Pioneer Foods That Were Popular on the Homestead

James Walton James Walton  |  Updated: October 4, 2019
Pioneer Foods That Were Popular on the Homestead

Another morning starts with chicory and hardtack. You break camp quickly and carry your life on your back. Armed with what’s in your pack and the skills learned you hope it’s enough to keep your family alive through this journey.

While the stories all speak of horse and buggy forging west, you and yours have taken the trip on foot. Wearing out shoes that had to be repaired or the leather repurposed.

Luckily, you bartered for shoes at the last small town.

The baby is sick and you know you are walking into hostile territory. Your little girl is scared because she knows about what could happen if your family is found.

Still, you remain steadfast. One foot in front of the other. There is a highland just beyond the ridge on the horizon. its a plain that sits atop a valley and there is lots of fresh water there. People have told you that the game is plentiful and the highlands block the harshest of the winter winds.

This is where your homestead will be.

If all goes well.

Understanding Pioneer Recipes

Every homestead was a culmination of the people and things that survived the trek. Skill sets and limited resources were all the pioneers could bring with them. The rest had to be grown or sourced from the land.

Resources were so limited, in fact, that pioneers would often remove the wood handles from their tools and carve new ones when they were needed. This helped to lighten the load.

Pioneers would have to manage resources in extreme ways that we could never imagine. In order to build their homesteads. They would have to burn their house down in the East to collect the nails for their new home! Think about it, where else would you get nails while forging west?

This conservative use of resources and limited access created many of the recipes we will discuss in this article. You will see an emphasis on things like wheat, corn, and fat.

The other characteristic that many pioneers looked for in their food was long shelf life. Recipes like hardtack and potted meat can be stored almost indefinitely.


Origins of bannock have been linked to the native tribes of Canada and this quick bread is obscenely simple. For camping purposes, I like to carry it in its dry form by adding everything but the water into a Ziploc bag.

You can also add things like dried fruit and herbs to your bannock in order to make it even more desirable.

A simple addition can be a couple of teaspoons of Chinese 5 spice.

3 Cups All-Purpose Flour

1 Teaspoon Salt

2 Tablespoon Baking Powder

1 1/2 Cups of Water

Combine all of the ingredients in a large bowl and mix them thoroughly. Let this mix sit for a moment while you heat your pan.

A bannock that is wetter can be cooked in a hot pan over the fire. You are simply browning it on both sides and assuring its fully cooked within.

If you make a drier mix you can wrap your bannock dough around sticks and cook it over the open fire. This is a pretty fun way of making food around the campfire.

Hard Tack

Bannock can be made to taste pretty good. Hardtack is a dry cracker. On its own, it can be brutally hard and flavorless. There are derivations of this recipe that are pretty tasty.

On my last trip to Prepper Camp, I used our own Samantha Biggers’ recipe and added minced sage and black pepper to it. It was pretty good eating for hardtack.

This recipe is very straightforward and is used to create a dry cracker that will probably outlast you!

Hardtack was a popular ration in the Civil War and was often dipped in coffee to kill the bugs that nested inside and to make it somewhat edible!

2 1/2 Cups of Flour

1 Cup of Water

2 Teaspoons Salt

Another very simple preparation. Mix all of your ingredients together until you get a simple dough or a stodgy dough. If the mix is a bit stodgy just add more flour.

You need the mix to be rolled out without sticking to the counter.

Roll out a large rectangle about a 1/4 inch thick. Cut this rectangle into a collection of square crackers. I usually make mine about 3X3 inches.

Next, you need to poke holes in the hardtack to discourage the mix from rising. You want a nice flat dry cracker. So after these are cut and poked toss them into a 300-degree oven until they are dried out.

This could take an hour or more. Get them nice and dry and this hardtack will last a very long time.

Pioneer Gravy

Pioneer Gravy and similar gravies are built around a couple of important classic French techniques.

The first being the creation of a roux. That is the combination of fat and flour that is slowly cooked over a low flame. This mixture is used to thicken stocks and milk to create sauces. The roux is still used in food preparations today.

