Preparing & Cooking Food in the Old West


Welcome to "Frontier Foods", a look at cowboy cuisine in the late 1800's.

Cooking was anything but easy for the early western frontier settler. With no refrigeration, frontier foods either had to have a long shelf life or be available when ever families stopped to eat.

Of course there were no supermarkets, meat counters, or washed and shiny produce for these frontier folks. Although "new fangled" discoveries such as vacuum packed meats (Hormel was already making an early version of Spam!) and Borden's sweetened condensed milk, the settlers were often poor and without access to such frontier foods luxury.

Most frontier foods were reminiscent of the "old World", with English and European flavor. Regional favorites were carried west such as Virginia ham, Louisiana Creole, Tennessee Barbecue, and Boston Baked Beans.

In the early days, most frontier food storage relied on curing with salt, brine, picklin or dehydration. Around the ranch house, underground dugouts and coolers were also used to help preserve various foods. It depended on the resourcefulness of the cook to make do with what she had and make it apetizin. Besides generally havin constant supply of beef, sometimes, she might add different meats fresh off the fat of the land; rabbit, venison, wild turkey, squirrel, duck, grouse, quail, etc. Seasonally, she would take advantage of various edible greens and wild fruits such as ‘muskidines (a wild grapes) and elderberries. Even though the chuck wagon cook carried his favorite seasonins and condiments, he also depended on gatherin a certain amount of his favorite herbs and baking ingredients, such as sage, acorns, nuts, buckwheat, etc., that is, if they were available. Cooking frontier foods was mostly done over open fires in Dutch ovens or skillets (fryin pans), griddles and ‘stewers’ (stew pots or, boilin pots).

Dutch Oven Cooking

Good ol’ Dutch Oven cookin' dates back to the frontier days, some 200 hundred years ago. The authentic Dutch oven was, and still is, a heavy cast iron kettle or pot with a cast iron lid. The inventor is said to be Paul Revere. It was the original frontier foods outdoor cooking utensil of preference, carried by early trappers, explorers, cowboys and settlers and of necessity, became their most essential piece of equipment. Without a doubt it is one of the most important pieces of survival gear that helped tame the old west.

Dutch ovens are designed like a large cast iron frying pan with high sides and a heavy lid, and a heavy wire bail for a handle, instead of an extended grip handle. The lid has a lip that fits tight and the top dips concave to hold hot coals. It has a flat bottom and three short legs. When the Dutch oven is placed over hot coals it becomes a cooking pot. When it is placed over hot coals with top of the lid filled with coals, it becomes an oven. Like cast iron frying pans, they are made in various diameters. The most common size is 12 inches. The lid itself can be turned upside down and used for a griddle. Ovens can even be stacked, one on top of the other to cook various courses of a meal at the same time. The Dutch oven is an amazingly versatile cooking utensil for stewing, roasting, frying and baking frontier foods over open fires. (Yes, the Dutch oven can also be used in the manner of any cast iron pot on a stove).

Smoked Meats

Fortunate was the person who could build a smokehouse and had learned the art of preserving meat. It was considered quite neighborly for those that did, to smoke meat for friends and family for miles around them. They would leave part of the meat as payment for having the rest smoked. In the fall when they killed a pig, it was cut into hams, shoulders, bacon, etc., and allowed to get thoroughly cold. Warm salt was then rubbed into the meat until no moisture came out. Sometimes a little sugar was added, but that was harder to get. When it was ready for the smokehouse it was hung by cords from the ceiling, so smoke could get all around it. Corn cobs where use for fuel so as not make a big fire but plenty of smoke, and it lasted a long time. When the hams, etc., had been smoked three days, they knew they were ready for the winter.

How to Make Good Butter

Strain the milk as soon as it is brought in. Skim the cream as soon as the milk has become loppord, which in hot weather wil be in about thirty hours. One heaping teaspoon of salt should be put into one pail of milk. This helps to keep it sweet and gives a rich flavor to the butter.

