Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Saleratus Muffins: A Cross Between an English Muffin and an American Biscuit

Saleratus Muffins

The following recipe comes from a collection of recipes found in a manuscript journal located in the H. Furlong Baldwin Library at the Maryland Historical Society in Baltimore. The manuscript is attributed to Ann Maria Morris and the date of 1824 is written on the inside cover. The recipe below is one of many from the manuscript that will be included in a book I am writing. The book will contain biographical information about Mrs. Morris, an annotated transcript of the entire manuscript as it was written, and a section of modern recipe adaptations (including this one!).

Sal Aeratus Muffins 
To 1 quart of flour, add 1 pint of sour milk, or cream, 1 spoonful of butter, a little salt, a teaspoonful of Sal Aeratus, to be dissolved perfectly well with warm water, and add to the flour, when the oven, or griddle, is ready for baking, they should all be well mixed.

(Note: a modern recipe adaption is listed below)

This recipe yields a product very similar to what Americans would call an "English Muffin"; however, it is actually more like a cross between an English muffin and an American biscuit. As with most early manuscript recipes, the directions are cryptic, barely detailed, and usually hard to interpret. I used the ingredients and some of the directions to try to interpret what the end product should be. 

Based on the ingredients (actually the lack of sugar) and the direction to use an oven or a griddle, it seems likely that a "toastable" muffin is the type meant in this recipe.  According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the oldest reference to this type of bread was made in 1703 whereby a "moofin" was described as "a wheat cake baked upon a bake-stone over the fire, as oat-cakes." Another similar recipe was published in 1747 in an English cookbook widely used in America by Hannah Glasse called The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy. Glasse's recipe "To make Muffings and Oat-Cakes" offers this interesting instruction:

Clearly, Glasse's muffins were meant to be baked and then pulled apart and toasted just like modern English Muffins. However, in Glasse's case the muffins were buttered prior to being toasted before a fire. I am sure the invention of the modern toaster necessitated the need to butter the muffins after toasting to prevent causing a fire in the kitchen!

A Bit About Saleratus
The reason this is a cross between an English muffin and an American biscuit is because this recipe is named for and contains saleratus, an ingredient that was relatively new in the early part of the 19th century. Modern English muffin recipes use yeast instead of chemical leavening agents such as baking soda or powder. Saleratus (potassium bicarbonate) is a chemical leavening agent similar to baking soda (sodium bicarbonate).  Sal Aeratus or Saleratus literally translates as “aerated salt.” Chemical leavening agents to lighten breads and cakes were not popular in America until the 19th century, emerging in the very late 18th century. The first popular chemical substance added to lighten breads or cakes was potash, an unrefined form of saleratus made of potassium carbonate.  Potash, also called pearlash, was obtained by leaching water through wood ashes, or from burned pea and bean stalks, certain ferns, or seaweed.[1]  Potash/Pearlash, was the only real chemical leavening agent available in the 18th century (except for ammonium carbonate used for very limited baking purposes due to its high rate of evaporation and stench while baking).

