From the Homestead Kitchen: Extracting Flavor

by Gennie Truelock

They say that in life there are positives and negatives to everything. Reading the posts of my coworkers and researching and writing my own entries for the From the Homestead Kitchen blog series has taught me so much about the history behind the foods we eat, which I think is a huge positive. However, it has also completely warped how I look at recipes, which I am starting to worry may turn into a negative. I can no longer look at a recipe merely as a set of ingredients to pull from the pantry or refrigerator. Oh, no! They now bring up so many questions for me like:

When did people in the US start eating bananas?

How did sour cream become a thing?

Why is it called a Lady Baltimore cake?

What on earth is junket???

Well, this week wasn’t any different. When exploring the 1922 edition of Good Housekeeping’s Book of Menus, Recipes and Household Discoveries from the Museum’s collection, I came across a dish called Sunday Hot Bread. “I’ve never heard of this!” I thought, which I have to admit is now something that instantly causes my interest to be piqued. I eagerly scanned the ingredients to give me a clue as to what this dish was, and perhaps why it was called Sunday Hot Bread, but nothing seemed to be out of the ordinary.

Recipe for Sunday Hot Bread from Good Housekeeping’s Menus, Recipes and Household Discoveries, 1922. From the Homestead Museum’s collection. Notice that the recipe suggestion is from Philadelphia, PA, a place where getting fresh lemons in February might pose a problem, perhaps that is the reason for extract?

Sugar, butter, salt, egg, milk, flour, baking powder (Ha! I already know about you), lemon extract…wait…what was that? Lemon extract, you say. I instantly felt a deep dive coming on.

One thing that I have noticed in the historic recipes that I have baked so far is the lack of flavoring extracts. There have occasionally been spices like cinnamon, and on the rare occasion nutmeg, making their appearance in a recipe, but overall, very few dishes have called for the use of an extract in their preparation, not even vanilla, the most basic extract of them all! And now, here I was, staring at the words: lemon extract. Like a siren’s song, I knew what I had to do.

What is the history of flavored extracts?

Before extracts, there were essential oils. It seems that the ancient Egyptians are attributed to be the first known people to extract and use flavors (along with their scents) from plants. It was done one of two ways, either through a process called enfleurage, where plant material is soaked in cold carrier oil to extract the scent and/or flavor, or maceration where the carrier oil is heated to break down plant matter. These oils were used mainly to create perfumes and ointments for medicines, prepare a body for funerary practices, and to flavor food.

It wasn’t until the 11th century that Ibn Sina, father of early modern medicine (he is also known as Avicenna, Abu Ali Sina, and Pur Sina), discovered that the oils from plants could be extracted using steam distillation. A simple explanation of this process is that dry steam is passed through plant matter, which extracts the oils, and then the steam is condensed back into a liquid. This process is the first step in creating a concentrated liquid extract, and is often still used in the creation of products like orange and eucalyptus oils.

Another method for creating flavored extracts (and one that I have begun doing myself) that takes longer but is an easy at-home project is soaking plant material in high proof alcohol for several months. I am currently in the process of making both vanilla and orange extracts, and if you would like to learn how make these and other simple extracts, take a look at this site for instructions.

But what about the extracts you find in the grocery store? Are they still made using these processes? What about artificial flavor extracts? How and when do those become part of the food industry?  So many questions can come to mind when you start looking into an ingredient in a recipe, whether this is a positive or a negative remains to be seen.

Visiting London’s Crystal Palace, or what happens when organic chemistry and a hugely popular international exhibition come together.

From May 1 to October 15, 1851, the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations was held in London at what was dubbed the Crystal Palace, a reference to the temporary structure that was built to house the event. It was the first in what would become a series of World’s Fairs held throughout the 19th and 20th centuries that often showcased new innovations. One of the exhibits at the fair was a display of artificially flavored candies. According to an article written by Nadia Berenstein on the website, Popular Science:

“The nineteenth century saw the beginnings of organic chemistry and the growth of the chemical industry, as industrialization provided ample carbon-rich material for chemists’ new experiments with synthesis. Some of these chemicals were strongly aromatic. August Hofmann, the distinguished chemist and member of the Royal Society, analyzed the chemicals behind these imitation flavors in his report to the Crystal Palace exhibition jury. ‘The striking similarity of the smell of these ethers to that of fruit had not escaped the observation of chemistry,’ he wrote. Who hadn’t noticed the rotten-apple stink that filled the lab when working with amyl valerianate? However, he said, it was ‘reserved to practical men’ to realize the commercial possibilities in these resemblances, tinkering with formulas and devising compounds that could pass for the real thing.”

Well, “practical men,” as Hofmann called them, certainly did find uses for these synthetic and artificial flavors. They would be an incredible boon to the food manufacturing industry.

