Victorian baking, a fascinating aspect of this era, varied significantly between the homes of the poor and the wealthy. There were staple baked foods like bread, that you would see in every home. But some of the more luxurious Victorian foods you would only find in the homes of the more affluent. Let’s explore the intriguing world of Victorian baking, where innovation met tradition, and discover how it fit into the lives of those in different social strata.
How Did People Bake And Cook In The Victorian Era
Victorian kitchens were bustling with activity, centred around their ovens. These were not the modern ovens we mostly use today but rather large, cast-iron ranges. They were heated by burning wood or coal, requiring constant attention to maintain the right temperature – a skill in itself!
Cast iron ranges varied greatly based on the household’s wealth, status and social class. These ranges were essential for both cooking and heating the home.
Types Of Victorian Range Stove
The closed range was a hallmark of middle and upper-class homes. These ranges were considered a luxury, more expensive and efficient than ranges in lower classed homes. They had a concealed grate that minimized heat loss to the room and maximized heat circulation around the oven. A closed range often had a door and removable top, allowing them to convert to an open range for roasting and warming the room.
Manufacturers like Flavels and Coalbrookdale were renowned for producing these high-quality ranges, often with items like kettle stands or accessories like the ‘Tidy Betty’ ashpan cover.
Standard Open Ranges
More modest homes with combined kitchen and living rooms, typically had standard open ranges. These were less expensive and featured an open grate, which was a significant source of heat for the family. The oven in these ranges was smaller, and the grate was wider to compensate for the less efficient heat distribution.
The more costly versions had iron ‘covings’, while cheaper ones required a brick back. These ranges had separate flues for the oven and boiler, with vents on the sides of the grate to divert heat around the oven. Local blacksmiths often made these ranges using standard patterns. Regional variations like the ‘Yorkshire’ range were also popular in certain areas.
Cottage Open Ranges
The cottage open range was the cheapest type and was commonly found in poorer homes, sculleries, and servants’ communal rooms. These ranges were usually a bit more decorative, often featuring floral or crest cast details on the doors. They usually had two small ovens and a basic flue setup, making them relatively inefficient.
The cheapest versions, known as ‘self-acting’ ranges, had a central flue for the grate, and the oven gained heat from the grate side. Another type, the ‘ash pit’ range, had a separate flue under the oven that gained extra heat from falling ashes.
Cooking on a Cast Iron Range
Cooking on these ranges was an art, requiring skill and patience. Roasting was often done over or against the open grate, while the oven was used for baking. The heat control was manual and demanded constant attention to maintain the right temperature for different types of cooking. It wasn’t like a modern stove where the cooking temperature can be reached relatively quickly. Back then, it might require up to two hours and a lot of coal to reach the desired temperature. Frying and boiling were carried out on the hob plate over the oven.
The Demise of the Cast Iron Range
With the advent of gas ovens in the early 20th century, the use of cast iron ranges began to decline. Gas ovens offered instant heat and were cleaner and easier to use, leading to their widespread adoption in both working-class and affluent homes.
The working classes favoured small gas ovens for their sculleries, while the middle and upper classes moved to enamelled and coke-fired Agas, which were cleaner and required less maintenance.
Who Did The Baking In Victorian Times?
In poor households, the women typically managed the baking, juggling it with other household duties. Middle-class families might have had a servant or two to help, while the wealthy boasted entire teams of kitchen staff, with specific roles dedicated to baking and pastry making.
How Much Bread Did Victorians Eat?
For the average Victorian family, bread was the primary source of sustenance. It was affordable, filling, and versatile, making it an indispensable part of every meal. In fact, an average family could consume up to 55 pounds of bread per week! This heavy reliance on bread was due to its accessibility and the economic constraints of the time, especially for the lower classes.
Dangerous Ingredients in Victorian Bread
The quality of bread during this period, however, was often questionable. One of the most notorious additives was alum. Alum, a compound containing aluminium, was used to whiten bread and make it appear of higher quality. This deceptive practice was widespread, as whiter bread was perceived as purer and more desirable.
Other Additives and Their Purposes
Apart from alum, Victorian bakers used a variety of other additives. These included:
- Plaster of Paris: To add weight and bulk.
- Bean flour: As a cheap filler.
- Chalk: To enhance the whiteness.
- Ground bones: Another form of cheap filler.
