I have a particular interest in history, and when you add good food to the mix; it provides an insight of sorts into how things were done back in the day.
Preparing and preserving food was very different in the 1800s. The food at the time had to be prepped with what you had or what you caught – literally.
With that in mind, here are 33 pioneer recipes that you have to try.
01: Potato Cakes
Potatoes were an important part of the pioneer diet because they lasted for a very long time. This made them a reliable food source for traveling pioneers.
Potato cakes were and are still a popular meal; they’re easy to work with and make delicious meals. If you’d like to try making these yourself, you can find a recipe here.
Fun fact: potato cakes were a sort of precursor to modern pancakes.
Johnnycakes are a cornmeal flatbread that’s derived from a recipe for jonikin – which is a similar except that it’s made with oats instead of corn.
The modern johnnycake is made with either yellow or white cornmeal which is mixed with salt and hot water or milk to make cornmeal gruel.
The gruel is then deep-fried to give us the cake. It’s also sometimes sweetened with a bit of sugar. You can find a recipe for Johnnycakes here.
03: Molasses Stack Cake
This was a luxury food for the pioneers because it was ridiculously expensive to make. With that in mind, it was usually reserved for very special occasions (i.e. weddings) and was an effort among family and friends.
Each guest brings in a layer of the cake and the layers are stacked one on top of the other. As far as dressing, there were layers of apple slices or apple butter between each layer. You can find a recipe for molasses stack cakes here.
04: Corn Pancakes
Pancakes are a favorite all over the world. This particular pancake recipe uses white cornmeal, buttermilk, and bacon fat or lard to produce a fluffy treat with a lace-like edging.
You can find a recipe here if you’d like to try making them.
Cattle were a big deal for the pioneers, milk, cheese, meat, and hides were all key aspects to the pioneer lifestyle.
Beef jerky is basically cured, dehydrated meat, it’s pretty easy to make and it has a really good flavor. If you’d like to try making beef jerky yourself, you can find a recipe here.
06: Chocolate Caramels
I love chocolate, I love caramel; there was no way I wasn’t going to put this on the list after finding it! Much like us, our ancestors occasionally craved something sweet and sweets were considered a special treat – a real luxury item.
Now obviously modern recipes are different to what the pioneers used. Today we’d use syrup, sugar, cream and a few other things to sweeten the treat.
On the other hand, the pioneers used sweet milk, vanilla, and molasses – their chocolate caramels must’ve been super sweet if they used molasses! If you’d like to try this sweet treat yourself, you can find a recipe here.
07: Swiss Apple Cherry Pie
Apple + cherry + pie = greatness! This particular sweet treat came from the Swiss contingent of the pioneers on the Oregon Trail.
It’s basically an apple pie (which is already good) with cherries added for extra sweetness and flavor. If you’d like to try this yourself you can find a recipe here.
08: 101 Year Old Pastry
Okay, so this is a recipe for pastry crust, and not a pie that’s 101 years old. We’re clear on that, right? Cool, then we can get onto the recipe.
Making the pastry itself was and still is the first part of making a pie. If you’d like to make this one yourself, here’s the recipe.
09: Hasty Pudding
A British pudding, this one looks kind of like a crème caramel dessert – depending on the picture you see.
It’s easy to make and can be prepared in around an hour or so (hence the name ‘hasty pudding’) and is often topped off with a bit of whipped cream. Grab a recipe for hasty pudding here.
10: Corn Dodgers
These were popular as both side dishes and snacks; they were small enough that they could be carried in a pocket with no trouble at all. Corn dodgers are also called hush puppies, and you can find a recipe here.
11: Native American Fry Bread
This is exactly what it sounds like, deep-fried bread. It can be eaten either plain, or with honey, jam, or whatever topping you’d prefer. You can find a recipe here.
12: Pioneer Cookies
Who doesn’t like cookies? These particular treats are made with oats, brown sugar, and a touch of vanilla.
My grandmother used to add syrup or honey instead of vanilla which added to the sugary sweetness! If you’d like to make these yourself, a recipe may be found here.
Made from chia seeds and roasted cornmeal, Pinole is a high-energy food that will give you a boost without eating a large amount of it – unlike other energy foods. You can mix it into a drink, eat it as a cereal, or make it into cookies – yum!
This stuff tastes great and is super healthy; you can add almonds to it for extra flavor. If you want to try making pinole yourself, this is a good recipe to use.
