If you’ve ever made bread, how much flour did your recipe call for? One pound? One kilo? Just enough for one or two tasty loaves? You need to get into a different mindset to understand a dough box. (Also called dough bin, dough trough, kneading trough or tray, with or without a lid and/or legs.)
Baking used to be an important weekly task in many households. Bread was a staple food in Europe and North America. People depended on having plenty of it: not just medieval peasants with scant resources, but 19th century middle-class families too. These might be big families, active, with farmhands or servants to feed as well.
A family of ten needed “three pecks” of flour for a week’s bread, according to Eliza Acton‘s advice around 1850. Three pecks is roughly 27 litres or 7 US gallons, so we’re thinking big sacks of flour for many households. The flour was tipped into a dough box or trough to start bread-making. It held the flour more tidily than a bowl. If the trough was on legs it didn’t need to sit on a table, and could be moved to a part of the room where the temperature was right.
The flour had to be warmed in winter if it had come in from a cold barn or cellar, and a dough box was a good place for that. Once the yeast was added the mixture had to stay quite warm for the dough to rise into a nice “sponge”, which would make light bread. You could knead the dough thoroughly in a box-shaped trough without spilling much flour.
The box’s position (near the fire?) was important. The lid was good for keeping in the warmth, and it protected the dough from mice, ash, or other horrors: especially useful if the dough was left to rise a long time. Overnight was not unusual. Slow rising generally improved flavour and texture, and did not require temperatures near to blood heat.
The lid offered a surface for shaping the risen dough into loaves and then leaving them to rise again after being handled. Some lids had tray sides to make carrying the bread to the oven simpler. A kneading trough with no lid was covered with a cloth. A lidded box could be used for storing bread.
Why not bake every day or two?
- There are many other jobs to do.
- Getting an old brick or stone oven hot enough to bake bread took time, a couple of hours or more. You used valuable fuel, and had to rake hot ashes out before putting the loaves in with a peel.
- In New England and Europe some people used a shared bakehouse, and had their turn once a week.
To make Bread … Put half a bushel of good flour into a trough, or kneading tub; mix with it between four and five quarts of warm water, and a pint and a half of good yeast, put it into the flour, and stir it well with your hands till it becomes tough. Let it rise about an hour and twenty minutes, or less if it rises fast; then, before it falls, add four quarts more of warm water, and half a pound of salt; work it well, and cover it with a cloth. Put the fire then into the oven; and by the time it is warm enough, the dough will be ready. Make the loaves about five pounds each; sweep out the oven very clean and quick, and put in the bread: shut it up close, and two hours and a half will bake it.
The Domestic Encyclopedia, Willich & Cooper, Philadelphia, 1821
In Making Authentic Pennsylvania Dutch Furniture John Shea says:
In practically all the colonies, dough tables and bins were essential items of kitchen equipment. Without them, how could the colonists’ “daily bread” have been produced? Usually, these items were made of pine, poplar or similar softwoods. Some of the most handsome models were made of walnut.
One interesting point about the design and construction of Pennsylvania dough tables and bins is that you rarely see two of them that were designed exactly the same.
He says a typical dough box from that part of the world has curved handles spanning the lid. Slanting sides are the norm, and the box shape doesn’t vary much, but if the box has legs their designs can be quite different. A photograph of an exceptional 18th century box shows fine painted floral decoration, with a German folk art look.
- Some French dough bins have ornate carving and are polished on the outside.
- Some Eastern European “kneading troughs” were bucket-shaped and used with a paddle.
- No soap was used for cleaning a dough box for fear of tainting the flavour.
Thank you, and photo credit
Thank you to Rebecca who asked a question here that got me to write this piece.
I always link to any photographer who’s licensed their work for reuse, and thanks go to Nicholas Ford for his great image of a dough box. (I wish I knew its date – antique or repro.) Other pictures are from Wikimedia: Danish woman, Swedish girl, German baker, terracotta woman (photo by Matthias Kabel).
More picture info here