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Southern Food Historians/CHs? Why Baking Powder Trumps Yeast in the South's Most Common Breads?

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It seems to me that The South is really best known for its non-yeast breads: Hushpuppies, Cornbread (both baked and fried), and Biscuits. Maybe it had something to do with the hot climate not being yeast-friendly(is this even true?) Yeast breads take longer but i don't know why that would matter. Maybe the Scots and Irish and English immigrant groups' culinary traditions? (France and Italy have a tradition of bread bakers in every village ) but maybe bread in England, Ireland and Scotland - was a house by house product, and in the South, the first settler women had to work in the fields too and didn't have time for yeast breads as the daily bread? I don't know. Thoughts on this?

p.s. I'm not saying the South doesn't have yeast breads. I'm saying that baking powder breads seem to be "the daily bread" , more prevalent and associated with The South.

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  1. i could see puffy hush puppies as being 'interesting' as a novelty. but when one wants a biscuit one doesn't want a dinner roll. all I got to say.

    1. Well, overly warm environments rush the rise that occurs from yeast, rendering a bread that is considerably lacking in flavor. The ambient climate could indeed play a role. Many of the cultures with great yeast-baking traditions tend to be in moderate and cooler climates, though one does find tasty yeast breads elsewhere. However, one doesn't think of the tropics (or even subtropics) when one considers the "great" yeast breads of the world. Interesting question, opinionatechef!

      1. It is because of the flour. Flour used to be very regional. Southern flour, due to southern wheat varieties (soft red winter), has lower protein and lower gluten. This lends itself to cakes, biscuits, pie crusts. Yeast breads need higher protein flours.

        1. Hopefully PaulJ will chime in on this subject, since he is often pretty knowledgeable about these things, but...

          I believe there are 3 separate things at play here:
          1. Historically, corn played a much bigger deal in the South (compared to the North) as a daily staple. While Corn was popular from Florida to Canada, it was especially important in the South.
          2. Of the Wheat that the South did grow, lower Protein Cake and Pastry Wheat flour was more common than higher protein "Bread" flour.
          3. The hotter a place gets, the less likely they are to rely on "yeast-risen" goods. This is, IMO, the least important of the three reasons, but important enough to state. While we do find traditional breads in Southern Spain and Southern Italy and Central America (as well as the Deep South and The Southwest), things like Corn, Rice, Pasta and low-protein wheat goods become more common.

          22 Replies
          1. re: DougRisk

            Everyone is right so far, I think. I know that the first real artisanal bakers in Nashville, Bread & Co., in pioneering the technique of under-yeasting plus long rise in those parts, kept the work areas very well-cooled. The most common yeasted bread in that part of the world is the single-rise yeast roll, which is drop-dead delicious hot but doesn't really keep.

            Another thing is that while yeast wants some heat to grow, a natural starter needs to be kept cool, which was hard to do unless you had a spring house or deep cellar. Yeast breads were not unknown in the old times, but seldom made in modest households, while the art of the biscuit and cornbread flourished everywhere. Still does, yum yum.

            1. re: DougRisk

              That's basically what I've read.

              Yeast bread requires several things:
              - wheat, preferably a high protein (gluten) variety
              - millers (wind, water etc power)
              - ovens
              - good conditions for yeast to grow

              Early colonists had trouble growing wheat. This was true even in New England, but more so in the southern colonies. NE developed 'thirded bread', equal parts wheat, rye, corn to stretch the more expensive wheat supplies. Corn quickly became the staple grain throughout the colonies. In the 19th c the south was able to grow a soft wheat that became the base for classic Southern breads like biscuits and cakes. The northern cities came to rely on hard wheat grown in the Midwest and Great Plains by eastern European immigrants. Wheat prices dropped through out the 19th c.

              English cities had highly regulated commercial bakers in the Middle Ages. Bread could also be baked in manor ovens. But home made breads were more likely oat cakes and unleavened breads (biscuits). That would be especially true in areas like Scotland where oats and barley grew better than wheat. On the American frontier (which kept moving west), settlement was equal sparse, and quick stove top breads like corn and biscuits became the staple. Many Scots-Irish immigrants settled in Appalachia.

              Yeast breads, especially ones based on sour dough, can be made with rustic equipment, including the (camp) Dutch Oven. San Francisco became known for its sour dough, and gold miners in Alaska and Yukon became known as sourdoughs. Sourdough pancakes are still a trademark of Alaskan roadhouses. Chuckwagons had a sourdough keg, which the cook guarded carefully.