Faking flavors

Vanilla is a flavor profile that we take for granted, often associated with something that is dull or boring, but once it was an exciting and exotic flavor reserved only for the wealthy. Growing vanilla beans on a mass scale requires the hand-pollination of the orchid blooms of the plants to encourage the growth of the pods, which is why vanilla beans are still the second most expensive spice in the world (here’s a video if you would like to see how this is done). A successful method for hand pollinating was developed in 1841 by Edmond Albius, a then 12-year-old French slave on the island of Réunion. His technique guaranteed a better yield, but the price of the bean was still out of the range for most people to incorporate into their dishes.

Enter Nicholas-Theodore Gobley, who in 1858, discovered the organic compound, vanillin, which makes vanilla taste like vanilla. This was a huge benefit to others who were looking for a way to mimic the flavor. By knowing the chemical makeup of vanillin, scientists began to search for it in other organic material. In 1874, Ferdinand Tiemann and Wilhelm Haarmann were the first to make a synthesized vanilla using the bark of a pine tree. The pair opened the first vanillin factory in 1875, which opened the door for this once rare and exotic flavor profile to become a commonplace ingredient.

Because of this new found ability to distill organic matter into individual chemical flavor compounds that could be consistently recreated in a lab, a new market emerged. A homemaker, baker, or pastry chef no longer had to purchase expensive ingredients or consider when something was seasonably available to enjoy that flavor in baked goods or ice cream. Instead, they could buy and use an inexpensive artificial extract! Large scale food manufactures now had a new source of ingredients that not only delivered on flavor but assisted with the shelf-life expectancy of an item, thereby allowing it to travel further distances and taste the same whether it was consumed in New York or California. By the end of the 19th century, artificial fruit, nut, and other flavor extracts were being widely produced and used in the United States.

Harrison’s Flavoring Extracts, Phila., ca. 1870s. From the Library of Congress. Who would of thought that pimento and celery were such popular extract flavors that they would warrant a spot on a beautifully illustrated promotional print.

The government pushes back on artificial additives

By 1906, the idea of food safety was becoming an important political issue in the US. Growing public concern over people becoming sick and/or dying from consuming spoiled foods prompted government officials to take a closer look at how and why chemical additives (including preservatives, flavors, and colors) were included in processed goods to see if they were part of the problem by concealing damaged or spoiled food. These concerns would lead to the Pure Food and Drug Act, which required both the inspection and labeling of food products.

The law initially hit the flavor industry hard by requiring labels to carry the distinction of being either a “natural” or “artificial” product. In an effort to not be portrayed in the same light as the “[food] adulterators, poisoners, and drug dopesters.” Flavor manufacturers argued that their products were not dangerous because, “by the chemists’ definition of purity, synthetics were actually much purer than naturally derived goods.” In 1909, the Flavor and Extract Manufacturers Association (FEMA) was established in an effort to police themselves and to be “the authoritative voice advancing the safe and responsible use of flavorings.” Something that they continue to do to this day. They developed a list of ingredients determined to be “generally recognized as safe (GRAS)” as a way to “evaluate the safety of flavoring substances.” This list has since expanded to “over 2,800 ingredients for use by the industry” and is periodically reviewed by an independent FEMA Expert Panel to determine “the status of substances and provide an opportunity for the introduction of new flavoring substances.” 

But what about the Sunday Hot Bread?

This is what happens when a simple recipe read takes you somewhere unexpected. I was so focused on the lemon extract being included in the ingredients list that I had forgotten about digging into the history of the dish itself! The earliest date I found for Sunday Hot Bread was 1916 in a newspaper called The Chat from Brooklyn, New York. It seems that the dish was eaten for breakfast, which makes sense since it is also listed as a breakfast suggestion in the Good Housekeeping book under their February menu ideas.

Recipe for Sunday Hot Bread from The Chat newspaper, Brooklyn, New York, May 27, 1916. From
Menu suggestion for a Sunday in February. From Good Housekeeping’s Book of Menus, Recipes and Household Discoveries, 1922. From the Homestead Museum’s Collection. Note that Sunday Hot Bread is listed after Calf’s Liver and Bacon, yum?

By 1924, it is commonly being referred to as Sunday Morning Hot Bread, and perhaps it was meant to be a treat for those slower paced Sunday mornings when most of the working class would also have a day off. I wonder if Sunday brunch has any connection with the working class? Uh-oh! I feel another deep dive coming on…

Focus, Gennie, focus.

Here is how mine turned out.

Simple to put together and tasty too! The lemon shines through. If you don’t have bread flour on hand, all-purpose or even pastry flour will work too. The batter was enough to fill one 8-inch cake pan and I baked it at 375 degrees for about 30 minutes.

The dish came together very quickly and easily. The lemon extract adds a nice balance to the overall sweetness and contrasts nicely with the cinnamon sugar that forms a crunchy crust on top (I was very generous with the amount that I sprinkled on). It’s great with coffee and I can see it becoming a go to recipe when you need to throw together a fast coffeecake-type snack. If you give the recipe a try, or want to let me know if reading this article was a positive or negative in your life, drop a note in the comments below or tag us on social media @homesteadmuseum.

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