Pioneer Cooking - Foods and Recipes of Early American Settlers

by AngelaJohnson

Preparing a meal was Hard work in pioneer times. The early American settlers spent much of their time finding their food and then cooking it.

Food had to be hunted, trapped, foraged, or planted. They had to kill and butcher their meat, forage for wild plants, fruits or nuts, or plant and harvest their crops.

Before each meal, they had to chop wood for their fire, carry buckets of water from a stream or river, and prepare and cook their meal in an outdoor campfire or kitchen hearth. Most meals were prepared in one pot because that's often all the family had. Sometimes there was only one plate or bowl that the entire family had to share, eating one at a time. This was not an easy life!

Photo by kafkan on flickr

The Early American Settlers (Pioneers)

hanging deer in front of cabinThe first pioneers traveled through the wilderness by foot, horseback, and wagon.

They usually followed animal runs or paths made by Indians.

Food for meals were usually cooked together in one pot.

A pot was well cared for and often lasted for decades.


When a cabin was built, the floor was just the dirt ground. The pioneers made tables from planks, and made benches or stools instead of chairs. In the winter, the family ate and stayed warm in the kitchen, since this was the only room with a fireplace. If the cabin only had one room, the family slept in the kitchen, too.

What they had to eat depended on the season. They usually had some form of corn at almost every meal. They ate multi-colored Indian corn, not the yellow sweet corn we eat today.

 Wild meat might be venison, geese, partridge, turkeys, pigeons, rabbits, squirrel, fish and eels. They often raised pigs, cows, chickens, ducks, and goats.

The pioneers gathered herbs, roots, berries and nuts from the forest, and ate dandelion and poke leaves for fresh greens. The rest of the food came from their fields and gardens.

They stored root vegetables (onions, potatoes and carrots) in a root cellar so they had food in the winter. They also dried fruits and vegetables, smoked or cured meat, and made bread. If they had a goat or cow, they had milk and could make cheese and butter.

Image from All Posters


NOTE: I love collecting old cookbooks, so I've gathered pioneer recipes from books I own. Some older cookbooks have been reproduced and you can find them on Amazon. If a book is out of print, individuals may have copies for sale.

I took photos of the covers from the books I used for this article.~~ Burntchestnut ~~


Corn, Cornmeal Mush, and Gruell

Log Cabin Cooking: Pioneer Recipes & Food Lore by Barbara Swell

Log cabin cooking bookCORN

The pioneers ate corn boiled, baked, fried, and dried. Corn was the most important crop to the settlers. One acre of corn could produce up to twenty times the yield as an acre of wheat or rye, and it could be planted between tree stumps on uncleared land. Corn provided food for the family and fed farm animals.


Boil 2 cups water, add 1/2 tsp. salt, and sprinkle in cornmeal slowly while stirring until mush becomes thick. Eat warm with butter and honey or molasses or put in a bread pan and chill until set. Slice and fry in a frying pan with a bit of butter until crisp on both sides, then serve with maple syrup or honey.



Have a pint of water boiling in the skillet; stir up three or four large spoonfuls of nicely sifted oatmeal, rye, or Indian (cornmeal) in cold water. Pour it into the skillet while the water boils. Let it boil eight or ten minutes. Throw in a large handful of raisins to boil, if the patient is well enough to bear them. When put in a bowl, add a little salt, white sugar, and nutmeg.


Indian Corn

The Pioneers Ate This Type Corn - not the Yellow Sweet Corn of Today
Indian Corn
Indian Corn

Hearth Cooking

Roast Corn, Stone Jar Sauerkraut, Corn Pudding and Snow Cream

From Pioneer Cookbook, edited by Ferne Shelton

Pioneer cooking book


Fresh, green corn may be baked in the husk (after first cleaning out the silks, then twisting the husks on again) by burying it in hot ashes for about 30 minutes. Remove husks and add salt and butter. Quick method - remove husks from fresh corn and using long stick, hold directly over heat to roast.



40 lbs. fresh cabbage

1 lb. plain salt

Remove outside leaves and cores. Shred cabbage. In a large pot, mix 5 lbs. shredded cabbage with 2 tablespoons salt., stirring well. Pack into a large stone jar with a potato masher. Repeat method for each 5 lbs. cabbage until jar is filled. Press down with a plate and cover jar with a clean cloth. Leave in a cool place to ferment for 10 to 12 days. When fermentation ceases, pack in sterilized cans and seal, or leave (covered) in the stone jar, for use as needed.



Mix together:

2 tablespoons melted butter

1 beaten egg

3 tablespoons flour

1 teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon sugar

1 1/2 cups milk

To this mixture, add 2 cups corn. Pour into buttered baking dish. Bake at 350 degrees, about 30 minutes (until firm).



Snow cream was a winter treat, enjoyed in many areas of America long before the recipe for Ice Cream was brought from France (about 1800).


1 cup cream (or milk)

1/2 cup sugar

1 beaten egg

1 teaspoon vanilla


Mix well together in a large bowl. Stir in soft, fresh snow until you have an icy sherbet consistency.


Cooking Cornbread

Making Head Cheese or Souse

From the book, "FOODS OF THE FRONTIER, by Gertrude Harris

Foods of the Frontier book

Because meat was scarce and hard to come by, most settlers used every part of the animal.

The head and feet were used in making headcheese or souse. The parts were scrubbed and every bit of fur singed off before the fire. They were then dipped in lye water, boiled for hours and boned. The meat and gristle were cut into small pieces, highly seasoned and, while still warm, pressed to get out as much fat as possible.

Headcheese was sometimes pickled, sometimes eaten fresh, but it was always a delicious treat, as everyone reports in letters and diaries.


The recipe below was adapted for present day use.