              That raises the climate issue. In hotter more humid climate it probably is harder to maintain a healthy yeast starter than in cooler ones. Baking soda and baking powder came into use about the mid 1800s, in both the USA and Europe. They revolutionized home made breads, especially in the South, lightening both their cornbread and biscuits.

              In another thread we talked about beaten biscuits, which get a certain lightness through repeated beating. The preceded baking powder biscuits, and still survive in a few pockets. Pilot bread is a sturdy biscuit (saltine without the salt) that has its roots in hardtack and ships biscuits that soldiers, sailors and other travelers lived on.

              1. re: paulj

                oh I love learning all this! Thank you so much, paul.

                1. re: paulj

                  PaulJ, fascinating, as always, but...

                  "The northern cities came to rely on hard wheat grown in the Midwest and Great Plains by eastern European immigrants."

                  It was my understanding that we did not get much Eastern European immigration until the late 1800's. Yet, we have been growing wheat in the Midwest since long before that.

                  1. re: DougRisk

                    The phrase 'Mennonites to Kansas' is what I recall from a USDA history of wheat. This would have been earlier than the Polish immigration that turned Chicago into the 2nd largest Polish city (or something like that). But I'd have look that up to be sure.

                    Canals like the Erie improved transportation of goods to the eastern cities, but it was the railroads that really gave the midwest access to markets. In the earliest days of the republic, the easiest way to get corn to market (from western Pennsylvania) was to turn it into whiskey.

                    Scots and Irish adopted baking powder/soda for their scones and soda bread in parallel, I think, to American biscuits. My impression is that most of the Scots who immigrated (from the clearances) went to Canada and Australia, while the big Irish flow was to the northern cities (Boston, NY, Chicago). Italians followed a few decades later. Scandinavians came to Chicago and the upper Midwest, and many went into farming. Germans were also a major immigrant group (largest actually). It would be interesting to compare the bread preferences of say, Wisconsin Germans and Texas ones.

                    My sense is that those large late 19th, early 20c immigrations largely bypassed the South, except for Texas, which borders on being Western.

                    1. re: paulj

                      My understanding about the difference in immigration patterns with the Irish and Scottish is that many of those in Ireland that emigrated, were emigrating from the Irish Cities, whereas many of the Scots were coming from rural areas. So, most of the Irish flocked to the cities whereas most of the Scottish flocked to farming and rural areas.

                      Chicago and Poles have a really interesting connection. As far as I know, it is the only city (maybe in the world) to have 3 distinct immigrating "waves" from one country. Don't quote me on the years, but it was something like the first wave in the late 1800's, the second wave in the 1920's and the 3rd wave in the 1960's.

                      1. re: DougRisk

                        love to learn all this. But i do wonder about the 'irish immigrating mostly from cities', as the potato famine, i thought, propelled the largest immigration, and from the countryside...? some googling ahead, i see.

                        1. re: DougRisk

                          The idea of the Irish coming from cities is not consistent with what I've read. For example the Great Famine article on Wikipedia, has a map of population change in irish counties, and explains the settlement patterns in the USA by poverty:

                          "By 1854, between 1.5 and 2 million Irish left their country due to evictions, starvation, and harsh living conditions. In America, most Irish became city-dwellers: with little money, many had to settle in the cities that the ships they came on landed in. By 1850, the Irish made up a quarter of the population in Boston, Massachusetts; New York City; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; and Baltimore, Maryland. In addition, Irish populations became prevalent in some American mining communities."

                          Timing may have also been important. 1850 was time of growing industry in the East, but travel to the American frontier required a substantial investment. The peak of the Oregon Trail travel was in 1843, and the Homestead Act was in 1862, and Transcontinental RR wasn't completed until 1869. Irish were a major part of the labor pool for the eastern half of that RR.

                          http://www.udel.edu/soe/deal/IrishImm...
                          has some facts about Irish immigration, including the earlier Scotch-Irish one.

                          1. re: paulj

                            "In America, most Irish became city-dwellers"

                            That was my understanding as well. I then made the (incorrect) logical leap that they had emigrated from urban areas.

