Sour Milk Ginger Bread

This gingerbread comes from Foods That Will Win the War, a pamphlet and recipe book instructing cooks how to save food during World War I. Although the United States never had official rationing during the first World War, the U.S. Food Administration ran an aggressive propaganda campaign urging Americans not to waste food, especially wheat, meat, fats, and sugar. Gingerbread was perfect for this, since the use of molasses as a sweetener means that it can be made without any added sugar at all.

Americans were also told to use alternative flours such as barley, rye, or cornmeal in order to save wheat for the front. Although this gingerbread does include flour, it calls for whole wheat flour instead of fine white flour. Any fat could be used – Foods That Will Win the War urges cooks to render their own fat from meat and to reuse any fat from drippings. Vegetable shortening could also be used, since it was much cheaper than butter. The book suggests that cooks only use butter for serving at the table, and to limit the quantities consumed.

Original recipe for sour milk ginger bread

The sour milk in the recipe would have been made by simply leaving milk in a warm place until it turned sour. In this process, the bacteria that are naturally present in raw milk grow and convert the lactose into lactic acid, resulting in a sour taste. This was used in a variety of foods, especially baked goods such as soda bread or scones. The lactic acid in sour milk reacts with baking soda, allowing the bread to rise. Unfortunately, making sour milk was always somewhat risky, since different kinds of bacteria might get into the milk and make it behave differently. If you leave out modern, pasteurized milk, it is much more likely to simply go bad rather than turning sour. A much safer and more predictable option is to use a substitute: either buttermilk, or a tablespoon of lemon juice or vinegar added to a cup of whole milk.

Sour Milk Ginger Bread:

  • 2 tbsp fat, melted
  • 1/4 cup molasses
  • 1 egg
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1/2 cup buttermilk or sour milk substitute
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 2 cups whole wheat flour
  • 1 tsp ginger
  1. Mix soda and molasses (I’m honestly not sure if there’s a reason for doing this first, but that’s what the recipe says).
  2. Mix in other ingredients, adding flour last. It will be thick; more like a dough than a batter.
  3. Bake in muffin pans at 350 degrees for 15-20 minutes, or in a loaf pan for 40 minutes. If using a loaf pan, you might want to try a lower temperature.
Sour milk gingerbread cut in half, showing a bread-like texture.

Tasting notes:

This is definitely very bread-y gingerbread. It tastes a bit like a nice, dark wheat bread, but with some extra rich flavor from the molasses and the buttermilk. I don’t really taste the ginger, but I think that’s ok in this. I almost wish I had made them into a loaf rather than into individual muffins, since this seems more like a quick bread than a muffin recipe. Perhaps I’ll try it again sometime.

They are excellent split and buttered while warm – but of course, the U.S. Food Administration would frown on using too much butter. Remember, food is ammunition!


Goudiss, C.H., & A.M. Goudiss. (1918). Foods that will win the war, and how to cook them. New York: The Forecast Publishing Co.

Hancock, R. (2006). Sour milk. In A. Davidson & T. Jaine (Eds.), The Oxford companion to food (p. 736). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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