Using that roux you are going to be executing something called a bechamel sauce. This is one of the 5 mother sauces built into French cuisine.

Aside from all this, its also a tasty and filling gravy for biscuits or toast. We apply named it S.O.S in my neck of the woods but I will let you figure out what that means.

1/2lb of Sausage

1/3 Cup of Flour

3 Cups of Milk

Salt and Pepper

Your fat is going to come from that 1/2lb of sausage. So, step one is to cook that in your pan. Do not drain the fat is it will make your roux. You can remove the sausage if that makes it easier to work in the flour and create your sauce.

Over a low heat stir in your flour. If you are concerned about the level of heat just take the whole thing off the fire and stir in the flour. It will become a light and stodgy mix. The more you cook it the darker it will get.

It is also very helpful to warm your milk up a bit when making this sauce. With your roux off the fire pour a little milk into the roux and stir constantly. It will be absorbed and thickened before your eyes.

Add the rest of the milk slowly, a little at a time. Mix thoroughly before each new addition. The goal is a nice thick and smooth sauce with sausage chunks in it.

Once you have added all the milk season it will your pepper and serve!

Daily Bread

The bread was baked every day! It was part of the menu for as long as you had ground grains to make it.

The secret to good bread has to do with kneading, rising, high heat and fats. It takes work but over time you will improve your dough making and cooking skills. I often wonder how the daily bread tasted that was created by the women pioneers who did it every day!

Oh yea, the other secret is making bread over and over again!

6 Cups of Flour

1 Cup of Warm Water

1/4 Cup of Milk

1 Packet of Yeast

1 Teaspoon of Sugar

1 Tablespoon of Salt

Place your flour in a large bowl that holds the flour with extra space. Make a well in the center of your flour that is large enough to hold your water and milk.

Start by adding the warm water to the center of the well. Add the sugar and the yeast to this water. Give it about 5 minutes in a warm place to allow the yeast to bloom. You will know when this happens because it will smell, well, yeasty!

Add your milk into the water mix and slowly begin to incorporate flour from the sides of the well into your water milk mixture.

Slowly add more flour until you get a stodgy dough that can be poured out onto a floured table. Knead this mix, adding flour as you go, for about 8 minutes. Your dough should become smooth and springy.

Rest for 10 minutes in a warm place with a wet towel or top it with the same bowl.

Finally, shape the dough, score it and bake this in a 400-degree oven for about 20 minutes or until you knock on the bottom of the bread and hear a hollow sound.

Don’t forget to let your bread rest before cutting it. The cooking continues inside a hot loaf of bread.

If your first loaf does not turn out as you’d imagined don’t get discouraged. Just eat with some good butter and start over again!

Potted Meat

While leftovers were something of a luxury to the pioneers there were times that meat had to be preserved. There was plenty smoking and salting and drying going on around the homestead.

Another method of meat preservation would have been to create a protective layer of fat between the meat and the air around it! That is the process of potting meat.

1lb of Slow Cooked Beef

1/2lb of Cubed Butter

1/2 Cup of Melted Beef Fat or Tallow

Small Mason Jars or Coffee Mugs

The first step in this process is to macerate or bash up the slow-cooked beef. You can do this in a food processor if you wish. Or you can use a wooden spoon to smash it.

Next, you are going to add your butter to the meat and mix it into the meat. Yes! This is a lot of fat! We aren’t even done with the fat yet.

You are now going to press the mixture into the jars or mugs and bake them to warm the mixture. This should be done at about 300 degrees for 15-20 minutes.

Pull them from the oven and allow them to cool for 10 minutes.

Finally, you are going to pour the melted tallow over top of each cup. You want at least 1/2 an inch of tallow on each. When these cool the meat will be preserved within fat and beneath a thick layer of tallow.

Soda Biscuits

This recipe is pretty standard fare in terms of biscuits. If you don’t have lard you can use butter but the lard is so tasty. It’s very easy to render lard at home if you are interested.