                            1. re: DougRisk

                              I wonder what happened to the Irish that built the eastern half of the first Transcontinental Railroad. Apparently not many settled down to homesteads along the way. But the same railroad that they built made it easy to go back to families in the East, or on to other jobs of similar type.

                          2. re: DougRisk

                            http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Soda_bread
                            This article on soda bread says that Irish wheat was of the soft variety (as in the American South), and thus more suitable to quick breads than yeast breads.

                            1. re: paulj

                              Irish emigration did indeed mostly come from rural areas. That was true both before and after the Famine. Before the Famine Irish immigrants were more likely to settle in rural areas; during the Famine and after they tended to go to urban areas, as PaulJ has quoted above, Not sure how relevant any of this is to the bread discussion. To the extent that a large proportion of the Famine-era migrants came from potato-dependent areas, they wouldn't have been bread-eaters anyway. On the other hand, the highest emigration rates were from the later nineteenth century. I would have to check my facts on this, but by that time I would think bread (soda bread in particular) was becoming a somewhat more common staple even in the historically potato-dependent regions. Rising standards of living after the Famine woudl probably have meant more people could buy wheat from the regions that grew it.

                            2. re: DougRisk

                              More like four waves of Poles to Chicago. The first was late 1800s and early 1900s. The second was after World War I into the 1920s. The third wave was largely people displaced by World War II and ended when The Communists largely stopped emigration. The fourth began in the 1980s and continued until the recent construction collapse. In between the third and fourth waves moderate numbers of Polish Highlanders were let out by the Communist government as they were considered to be troublemakers. The main concentration of Highlanders is in the southwestern part of Chicago.

                              Polish restaurants in Chicago were going the way of German restaurants until the latest wave really got going and rejuvenated the restaurant scene here. Previously the older generation was retiring or dying with relatively few of their children wanting to go into the restaurant business with its long hours and hard work.

                              One effect of the immigration waves is that we have Polish-Polish and Polish-American restaurants. All of the buffets fall into the latter category.

                            3. re: paulj

                              gotta remember too, steerage passage was about $10 p/p cheaper (after around the 1890's maybe?) to emigrate through ports other than Ellis Island (significant $ then) to ease NYC overcrowding and xenophobia, hence the # of Italians, Slavs and Poles in places like NOLA. hence the oddity of a place like Uglesivich's (RIP) and the almost Brooklyn accent heard on the streets.

                              indeed fascinating stuff.

                              1. re: paulj

                                Turkey Red wheat, the ancestor of our hard red winter wheat, was brought to Kansas by Mennonites from Ukraine. They were Germans who had been invited to settle in Ukraine by Catherine the Great for their agricultural skills. This immigration was a bit earlier than the first Polish surge.

                                What has been missing from this discussion so far is that the eastern part of the Midwest grows soft wheat now and did in essentially the whole nineteenth century. Protein levels in hard red winter wheat are dependent on weather conditions. Too much rain and there will be more soft starch relative to the hard protein. Planting hard red winter wheat in Illinois, say, will produce high yields but relatively low protein levels. This wheat is good for chicken feed but not so good for making bread. High quality hard red winter wheat is produced from central Kansas westward and at similar longitudes from Texas into the Dakotas. The northern plains shift over to hard red spring wheat with still higher protein levels.

                                The railroads were key to settlement in the plains as well as the development of milling centers in Minneapolis and Kansas City. However, I do not see evidence that Eastern European immigrants were much a factor in grain production in the plains. Northern Europeans whether coming directly from Europe or indirectly from farther east in the United States were the dominant source of farmers in the plains.

                                1. re: Eldon Kreider

                                  Isn't the Ukraine part of Eastern Europe? Your first paragraph elaborates on what I had in mind.

                                  http://www.ers.usda.gov/Briefing/Whea...
                                  is the USDA overview of wheat consumption that I had in mind

                                  Relevant bits are:
                                  - difficult wheat production in colonial era
                                  - high transportation costs favoring local grains, e.g. corn
                                  - baking technology before wood-fired stoves favored cornbread and nonyeast breads
                                  - improved harvesting and milling technology in early 19th c
                                  - improved transportation (canal, railroad)
                                  - hard spring wheat in Minnesota in mid 1800s
                                  - expanded railroads after 1865
                                  - Mennonites (from Crimea) to Kansas in 2nd half 1800s
                                  - Roller mills in 1880 (easier to produce white flour)
                                  - shift from cornmeal to wheat flour, esp in South (after 1900)
                                  - in 1900 home baking used 90% of flour
                                  - in 1990. <10% is used in the home

                                  1. re: paulj

                                    The key item is that the so-called Russian Mennonites were German and never integrated with local society. They went from Germany to Ukraine and Crimea and then moved to the plains in the United States and Canada as the political situation changed in Russia. They were no more Eastern European than the Pennsylvania Dutch who are of German and Swiss origin. Note that a fair number of Pennsylvania Dutch moved westward in the same period.