This is one that I didn’t really expect. I’d always thought of dumplings as a Chinese thing so when I found dumplings listed among pioneer recipes it was a bit of a surprise.
Although, come to think of it; it probably shouldn’t have been. Anyways, a dumpling is made of pieces of dough wrapped around a sweet or savoury filling of your choice.
The most common types of dumplings that I’ve seen have been steamed or fried but baking, simmering, and boiling are also options. You can find a recipe for dumplings here.
Pemmican is an old Native American method of preserving meat and/or fish without refrigeration for an extended time period. It’s made from dried meat, rendered fat (tallow), and dried berries.
The berries are optional but they add a bit of flavor to your pemmican. If you want to try making pemmican, you can find a recipe here.
Also called survival bread, hardtack is a type of biscuit made from a mixture of flour, water, and salt.
Inexpensive and easy to make, this stuff has a very long shelf-life and was often used during long sea voyages and migrations where perishable foods would’ve gone bad before the journey had ended. You can find a recipe for hardtack here.
Fun fact: hardtack and salted pork were standard military rations throughout the 17th century all the way through the 19th century.
Rusks are…well, I guess you could say they’re the South African version of hardtack. It’s essentially double-baked bread.
Portions of bread dough are packed into a baking tray and then baked. Once the dough is baked, it’s separated into portions and baked a second time to give it that dry consistency.
Rusks come in a variety of flavors, but the most common ones are plain, and there are a number of others from which to choose. Check out this recipe if you’d like to try making rusks for yourself.
18: Oxtail Potjie
Ah, potjie…one of the few things I was never able to get quite right. I tried twice to make a beef potjie whilst on a school retreat back in 7th grade and both times it didn’t come out right – although the second attempt was more edible than the first.
First off; potjie is a type of stew found in South Africa that’s typically cooked in a small, wrought-iron pot. Now, I will outright say I’ve never tried oxtail potjie myself but I know that oxtail is a…particular favorite in South Africa because of how soft and tender the meat is.
If you’d like to try making an oxtail potjie, here’s the recipe.
19: Buttermilk Biscuits
Buttermilk…whenever I think of buttermilk I think of buttermilk rusks and initially that’s what I thought this was; another type of rusk – silly me.
First of all, biscuits are a flour-based food product and buttermilk is the liquid left behind in the process of churning butter from cream. When you mix the two together, you get a buttermilk biscuit. You can find a recipe for buttermilk biscuits here.
20: Apricot Oat Biscuits
Oat biscuits are a common favorite in my family (we call them crunches, if you’re curious). With that said, I don’t think I’ve tried an oat biscuit with apricot in it.
I do like dried fruits with apricot being a personal favorite so that would be interesting. You can find a recipe for this neat treat here.
VETKOEK! Okay, I’ve listed a few South African favorites here but this one is probably the most popular of the lot. This is a very easy thing to make; it’s basically deep-fried bread dough – which you then fill with whatever you like.
We typically do it with mincemeat for savoury vetkoek and jam for sweet vetkoek – apricot jam is the best! I’ve also tried it with a few types of syrup and it’s not bad per-se, but I think I’ll stick to my mince and jam if you don’t mind. You can make vetkoek yourself with this easy recipe.
22: Spotted Pup
Spotted pup…that’s a very odd name for a dessert, but I guess they had to call it something. You know the saying ‘waste not, want not’ right? That’s kind of where this came from.
Wasting food is, in general, a bad thing, but it was particularly frowned on back in the day. So, when the pioneers had leftover rice on hand, they needed to figure out how to use it.
Then someone had the bright idea to mix the rice with sugar, raisins, vanilla, and a few other things and thus the Spotted Pup was born! This is super easy to make, and you can use this recipe to do it yourself.
23: Cornmeal Mush
I don’t know about you guys, but I don’t usually associate the term ‘mush’ with anything delicious. That said, this was typically a breakfast meal. It was easy to make and it was apparently very filling. You can find a recipe for cornmeal mush here.
Quick note: When I looked up cornmeal mush, I found that it was listed as a sort of cornmeal dessert. I guess that means the pioneers had dessert for breakfast – sounds like a good idea to me.
24: Fried Apples
Fried Apples were a perfect dessert for the pioneers because apples were one of the few fruits that would last to the end of the trip.
