While the modern-day use of electric ovens makes baking bread, cakes, and other pastries much easier than cooking these over an open flame, the history of baking goes back thousands of years.
The ancient Romans, Greeks, and Egyptians all baked delicious treats such as fruit pastries, dumplings, pies, and honey cakes. So, the herbs and spices used in baking today back thousands of years, though they were not always as readily available.
Highlighted below is the history and use of these common baking spices through the ages and into the modern.
The Middle Ages
During medieval times, baking was a luxury that not many people could afford. Those who were able to afford a wood burning stove baked their own bread. Bread was a status symbol in those times, and the higher quality bread you made, the higher up you were on the social ladder. Ovens weren’t standard in households at the time, so many people would get their bread and pastries from a local bakery.
Poor people often ate hard rye bread, while the rich ate bread made from fine wheat flour. Only those who were very wealthy were able to afford cakes and pies. The wealthy could afford richly-colored cakes baked with saffron and other expensive spices.
15th, 16th, and 17th Centuries
During the 15th century, expensive saffron began to be used widely in cakes and pastries for the rich. In Britain, a small bun known as a "wigg" became popular. This bun was made out of sweetened dough, cream, and butter and contained a variety of herbs and spices.
During the 16th and 17th centuries, baking became more accessible to middle-class people. Higher-quality bread, cakes, and pies began to be baked at home. In the late 17th century, the price of sugar dropped. Mince pies became extremely popular and combined sugar mixed with popular spices such as cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg.
18th and 19th Centuries
Baking cakes became very popular in the 18th century, mostly due to the invention of a semi-closed oven. In the 19th century, the introduction of baking powder changed the consistency of cakes and pastries.
Instead of being heavy and dense, cakes became lighter and fluffier. Since more women were working-class citizens in the 19th century, the need for “fast” or more convenient food became popular. To avoid spending hours slaving over a meal three times a day, the convenience of pastries and pies became widespread. 1
Popular Baking Spices
Allspice tastes like a combination of cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves, but it is actually a spice of its own. It was discovered in the West Indies by Columbus in 1493 and is native to Jamaica, Guatemala, and Honduras. It is commonly used in cakes, biscuits, roasts, stuffings, and pies. 2
Cardamom is a member of the ginger family and is native to southern India. The scent is similar to that of cloves, and the taste is sometimes referred to as a combination of ginger and cinnamon with minty tones.
Cardamom is considered to be one of the world’s oldest spices, and its use dates back over 4,000 years. Ancient Egyptians even used cardamom in embalming practices.
Today, cardamom is used in Middle Eastern spice blends and curries and is also used widely in Asia for cardamom tea. 3
Saffron is the most expensive spice in the world and can be sold from 5,000 to 10,000 dollars per pound. The reason why this spice is so expensive is that saffron is made from the dried stigmas of Crocus sativas . Each crocus flower only has three stigmas and each of these must be handpicked. It takes approximately 210,000 stigmas just to create a pound of saffron—that’s about 70,000 crocus flowers.
Saffron is native to Southwest Asia and was initially cultivated in Greece. It has a beautiful, rich golden yellow color and is traditionally used for dying textiles, making natural paints, or adding a rich hue to various foods. This particular spice is extremely popular in Iranian dishes and can add a delightful burst of color to plain rice. 4
Cloves are native to the Spice Islands of Indonesia (the Moluccas) and are thought to have been imported to China over 2,000 years ago. Cloves are the dried young flower buds of the tropical tree Syzygium aromaticum.
Cloves are a popular mulling spice but also offer a wide variety of health benefits. Traditionally, cloves have been used for their anesthetic properties, especially in dentistry. Cloves are also used to flavor meats, pickles, sauces, and Indian curries. 5
The use of spices in cooking and baking goes back thousands of years. The difference is that today you don’t need to be part of the elite to include a burst of flavor in your cakes and bread. Whether you’re tinting cakes with a dash of saffron or adding a hint of warm spice with cloves, the accessibility of spices in this day and age make it easier than ever to add flavor to food while boosting your overall health.