7 Year Tea Party Winners: Susan Craft's winner of her trilogy novels - The Chamomile, Laurel, and Cassia is: Lucy Reynolds, The winner of a copy of The Backcountry Brides is: Tammy Cordery, the winner of a silver quill charm is: Kathy Maher, Choice of one of three books by Carrie Fancett Pagels in paperback: Joy Ellis, A Bouquet of Brides Collection by Pegg Thomas winner is: Becky Smith, Janet Grunst's Selah-Award winning novel, A Heart Set Free, is: Sherry Moe.

Friday, December 16, 2011

In Ye Olden Days: Baking on an Open Hearth

Ever wonder why the only breads frontier people ate were cornbread and biscuits? I'm here to answer that question.

It is impossible (to my knowledge) to bake yeast breads on an open hearth. The reasons are simple. An inability to keep the heat even, and no room for the bread to rise as it bakes. I worked for four years as a tour guide at Kent Plantation House in central Louisiana and Kent is one of a small handful of plantation museums with a working open hearth kitchen. I learned a lot about cooking in an open hearth. I also learned cornbread baked in a Dutch oven is the closest thing to tastebud heaven we'll ever know on this earth.

The above picture is an open hearth. All that brick is where most of the cooking and baking is done. Only soups and stews are placed directly over the fire, on the crane. The top door on the left is a bread oven that's been used twice since the hearth in this kitchen was rebuilt in the mid-80's. Beneath is wood. The first time it was fired up it took three days to get it hot enough to bake cookies.

The first step is coals. Lots and lots and lots of coals. Preferably made with oak. Pine has too much pitch in it, makes a lot of smoke, and clogs up the chimney.

The curly thing in this picture is a trivet. Coals are piled underneath, the skillet goes on top, and then the lid goes on. The round thing to the right of the trivet here is a lid with a lip on it. This lip keeps the coals from falling off the lid. Most iron pots and skillets in the 19th century had two lids. A domed one and a lipped one.

Coals on top of the skillet create the rest of the heat to cook the cornbread. Or the biscuits or the cake. Yes, you can bake a cake on an open hearth and it is very good. The coals have to be replaced at least once during baking, on top and bottom. You can also fry things on an open hearth, and my sister makes an amazing peach upside down cake. Just make sure and use liberal amounts of butter to keep the cake from sticking.

Many plantation cooks wore wooden shoes, and their skirts were shorter than everyone else's. While cooking in the kitchen where I took these pictures, my sister once caught her shoe on fire stepping on what looked like a dead coal. More than one cook at Kent has caught her skirt or apron on fire.

Since you obviously can't use potholders or an apron around live coals, what do you use? S hooks. Called S hooks because they look like an S. Every blacksmith made hundreds of them. They come in all sizes from three to four inches long to over a foot. They were also used to adjust the distance between the soup pot on the crane and the coals beneath.

Baking and cooking on an open hearth was very time consuming and very dangerous. Because of the fire danger, on plantations the kitchen was always a separate building. That often was not practical on the colonial frontier. Heat was another reason the kitchen was separate in the South. Even in October here in Louisiana it gets up in the 90's and the temperature in Kent's open hearth kitchen can easily top 100 degrees. Up north heat wasn't as much of a concern, and there often wasn't enough room to build a separate kitchen.

If you ever have the chance to see an open hearth kitchen in action, take it. It's an amazing experience that pictures cannot capture.


  1. Great post, Rachel! I so wish I had your plantation experience - so invaluable and hands on! I wonder if you enjoyed dressing the part if you had to - even in the heat? Am sure this really enriches your novels. Which I can't wait to hold in hand!!

  2. Excellent post, Rachel. Thank you so much for sharing this lovely post. Those S hooks are cool. It is fun watching them make them at CW. The Germans here on the east coast love those bread ovens, too. Love the pics!!!

  3. Excellent and interesting post! I learned so much. Makes me wish i paid more attention to the open hearth kitchen at Jamestown. I never knew that about top coals.

  4. You get used to the heat really fast. Of course I was never in the kitchen in costume for more than 15 minutes. We wore Empire 90% of the time anyway. Very comfortable.

  5. Rachel, invaluable, especially the pictures. It's details like these I need for my present WIP set in Colonial America 1720. Thank you

  6. Fascinating, Rachel! You are so blessed to have such hands-on experience! In the North. if there were no bread ovens, the colonists often baked their breads on a bed of oak leaves in the open hearth. In "The Road to Deer Run," Mary's mother sends her out to go a-leafing to collect leaves for the baking through the winter. They would poke the leaves onto sticks to keep them in order until they needed them for the baking. Hard to imagine pieces of oak leaves stuck to the bread! Yikes!

  7. Loved this post Rachel! It took me a long while to realize one couldn't bake yeast breads on an open hearth. Thankfully the book I had my characters eating risen breads in had an oven like the one picture here. Still it sounds like such a chore to keep the fire going. A lot of the cooking you describe my husband has done over fires, since he's a boy scout troop leader. He likes to bake cakes in his Dutch oven, with the coals piled on top. I've never attempted it myself. Give me my nice clean oven, thanks! All those ashes, what a mess.

  8. So, how did they bake yeast breads?

  9. I'm a bit slow in commenting, but wanted to add my appreciation for your post. It was very interesting. It sure makes us appreciate the luxuries we enjoy today.


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