Sour Milk Cookies

And a bit about the first Reform Jewish cookbook. (Yes, I know it looks awkward, but I believe that’s the correct tense. The name of the movement is present tense, I think.)

Here’s a version from 1889’s “Aunt Babette’s” Cook Book, published under the titular pseudonym by Bertha F. Kramer:

Sour Milk Cookies.

Take one cupful of butter, one of sugar, two or three eggs, and two-thirds of a cupful of sour milk. Dissolve a teaspoonful of soda in a little hot water; add part of it at a time to the milk until it foams as you stir it. Be careful not to get in too much. Mix up soft, only using flour sufficient to roll out thin. A teaspoonful of cardamom seed may be sprinkled into the dough.

That’s actually an interesting cookbook, if you feel like flipping through one.

It was published by Bloch Publishing Company, founded in Cincinnati by Edward H. Bloch, an immigrant from what is now the Czech Republic. Bloch’s sister Teresa was married to Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise.

Wise was something of a complicated character, and he’s not exactly crucial to this story, but I’ll give you a little bit about him. Also from what is now the Czech Republic, he came to the states in 1846 with a burning desire to theologically unify the various Jewish populations in the U.S. On the negative side, this caused him to prevaricate on the divisive issue of slavery–a peculiar decision for a man who hypothetically followed the teachings of Moses, who, last I checked, had picked a side on that topic.

On the positive side, however, Wise favored a looser interpretation of Judaism in general, one that didn’t divide the community over issues like the nuances of what constitutes kosher food. (I think non-Jews tend to think that the laws of kashrut are ancient and uniformly understood, but it’s precisely because they’re ancient that there are disagreements as to what specifically the language was intended to mean.)

Bloch published Wise’s essays, and through that practice came to be the leading publishing house in the movement that would come to be known as Reform Judaism. “Aunt Babette’s” Cook Book is part of that movement; while the book contains a lot of information about Jewish cuisine, it isn’t connected to any one community of Jews, and many of the recipes aren’t kosher, even calling for shellfish and pork at times. It could be due to its appeal to non-kosher audiences that it became the first really successful American Jewish cookbook.

Back to the recipe–I’ve seen a brown-sugar version of these under the name “Prize Cookies” or “Prize Winning Cookies,” usually also in Ohio, which is probably where this recipe card was written, based on the timing. For example, here’s one from the August 7, 1935 edition of the Elyria (Ohio) Chronicle Telegram:

Prize Cookies

3 cups brown sugar
1 cup shortening (1/2 lard, 1/2 butter)
1 cup sour milk
1 teapsoon soda
3 eggs
2 heaping teaspoons baking powder
Enough flour to make a soft batter.

Cream sugar and shortening. Add beaten eggs. Add sour milk to which has been added the soda. Add flour and baking powder through sifter. Roll out quite thin. Bake in moderate oven until light brown in color about 15 to 20 minutes. Very good.

Miss Eloise Grossman.
Elyria, Ohio,
R.F.D. No. 2.

Here’s a half-brown, half-white sugar version from the October 18, 1977 edition of the Dover (Ohio) Times Reporter:

Prize Winning Sugar Cookies

1 cup white sugar
1 cup light brown sugar
1 cup shortening
3 well-beaten eggs
4 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 teaspoon soda
1 cup sour milk or buttermilk

Cream sugars and shortening. Add beaten eggs. Combine flour, baking powder and salt and add alternately with soda which has been dissolved in milk. Add vanilla. Chill thoroughly. Roll out and cut cookies about three inches in diameter. Bake in moderately hot oven until lightly browned. Sugar may be sprinkled on cookies before baking.

Ada Harman
W. Main st.

From the box of A.D. from Lutz, Florida, by way of Pennsylvania in the 1940s, and originating in Ohio in the 1920s.

[Sour Milk Cookies]

2 cups white sugar
1 cup shortening
2 eggs
1 cup sour milk
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt

[Note: Recipes of this age frequently didn’t include flour measurements; you added flour until it looked like cookie dough. I’d suggest starting with 4 cups.]

Cream sugar and shortening. Beat eggs; stir in sugar. Add vanilla.

Dissolve soda in sour milk. Add to the sugar and eggs.

Sift baking powder and flour. Add to the rest.


  1. I have been looking for this recipe for 16 years. My mother in law made these for my husband and when she passed we lost the recipe. I am so pleased, they passed the test. My husband says they are just like Mom’s. Thank you.

  2. Beth

    It says add the flour but it’s not listed on ingredients. Quantity please.

    • A lot of cookie recipes of the time didn’t include flour measurements–flour was both inconsistently ground and had varying levels of humidity. So their advice was generally to add flour until it looked like cookie dough. For modern flour, though, I’d try four cups, possibly five.

  3. Theresa

    I’m sorry but the sour milk to throwing me off. What is the purpose of sour milk?

    • Yeah, the way we interact with milk has changed over the years… probably ought to do a post about that at some point. But it’s not that weird to use sour milk, any more than it is to use sour cream. The short version is this: you can use fresh milk and vinegar or lemon juice to achieve the same result.

      The longer version… we typically think of milk as existing in two states: fresh and bad. To get into the idea of sour milk, you need to look at milk as having three states: sweet, sour, and rancid.

      When we first get milk, it has a small amount of bacteria and a lot of sugar in it. (Hence why they called it “sweet milk” or “sweet cream” back in the day, and why butter made from the fresh milk is “sweet cream butter”.) Over time, generally harmless bacteria convert the sugar to acid, and the milk turns to sour milk; this is like when you sniff the carton and it doesn’t smell spoiled, but slightly funky. It’s not curdled, but you wouldn’t want it in your coffee–know what I mean? That’s sour milk–where it’s sharp and funky, but not gross and chunky.

      In reality, the profile is very similar to buttermilk, so any recipe you could envision being made with buttermilk–biscuits, waffles, fried chicken dredge, coleslaw, chess pie, quickbreads, etc.–you can make with sour milk.

      Looking at the question “what is the purpose” more broadly, a lot of these recipes came before widespread mechanical refrigeration, or came from farms where the milk wasn’t necessarily being pasteurized. The net result was they had a lot more milk turning sour a lot faster, so the goal was not to waste the milk–same thing with sour cream. It’s not like, y’know, Farmer Jeb was sitting around waiting for his cream to turn so he could top his nachos. 😉

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