2 Cups of Flour

1 1/2 Teaspoons of Baking Soda

1/2 Teaspoon of Salt

4 Tablespoons of Lard

3/4 Cup of Buttermilk

The key to good biscuits is to not overwork the mix and to spread the fat throughout the dough. This means working with cold lard and cold buttermilk. It also means working it all quickly.

In a large bowl mix your dry ingredients thoroughly. When you are ready to add the lard use two butter knives to cut the fat into the flour mix. Literally, hold the knives in either hand and slice the lard into the flour with the blades facing into the bowl.

Before long you will have small “Crumbs” of butter/flour in your mix. That is how you know its time to add the buttermilk. Mix the dough just until it comes together then flip it onto a floured table.

Pack this up into some wax paper and give it a 20-minute rest in the fridge. The longer the better.

Roll the biscuit dough out into a 1/2 inch thick rectangle and use a cup to cut out biscuits. Bake these at 425 for 12 minutes.

Mush and Milk

The simple breakfast porridge that started many days for the pioneers and also made appearances on the dinner and lunch table as a side item. Much like polenta or grits this mix can be flavored with many other ingredients.

2 Cups of Cornmeal

4 Cups of Milk

2 Teaspoons of Salt

Mix together your cornmeal, milk, and salt in a pan. Bring the mix to a simmer over medium heat and stir constantly. In about 5-7 minutes you will have Mush and Milk!

Molasses Stack Cake

This cake is a very interesting part of pioneer life. The reason being that it was basically a special occasion cake. It was something for weddings and birthdays.

Of course, this means it wasn’t totally a struggle. The life of a pioneer could seem like nothing but one massive burden but this cake is a reminder that love prevailed and joy overcame the darkness of things like illness and starvation.

It’s proof that our ancestors forged west and had some damned good times along the way.

3 3/4 Cup of Butter at Room Temperature

1 Cup Sugar

1 Cup of Molasses

3 eggs

1/2 Teaspoon of Baking Powder

4 Cups of Plain Flour

1 Teaspoon of Salt

1 Teaspoon of Ground Ginger

1 Cup of Milk

Every cake starts with the creaming of butter and sugar. In this case, you are going to cream your butter, sugar, and molasses. Creaming is the act of whipping them with a whisk or in a Kitchen Aid until the whole mix becomes lighter in color and airy.

Once you have achieved that slowly add one egg at a time while whisking until all of the eggs are incorporated. Finally, whip in the milk and you are ready to combine the wet and dry ingredients.

In another bowl combine the rest of the ingredients by sifting them together or whisking them together.

Slowly add your mix of dry ingredients into the whipped butter and molasses mixture. Once all of the flour mix has been combined with the wet ingredients your cake batter is ready.

You can bake many small cakes or a few larger ones and use a serrated blade to slice the larger cake into think layers. Do this after they have cooled.

Bake at 350 for 15-20 minutes and use a knife to check for doneness it should come out dry when inserted into the middle of your cake.

Finally, spread apple butter between each layer and then cover the cake in a healthy slathering.


I spent many years of my life working in kitchens. I started washing dishes then cutting onions and all the way up to wearing the goofy hats and the long aprons.

What I appreciate most about these recipes is the fact that classic techniques still ruled. Rising and proofing bread were still part of the process, the classic bechamel sauce was put into use and creaming sugar for the cake was a priority.

I like to imagine the weary homesteading mother of four who had put so much faith in her God and the journey. She was homesteading, housekeeping and homeschooling.

Maybe she found solace amid the embers of a fire and in the stirring of a simple sauce as the sun would rise on the homestead.

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4 Responses to “Pioneer Foods That Were Popular on the Homestead”

  1. Olmsted, in Journey through Texas, reports in his trip through Texas in 1854, that the small farmers, pioneers, and even the larger plantation owners subsisted mostly on corn bread and pork. The exception being the German immigrant farmers in Central Texas who actually grew wheat, made butter, and had a much more varied diet, and the Vaqueros farther west making a chile sauce we would call adobo and cooking beans and meat in it.
    Your bread, soda biscuit, and molasses cake recipes are great!

    • Salt. Thanks for catching that. Must have got cut during editing. Sorry about that.

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