The History of the British Baker

Britain is well-known for its great bakers, who produce a multitude of traditional tasty treats, including pasties, scones, loaves and biscuits.

For most of the population, baking at home was something that didn't begin until the mid-19th century. Prior to this, most ordinary people, at the poorer end of the social scale, couldn't afford adequate cooking facilities, as ovens weren't a standard fixture in every home.

While the trade of baking dates back to the Middle Ages, it was something only the wealthy could do at home, until around the 1850s.

British Bakers

© Morphart / Adobe Stock

Early bakers

In the Middle Ages, very few people could afford the luxury of a wood-burning stove at home. Being a baker by trade was a niche commercial profession, mainly in London.

The massive social divide meant wealthy people ate high quality, floured wheat bread, but the poorer parts of the community could afford only cheaper loaves, such as rye and black bread.

Only the extremely well-off could afford to eat cakes. There were no dainty individual cakes, as we would expect to buy today. Cakes were much heavier and would normally weigh in at 10lbs to 20lbs. Bakers put the emphasis on making bread and pies, with cakes only baked as a luxury.

Again, there was a divide between what people could afford, with the wealthy enjoying rich, dark pies that were packed with meat, while the poor would eat lower-quality pies that were mostly pastry, with very little filling.

New dough mix

In the 15th century, a new type of sweet dough, made with plenty of cream and butter, was launched for those who could afford to buy it. A small bun, known as a wigg, was made with sweet dough, herbs and spices.

During the 16th and 17th centuries baking was transformed, as new ingredients were brought from other lands. Sweet, rich cake and moist dough with cream, butter and raisins became popular. Treacle and currants were also used in baking.

In the late 17th century, the price of sugar dropped and baking became more accessible to the middle classes. Mince pies, as we know them today, emerged, and as flour became more refined, so did modern gingerbread. It became increasingly popular to eat small, yeast-based buns and cakes as a dessert.

Kitchen range

Kitchen equipment such as the cake tin, lined with buttered paper (the equivalent of greaseproof paper today) was more widely used.

In the early 1800s, coal-fired ovens became available as part of the kitchen range, mainly for the upper and middle classes. For the working classes, up until the mid-19th century, the cooking facilities usually consisted of an open grate, with an iron pot hanging above it. This meant they weren't able to bake at home.

It was common to prepare bread and cakes at home, before taking them to a communal bakery to be cooked, until finally, in the 1850s, new working-class homes were invariably fitted with a kitchen range that included a small oven. At last, every section of the community was able to bake at home.

Ingredients

Baked with the same type of dough used for yeast bread, the cakes (often made with ale) were known for being quite solid - the modern equivalent would be lardy cakes. Pastries were also popular and pastry-making was considered a skill that every housewife should have.

Cakes and richer foods were baked for special occasions, such as Christmas and Easter, while the introduction of baking powder meant cakes became lighter and lost their lardy texture. Flour, fat, eggs and a raising agent became popular ingredients for cakes, replacing the old yeast-based bakes.

As a result of the Industrial Revolution, more working-class women were in full-time employment in the 19th century. This left them less time to prepare food. While we think of "fast food" as a modern invention, British housewives often relied on convenience foods, like pies and pasties.

Although gas ovens were first patented in the 19th century, they weren't commonly used in the home until the early 20th century. Electric ovens were invented in the 1880s, but weren't used in homes until electricity distribution improved in the late 1920s.

Commercial bakeries

In 1875, Hull-born entrepreneur Joseph Rank founded Joseph Rank Limited, which became the largest flour milling and bakery company in Britain. The business started out based at a small windmill, which he rented. By 1885, it had expanded to new premises at the Alexandra Mill in Hull.

He installed a mechanical flour mill and as his business expanded, he established more mills near ports around the country, until it became the biggest flour-milling business in the UK.

In 1887, the National Association of Master Bakers was born and in 1889, the first margarine factory in England opened. The National Bakery School (the oldest bakery school in the country) opened on London's South Bank in 1894.

In 1903, the Association of Biscuit Manufacturers was set up, followed by the British Confectioners' Association in 1905. In 1928, the first bread-slicing machine was demonstrated by its inventor, Otto Rohwedder, at a trade fair in the United States.

Two years later, commercial bread-slicing machines were launched in factories, so bread could be sold pre-sliced and wrapped - this was where the expression, "The best thing since sliced bread," came from.

By the late 1950s, small master bakers were losing out to mass-produced bread being marketed by large wholesale companies. The development of supermarkets further squeezed master bakers out of the picture.

Bakery deliveries

The delivery of bread and other bakery products has evolved over the years, in the same way that manufacturing processes have. At one time, home delivery of bakery products was quite common, in the same way that the milkman would deliver dairy products.

In the early 1900s, the baker would often deliver to customers' homes using a simple two-wheeled hand-cart, which was supported by wooden legs at the back when stationary. A horse and cart was also used in the early 20th century.

The distribution network has changed considerably over the last century. The horse and cart made way for the railway, until vans and modern-day lorries took over. Today, they are more likely to be found delivering bread from the bakery to the supermarket, as home deliveries to customers have become almost a thing of the past.

Advances in technology

Baking today is very different from how it was 100 years ago, thanks to new technology. The basic ingredients of flour, salt, yeast and water remain the same, as does the basic bread-making process, which has four main steps: Mixing, fermenting, baking and cooling.

Today, there are two main ways of baking bread: the bulk fermentation process and the Chorleywood bread process. With BFP (a traditional method), the dough transforms from a dense mass into an elastic dough during fermentation.

The CBP is a modern commercial method, which was first used by the Flour Milling and Baking Research Association in the 1960s at Chorleywood. It uses high-speed mixing to provide mechanical energy and develop the dough for proving and baking. This means the long bulk fermentation of the traditional process is no longer necessary. Commercial bread production at a plant takes about four hours from start to finish.

Hot cross buns

With Easter approaching on Friday 19th April, it's a busy time of year for bakers. They will be making hot cross buns - an Easter tradition believed to date back to the 14th century, when they were baked by monks at St Albans Abbey to distribute to the poor on Good Friday.

When you're preparing your Easter spread, Solent Plastics has a large range of storage solutions for ingredients. Our airtight food storage containers will keep your baking fresh.

We also sell other bakery solutions, including commercial pizza and confectionery dough trays.

Contact us on 01794 514478 for further details.