Pliny on Leavening

Over the next few days, I’ll just be babysitting and feeding my new pet (aka sourdough starter) so I can make my Roman-inspired bread. Since watching yeast grow in a mason jar isn’t overly exciting, I figure I’ll chat about some of the inspirations for this bread.

One of the sources referenced is from a translation of Naturalis Historia (Natural History) by Gaius Plinius Secundus, or as he is often referred: Pliny the Elder (I’ll just refer to him as Pliny going forward). Pliny was born around 23/24 CE in Roman Italy and was a naval and army commander as well as an author and philosopher. He died in 79 CE during a rescue attempt at the time of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius as it destroyed the town of Pompeii and other nearby areas. His work, Naturalis Historia could be referred to as an encyclopedia and is a wide-ranging work that took up several volumes covering multiple topics.

Our interest today is focused on what Pliny had to say about leavening:

Millet is more particularly employed for making leaven; and if kneaded with must, it will keep a whole year. The same is done, too, with the fine wheat-bran of the best quality; it is kneaded with white must three days old, and then dried in the sun, after which it is made into small cakes. When required for making bread, these cakes are first soaked in water, and then boiled with the finest spelt flour, after which the whole is mixed up with the meal; and it is generally thought that this is the best method of making bread…. These kinds of leaven, however, can only be made at the time of vintage, but there is another leaven which may be prepared with barley and water, at any time it may happen to be required. It is first made up into cakes of two pounds in weight, and these are then baked upon a hot hearth, or else in an earthen dish upon hot ashes and charcoal, being left till they turn of a reddish brown. When this is done, the cakes are shut close in vessels, until they turn quite sour: when wanted for leaven, they are steeped in water first.

Pliny continues on to describe the method that I am using for my bread-making this week:

At the present day, however, the leaven is prepared from the meal that is used for making the bread. For this purpose, some of the meal is kneaded before adding the salt, and is then boiled to the consistency of porridge, and left till it begins to turn sour. In most cases, however, they do not warm it at all, but only make use of a little of the dough that has been kept from the day before. It is very evident that the principle which causes the dough to rise is of an acid nature, and it is equally evident that those persons who are dieted upon fermented bread are stronger in body.

I am just using the same wheat flour (meal) that I’ll be making my bread from, mixing it with water and letting it ferment. I didn’t warm it but I didn’t use previous dough (since I didn’t have any on hand). The fermentation process of sourdough is acidic which is what gives the bread it’s characteristic sour flavor. I do think at some point I’d like to experiment with some of the other leavening processes he mentions here using millet and barley but for right now I’m just using a wheat-based fermented dough starter.

Sourdough Starter – Day 2 (after feeding) – Not a whole lot going on in there…yet…

Translations from Naturalis Historia from

The Natural History. Pliny the Elder. John Bostock, M.D., F.R.S. H.T. Riley, Esq., B.A. London. Taylor and Francis, Red Lion Court, Fleet Street. 1855.

General info on Pliny the Elder:

5 thoughts on “Pliny on Leavening

  1. Are you using a stiff starter method? That looks a lot drier than the starter I’m familiar with!


    1. It started off fairly dry but it ended up as a gooey dough. I think with the feedings it got moister. I think my flour was really, really dry and soaked up a lot of the water.


  2. Re, Pliney On Leavening,
    What does he mean by ‘boiled dough to the consistency of porridge’ ?
    Os he mixing dough straight from flour, and boiling it in perhaps a linen bag ?
    Thanks, IAC.


    1. I haven’t tried this method he describes. My interpretation of it is he is mixing some flour and water and pre-cooking it first and then setting that aside to ferment. I don’t know why one would do that since that process might kill off the natural yeast found on the grain. I don’t know if what Pliny describes gives a similar effect to the Asian tangzhong technique which involves cooking a portion of the flour and liquid in the recipe into a thick slurry prior to adding the remaining ingredients. But tangzhong isn’t fermented afterward. I probably need to test this out and see how it affects things. I think I might know what I’m doing this weekend. 😀


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