A “Potted” History of British Baking and Baking Ingredients

May 13, 2016

When did Britain develop its love of baking, and was cake always on the menu? Here’s a tour through baking history...

Middle Ages
Baking  was a luxury few were able to enjoy. But for those who could afford a wood-burning stove and to heat it, they always would start with bread. The better the quality, the higher up the social order you were

Ovens were not a standard fixture in any household, so bread-baking never really entered the home in the medieval period. It was a niche, commercial activity. For example, you had bread-bakers in London and the rich ate fine, floured wheat bread. But if you were poor you cut your teeth on rye and black bread. Only the very wealthy had the cakes we tend to think of today. But they were much heavier – 10 to 20lbs per cake. Overall it 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

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

The “wig” - a small bun made with sweetened dough and herbs and spices – became popular

But mince pies made with minced beef or mutton, and biscuits were the equivalent of Ryvita – pretty nasty stuff, and  gingerbread was made with breadcrumbs

16th and 17th centuries
Baking was transformed by globalisation, heralding 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’. Amid growing wealth and social change, people could think about eating things other than bread, and imitate the upper-class diet so baking became more accessible, and so more people baked cakes and biscuits

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

From the 16th century you had the onset of cookery literature, in which you start to see recipes for things we might recognize today such as small, yeasted cakes and buns. 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 and pastries too were considered fashionable in the late 17th century. The English prided themselves on their pastry-making. It was considered a skill all good housewives should have and London cookery schools were teaching pastry-making. It was a fashionable skill

18th century
Cake making soared in popularity during the 1700’s, but the industrial revolution from 1760 saw a return to more stodgy baked goods. This was when cake making really took off

“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 since the development of baking is as much to do with technology as it is taste

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

Both merchants and shopkeepers could afford ovens, and to bake

19th century
“Convenience food” grew in popularity, and the advent of baking powder saw cakes become lighter.
Since more working class women were employed in the 19th century, they had less time for elaborate food preparation

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 while 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



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