Estimated reading time: 10 minutes
The Old Frontier, also known as the American Wild West, was a period during the 1800s centered around westward American expansion. It began with European colonial settlers moving into territories newly acquired through the Louisiana Purchase of 1803.
By the middle of the decade, the settlements spanned from eastern Nebraska and Kansas, all the way to Wisconsin and Minnesota. The American Old West era only ended once most remaining states were acquired in 1912, reaching coast-to-coast expansion of the United States.
While the frontiersmen were building lives for their families, sometimes they had to get creative when cooking. They had limited resources in places that were either unoccupied or occupied by Native Americans, who were driven out of their homes and communities by settlers.
Frontiersmen had to farm, hunt, or buy/trade to stay fed. Just because they didn’t have much doesn’t mean they ate poorly. Here are 20 frontier recipes you are going to love. Each recipe can still be happily enjoyed in today’s modern world with any ingredients you have on hand.
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1. Beef Jerky
Packaged beef jerky today is filled with chemicals and preservatives before it is consumed. Beef jerky back in the Old West was homemade with only a few ingredients.
- 2-4 pounds buffalo meat or beef
- Slice the meat along the grain into thin strips.
- Sprinkle lightly with salt and place in a 200-degree oven until firm and dry. If cooking outside, suspend the meat over a fire to dry completely.
2. Chicken Broth
A good chicken broth recipe can last generations, and this one is very similar to broth recipes made today. Frontiersmen would add whatever vegetables they had for additional flavor.
- 1-3 cleaned whole chickens, feathers and head removed
- 1-2 whole onions
- Whole root vegetables (carrots, parsnips, potatoes, or turnips)
- Fresh herbs (basil, tarragon, chives, or parsley)
- 1 tablespoon salt
- Add the chickens, vegetables, herbs, and salt to a large stockpot and cover completely with cold water.
- Bring it to a low bowl and keep it boiling for 3-4 hours.
- Strain the liquid and shred the chicken and dice the veggies, saving them for serving with the broth. Serve right away or continue boiling with the chicken bones until the broth is deeper in flavor.
3. Chuck Wagon Beans
These beans are a true statement to the Old West. All ingredients were abundant and satisfying, so each family had their bean stew recipe.
- 1 pound dry pinto beans
- Bacon, sliced
- 1 can of tomatoes
- 2 tablespoons chili powder
- Salt to taste
- Wash your beans.
- Cover with fresh water and allow them to soak overnight.
- Cook the beans until very soft and tender.
- In the last hour of cooking, add the bacon, tomatoes, garlic, chili powder, and salt. Serve hot.
4. Coffee Brisket
Coffee-braised meat originated back in the 1800s. Frontiersmen loved coffee and found ways to work it into their diet in other ways than a regular cup of joe.
- 3-5 pound brisket
- Sliced onion
- Whole garlic cloves, peeled
- Strongly-brewed coffee
- Cut slits into meat and stuff with sliced onion and garlic.
- Pour vinegar over the meat and massage. Allow it to marinate for 24 hours.
- Heat a Dutch oven over the fire and add the marinated brisket and cover with coffee.
- Braise until the meat is tender.
5. Corn Dodgers
Also known as Wild West hush puppies, these little nuggets are little pieces of deep-fried cornbread.
- 2 cups yellow cornmeal
- 2 tablespoons butter, melted
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- 2 cups milk
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- Cook the cornmeal, butter, salt, sugar, and milk until a thick slurry forms.
- Remove from the heat and add baking powder.
- Spoon heaping spoonfuls of the mixture into lard and cook until browned on both sides.
6. Curing Bacon
Pork belly is great on its own, but the 1800s was a time that bacon curing became popular. A deep, sweet flavor on the bacon meant for more flavorful stews and bacon grease.
- Large pork belly
- 4 cups salt
- 1 cup sugar
- 1/2 cup molasses
- To a tightly-fitting barrel or container, add the pork belly.
- Cover with water, salt, sugar, and molasses. Make sure everything is well combined.
- Leave to cure in a cool, dark place for four to seven weeks.
7. Fried Apples
Frontier-inspired apples are stewed with sugar and cinnamon, much like apple pie filling. This dish is still popular today at many country-themed chain restaurants in the USA.
- In a cast-iron skillet over the fire, cook the apples, sugar, cinnamon, and lard together until the apples are jammy and soft.
- Serve warm.
Hardtack is one of the most simple recipes from the Old West. It only consists of flour and water and is baked until dry and crunchy.
- 2 cups stone-ground flour
- 1 cup water
- Mix ingredients and knead until a smooth dough forms.
- Sprinkle some more flour on a surface and roll the dough out to ¼-inch thick.
- Cut into squares or punch out circles and bake at 400 degrees F until hard and dry, about 35-40 minutes.
Perhaps the tastiest, yet easiest frontier recipe on this list, hoecakes are also known as Johnnycakes and are made of 4 simple ingredients. These fried delights were filling and tasty from frying in lard or bacon grease.
- 1 cup white cornmeal
- 1/2 cup flour (optional)
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- Mix all ingredients in a bowl with just enough water to form a thick, hard dough without dry spots.
- Heat some lard or grease in a cast-iron skillet or Dutch oven and fry for 5-8 minutes per side depending on size. Serve hot.