Both saleratus and baking soda were actually developed years before they were used in cooking applications. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, saleratus as a culinary product dates back to 1837 when Sylvester Graham mentioned it in his Treatise on Bread Making.  However, evidence dates culinary saleratus back to at least as early as the 1820s, and possibly earlier. Here are some examples:
  • The earliest possible reference to saleratus I could find is from a rootsweb.com description of pioneer women of Madison, Ohio.  A woman named, Mrs. Elisha Wood (Polly Doty), evidently arrived in Madison in 1814, “when saleratus was made by burning cobs in an outdoor oven . . . ” (it is possible they were making the less refined potash though).[2]
  • Research into store account books from the 1820s and 1830s in New England, conducted by Old Sturbridge Village indicates that saleratus was sold for household use in very small quantities.[3]
  • Eliza Leslie’s 1828 edition of Seventy-Five Sweetmeats for Pastry, Cakes, and Sweetmeats, contains a recipe for Lafayette Gingerbread that calls for pearl-ash dissolved in milk to lighten the cake[4]; however, the 1832 edition suggests that sal-aeratus may be substituted for pearl-ash in the Lafayette Gingerbread recipe.[5] 
  • An early account of saleratus comes from an advertisement in the November, 8, 1830 edition of Baltimore’s American and Commercial Daily Advertiser. The advertisement reads:  “Sal’ eratus – 20 boxes best quality just received and for sale by W. Rhoads, 12 Bowley’s Wharf.”  
  • Lydia Marie Child’s 1830 cookbook, The Frugal Housewife, Dedicated to those Who Are Not Ashamed of Economy,  has a recipe for Indian Cakes that requires, “a handful of saleratus.”[6]   
  • Eliza Leslie also suggested using sal-aeratus in the 1832 edition for a recipe for Gingerbread Nuts
  • Old Sturbridge Village documents also reveal that an 1836 Treasurer’s Report from the Shrewsbury Female Charitable Society lists saleratus as an item to be donated to a Mrs. Carey.[7]  
Tracking the culinary application of saleratus can be  confounded by the confusing tendency for people of the time to use the words “saleratus” and “soda” interchangeably!  For example, Dwight's Saleratus, made with sodium bicarbonate not potassium bicarbonate, was introduced in 1847![8] In any event, this Saleratus Miffin recipe was clearly written in the time period (probably 1830s-40s) in which its use can be documented with evidence.

How to Use Saleratus
Both saleratus and baking soda are alkaline substances that can be easily substituted  for each other, measure to measure.  In addition, both require an acid in the recipe to activate the leavening process.  Consequently, sour milk, lemons, vinegar,  and eventually cream of tartar (bitartrate of potassium) and other acidic substances were used in recipes with these “sodas.” You will notice that the recipe lists "sour milk" as an ingredient, this was necessary to activate the very alkaline saleratus.

Saleratus Muffins: Modern Recipe Adaptation
Yield: 8 Muffins

  • 4.5 Cups All Purpose Flour
  • Teaspoon Salt
  • 1.5 Teaspoon Saleratus or Baking Soda
  • 2 Cups Sour Milk (add 2 tablespoons white vinegar to 1 7/8 cups of milk)
  • 1 Tablespoon Butter, Melted

1. Heat a greased electric skillet to about 300ยบ F. Grease crumpet rings and place them on the surface of the skillet.
2.  In a large mixing bowl, whisk together the flour, salt, and baking soda.
3. Add the sour milk and melted butter to the flour mixture. Use a fork at first to blend the dry and liquid ingredients together. Then, use a rubber spatula to finish mixing everything together.

The Muffin Dough is Very Thick  

4. Using a wet 1/2 cup measuring cup and a wet spatula, measure out dough into equal 1/2 cup cup servings. Fill each ring and use the wet spatula to even out the dough in each ring.

Dough in Rings

5. Cook for about 10 minutes and then turn. The rings may fall off as you turn them; that is fine. Cook another 10 minutes or until cooked thoroughly.
6. Split with a fork and toast.
7. Top with butter, jam, peanut butter, etc.

Split, Toasted Muffin Topped with Butter and Jam

1. Food History News, Vol. IV, No. 2
2. http://www.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~ohlake/history/mpwmadis.html
3. Food History News, Vol, IV, No. 2, p. 4
4. Leslie, Eliza. Seventy-Five Sweetmeats for Pastry, Cakes, and Sweetmeats, 1828 ed., p.67
5. Leslie, Eliza, Seventy-Five Sweetmeats for Pastry, Cakes, and Sweetmeats, 1832 ed., p.?
6. Child, Lydia Marie, The Frugal Housewife, Dedicated to those Who Are Not Ashamed of Economy, 1830 ed.
7. Food History News., Vol. IV, No. 2., p. 2.
8. http://www.joepastry.com/2011/saleratus-to-soda/

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