It used to be that people learned to cook by watching someone else. Cookbooks were mostly reminders or suggestions for people who already knew the techniques. This is why very old recipes often seem incomplete… most were intended to be used as a guide, rather than as actual instructions. It wasn’t until about 1890, when cooking schools became popular, that general methods of cooking were taught. At that time, many recipes were studied and rewritten to make them more understandable for the student. Fanny Farmer, a woman whose name is still well-known today, was a student at one of these schools. She eventually became a teacher in the same school, and she was responsible for introducing the idea that all recipe measurements should be level measures. Until then, cookbooks called for such things as “butter the size of an egg” and “flour enough to make a stiff dough.”
Yellow daylily (Hemerocallis lilioasphodelus)
The following recipe for ginger snaps that appears in a cookbook dated 1872 is a good example.
“Take 1 egg, 1 cupful of molasses, 1 cupful of sugar, 1 cupful of butter and lard mixed, some boiling water, 1 tablespoonful of saleratus dissolved in the water, 1 tablespoonful of ginger, and flour enough to mold out rather soft. Roll out thin and bake in a quick oven.”
Although this recipe appears to call for equal amounts of some of the ingredients, the measurements were intended to be taken differently. For instance, 1 cup of sugar would be a larger amount than 1 cup of butter, because a sugar measurement was supposed to be level, but butter was measured as a scant cup. Baking powder or soda was measured by the heaping spoonful (which meant that the top was to be rounded up as much as the bottom of the spoon), but spices were measured by the level spoonful. Cooks of the day just “knew” these things.
Then there was the question of what a cupful really meant. Some ingredients were measured in the measuring cup of that time, usually made of tin, which held one fifth less than the eight ounce cup measure that came later. There was also the teacup measure, which was approximately equal to our one half cup, and the wine glass measure that was approximately our fourth of a cup. A coffee cup, tumbler, or glassful (all stated measurements in some old recipes) held amounts closer to our present cup measure.
Spoonfuls were just as confusing. Some old tablespoon measures were equivalent to four teaspoons, as compared to the later tablespoon, which was equivalent to only three teaspoons. Sometimes old recipes will specify dessert spoon (roughly equivalent to today’s one half tablespoon) or salt spoon (roughly equivalent to today’s one eighth teaspoon) measurements.
Flour type was rarely specified. The heaviest, crudest type of flour was called graham flour and was bought only in small quantities because it got rancid so quickly. Whole wheat and white flour were less refined versions of the flours we know today.
Sugar came in many forms, beginning with the cones of sugar that weighed about ten pounds. These cones were cut with a special tool called sugar shears into equal-sized portions, or loaves. Sometimes the loaf sugar was pulverized with a mortar and pestle to make a fairly coarse sugar, but finer sugars were preferred for baking. Turbinado was a very coarse and dry cane sugar. Next came granulated sugar, then castor sugar, which was very much like our powdered sugar today. The finest sugar was confectioner’s sugar.
Leavening was often a problem in the old days. The earliest recipes call for saleratus, which was a coarse-grained baking soda that was used with unpredictable results. Later, this was mixed with cream of tartar (the white crystals made from the scrapings from a wine vat) to make an early and not very reliable form of baking powder. Our present-day products are much stronger and much more effective, so anyone adventuresome enough to try these old recipes probably should adjust amounts accordingly.
Often yeast was measured by the teacup. This would indicate a liquid yeast, such as a sponge. Dried yeast as we know it didn’t become available until the beginning of the twentieth century.
I have several of these old cookbooks, and they’re interesting reading… not just the recipes and cooking techniques, but also the advice and instructions on such varying topics as how to run a household or the proper etiquette for any occasion. They’re a fascinating glimpse into how life used to be.