While making their makeshift “bread” in the Long Winter, Ma used something called saleratus. She also mentioned later that she had plenty of it to make a cake. But what exactly is it?
Saleratus is a form of baking soda that was used prior to the type of baking soda commonly found in grocery stores today. Saleratus was made from sodium bicarbonate and was sold in general stores in paper envelopes, often having recipes printed on them.
The first widely available saleratus was known as Dwight’s Saleratus, and was later changed to Dwight’s Soda, Cow Brand, which is why we now associate a cow logo with baking soda.
In Pioneer Girl, Laura’s original manuscript for what would later become the Little House books, Laura did not use the term saleratus but simply soda. And she included more description of what it was:
When the last flour in town disappeared in the grand final at one dollar a pound was Ma discouraged? She was not. Pa brought in his seed whea[t] and we ground it in the hand coffee mill. With this whole wheat flour she made mush or biscuits raised with soda and souring made by putting a little of the flour into warm water and setting it under the stove to keep warm and sour. It made a usuable substitute for sour milk.
Baking, powder was not used then. The best cake makers used soda and cream of tartar in proper combination to raise their cakes. But we were not making cakes that winter.
So it is likely Laura and her family used Dwight’s version of saleratus, but it was changed from soda to saleratus to be more descriptive of how it was likely referred to at the time.