These additives were used primarily to increase the profit margins of bakers by reducing the cost of production, adding bulk to the bread (which was sold by weight) and making the bread more visually appealing to consumers.
The Link to Malnutrition
The widespread use of these additives had dire health consequences. Alum, for instance, interfered with digestion, preventing the absorption of nutrients from food. This was a major contributor to the widespread malnutrition amongst Victorian children and the working class. People in these communities relied heavily on bread as their main food source. With the lack of proper nutrition from an inferior diet, immune systems were weak, making the poor more susceptible to diseases, such as tuberculosis.
The morally cruel adulteration of bread in Victorian times is a stark reminder of the social inequalities of the time. As well as the lack of food safety regulations that plagued the era. The rich had access to higher quality bread, and the desperate poor were vulnerable to the unscrupulous food practices of those that would put profit before their health.
What Other Baking Did Victorians Eat?
Apart from bread, Victorians enjoyed a variety of baked goods. These included biscuits, cakes, and pastries. Recipes varied according to social class and available ingredients, with those at the top of the pecking order able to afford such treats more often.
Did Queen Victoria Have A Sweet Tooth?
Queen Victoria did indeed have a love of sweet things. Her favourite cakes included the Battenberg Cake and the Victoria Sponge. The latter named in her honour and known for its simple yet delightfully tasty combination of sponge, jam, and sugar.
Improvements To Budget And Baking In The Late Victorian Period
Towards the end of the Victorian era, advancements in technology and social reforms began to improve the lives of the poor. Cheaper and more efficient ovens started to hit the market as production methods and supply chains were improved. To the grace of those reliant on cheap bread, regulations on food purity reduced the use of harmful additives and this helped to decrease the level of malnutrition.
Advancements in transportation, particularly the expansion of the railway network, facilitated the faster movement of goods, including food items. This meant that food could be transported from farms to cities more efficiently.
Another positive contributor to lowering costs and improved diet at the time, was the growth of cooperative stores and societies. These cooperatives often offered lower prices than traditional retailers and were particularly popular among the working classes.
The cost of ingredients also started to drop, with the advent of refrigeration and the impact this had on shipping and storage of products both to market and in the home.
5 Common Victorian Baking Recipes
Fancy trying your hand at making some Victorian recipes? Here are 5 favourites from the time that are still popular today – with ingredients list and basic method.
- A simple yet elegant cake, symbolizing the era.
|Powdered sugar for dusting
- Cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy.
- Gradually add beaten eggs.
- Sift in flour and baking powder, folding gently.
- Divide the batter between two greased and lined cake tins.
- Bake until golden.
- Once cooled, spread raspberry jam on one layer, sandwich with the other, and dust with powdered sugar.
This cake was a favourite of Queen Victoria and became a symbol of the refined afternoon tea tradition.
- A popular teatime treat flavored with caraway seeds.
- Cream the butter and sugar.
- Add eggs one at a time.
- Fold in sifted flour and caraway seeds.
- Pour into a greased tin.
- Bake until risen and golden.
This cake was a staple in Victorian households, often served during afternoon tea.
- A spiced, molasses-rich biscuit or cake. Gingerbread was a popular treat, especially during holidays
- Mix flour, ginger, and baking soda.
- In another bowl, cream the butter and sugar, then add molasses and egg.
- Combine with dry ingredients to form a dough.
- Roll out, cut into shapes, and bake.
Victorian gingerbread was often more cake-like and less crisp than modern versions.
- A dense cake known for its simple ratio of ingredients.
- Cream the butter and sugar.
- Add eggs one at a time.
- Gradually mix in flour.
- Bake in a loaf tin until golden and firm.
Named for the pound of each ingredient used, this cake was a Victorian staple. The Pound Cake was a dense, rich cake, often served with tea or as a dessert.
- A buttery biscuit, often enjoyed during festive seasons.
- Cream the butter and sugar.
- Mix in flour to form a dough.
- Roll out, cut into shapes, and prick with a fork.
- Bake until lightly golden.
Shortbread was a simple yet luxurious treat. This buttery biscuit was a favourite in Victorian times, especially during Christmas and New Year celebrations.
These methods reflect the traditional Victorian approach to baking, with simplicity and precision.
From the humble yet hugely important loaf of bread to the elegant afternoon tea cakes. Victorian baking is a testament to both the era’s culinary creativity and social disparities.