                                    1. re: Eldon Kreider

                                      That's a good point when talking about language (not Slavic) and religion, probably less relevant when talking about wheat. That is, I assume that the wheat they introduced to Kansas was different from that common in Germany (or what the PD were growing in Pennsylvania and Indiana).

                                      More on this
                                      http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/con...

                                      However the dates for the introduction of this hard wheat to the American (and world) market, 1870 and later, are probably too late to have significant impact on the OP's question - why are biscuits king in the South, and less so elsewhere in the USA. Up until that time, all of America was using softer wheat.

                                      But may be the contrast between Southern biscuit cuisine and Northern bread is exaggerated, especially in the late 19th c. After all it was a Minnesota mill that developed Bisquick in 1931. And Michigan Jiffy also dates from that time
                                      http://www.jiffymix.com/images/pdf/Go...
                                      Northerns know (or knew) something about biscuits and cornbread, even if Southern purists look down on their versions.

                                      1. re: paulj

                                        I grew up in Illinois, thinking Bisquick was how you made biscuits and Jiffy made real cornbread. Upon moving to Nashville in my thirties, something like scales fell from my eyes, and I understood the depths of my previous ignorance. Didn't have a damn thing to do with purism, either; it was taste, pure and simple.

                            4. re: paulj

                              During the mid to late 18th century, the Northeast wheat basket was the Great Plains of ... Long Island - the Hempstead Plains.

                              1. re: paulj

                                It is almost certainly not due to climate in any way beyond the fact that climate has a role in the crops that can be grown in the region in question.

                                There have been yeast breads in the Nile delta and across India for millennia. Portugal, as hot and humid as it gets in Europe, is an important center of European bread culture. Then there's Greece, Turkey, Spain and Italy as well. All have warm climates and yeasted wheat breads and have for as long as history has been written.

                                There is a long tradition of yeast breads in the South, they just never became staples as in the North. Sally Lunn bread was widely known in the antebellum South. The Moravians who settled central NC have been known as expert bakers since their arrival in second half of the 18th century. Their breads, sugar cake ( a yeasted wheat dough topped with sugar and butter) and love feast buns are a way of life in that part of the South.

                                As for biscuits, there were and are yeast raised biscuits in the South - called angel or brides' biscuits,I've only ever had them at weddings but they still exist. Often Angel Biscuits include both yeast and chemical leveners. (And with beaten biscuits it's not the beating but the folding between beatings that creates lightness - it's essentially a laminated pastry, like puff pastry, without the fat between layers.)

                                The biggest factors are probably practical ones: everyone had corn, wheat was hard to come by, no one had home ovens, few lived near towns where the market could support a commercial bakery (but those towns did, indeed, have bread bakeries).

                                As a side note, the Scots-Irish who played a part in settling the South were not two groups, Scots and Irishmen, but rather the descendants of the Scottish protestants sent to Ireland by the English to subdue "the natives."

                                1. re: caganer

                                  caganer, i am most intrigued by your post.Just need to get through one point first. India is not known for yeast.
                                  www.food-india.com
                                  <Naan is a leavened oven-baked flatbread. Indian breads are different from the traditional western bread in two aspects. Most of Indian breads are flatbreads and do not contain any leavening agents such as yeast (Naan is an exception). >

                                  Now, trying to delve further: Dp you think lack of home ovens was a prevalent condition in 18th c. South but not in the 18th c.North? Bread bakeries were found in 18th c. Southern towns? With the Moravian influence (not just a tiny part of the extreme North of N.C.?)do you think of N.C. as self-identifying more with yeast breads than corn non-yeast?I wonder if they raised wheat themselves or where it came from and why it didn't spread further south- still the point of 'lack of home ovens'?

                                  In my research tonight, the colonial VA baking info indicates beehive ovens were used in the home. you don't think they were used further south though?

                                  so much to learn here, i am seeing i really know NOTHING about all this, w/o reading alot more.

