuring tools nonexistent. A pinch of this and a dash of that is how recipes were described for making baked goods.
Most pioneers had a sourdough starter. Sometimes the starter turned bad, and a new starter had to be obtained from someone who would share a bit of theirs.
There was very little sugar, with sorghum and molasses used for sweetening. Sometimes honey was available. Cooks used these products to make dessert. Can you imagine eating vinegar pie?
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Dried apples were a staple in most trading posts and widely used as dessert. People used dried apples to ward off scurvy, but also because they kept well. Another ingredient used for cooking was corn because it grows anywhere and keeps well when dried and ground into flour.
The Dayton Museum has a number of cooking vessels and tools used for baking. The Dutch oven was used in the West for a long time. In the Emma Nevada Barton Loftus diaries, she tells of Chester and Helen Barton’s Dutch oven parties when they were camping out at Como or other places.
I know the Dutch oven makes a good camp meal as I’ve used them on my camping trips. They make great biscuits. But the first couple of times I tried to bake biscuits, they came out pretty brown (black) until I got the hang of it. A decent cake can also be made if you can resist lifting the lid and don’t use too many coals.
As a child, I stayed with a family on a ranch. The lady of the house made a biscuit described as the “top of the sack biscuits.” She opened a sack of flour and made a little well and then poured ingredients into it to make the best darn buttermilk biscuits I’ve ever eaten. They were always the same – darn good – and she didn’t waste a speck of flour.
The Historical Society of Dayton Valley meets at noon on the third Wednesday of the month at the Dayton Valley Community Center. Visitors welcome. Check out daytonnvhistory.org.
• Ruby McFarland is a board member of the Dayton Historical Society and docent at the museum, and has lived in Dayton since 1987.