Monday, April 14, 2014

The Art of Replicating Historical Recipes

1772 Orange Flower Cold Cream- Toilet De Flora

              The Art of Replicating Historical Recipes

Having a historical recipe doesn’t mean we can just copy it - like we would to make chocolate chip cookies! YUM!

I thought I’d take this first blog post to list some important aspects I have learned over the years of reading and replicating these recipes.

Things that can’t be over looked:

1     -  Making sure that if there are translations they are  translated correctly?

2     - Good to Remember -Just because the ingredients are listed one right after another doesn’t mean that is the order in which they are added.

3     - Do the ingredients have another name? Many of our names for things today were different in years past.

4    - What is the description of the listed ingredients? Sometimes I need to do a lot of researching to even begin to figure out what a specific ingredient is. Let’s start with something easy…. Lets say I am reproducing an 18th century recipe that calls for spermaceti. 
Here are some questions I ask myself.

-  What is it?
-   Is it available on today’s market? If not what do I replace it with?
-   Is it safe?
-  What was its purpose historically?
-  What is its composition scientifically?

All these questions have to be asked, researched, and figured out before I can proceed. I do this for each “ingredient” listed.
so..lets say I'm researching spermaceti - 
 “Spermaceti, a wax, liquid at body temperature, obtained from the head of a sperm whale 
(Above) Spermaceti- Solid Form
(Above) Spermaceti- Liquid Form
Spermaceti was used chiefly in ointments, cosmetic creams, fine wax candles, pomades, and textile finishing; later it was used for industrial lubricants. The substance was named in the mistaken belief that it was the coagulated semen of the whale… The spermaceti was separated from the oil by chilling in a process whalers called wintering; it congealed as a white crystalline, waxy solid. Chemically, pure spermaceti consists principally of cetyl palmitate and other esters of fatty acids with fatty alcohols and melts at about 44 °C (111 °F).
whaling in the 18th century, drawing from Cook expedition

So now we know a bit about spermaceti.  Did you know it is illegal now? Sperm whales are listed under the Endangered Species Act since 1970. In fact not to long ago, a man found a whole hoard of Spermaceti oil in the basement of the school where he worked. He started selling it on Ebay for 40.00 per oz. Needless to say he was caught and fined $2,000.00.

I obviously have to cross THAT off my “available” list. Next question: What can I use as a substitute?

When I have to change something out, I try and stay as close to the same chemical compound as I can. A good substitute for whale oil is Jojoba esters (solid form) or Jojoba Oil ( liquid form) - which is more common. It carries much of the same chemical composition and some even say it has additional superior traits to that of sperm oil.  Bonus for us!!
Jojoba Oil
So while I am able to keep much of the historical recipes genuine and not have to substitute out or replace anything, there are some cases in which I do and spermaceti is the most common. I always try as hard as I can to have the substituted ingredient be available from the same historical dates as the recipe - sometimes it works and other times it doesn't. So far I have been pretty successful at it.

                         More Questions that we need to ask.

5.     What’s missing?
 Historical recipes are funny. They were written in code most of the time so that not just anyone could reproduce them. This is even true for the Victorian books that have (at home) recipes. 
Recipe Books In My Personal Collection

The authors assumed that you had the “missing” knowledge needed in order to make the recipe work. If you didn’t have that knowledge - good luck. While some recipes are pretty straight forward, most aren’t. It is a good thing I hate instructions-  because there are rarely if ever any "how-tos" or guidelines. You just need to know and have the necessary knowledge.

6.   Measurements…. Conversions… OH MY
As we all know measurements and their descriptive names have changed throughout history. It seems pretty straightforward but let me tell you from experience, not all measurements are commonly known and/or may be misleading from how we think today. I could go on and on about this. But I’ll stop here.

Our recipe is in English, and we now know what we are substituting. We have figured out any and all historical names with the “new” updated ingredient names and what each ingredient does ( what it heals, what the cautions are… etc)- now we are ready to work on the measurements. After we get those figured out. We will compute everything to see if any ingredients or methods of preparation were left out of the recipe in order to “make things work properly”. Lots of recipes have many steps to complete or prepare ahead of time. For example if you are making a tincture- it can take months before that specific portion of the recipe is finished- just for one ingredient.  Next, we will gather all our ingredients, our notes, and see if we calculated things correctly the first time. If it doesn’t turn out.. it’s back to the “DRAWING BOARD” as they say..

This was a 1772 Pomatum for the face that I was working on. First try I failed and had to go back and recalculate everything. 2nd time I had everything figured out!

What does this all boil down too?

It comes down to knowledge and research… and more research… and a lot of math…and conversions (that is probably the one thing I dislike the most) and yet I am completely fascinated by the amount of knowledge and the know-how our ancestors had. I love “cracking” the historical recipe “codes” and searching down ingredients and when all of those things come together perfectly – I reproduce historical apothecary and cosmetic recipes. So I hope you will enjoy this blog and follow along as I share my adventures in the historical apothecary and cosmetic world!!

I try to be as meticulous and detail oriented in everything I do from research to the final stages in order to make sure all my products are accurate representations of history.  I also have some great videos on Youtube to help assist you with your new historical products. You can also check out my awesome Etsy shop.


  1. Do you make everything in small batches? I am all for utilizing every part of an animal that has been harvested- and I have no business second guessing my forebears. And yet- "hey that squiggly waxy stuf must be whale semen- let's rub some on my face..... the mind boggles.
    Is orange flower water an infusion?

    1. We do make everything in small batches. It assures a quality product. Sometimes we run out and I can't get around to making more for a few weeks, so it can take a little while to restock. But then everything is as fresh as it can be. They actually used spermaceti for A LOT of things historically. I am always fascinated with how it got form point A to point B.. like who was the one who decided it was a good idea for cosmetics?
      Yes orange flower water is an infusion. In the 18th century, they would take the desired flowers and soak them in brandy or molasses spirits to make in infusion which would sit around for a while. They then would distill that infusion for the first time- and throw away what remains ( all the old flowers). Next they would refill the "still" with new flowers and alcohol. They would pour what was already distilled from the first batch on this new batch and then distill it a second time in a vapor bath. This would infuse the water/alcohol with the scent of orange flowers.