Traditional and Medieval bread recipes

This article was created to be part of a cookbook many years ago. This dream is now about to come true. I got a few stipends, and during winter and spring 2011 I am writing my book about Viking and Medieval food in Finland. Got to know a publisher? Please let me know...

No part of this text is allowed to be cited or published without my permission. Please note that methods of research get better all the time, and new interpretations may appear.


Pliny describes a number of leavens, including dough left to ferment from the previous day’s mix, as well as cakes made of wheat bran and the fermenting barm of wine. According to Storck & Teague the superiority of Roman breads was not due to leavens, but to the wheats used and to the greater attention given to sieving. (Stock & Teague, p. 87)

There is many ways to make sour leaven (Luomuleipojan käsikirja). All grain can be leavened. Different methods are rye leavening, honey leavening, oat sour and sour of salt and honey (Luomuleipojan käsikirja, p 49-50). Simonetti writes that also hop can be used to leaven the bread (p.154). According to Israelsson vehka (swedish missne) leavens the bread by itself.

Leaven raises the bread and no yeast is needed. Leavening is slow work: at least one day for raising after the leavening is made. Leavening changes strongly the taste of the ingredients: long leavening makes an aromatic and a strong taste. Salt or other flavours are not needed. Leavening effects to baking, preservation and forming of taste. (Luomuleipojan käsikirja, p. 106). Under right preservation leavening stays well long time. If the water is replaced with sour milk leavening becomes quicker. Leavening makes the bread more coherent; that is why leavening is mostly connected with rye flour.

Good leaven base can be centuries old. According to Luomuleipojan käsikirja (p. 49) somewhere in Finland a leaven from 18th century is still in use. The older, the better taste. New leaven working its first times can taste a little too bitter. Always a good leaven has been appreciated. It was the proud of the mistress of the house. I think that it is possible that a daughter getting married took a piece of the leaven base from the home of her birth with her.

Honey leaven

Honey leaven is based on natural yeast of the nectar of the honey, which starts to ferment by the effect of water and warmth. To continue, the temperature can never go over 40 Celsius (about 80F), other ways the yeast activates itself and is no longer in use. Only unheated honey can start the fermenting process, so when you buy honey make sure it is not heatened! Honey leaven is often used for wheat, because it has milder taste than an ordinary leaven. Anneli Schöneck recommends honey leaven especially when using barley flour (p. 50).

Oat leaven

Oat leaven was invented long ago when the leftovers of the porridge were left into the sun for a day or warmth during the night. After a day and night the porridge bubbled and smelled as yeast and its color had changed. Good flavour and taste-giving substances of the former porridge was noticed (Luomuleipojan käsikirja).

Salt and honey leaven

Salt and honey leaven raises with spontaneous yeast, which grows into the leaven during the long raising time. No special leaven base is used, the baking is started all from beginning every time. Fermentation goes through all dough making maybe the best tasting wheat bread. A long heating time changes the starch into sugar and the bread gets dark color and a sweat taste. Salt and honey bread is as its best after a couple of days and stays soft a very long time. (Luomuleipojan käsikirja, p. 50 and 129).

Hot leaven

Before making the dough, when baking dark bread, often a part of the flour is to be separated and mixed with hot water. The mixture is to left overnight. Then the stach sticks, the flour soaks into water and the bread becomes succulent. The mixture can also be used soon after it is cooled, not in the following morning, when it usually is mixed into leaven dough. This method can be used also when baking with other flour than rye. (Schöneck, p. 48).

Making a rye leaven

The best temperature for fermenting rye leaven is 28-30 Celsius, that is, the warmth of your hand. If water is warmer than that, lactic acid will be formed. If water is too cold, acetic acid will be formed. A strong, bitter taste becomes when fermenting is processed in lower temperature using a tight dough (flour 65-70 % from liquid) (Luomuleipojan käsikirja, p.107). The leaven starts to ferment, if the leaven ferments longer than 4-5 days.

This is how to start:
3 tabs fresh rye flour
3 tabs lukewarm water

Mix the ingredients and put into small pot covered with a towel. Leave for 2 days into a warm place. On the third day add 2 tabs rye flour and 2 tabs water, mix carefully. Leave for one day. On the fourth or fifth day you can make a dough for rye bread. You need 8 dl water that is 37-Celsius warm , 6 dl flour and 2 tabs of the leaven mixture from your pot. Mix the ingredients in a tub. Leave for 12-14 hours. Remember to save rest of the mixture for the next baking time. (Luomuleipojan käsikirja, p. 111).

The leaven preserves the best dried in a wooden tub. You can also put it into the fridge. A few days as a loose leaven, for longer use harden the leaven with flours and soften it in liquid when you bake next time. (Luomuleipojan käsikirja, p.111). You can also attach the mixture to a linen towel and let it dry. At the time for next baking wash the towel in the liquid in the baking tub.

Making an oat leaven

Here is a quick sour oat recipe: mix 3 dl water and 2 dl oat flakes together. Put the mix to a pot with some kind of cover, non- aluminium one. Heat the oven to 50 Celsius, take the heat off and put the pot into the oven for overnight. Light bubbling will perform or your mix will get a white cover, other changes of color should not exist. If there are, try again. (Luomuleipojan käsikirja, p. 119).

Making a honey leaven

The process of making a honey leaven takes three days. On the first day put into jar made of glass:
0.5 dl water, 40 Celsius
2 tabs fine graham flour
1 tap honey
Let it stay covered with towel for 24 hours in the warmth of 25-35 Celsius.

