Confederate soldiers were often low on supplies and food rations. They had to make do with what ingredients found nearby.
Confederates published a fun book of recipes in 1863 called Confederate Receipt Book. I tried one of the biscuit recipes.
In reading the recipe before starting, one thing that struck me was that they used cream of tartar. Other food recipes called for tartaric acid. I hadn’t used that in biscuits and wondered if it was a readily-available ingredient for Southern soldiers.
A little research showed that many plants, including grapes, have tartaric acid, which is an organic acid. The process of making wine creates cream of tartar. It is a leavening agent.
Since food supplies were often scarce for Southern soldiers, it makes sense that they used whatever they had on hand and adapted it.
Add 2 tablespoons of shortening. Use a fork to cut the shortening into the flour mixture. It won’t look much differently after combined because it’s not a lot of shortening. Most modern recipes call for ½ cup or ¾ cup of shortening (or butter) but I wanted to try the Confederate soldiers’ recipe so I didn’t alter it.
Dissolve 1 teaspoon of baking soda into about 1 ½ cups of warm water. Stir and add to the dry ingredients to make a dough. If more water is needed, add a little at a time until the dough is the right consistency.
You may notice, as I did, that there is no salt in this recipe. I didn’t add any.
I imagined that soldiers baked their biscuits in a skillet. I greased the skillet with shortening—not cooking spray because the men in Civil War camps didn’t have that.
I baked my biscuits in a 425 oven for twenty minutes and then increased the temperature to 450 for another 4 or 5 minutes because they were taking longer than normal. I usually bake food at 425 if the recipe calls for 450 because it’s easy to burn. Next time I will bake these biscuits at 450 for 12 to 14 minutes or until lightly browned.
I wondered at first if salt was often in short supply. Maybe that was the reason for omitting salt from biscuits.
Then another possibility occurred to me. Salting meat was a way of preserving it before refrigeration. If the meat was already salty, the soldier probably didn’t need it in the biscuits, too.
Most Civil War soldiers didn’t know much about cooking at the beginning of the war. Mothers, wives, and sisters usually did the cooking and baking back at home. The men adapted pretty well . . . and even published a few of their recipes!
-Sandra Merville Hart
A Compilation of Over One Hundred Receipts, Adapted to the Times. Confederate Receipt Book, Applewood Books, 1863.
“Tartaric Acid,” Wikipedia.com, 2017/02/06 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tartaric_acid.