The custom of churning once a week should not to be tolerated. Cream that is kept 7 days, unless it be in the coldest weather, cannot be made into good butter. If you keep but one cow, churn twice a week, and in hot weather, 3 times. Do it in the cool of the morning. If the weather is warm, set the churn into a tub of cool water.

Air is necessary to churn butter, therefore, if the cream flies out of the opening around the dasher, do not put anything around it to prevent it. When the butter has come, continue the strokes of the dasher a few minutes to separate all the little particles from the buttermilk. When done, take it out into a wooden bowl with a ladle or skimmer.

Work the butter with the ladle, until the buttermilk ceases to come out; then sprinkle it with clean sifted salt, as that which was put into the cream will not be enough. Work it in well, and taste it to see if more should be added. Observation and experience must teach you how much to use. Mold the butter with the ladle into balls or lumps of any form you prefer; put it into a covered jar or tureen and set it in the icehouse or cellar or cool side of the house.

How to Tell Good Mushrooms from Bad

Test 1 - Sprinkle a little salt on the spongy part or gills of the sample to be tested. If the gills turn yellow, they are poisionous, if they turn black, they are wholesome. Allow the sale time to act before you decide on the question.

Test 2 - False mushrooms have a warty cap, or else fragments of membranes, adhering to the upper surface; they grow in tufts or clusters in woods around the stumps of trees, and so forth, whereas true mushrooms generally grow in open spots such as clearings or pastures.

Test 3 - False mushrooms have an astringent, styptic, and disagreeable taste. When cut, they turn blue; they are moist on the surface and generally of a rose or orange color.

Test 4 - The gills of the true mushroom are a pinky red, changing to a liverish shade; the flesh is white the stem is white, solid and cylindrical.


It is always best to use cider vinegar in making pickles as other kinds eat the pickles or make them soft. Vinegar which is too strong should be diluted with water. The vinegar should never be boiled but should be poured on the pickles hot as it comes to the first scald. If pickles are put into brine the brine should be strong enough to float an egg. A heaping pint of coarse salt should be used to each gallon of water. Never put pickles into anything that has previously held any kind of grease and never let them freeze. A good way is to put pickles in bottles and seal while hot. Put a slice or two of horseradish into the jar with pickles. It will soon sink to the bottom taking the scum with it and leaving the vinegar clear.

Storing Hard Cheeses

Hard cheeses can be stored by dipping them in melted paraffin. Melt the paraffin in an old pan. Dip the cheese in the melted stuff. Allow the paraffin to dry completely, and dip again. Continue dipping and drying until the paraffin has formed a smooth, thick, bubble free surface. Store cheeses that have been coated in paraffin in the coolest spot you can find, as in a cellar. Cheeses that have been stored this way will last a very long time, almost indefinitely.

Storing Eggs

Have you ever wondered how frontier families stored eggs? Many folks regularly stored their eggs and used them throughout the winter months. Chickens normally respond to daylight by laying more eggs. Oppositely, when there is little daylight, there are fewer eggs layed. So in the winter when days are shorter, it's good to be able to depend on a fresh egg supply.

The best way to store eggs without refrigeration is to coat the eggs with a non-toxic substance, sealing the pores in the shell and thereby sealing out oxygen and moisture. When oxygen is present, many bacteria can grow, thus spoiled eggs. To use lard or shortening to coat the eggs, first melt the grease and cool it till it begins to solidify again. Dip each egg in the melted grease individually and set them on a paper towel to dry. When the shortening or lard is dry on the eggs, rub the eggs with a clean towel, removing excess solid grease. Rub gently and buff each egg. Now repeat the process, before the shortening solidifies. Work fast, allowing the shortening to get almost solid before re-heating it.

Line the bottom of a flat box with a clean soft towel. Place the eggs in the box in a single layer. Cover the box with either a lid or another towel. Place the box of eggs in a cool, dry environment such as a cellar or basement. Eggs prepared this way will last up to 6 months, although I have heard people say that they have kept eggs this way for 1 year if they are kept very cool.