1 hog's head, cleaned

1 tablespoon salt

1 teaspoon pepper

1/2 cup vinegar

1/2 tablespoon sage

1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper

1 tablespoon sugar

Cover the head with water; add salt and pepper and bring to a boil; cook until meat is almost coming off the bones. Let it cool.

Bone carefully and dice rather fine. Put into a round bowl, add remaining ingredients and chill thoroughly. Unmold to serve and cut in thin slices.</b>



The book, "Foods of the Frontier" where this recipe came from is out of print, but you may enjoy other reproduced pioneer cooking books for sale on Amazon.  I've listed several of them below and you can click on any one of them and continue to search for more titles.



Pioneer Cooking - Interesting to Read and Gives a Taste of History

These Books Would Make Nice Gifts
The Virginia Housewife: Or Methodical Cook: A Facsimile of an Authentic Early American Cookbook

Charming guide, published in 1824, offers directions for making rabbit soup, beef steak pie, fried calf's feet, shoulder of mutton with celery sauce, leg of pork with pease pudd...

$8.95  $4.79

View on Amazon

The First American Cookbook: A Facsimile of "American Cookery," 1796

Exact reproduction of the first American-written cookbook published in the United States. Authentic recipes for colonial favorites — pumpkin pudding, winter squash pudding, spru...

$5.95  $0.99

View on Amazon

Old Sturbridge Village Cookbook: Authentic Early American Recipes For The Modern Kitchen

As the largest outdoor living history complex in the Northeast, Old Sturbridge Village has fostered the feel, and the flavors, of America’s past for more than half a century. Th...

$18.95  $10.54

View on Amazon

Open-Hearth Cookbook: Recapturing the Flavor of Early America

Food cooked in the fireplace tastes better than food cooked in most conventional methods today, say the authors and this book shows how twenty-first century folks can enjoy hear...

$15.00  $8.70

View on Amazon

The Early American Cookbook: Authentic Favorites by Historical Figures

Book by Lynn, Kristie, Pelton, Robert W.

Only $7.95

View on Amazon

Log Cabin Cooking: Pioneer Recipes & Food Lore

Peppered with authentic 19th Century photograhs, this cookbook is smothered with old-timey recipes, kitchen proverbs, even a pinch of proper pioneer etiquette! Make-do cooking r...

$5.95  $2.00

View on Amazon

Pioneer Cookbook

Campfire and Kitchen Recipes from Early America

View on Amazon

The Little House Cookbook: Frontier Foods from Laura Ingalls Wilder's Classic Stories

More than 100 recipes introduce the foods and cooking of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s pioneer childhood, chronicled in her classic Little House books.Notable Children’s Books of 1979 ...

$9.99  $4.19

View on Amazon

Navajo Bean Balls and Walnut Gypsy Stew

From The Early American Cookbook

The Early American CookbookNavaho Bean Balls


4 cups pinto beans

8 cups corn meal

1 cup flour

2 teaspoons baking soda


Put the beans in a large cast iron kettle and cover with cold water. Bring to a boil and then simmer until the beans are soft. Now put the corn meal in a large wooden mixing bowl and stir in the flour and baking soda. Blend well and add the hot beans to this mixture. Add enough water from the kettle to make a stiff dough. Roll this dough into small balls. Bring the bean liquid in the kettle to a boil and drop in the bean balls. Let simmer for 30 minutes and serve while hot.


 Walnut Gypsy Stew


2 tablespoons butter

1 pound veal, ground

2 tablespoons flour

1 cup milk

3 tablespoons cheese, grated

3/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon pepper

3 tablespoons walnuts, chopped


Put the butter into a cast iron skillet and let it melt. Fry the ground veal until it is done. Stir in the flour and blend well. Now add the milk and stir as it heats. Add the cheese, stirring thoroughly until it is all melted. Lastly, blend in the salt, pepper and chopped walnuts. Serve while very hot.


General Anthony Wayne (1745-96) was quoted as saying he never tired of this stew. He was a famous commander during the Revolutionary War who raised a volunteer regiment in 1776. This man was a hero of the storming and capture of Stony Point on July 15, 1779. He became known as "Mad Anthony," and stopped Indian uprisings in the West of 1794.


Recipes from The Early American Cookbook: Authentic Favorites by Historical Figures

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Updated: 03/16/2015, AngelaJohnson
Thank you! Would you like to post a comment now?


AngelaJohnson on 04/24/2015

candy47 - Make sure you don't use the first snow of the season - it'll bring down dirt from the atmosphere. The next snows will be clean.

candy47 on 04/23/2015

Great bit of culinary history, very interesting. I going to try making Snow Cream!

AngelaJohnson on 03/18/2015

evelynsaenz - I didn't have the same experience since I was a kid of the 1960 and lived in the suburbs, although my dad did grow a small garden. But as an adult, I like to know about being self sufficient, although I don't think I'll ever hunt game.

evelynsaenz on 03/16/2015

So interesting to read about the way pioneers cooked when they first moved into an area. My family cooked this way when I was a child. We ate dandelions in the spring, often cooked in just one pot that had been handed down for generations and often at Johnny Cake or cornbread with our meals. We raised most all the food we ate and only went to a store a couple of times a year.

AngelaJohnson on 10/17/2014

EmmaSRose - I'm happy you liked my article and thanks for sharing it.

Guest on 10/17/2014

burntchestnut, Culinary history fascinates me. I grew up with pioneer stories and recipes, passed down through the generations on both sides of my family. I especially appreciate the corn pudding recipe which you spotlighted -- it's one of my favorite family recipes. I published my family recipe on Wizzley because it's such a storied recipe, a quintessential recipe of early Americana which was treasured by colonial and which traveled westward with pioneer families.

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