Taking on Fannie Farmer: How a baking-impaired intern negotiated a 100-year-old bread recipe in a modern kitchen

I do not bake. My cookies burn, my pie crust is either too dry or too sticky, and my pies turn out watery. So how did I find myself lead baker testing a 100-year-old bread recipe? The bread recipe, Entire Wheat Bread, came from the 1911 edition of the 1896 Fannie Farmer's Boston Cooking-School Cookbook, one of the best-selling cookbooks of all time because it was "reliable, comprehensive, and easy-to-follow," everything I needed more than a century later. My predicament sprang from my involvement in a new Smithsonian Food History program, Harvest for the Table, a free daytime hands-on activity exploring the technological innovations in wheat and flour production over 100 years ago. It was my job to test the bread recipe in preparation for possible future programs in our demonstration kitchen.

On a steel kitchen surface, bowls and measuring devices hold different wet and dry ingredients, most white or light in color. There is a wooden spoon laying on the right side by the bowls.

First came the flour. I used the coarse, brown, stone-ground flour milled by museum visitors during our Harvest for the Table program. (See our calendar for dates and times.) Until the 1880s, this type of "entire" or whole wheat flour was standard. The introduction of the steel roller mill, still the dominant mill type today, changed the flour industry by stripping the bran and germ from the wheat kernel, producing a whiter flour (desired by customers) with a greater shelf life and enhanced baking performance. Over 100 years ago, Farmer experienced firsthand these technological innovations and witnessed the rise in white flour. She felt its impacts on home baking, observing how "entire" wheat flour was only available in health food stores and, much to her disapproval, how manufacturers marketed identical flour under a variety of new brand names.

An illustration of a windmill. It may be slightly faded but there is a whimsical feel to it. In the background, there is a sky from a fragonard painting.

Flour. Check.

Next on the ingredient list, one yeast cake. What in the world was a "yeast cake?" Research led me to specialty food sellers still carry these small, moist cakes enclosed in tin foil. Sold by Fleischmann's and others, this is a product with which cooks in the 1890s would be very familiar—but I sure wasn't. I used a modern conversion chart to figure out how much of my dry yeast to add.

According to Farmer, yeast is a necessary addition to the bread dough because it acts as a ferment and "attacks some of the starch in flour, and changes it to sugar, and sugar in turn to alcohol and carbon dioxide, thus lightening the whole mass." Yeast also gives bread its distinctive flavors and irresistible smell while also interacting with the protein in flour, gluten, to give the bread its structure. When the dough is kneaded, the act stretches the gluten and allows it to fill with gas bubbles from the yeast while the dough rises. However, Farmer warns, "If risen too long, [the bread] will be full of large holes; if not risen long enough, it will be heavy and soggy." She continues, "If proper care is taken, the bread will be found most satisfactory, having neither 'yeasty' nor sour taste." That was my goal: to make a "most satisfactory" loaf.

A dark metal oblong object. There is a lip that runs around it but the shape looks like a capsule or glasses case. There is a small latch on one side.

A dark metal rectangular pan. The metal looks old and it is shaped to accommodate a bread loaf.

Experienced bakers will notice that I haven't mentioned the salt or milk Farmer would have used or the modern equivalents. These ingredients certainly have interesting stories to tell, but I need to get this loaf in the oven before my internship is over!

When it came time to put my dough in the oven, I found myself playing the bread whisperer. Farmer's oven was still fueled by fire. Her cookbook even describes how to control airflow and fuel in the cookstove in order to control its temperature. Most recipes classified temperature in three ways: hot, moderate, and cool. Bakers tested their oven's temperature by placing their hand in the oven and seeing how long they could bear the heat or by placing flour on the oven floor and waiting for it to brown or catch fire. According to Farmer in her 1896 cookbook, "Experience is the best guide for testing temperature of [the] oven." Her readers in 1911 had coal- and wood-burning ranges without temperature controls, but I never learned that intuition using today's calibrated ovens. Choosing to avoid oven fires or burning my hand, I did as Farmer suggested and drew from past baking experience. I set my oven to 400 degrees.

A black and white photo of a woman into a white dress kneeling beside an oven. It has a white kettle and pot resting on the stove. There are baking accoutrements laid out on a table in the background. The woman looks at the camera knowingly as she clasps a loaf of bread in a tin pan with a cloth. The woman's face is the focal point of the photo. Her expression could sell a hundred stoves.

With trepidation I placed my doughy loaf into the oven. Even with modern equipment, it had taken me several hours to make a single loaf of bread, having kneaded and let the bread rise twice before baking it for approximately 40 minutes. While there is a movement today to make artisanal bread as an alternative to mass-produced loaves, most modern bread comes from a supermarket. It is hard to imagine making bread every day as a necessity, let alone lighting a fire to bake bread!

A silver-colored metal pot with handles on each side. There is a lid with a hand crank attached.

A silver-colored metal pot with handles on each side. There is a lid with a hand crank attached.

Innovations over the past century have distanced most consumers from their bread, trading nutrients and control for convenience and efficiency. My foray into baking will help reveal to visitors just how distanced some of us have become, and, hopefully, give them a new appreciation for the complex processes that go into making a simple loaf of bread. Baking this recipe on the stage of our demonstration kitchen, using the flour made by visitors in our stone hand mill, with the backdrop of a highly advanced kitchen, juxtaposes the old and new baking technology, demonstrating just how much our bread has changed over time. Who knows how technology will change baking in the next hundred years!

And my entire wheat bread? I cut into my loaf, exposing an even, perfectly baked crumb and releasing a sweetly nutty, maple aroma—a crumbly, moist loaf of whole wheat bread that, hopefully, would make Fannie Farmer proud.

A loaf of bread on a wooden surface. It is light wheat colored and the surface is rough

A piece of bread. The picture is taken at an angle so you see across the width of the bread. It is rough in texture.

A picture of a piece of light brown bread taken from directly over it. The bread is rougher in texture.

If you'd like to hear about the latest food and agriculture history happenings at the museum, be sure to sign up for our Food History newsletter.

Rachel Snyder completed a summer 2016 internship in the Office of Audience Engagement working on food and agriculture programs.