There are a variety of uses and recipes for this particular delicacy – including one that uses bacon – and it’s super easy to make. Don’t believe me? Try this recipe and see for yourself.
25: Cured Bacon
Here’s a fun fact for you guys: the average family of four consumed 400 pounds of bacon – 100 pounds of bacon per person. I know a few people who wouldn’t mind that.
Using this little fact, we can see that bacon was a major part of the pioneer diet. With that in mind, they had to figure out how to preserve their bacon; which they did by curing it.
Now, if you’re not familiar with curing, it’s a preservation process wherein salt is used to draw out the moisture in foods like meat, fish, and vegetables. You can try curing bacon yourself with this recipe.
26: Jerky Gravy
I love gravy and I love biltong/jerky so when you combine the two…well; now you’ve got my attention. This was used as a stand-in, of sorts, when meat was in low supply; it could be spread over things like soda biscuits, potatoes, and cornbread for added flavor.
This is something that I’d never really considered; turning biltong into gravy. Of course, it’d probably help if the biltong lasted longer than, I don’t know, a day.
Anyways, this is definitely something that I’d love to try and you can find a great recipe for it here.
27: Soda Biscuits
Speaking of soda biscuits, what are they? Well, they’re biscuits that have been baked with baking soda instead of baking powder.
These are super easy to make and can be eaten in a variety of ways – with jerky gravy for a savory flavor, or syrup if you want something sweeter. You can get a nice soda biscuit recipe here.
28: Norwegian Fruit Soup
This is one that I wasn’t too sure about…until I looked up some recipes for it. This stuff looks kind of like jam or marmalade and is pretty sweet – literally.
It’s made up of dried fruit(s), lemon juice, cinnamon, and a few other things to give us this particularly sweet treat. You can get a good recipe here.
29: Swedish Jam Cake
Swedish jam cakes are fantastic treat for the whole family. I’m partial to apricot and strawberry jams but you can use any jam you like. If you want apricot, use apricot. If you want mixed fruits…you get the idea.
You can get a great recipe for Swedish jam cakes here.
30: Native Currant Whirligig
Okay, this sounds like some crazy dance routine but it’s actually an English recipe that looks absolutely delicious! It also strongly resembles a treat we have in certain places in South Africa.
Seriously, I looked at some of the pictures that I could find of this recipe and I was left wondering if we’d ripped off the recipe or just made a new variant. I’ll swing back to this in a second but first, what are currant whirligigs?
Currant whirligigs are baked bread treats styled to have a spiralling appearance. They’re usually made with wild currants (you can use cranberries as well if you’d prefer) and are a popular treat.
Now, in South Africa we’ve got something similar; cinnabons (cinnamon buns with various toppings). This would be an interesting addition to the chocolate, caramel, and other flavors of cinnabons out there.
If you’d like to try making this sweet treat yourself, you can get a recipe here.
31: Currant Bread
This Welsh recipe was often used as a Christmas treat. The pioneers used wild currants; possibly drying them out for winter storage. The reason for using currants was that raisins weren’t available at the time. You can find a recipe for currant bread here.
32: Spiced Red Cabbage
Another Christmas dish, this one is from Germany. It’s essentially red cabbage cooked for a few minutes with mustard seeds and other spices and simmered with sugar. Here’s the recipe, if you’d like to try it.
33: Basic Brown Bread
Bread…what can I say? I tried to put all the interesting recipes I could find on this list but the bread kept chasing me, and so here it is on the list. Yes, bread was a thing with the pioneers too; although, they probably did things slightly differently to how we do it now.
Anyways, I digress; bread was an important part of the diet as well. Brown bread in particular was a common find as it was higher in carbohydrates than white bread and it has a nice flavor to it which white bread doesn’t have.
Now, to clarify: any bread can have a nice flavor when done properly; brown bread is just stronger in that department. If you’d like to try this one yourself then you can get a recipe here.
This was really fun to write about; I loved learning about some of the stuff that the travelers of the Oregon Trail ate!
I don’t think I’ve ever had an article make me hungry before but right now I’m absolutely famished! I hope you guys enjoyed it and found it informative.
Greg spent most of his childhood in camping grounds and on hiking trails. While he lives in suburbs nowadays, Greg was raised on a small farm with chickens. He’s a decent shot with a bow, and a knife enthusiast.