Using a dough box or kneading trough

Classic dough box sloping sides, and legs that have been turned on a lathe. Photo by Nicholas Ford

If you’ve ever made bread, how much flour did your recipe call for? One pound? One kilo? Just enough for one or two tasty loaves? You need to get into a different mindset to understand a dough box. (Also called dough bin, dough trough, kneading trough or tray, with or without a lid and/or legs.)

Baking used to be an important weekly task in many households. Bread was a staple food in Europe and North America. People depended on having plenty of it: not just medieval peasants with scant resources, but 19th century middle-class families too. These might be big families, active, with farmhands or servants to feed as well.

A family of ten needed “three pecks” of flour for a week’s bread, according to Eliza Acton‘s advice around 1850. Three pecks is roughly 27 litres or 7 US gallons, so we’re thinking big sacks of flour for many households. The flour was tipped into a dough box or trough to start bread-making. It held the flour more tidily than a bowl. If the trough was on legs it didn’t need to sit on a table, and could be moved to a part of the room where the temperature was right.

Warmth

Danish woman c1929 kneading dough in a wooden trough.

The flour had to be warmed in winter if it had come in from a cold barn or cellar, and a dough box was a good place for that. Once the yeast was added the mixture had to stay quite warm for the dough to rise into a nice “sponge”, which would make light bread. You could knead the dough thoroughly in a box-shaped trough without spilling much flour.

The box’s position (near the fire?) was important. The lid was good for keeping in the warmth, and it protected the dough from mice, ash, or other horrors: especially useful if the dough was left to rise a long time. Overnight was not unusual. Slow rising generally improved flavour and texture, and did not require temperatures near to blood heat.

The lid offered a surface for shaping the risen dough into loaves and then leaving them to rise again after being handled. Some lids had tray sides to make carrying the bread to the oven simpler. A kneading trough with no lid was covered with a cloth. A lidded box could be used for storing bread.

Why not bake every day or two?

  • There are many other jobs to do.
  • Getting an old brick or stone oven hot enough to bake bread took time, a couple of hours or more. You used valuable fuel, and had to rake hot ashes out before putting the loaves in with a peel.
  • In New England and Europe some people used a shared bakehouse, and had their turn once a week.

To make Bread … Put half a bushel of good flour into a trough, or kneading tub; mix with it between four and five quarts of warm water, and a pint and a half of good yeast, put it into the flour, and stir it well with your hands till it becomes tough. Let it rise about an hour and twenty minutes, or less if it rises fast; then, before it falls, add four quarts more of warm water, and half a pound of salt; work it well, and cover it with a cloth. Put the fire then into the oven; and by the time it is warm enough, the dough will be ready. Make the loaves about five pounds each; sweep out the oven very clean and quick, and put in the bread: shut it up close, and two hours and a half will bake it.
The Domestic Encyclopedia, Willich & Cooper, Philadelphia, 1821

In Making Authentic Pennsylvania Dutch Furniture John Shea says:

In practically all the colonies, dough tables and bins were essential items of kitchen equipment. Without them, how could the colonists’ “daily bread” have been produced? Usually, these items were made of pine, poplar or similar softwoods. Some of the most handsome models were made of walnut.
One interesting point about the design and construction of Pennsylvania dough tables and bins is that you rarely see two of them that were designed exactly the same.

He says a typical dough box from that part of the world has curved handles spanning the lid. Slanting sides are the norm, and the box shape doesn’t vary much, but if the box has legs their designs can be quite different. A photograph of an exceptional 18th century box shows fine painted floral decoration, with a German folk art look.

Swedish dough trough in a kitchen 1889 (detail from Andreas Zorn painting). 15th century German baker. 2500-year old terracotta woman (Greek?) from Munich Museum of Antiquities.

And…

  • Some French dough bins have ornate carving and are polished on the outside.
  • Some Eastern European “kneading troughs” were bucket-shaped and used with a paddle.
  • No soap was used for cleaning a dough box for fear of tainting the flavour.
Thank you, and photo credit

Thank you to Rebecca who asked a question here that got me to write this piece.

I always link to any photographer who’s licensed their work for reuse, and thanks go to Nicholas Ford for his great image of a dough box. (I wish I knew its date – antique or repro.) Other pictures are from Wikimedia: Danish woman, Swedish girl, German baker, terracotta woman (photo by Matthias Kabel).
More picture info here

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{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

Rebecca March 27, 2012 at 2:01 pm

Thank you! I’m forwarding your article to the rest of my curious relatives.

