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!