Bannock is a quick, flat bread.
The most authentic version is a round or oval piece of unleavened dough, cooked on a griddle. The middle will rise or puff a bit.
There are many, many different recipes. They vary by flour or meal used, by whether leavened or unleavened, by special ingredients added, by method of cooking, and by the festival or ritual that it is used for.
When a bannock is cut up into 4 quarters, each quarter is called a “farl.”
The word “bannock” is often applied to any sort of grain or meal based baked item that is round, and largish. Closely related items in English-speaking countries are Damper in Australia, Damper Dogs and Toutons in Newfoundland.
Some bannocks come out quite heavy, and are meant to.
Some bannock are made with a chemical leavener, usually baking powder, making them very similar to baking powder biscuits or scones, except the dough is pan cooked.
Leaveners have been added to bannock recipes over the centuries as starter dough from the last batch with yeast in it would have always been available. In the early 1800s, baking soda with an acid for it to react with, such as clabbered milk or buttermilk, would have been the next innovation, then in the mid 1800s, baking powder.
Historically, in fact, bannock were more likely to be made without any leavener. Now, though, they are often leavened with baking powder as modern tastes have changed. A yeast-risen variation is called Selkirk bannock, which has fruit and spices added.
Some recipes use just flour, some add rolled oats. The flour could have been wheat flour, if available or affordable to you, or barley meal. As bannock originated in Scotland, the flour would have originally been barley meal, because in Scotland, barley preceded both oats and wheat. The poor kept on eating barley long after the affluent middle-classes had forgotten it existed. Bannock could also be made from “pease meal”, which is ground field peas. Wheat flour, however, bound ingredients together the best, so it was always popular when it was available. In the West of Scotland, bannock is still more likely to be made with oats, and exclusively with oats — in fact so much so that the distinction between bannock and oatcakes can blur.
Some bannock recipes use bacon fat instead of butter, dripping or lard. Some bannock would be fried up in any kind of fat available, depending on the location and geography, from beef dripping to pork lard to moose fat.
Some Bannock versions use water as the liquid, some use milk.
A basic bannock doesn’t have much flavour to it. It will take on flavour from the kinds of flour used, special ingredients added, and the fat it is fried in.
Bannock can have dried fruit or peel mixed in to become a treat with tea.
Generally, you form Bannock dough into balls, and press with your hands until flat. Bannock can be cooked as one large piece, that you break up, or as several small cakes.
Scots cooked bannock on a griddle called a “bannock stone” (“clach bhannag” in Scottish.) It was a flattened, D-shaped piece of sandstone used as a griddle. It would be put on the floor in front of a fire where it could heat up. Some people bake bannock in ovens now, though ovens of course weren’t really widespread until the late 1800s.
Bannock dough can also be put as balls into stew and served as dumplings
Bannock in North America
Bannock was brought over by Scottish explorers, traders and settlers. In Canada, traders for the Hudson’s Bay and Northwest companies, many of whom were Scottish, set up a network of permanent trading posts and sold flour at them, for which natives could trade. They probably introduced Bannock to native Americans. Now, Bannock is not really known in Canada outside of some native communities, and grade school history books.
At some folksy tourist shops in Canada, you can buy “bannock mix.” There is usually at least 1 obligatory bannock recipe in every Canadian cookbook, who appear to have culturally appropriated bannock from Scotland in claiming it as their own.
In America, bannock tended to be made more by Indians, and known by white people as “Indian bread.” The grain used was often cornmeal.
Some Indians will deep fry it, making it very close to Fry Bread.
Different Indian nations in North America have evolved regional versions for which they are known for. The Chippewa had two versions which both use baking powder, a fat such as lard and a dried fruit. One of the versions uses wheat flour and is often unsweetened; another uses cornmeal, and a sweetener such as honey or maple. Both versions are fried up in a small amount of oil. Other versions made by the natives in North America were made from a paste of boiled seeds.
North American versions put most emphasis on cooking Bannock using campfires. They can be cooked in cast iron frying pans, on top of a heated rock, or wrapped around a stick, preferably a green wood one that won’t burn.
Yetholm and Pitcaithly are actually what we would call shortbread.
Four main variations of bannock were historically tied to the druidic divisions of the year into 4 main parts.:
- St Bride’s Bannock for 1st February (spring), Imbolg;
- Béaltaine bannock for 1 May rituals;
- Lammas bannock for harvest festivals 1 August, Lughnasadh;
- Samhain Bannock for the start of winter rituals at the end of October.
Literature & Lore
In 19th Century USA cookbooks, cornmeal bannock is common.
“Bannock Cake. 1 1/2 pint of Indian meal, scalded; four eggs, well beaten; one quart of milk, warmed, with two tablespoonfuls of butter stirred in; salt to your taste; bake in a square or round tin pan, and cut it up in slices. The lightness of this depends on the beating.”
— From “Mrs. Goodfellow’s Cookery As It Should Be,” 1865.
“Indian cake, or bannock, is sweet and cheap food. One quart of sifted meal, two great spoonfuls of molasses, two teaspoonfuls of salt, a bit of shortening half as big as hen’s egg, stirred together; make it pretty moist with scalding water, put it in a well-greased pan, smooth over the surface with a spoon, and bake it brown on both sides, before a quick fire. A little stewed pumpkin, scalded with the meal, improves the cake. Bannock split and dipped in butter makes a very nice toast.”
— Lydia Maria Francis Child. The American Frugal Housewife. 1833.
“Sift a quart of fine Indian meal, mix it with a salt-spoonful of salt, two large spoonfuls of butter and a gill of molasses; make it into a common dough with scalding water, or hot sweet milk, mixing it well with a spoon; put it in a well-buttered skillet, make it smooth, and bake it rather briskly. When it is done, cut it in thin smooth slices, toast them lightly, butter them, stack them, and eat them warm.”
— Lettice Bryan. The Kentucky Housewife. 1839.
Bannock comes from the Gaelic word spelled variously as “bannach” or “bonnach”, which meant “morsel.” Some attribute the Gaelic word to the Latin word “panicum”, thinking it meant bread, but it actually meant “panic grass”. An alternative Latin word for bread, “panicus”, wasn’t invented until the 1500s, so it’s very unlikely that “bannach” was influenced in fact by a Latin word.
In the 1500s, the plural was spelled “bonnokkis” or “bannokis.”