A Short History of Self-Rising Flour

Reader Ted (from Canada) writes:

I was over at the Guardian newspaper reading recipes by Nigel Slater, and it struck me that I very very often see that the English use self-raising flour in their baked goods. But I don’t think we use it that much in North America…maybe a bit in your southern states, but here in Canada…..…I know I can buy it in the stores, but I can’t think of a recipe I’ve seen in a Canadian publication in the last 20 years that’s used it. What happened when we all crossed the Atlantic?

Many thanks for an excellent question, Ted! Self-rising flour has an interesting history. It was invented by and English baker by the name of Henry Jones round about 1844. He applied for and received a British patent on his manufacturing process a year later and hoped to sell his invention to the Navy, as the only bread those poor blokes ate aboard ship was hard tack (ultra thick and hard crackers). Jones’ ambition was to see that freshly baked “soft tack” was available to every sailor in Her Majesty Queen Victoria’s Navy, but bureaucratic inertia foiled his efforts. After a ten-year-long letter writing campaign, he finally decided to mail copies of his pleas to every single member of parliament. Which did the trick. Self rising flour was sailing the length and breadth of the Empire in 1856.

Jones wasn’t idle for all that time, however. He applied for and received an American patent for his flour-making process in 1849. That event kicked off the Age of Dry Mixes, which is to say the era of packaged, pre-mixed, just-add-water breads, cakes, pancakes, you name it. It also kicked off something of a recipe writing frenzy, as U.S. millers sought to develop a market for the pre-blended chemically leavened flours they were producing as a result of Jones’ technology.

By far the most successful of the recipes created by flour marketers was the southern biscuit. Southerners here and there had been eating primitive versions of the savory, American-style biscuit for decades by then. But self-rising flour took the art to a whole new level. Soon the biscuit was a staple bread in the South, and self-rising flour, by extension, a staple grocery.

So Ted, the answer is that nothing happened per se when self-rising flour crossed the Atlantic. It was simply marketed more effectively in some places, and the American South was one of them. Thanks for the terrific question!

12 thoughts on “A Short History of Self-Rising Flour”

  1. I’m very glad you brought up this topic. My specific question is about any difference between British and American self-rise flour, specifically looking for the best substitute/replacement for self-rise flour specified in many British steamed pudding recipes (which some even specify both self-rise flour AND baking powder). Are the American and British version of self-rise flour same, similar or different?

    1. Hey Brian!

      They are virtually identical in terms of the salt and chemical leavening added. I’m not totally sure about protein content however. Southern self-rising flours like White Lily are only about 9.5% protein (gluten). That makes very nice light biscuits and cakes, and I expect it would be the same for puddings — but you never know till you try!

      Cheers,

      – Joe

      1. Thanks Joe! BTW, I asked a knowledgeable Brit about the steamed pudding recipe’s with both self-rising flour and a leavening agent. Two comments were made: insurance against self-rising flour that has “gone flat” on the shelf, and a that is a good way to get a nasty chemical taste in the pudding.

        1. Oh yes, that’s for sure. Too much leavening and you get unreacted soda in the pudding — awful. Get self-rising flour from a store with lots of turnover and you’ll be fine.

          – Joe

  2. That’s it?

    Marketting?

    No fabulous intrigue? No nefarious and unexplained murders? No top-secret attempts by a league of foreign countries to take over the world?

    Just marketting?

    1. As much as I would have loved to have written a post on the The Self-Rising Flour War of 1868, the reality was a lot less interesting. Sorry Ted, I’ll do right by you next time I swear!

      – Joe

  3. 9.5%? Since that is closer to European levels do you think it would make a better French baguette?

    1. If it didn’t have the leavening perhaps! 😉

      Actually the character of French gluten is different from ours so even then it probably wouldn’t work, but not a bad idea!

      – Joe

      1. There are places online that sell “European” flours, have you ever tried them? I have not been up to trying that but it intrigues me.

        1. Hey Frankly,

          Just getting around to answering some lingering comments from recent months. I have not tried those online sources as I’ve not wanted to get hooked on flour that’s that expensive. King Arthur has some approximations of Euro flours that seem to work well. If you try them let me know the results!

          Cheers,

          – Joe

  4. Hi,
    Conversion rate from plain flour to self-raising flour varies but it is usually (in US cups) one teaspoon per cup. Many recipes in the UK, and also in Ireland where I am from, call for more baking powder than that so hence adding more. I don’t buy self raising any more I just make my own with baking powder in the ratio above and then add more if required. It has not changed any of the results I have got through using self-raising flour.

    Regards,
    Joe C

    P.S. Joepastry – amazing resource and thanks for taking your personal time to do this site. It is an excellent go-to site for any questions that crop up and I for one do appreciate the time it must take!

    1. Thanks very much Joe, for the comment the postscript. It does take quite a bit of time to keep this up, but what time I can spare I try to devote to the cause, as the world needs more home baking. Please check in regularly and feel free to ask any questions you might have!

      Cheers,

      – Joe

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