                            5. Geographic isolation had a lot to do with it as well...

                              If you lived in the rural South before the Spanish-American War, you were fairly isolated from most of the rest of the world. The rural South from the 17th century up to the early 20th century was the frontier.

                              This isolation required most Southerners from outside of the major population centers to be self sufficient, and learn how to make due with what they had.

                              As such it was easier for isolated and cash-strapped Southern families to use ash water or buttermilk as leavening agents.

                              You weren't likely to see yeast leavened bread outside of the major Southern cities until the early 20th century.

                              1. I would think that early subsistence farmers in the south used mostly corn. One man, and a mule, can grow enough corn to feed the family, and supplement the livestock's food.

                                Would be much more labor intensive, on a small scale, with wheat. I've seen pictures of early horse drawn combines that must have had a dozen horses hitched to it.

                                Would be interested to know where the soft southern flour wheat comes from today. Sure don't see much being grown in my travels about the south. I think most of the small grains that are grown in Georgia are used either as animal feed or for replanting for winter grazing.

                                9 Replies
                                1. re: kengk

                                  When Smucker's bought out the White Lily Flour company, the one and only mill was in Knoxville, and the wheat was bought only from a carefully chosen number of farms centered around that part of the country. After everyone's suspicions had settled - we just knew they were eventually going to play carpetbagger and ruin everything - Smucker's did exactly that, shutting down the mill and moving the business to Memphis, in the middle of a whole lot of much less expensive wheat-farming. The company insists that there's no difference at all in the product, because none can be found in the lab! By those standards there's no difference between Pomerol and Gallo Hearty Burgundy, either … okay, sorry, I was just trying to answer kengk's question here. Let my indignation run away with me again.

                                  1. re: Will Owen

                                    Not real familiar with TN, is there a good bit of wheat grown there? I travel mostly through Georgia, Alabama and Florida.

                                    1. re: Will Owen

                                      Things are not as simple as that
                                      http://knowtea.com/?p=460

                                      Was White Lily the only Southern soft wheat flour? What about Martha White (with its Hot Rize trademark), and Tenda Bake from Midstate Mills?

                                      Something also keep in mind, the famed WL Self rising flour that many rave about, is bleached, and uses a double acting baking powder (with SAP). And most of these southern brands also make biscuit mixes, the equivalent of GM's Bisquick.

                                      http://www.ajc.com/living/content/liv...
                                      "The Knoxville mill produced White Lily through eight changes in ownership, but it wasn't the only one to make the flour. Smucker won't identify the milling operation now producing White Lily, but spokeswoman Maribeth Badertscher says it has been a secondary miller of the flour for generations. [Ohio

                                      ]

                                      Smucker bought the brand two years ago from C.H. Guenther & Sons, a Texas-based milling company...."

                                      1. re: paulj

                                        Paul, what is SAP?

                                        I am assuming that you are not referring to the large IT Accounting software.

                                        1. re: DougRisk

                                          Sodium aluminium phosphate - in other words, they don't use an aluminum-free double-acting baking powder.

                                          1. re: Karl S

                                            I found a blogger who compared the rise in biscuits using WL self rising, a store brand self rising, and 'home made self rising'. The ingredients photo showed a small can of Rumford. They complained that 'home made' version was like hockey pucks (something like .9" high instead of 1.3").

                                            For biscuit thread I found a blogger who compared baking powders. If I recall that one correctly Clabber Girl gave the best rise.

                                            I don't want to trigger a baking powder tanget, but just point out that there's a lot more to Southern biscuits than Knoxville v Memphis wheat terroir.

                                            1. re: paulj

                                              How about this:

                                              http://www.thefreshloaf.com/node/1299...

                                              or this:

                                              http://lukewarmlegumes.com/baking-pow...

                                              Edna Lewis was someone who swore by old fashioned single-acting baking powder like Bakewell Cream.

                                    2. re: kengk

                                      http://www.commodityseasonals.com/typ...
                                      maps of where various types of wheat are grown

                                      1. re: paulj

                                        I continue to learn from you, paul, so thx so much. after looking at the hard and soft wheat maps i am going to remember it this simple way(not 100% accurate, but close enough for me):

                                        Hard wheat,winter and spring: west of the east texas border, going north and south

                                        Soft Wheat,winter (no spring): east of the east texas border, north and south