Timeline by decade, for new frontier foods, important Food Companies, and Gadgets


Tabasco Sauce, Folgers pre-roasted and ground coffee, eggbeaters with rack-and-pinion movement, canned pork and beans, Gulden Mustard, canned soups, Fleischmann's yeast, Arm & Hammer, Armour Meats, DelMonte, Nestle, Cargil


Can opener with cutting wheel, Four-tined silver fork, Synthetic vanilla, Rootbeer, Nestle's Infant Milk, Milk chocolate, Ice cream soda, Commercial production of margarine, Cubed sugar, Lipton, Pillsbury & Co., Heinz, Quaker Mills, Hills Brothers, Grand Union Tea Co., Milking machines, Glass milk bottles, Orange crates, Pressure cooking in food canning, Frozen meat shipments


Hand cream-separators, Ball-Mason jars, Lenox China, Malted milk, Powered soups, Evaporated milk, Aunt Jemima Pancake Flour, Coca-Cola, Dr. Pepper, Thomas's English muffins, Oscar Mayer wieners, Tetley Tea, Log Cabin Syrup, Morton's salt, Canned meat and fruit in stores, Flaked Cereal, McCormick Spices, R. T. French, Maxwell House, Kroger, ConAgra, White Lily Foods, Lever Brothers, Calumet Baking Powder, American Cereal, Manischewitz, Pillsbury Flour, Ice-making plants start replacing ice-cutting industry, Long cattle-drives end as railroads enter west


Electric range (though unreliable), Aluminum saucepan, Condensed soup, Fig Newtons, Knox's Gelatin, Shredded Wheat, Canada Dry Ginger Ale, Grape Nuts, Cream of Wheat, Postum, Jell-O, Tootsie Rolls, Swans Down Cake Flour, Entenmann Bakery, Pepsi-Cola, Wesson Oil, Cracker Jacks, Bottled Coca-Cola, S&H Food Stamps, Public school hot lunches, Quaker Oats, Beech-Nut Gum, Beatrice Foods, National Biscuit, Baker's Coconut, Smucker's, Hobart, Bottle capping machine, Automatic bottle-blowing machine, Electric coffee mill, first full page food ad in national magazine (Van Camps in 1894), Coca-Cola Company bought for $2,300, Heinz "57 Varieties" ad campaign, Campbell adopts red & white labels (inspired by Cornell football uniforms), first gasoline tractor


Electric toaster, Drip coffeemaker, Egg beater with perforated blades, Thermos bottle, Tea bags, Dixie cups, Instant coffee, Decaffeinated coffee, Hershey chocolate bars & kisses, Barnum Animal Crackers, Triscuits, Canned tunafish, Ice cream cone, Puffed rice, Post Toasties, French's Mustard, Canada Dry Ginger Ale, Ovaltine, Bleached flour, Hydrogenation, Battle Creek Toasted Corn Flakes, Sheffield Farms, Sunshine Biscuit, Planters Nuts, Kraft, Holly Sugar, Continental Can, American Can Company, US Food and Drug Act, Homogenized milk, Soda fountains


Pyrex Refrigerator, Pop-up toaster, Crisco, Mazola Cooking Oil, Hellmann's Blue Ribbon Mayonnaise, Domino sugar, Ocean Spray, Oreo Biscuits, Lorna Doone Cookies, Clark bars, Peppermint Life Savers, Nestle Milk Chocolate Bar, Contadina Tomato Sauce, Kellogg's All-Bran, Malt-O-Meal,Old El Paso brand, LaRosa, Riviana Foods, National Dairy, Tasty Baking, Orange Crush, Birdseye, StarKist, Peter Paul Mounds, Campbell buys Franco-American, 4-H Club, Electric mixing machine, Cellophane, Snack Cakes wrapped individually at bakery, Bread loaves bakery-wrapped, Coca-Cola distinctive bottle shape first introduced, first Hot dog stand, Self-service grocery stores Supermarket chain (Piggly-Wiggly), Cattle-herding in Model T automobiles.

Cookin' up frontier food? Check out these authenic

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