On the second day add:
almost 1 dl water, warmth of 40 Celsius
1 dl fine graham flour

Mix them well and on the third day add:
almost 1 dl water, warmth of 40 Celsius
1 dl graham flour

If everything goes as planned, the mixture will bubble in half an hour. Put the cover for the jar on carefully and let it stay in the fridge. The leaven is useful for several months. Some gray color will appear into the top of your mix. It is yeast fungus. The water will fade away little by little. (Luomuleipurin käsikirja, Schöneck).

To increase your honey leaven:
1 brimful tap honey
1 tabs honey leaven
1 dl graham flour
1 dl wheat flour
1.5 dl water, warmth of 40 Celsius
Mix all flour to warm water, add honey and leaven. If the the warmth is 25-35 Celsius, the mixture is usable in 12 hours. (Schöneck).

Recipes from the Middle Ages

OF BAKING MANCHETS from Gervase Markham: The English Hus-wife, 1615:

Now fot the baking of bread of your simple meales, your best and principal bread is manchet, which you shall bake in this manner; first your meale being ground upon the back stones if it be possible, which makes the whitest flour, and boulted through the finest boulting cloth, you shall put it into a clean Kimnel (kneading tub), and opening the flower hollow in the midst, put it of the best Ale-barme the quantity of three pints to a bushel of meale, with some salt to season it with: then put in your liquor reasonable warme, and kneade it very well together, both with your hands, and through the brake (kneading devise), or for want thereof, fould it in a cloth, and with your feete tread it a good space together, then letting it lie an howre or thereabouts to swel, take it foorth and mould it into manchets, round, and flat, scorcht (slashed) about the wast (waist) to give it leave to rise, and prick it with your knife in the top, and so put into the Oven, and bake it with a gentle heate. (Hess, p. 119)

BREDE from Harleian Manuscript 279 (15th century)

Take fayre flowre & the whyte of Eyroun (eggs) & the yolke, a lytel. Than take warme Berme (ale barm), & putte al thes togederys with thin hond tyl it be schort & thikke y-now, & caste Sugre y-now ther-to, & thenne lat reste a whyle. An kaste in a fayre place in the oven & late bake y-now (until done)… (Sass, p. 27)

Traditional recipes

These recipes include modern baking temperatures. You can bake your own bread in a modern electric oven as well. Why not to bake your bread on a piece of bark or on straw or heather sticks?

Leavened rye bred

the leaven you made before
3 dl water of 37 Celsius
15-16 dl rye flour

Mix the leaven with water. Mix the flour little by little to the mix of water and leaven. Put everything into the baking table and continue mixing with hands until the dough is shiny and smooth. Add as little as possible flour into the table. Let the mixture stay in a warm place, until it is doubled from its original size. Make a cross onto the dough by the side of the palm. When it disappears, you can start the final baking. Form two bread loaves and let them raise. Flour them. Bake them in 200-220 Celsius for about 2 hours. (Luomuleipojan käsikirja).

Oat bread

4 dl oat leaven you made before
about 8 dl different flours: oat, barley, graham, porridge leftovers etc.
3 tbsp caraway seeds
(salt if you like)

Mix other ingredients but caraway. Continue dough making in the table until the dough grasps no more to the table. Let it stay for a moment. Form the breads and cover them with caraway seeds. Bake in 200 Celsius 50-60 minutes. Knock on the bottom of the bread: if the sound is hollow then the leaven is done and well baked.

Barsja's bread

(2 big breads)

1500g flour mix: 250 g rye, 500g graham, 800 wheat flour
2 tbsp honey leaven you made before
8-9 dl water, warmth of 40 Celsius
2 tbsp caraway seeds

In the evening before: Mix coarse flours to the water the same way you would make porridge. Add leaven, mix it well. Let it stay overnight in a warm place. In the next morning add wheat flour, caraway and as much warm water you can to make the dough. Work the dough with hands for five minutes. Let it stay for an hour and bake. Let stay until it starts to raise. Bake in an oven of 250 Celsius for half an hour. Spread water on them before putting the loaves into the oven. Repeat it right after you took the loaves from the oven. Let the loaves cool under the towel. (Schöneck, p. 47).

Salt and honey - bread

5 dl water, warmth of 40 Celsius
2 tsp salt
5 gr. honey
about 9 dl fresh flour

Start the process in the evening before. Mix water, salt and half amount of the flour. Use the mixer, since as much air as possible is needed to the mix. Add honey and the rest of the flour. Put the dough to the baking table. Mix it until it is soft and smooth. The dough should not be very tight, it has to be loose. It is very hard to work with a tight dough, but the result will be better. Put the bread into a pot with a cover, big enough that half of the space is left for raising. Let it raise in a room that has about 37 Celsius temperature for 14 hours. If the dough is not raised enough in the morning, let it stay a couple of hours more. If the loaves is well raised, bake it at 180 Celsius for 2.5 to 3 hours. Not very well - raised ones should be baked this way: put the temperature for the first hour on 130 Celsius, then raise to 150 Celsius for 3-4 hours. (Luomuleipojan käsikirja, p.128).


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Picture of the layout Hannele Maahinen, other pictures Satu Hovi unless otherwise mentioned
Texts are written by Satu Hovi
Copying any material is strictly forbidden without permission from the author.