Special Collections Cooking – Part 4: Fermented Milk and Graham Flour Breakfast

Tuesday’s Special Collections Cooking entry introduced specialized diets that healthcare advocates developed in late nineteenth century America. John Harvey Kellogg promoted low-spice, low-acidity diets that focused on fermentation and yogurts to aid digestion. His advice in his 1893 Ladies’ Guide in Health and Disease stressed moderation in diet and modesty in conduct, with his “Dietetic Recipes” intended to treat ailments and cultivate good health. I chose to prepare two of these recipes for a Kellogg-approved breakfast: “koumyss”, or fermented milk, and graham breakfast rolls.

Instructions in Ladies’ Guide in Health and Disease resemble earlier narrative recipes, but with specific, familiar measurements like tablespoons and cups. Kellogg’s recipes are extremely simple, calling for basic ingredients without sweeteners or flavorings. One recipe that requires butter to prevent sticking calls for the fat to be wiped away before serving, a testament to Kellogg’s dietary dedication, if not to taste.

Kellogg’s koumyss was meant to mimic fermented milk beverages from northern Asia, popularized in Europe as “champagne milk” and thought to increase digestion. The recipe instructs the reader fairly simply:

“Dissolve one teaspoon of yeast and two teaspoons of sugar in three tablespoons of warm (not hot) water; pour into a quart bottle and add milk sufficient to fill the same. Let it ferment from three to six hours, cork tightly, and tie the cork in. Put in a cool place not above 60⁰ and let it remain a week, when it will be ready for use. It is much better and smoother to ferment slowly.”

The instructions don’t specify what type of yeast to use, so I investigated nineteenth century leaveners. Breads and some desserts used yeast starters from previous batches until the early nineteenth century commercialization of pearlash, a leavener developed from Native American methods of using wood ash to thicken grains, and the midcentury development of baking soda. Brewers and bakers collected and resold brewing yeast until farmers began to cultivate commercial yeast using corn sugars. While dried or compressed commercial yeast was available by the 1860s, 1880s authors recommended brewing yeast when possible for home use.

I chose a standard English ale yeast for the koumyss, a strain used in brewing bottom-fermenting ales, the most popular type of beer brewed in late nineteenth century America. I fed the yeast with 2 teaspoons of sugar dissolved in water and added whole milk and the yeast mixture to a sterilized glass quart container. I installed a modern homebrewer’s airlock instead of a cork to be sure fermenting gases could escape while external bacteria were kept out. I stored the sealed container in my building’s basement, which hovered around 60⁰.

Left: The milk and yeast mixture as initially prepared for fermentation. Right: Curdled koumyss after 5 days of fermenting.


After five days, the koumyss had developed into something particularly vile looking. While the liquid had a fermented, bubbly quality, the milk proteins had curdled to the top of the container, possibly from temperatures rising too high in the basement. I skimmed the curdled portion away before tasting a tiny amount of the fermented liquid below. It’s not clear what Kellogg intended the consistency or flavor of his koumyss to be, but if it at all resembled my results, yogurt colonics wouldn’t be the most unpleasant part of his Battle Creek healthcare routine. Fermenting can be a tricky business, and milk seemed too sensitive to temperature to be a feasible choice for a novice brewer.

Kellogg’s graham breakfast roll recipe, p. 656.

Kellogg’s graham breakfast roll recipe was much more successful.  His recipe called for dough made only from water and flour. Graham flour is very similar to whole wheat flour, but is unsifted and coarser. I used 2 cups of equal parts whole wheat and graham, as Kellogg’s recipe was not entirely clear as to its base flour, though he recommends kneading into a graham preparation. Fifteen to twenty minutes of kneading produced a very dense dough and very tired arms.

After twenty minutes in a 350⁰ oven, I had a batch of hot, compact “rolls.” Without leaveners the dough balls didn’t really rise, and without added sugar, they didn’t brown or crust like most breads. Unlike the koumyss, however, the rolls, if plain, were hearty and filling. One or two small rolls could fill you for a morning, though maybe you’d need some koumyss to help you digest them. Kellogg’s focus on plain food proved too much for me in the end. I topped the breakfast rolls with honey and cinnamon – certainly not Battle Creek approved – and found them pretty tasty. The Graham flour and water dough could probably serve as a great base for sweetened breads, with some added baking soda and sugar.


Left: Three simple ingredients were the only elements of Kellogg’s breakfast rolls. Right: Finished rolls with honey and cinnamon topping.

Like the gooseberry fool recipe from Maria Rundell’s The Experienced American Housekeeper, recreating Kellogg’s recipes highlighted the information left out of historic recipes. The koumyss recipe assumed a familiarity with temperature and cleanliness controls associated with fermenting. Without background and appropriate facilities, a lay person probably couldn’t recreate this food. The graham rolls were much simpler and would probably be easy for nearly anyone to make, but they were plain to a point where I’d wonder if anyone would want to bake them without adding ingredients. My results made me question if Kellogg had really prepared these items himself, or if he’d simply copied or cobbled together recipes that fit his healthcare theories in order to fill a book. Certainly I didn’t feel eating these foods would make me into a model of health – instead, they made me want to reach for a donut and coffee and live a little.

Next week, we’ll see how cookbooks figured into the women’s suffrage movement and taste some early renditions of classic elements of the Thanksgiving table and beyond.

Special Collections Cooking is a periodic, bi-weekly series using resources from DePaul University’s Special Collections and Archives to explore American lifeways by recreating historic recipes. The entire series may be viewed here. To learn more about DePaul’s rare books and archival collections, contact Special Collections and Archives at 773-325-7864, or archives@depaul.edu.

2 Replies to “Special Collections Cooking – Part 4: Fermented Milk and Graham Flour Breakfast”

  1. I don’t know whether special yeasts are required, but fermented milk as my mother-in-law from Latvia prepared it did not use yeast, but rather called for setting glasses or small covered containers of raw milk in a slightly WARM place for fermentation. She used the top back of the refrigerator in our farm kitchen. In two days the milk was like rennet custard (which is prepared from the bacteria in the lining of a calf’s stomach) and later in the week it firmed up more like yogurt. Unsweetened, it tasted like unsweetened yogurt. With additions of your preference, it was delicious.

    1. Thanks for the info, Teresa! It sounds like your mother-in-law’s method might have used naturally occurring yeast in the milk or captured yeast from the air (like sour beers do for fermenting), or maybe bacteria growth to change the milk composition. Interestingly, the Washington Women’s Cook Book I used for the latest post includes a recipe for koumyss. While it calls for “compressed yeast”, it does call for the milk to sit in a WARM place for twelve hours to ferment before refrigerating for up to a day. Notably, it also says not to drink it after the first 24 hours – maybe I should have listened! Very curious about trying your mother-in-law’s Latvian recipe; it sounds delicious.

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