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lel April 2, 2012 at 11:31 am

And thanks to you too! I’m glad if you found this helpful.

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Diana May 19, 2012 at 11:30 am

Still in use by many a bread baking granny in Finland!

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lel May 19, 2012 at 2:39 pm

Oh how interesting! Thanks for telling us. I love to know things like that.

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Denise June 8, 2012 at 9:07 am

For many years I lived on a small Pennsylvania homestead. The pride of my kitchen was a beautiful antique doughbox made of pine. I took great delight in using it for breadmaking, although on a more modest scale than was historically typical. I especially enjoyed using it during the big family holidays ( Christmas and Thanksgiving ) as I derive great pleasure in immersing myself in “the Old Ways”…for me, it was a way of keeping the past alive.
Thank you for these charming glimpses into historical domesticity!

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lel June 8, 2012 at 4:26 pm

I love the sound of your kitchen doughbox and festive family baking. Wonderful to have an antique you could really use – and I know what you mean about “the Old Ways”. Thanks for the nice comment.

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Mark Benedict December 17, 2012 at 7:46 pm

Does anyone know if a trough might have been pronounced “trow” like throw in the past? My Dad recalls them being pronounced this way in a bread factory.

Thanks,
Mark B.

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lel December 18, 2012 at 9:05 am

Medieval spellings (given in the OED) include “trow” and “trowe” as well as trough. Later “trowe” was considered a “dialect” spelling – but I don’t know where it was used. It seems “trow” survived in some dialects and/or contexts. Today some people in Sydney and in Ireland have baking troughs rhyme with dough, not with cough.
http://sourdough.com/forum/making-sourdough-darling-harbour-sydney
http://ballonvillage.com/index.php/the-bakery-in-ballon/
I also saw a mention of big laundry tubs/troughs in Tasmania being pronounced this way.

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lel December 18, 2012 at 11:54 am

I’m really hooked now.

In Elizabeth David’s classic “English Bread and Yeast Cookery” there’s a picture of a dough trough with a caption saying “The lid of the dough trough was used for kneading and moulding. Trough was pronounced ‘trow’ to rhyme with dough”.

South of England
http://www.jacobsladderfarms.co.uk/farm.php?farm=Brockwell%20Bake%20Association

Norfolk, England
http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=Rnm5u9Zgh50C&pg=PA223&dq=trough+pronounced+trow&hl=en&sa=X&ei=vULQUJyANMiW0QXpmYCACQ&ved=0CDMQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q=trough%20pronounced%20trow&f=false

Now I realise some “trows” may rhyme with cows not toes. Like this one:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jzL0fwaWxd0
(2 minutes in)

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Mark Benedict December 18, 2012 at 12:33 pm

Thanks to Lel for such a rich response! My Dad worked in a food laboratory for Kroger in Cincinnati, Ohio back in the late 1930s, and this is where this pronunciation was used. I have no idea what the influence might have been that led to this pronunciation, but there were many Germans living there. From your answers that does not seem the likely influence. I’ll ask him if it’s possible there were Irish working there as well. Regardless, thanks for rising to the inquiry. Sorry. Couldn’t resist. Might need to punch me down on that one.

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loretta shepler February 17, 2013 at 10:01 pm

Writing up my husbands childhood and we still have a “dough box” that they called a dough tree. I wanted to spell it right and no one knew. I finally found this after a friend said to try “dough tray.” i came upon the picture of the dough box or kneading trough. It was interesting to read about it He does not recall his mother using it to mix up bread, just used a huge bowl. However, it has been in their house all these years and I wanted to include it in the history. It was great to see this picture as that is basically what it looks like!

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Filomena October 10, 2013 at 5:25 am

Hi

Do you know where I can purchase bread dough trough like this one on your website??

Look forward to your response

Thanks

Reply

LES December 10, 2013 at 10:36 pm

FILOMENA.We have a salting trough and stand for sale privately in Bowral NSW Australia it is of middle European origin is 54inchesx22 inches and is on a four legged rustic stand wood is Poplar and the whole thing is bare of any paints or such our price is $AU500 whichis less than we paid for it in 1959…purchaser to collect from us…of course if you live overseas this is probably of no interest lots of luck with your search…We are selling only because we are downsizing soon

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