10. Homemade Noodles
Using a similar method to modern pasta, this dough yields bouncy noodles that the frontiersmen would serve in soups and stews.
- 2 cups flour
- 1 egg
- 2 tablespoons water
- Combine all ingredients to make a stiff dough.
- Roll out onto a flour-lined surface into a very thin sheet.
- Cut into strips.
- Boil in salted water until thick and bouncy, about 5-8 minutes.
11. Jerky Gravy
With the leftover homemade beef jerky, it was very common to utilize the leftovers by making gravy. The gravy was usually served with cornbread, hardtack, or sourdough biscuits.
- Jerky, ground, or chopped fine
- Fat or grease
- Salt & pepper
- Saute the chopped jerky in fat until the meat begins to crisp.
- Add flour and cook for 2 minutes, then add salt, pepper, and milk.
- Bring to a simmer and cook until thickened.
- Serve with bread, biscuits, cornbread, or hardtack.
When hunting, it is wasteful to not utilize all parts of the animal. Frontiersmen would utilize their undesirable cuts of meat by making mincemeat, a Christmastime treat.
- Neckbone of a cow, deer, or elk
- Black pepper
- Brandy or whisky
- Stew your neckbone in water until very tender.
- Save the broth for another use.
- Shred the meat off of the neckbone.
- Add it to a Dutch oven with vinegar, apples, raisins, allspice, cloves, molasses, black pepper, and the optional alcohol.
- Cook until the apples are tender and serve.
13. Pickled Eggs
Having chickens on your homestead is valuable both now and back in the frontier days. For a healthy snack, all you need are some fresh eggs, vinegar, and seasonings.
- 12 peeled hard-boiled eggs
- 1 cup vinegar
- 1 cup water
- 2 tablespoons sugar
- ½ teaspoon salt
- ½ teaspoon celery seeds
- 1 small onion, sliced
- Hard-boil your eggs and peel carefully.
- Once peeled and cooled, add them to a large jar with vinegar, water, sugar, salt, celery seeds, and onion slices.
- Stir all together or place the lid on tightly and shake to combine.
- Allow to pickle with the lid on for at least 24 hours. The longer you allow them to sit, the more flavor they will have.
14. Rabbit Stew
One animal that hunters regularly fed their families was the wild rabbit. It was an easy catch and was hearty enough to feed a lot of people, especially in a stew.
- 1 rabbit dressed and cut into serving pieces
- ¼ cup flour
- Salt and pepper
- 4 tablespoons butter or lard
- 2 onions, chopped
- ¼ cup carrots, chopped
- 1 cup potatoes, chopped
- Mixed herbs or greens
- Dip each piece of rabbit into the flour seasoned with salt and pepper.
- Fry the rabbit in the butter or lard until very browned.
- Add the vegetables and water. Simmer for 3-4 hours until the rabbit is very tender.
- Top with herbs and serve.
15. Soda Biscuits
These little hard biscuits were often served with bacon or jerky gravy for a hearty breakfast.
- 1 pound of flour
- 1 teaspoon of baking soda
- 1 teaspoon of salt
- Add the flour to a bowl. Pour on enough milk to make a stiff dough.
- Mix a little milk with the baking soda to make a slurry. Mix the slurry into the dough along with the salt.
- Cut into biscuits and bake in the oven or Dutch oven until hard and crisp.
16 and 17. Sourdough Starter/Hooch
This frontier recipe is a two for one! Sourdough starter naturally produces a byproduct, grain alcohol known as “Hooch” which kept many frontiersmen warm on a cold night.
- 2 cups flour
- 2 cups warm water
- ¼ cup sugar
- Mix ingredients together in a bowl.
- Leave to ferment in a warm corner for 4-5 days.
- The mixture will bubble and rise, producing a dark liquid on top. This is the hooch.
- Remove the liquid from the top and consume as you would normally consume alcohol.
- Use the starter to make biscuits, crackers, or bread loaves.
18. Spotted Pup
Spotted pup is essentially modern-day rice pudding and is a great dessert that people in the 1800s loved, made with raisins and cinnamon.
- 1 cup rice
- Handful of raisins
- ¼ cup molasses or sugar
- 2 cups water
- Boil everything in 2 cups of water until the water is absorbed and the pudding is thick. Serve warm.
19. Stewed Cabbage
Still enjoyed today, stewed cabbage is braised until tender with lard, fennel seeds, and vinegar.
- 1 head cabbage
- Fennel seeds
- Add all ingredients into a Dutch oven.
- Stew for 1 hour, stirring frequently until very tender. Serve warm.
20. Winter Red Flannel Hash
Although the name sounds fancy, this dish is a modern-day corned beef hash with beets. Smashed potatoes and leftover meat often became the next morning’s breakfast.
- 1 ½ cups leftover corned beef, chopped
- 1 ½ cups cooked beets, chopped
- 1 medium onion, chopped
- 4 cups cooked potatoes, chopped
- Lard or bacon grease
- Add all ingredients to a Dutch oven and cook over high heat to brown the meat and vegetables.
- Once everything is hot and browned, serve immediately.
Frontiersmen had a lot on their plate; from hunting to settling to farming to defending themselves. Eating these frontier recipes was a time of calm and nourishment. It was satisfying to put a hearty meal on the table despite the odds.
Many of those recipes are mirrored in today’s world, and we have early middle American settlers to thank for it.
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