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A Brief History of the Traditional English Breakfast

Updated on March 17, 2016
One of the many combinations which can constitute a cooked English breakfast today
One of the many combinations which can constitute a cooked English breakfast today

What image does the term, "Full English," conjure up in your mind, in relation to breakfast? The likelihood is it will be one similar to that featured above, the cooking instructions for which this page will soon go on to provide. In the first instance, however, it is more than worth pointing out that - delicious as it is - this specific breakfast recipe is far from being traditional. A traditional English breakfast can only truly and accurately be described as a hearty and substantial breakfast, so diverse are the ingredients from which it has widely been prepared, ever since it was popularised by legendary English cook Mrs Beeton, in early Victorian times.

Mrs Beeton and the Full English Breakfast

It was in the mid-19th century that Mrs Beeton began writing for her husband's publishing company on the subject of household management. Food and cooking obviously played a huge part in this subject and one of the points strongly advocated by Mrs Beeton was the importance of eating a hearty breakfast to set you up for the day.

Prior to this time, an English breakfast would be likely to consist more often than not of simple bread and meat, frequently washed down with beer. The lengthy list of items Mrs Beeton suggested for breakfast, however, included everything from cod roe, to game birds, to stuffed fish, to offal and more. Crucially, most of the foodstuffs which Mrs Beeton suggested be eaten for breakfast would be fairly unlikely to grace an English breakfast table in modern times. It is therefore only for her promotion of the concept of a hearty breakfast for which she is renowned and not any particular breakfast recipe or menu.

Surprisingly, this grand "old lady" of English cooking - as Mrs Beeton is often perceived to be - actually died at the ripe old age of 28...

Bacon and Eggs and Edward Bernays

Although bacon has been prepared in England since the 18th century and has no doubt been eaten with eggs since its earliest appearance, if we are to look at precisely when the specific combination became widely popular, when the words started to trip off the tongue like salt and pepper - or burger and fries, in a more modern sense - we have to look to the USA, as recently as the 1920s.

Edward Bernays was an immigrant to the USA from Austria and the nephew of the legendary psychoanalyst, Sigmund Freud. When bacon sales in the USA were struggling to take off, Bernays was charged with reversing this trend. He approached the task by surveying 5,000 physicians and having them largely agree on the importance of a hearty breakfast. When he then recontacted these same physicians with the cumulative results, he was sure to suggest bacon and eggs as a preferred option, with the result being that bacon sales soared.

The Modern Full English Breakfast

A full English breakfast in modern times is likely to be comprised principally of the cooked element described in detail below. Cereal of some type is also likely to be on offer, while toast, marmalade (or jam) and tea will provide the third principal course.

English bacon, pork sausages and black pudding form the meat element of the full English breakfast
English bacon, pork sausages and black pudding form the meat element of the full English breakfast
The sausages are put on to fry first
The sausages are put on to fry first
The sausages, bacon and black pudding are transferred to a heated plate and covered with foil to keep warm
The sausages, bacon and black pudding are transferred to a heated plate and covered with foil to keep warm

The Meat Components of a Full English Cooked Breakfast

Sausages and bacon are what may be deemed to be the ever present and essential meat components of the full English breakfast. Black pudding is, however, an extremely popular addition, particularly in the North of England.

The sausages and black pudding in this instance are shallow fried in vegetable oil and the bacon is grilled. All too often, when shallow frying sausages, people will prick them first with a fork, ostensibly to prevent them bursting. Unfortunately, this also has the effect of allowing the juices and much of the flavour to escape in to the frying pan, potentially leaving the sausages dry and largely tasteless. Instead, try frying them for longer - around twenty minutes - on the lowest possible heat, turning them occasionally. The black pudding should be added to the same pan to fry for five minutes each side, when the sausages are half cooked.

The bacon should only take a couple of minutes on each side to cook under a pre-heated overhead grill. Start cooking it when the black pudding has been turned. Transfer the sausages, black pudding and bacon to a pre-heated plate and cover with foil to keep them warm while the remainder of the breakfast is cooked.

The egg is fried in a hot pan with only a minimal amount of oil
The egg is fried in a hot pan with only a minimal amount of oil

Tomato, Mushrooms, Fried Bread and Egg

The same pan which was used to fry the sausages and black pudding should be used to fry the tomatoes and mushrooms. Half a medium tomato and lay the halves flesh side down in to the pan. The head only of a large breakfast mushroom is a popular option but in this instance, a few small, closed cup mushrooms have been used instead and are added to the pan whole.

It is important when frying an egg that the egg be at room temperature and never straight from the refrigerator. Break the egg firstly in to a small cup or bowl. Add a very small amount of vegetable oil to a non-stick pan and wipe it over the base of the pan with some kitchen towel. There should be no liquid oil in the pan at all. Bring the pan up to a fairly high heat and pour the egg carefully in to the centre. Reduce the heat and leave it alone to cook for three to four minutes.

Tomato ketchup and HP Sauce are very popular condiments with a full English cooked breakfast
Tomato ketchup and HP Sauce are very popular condiments with a full English cooked breakfast

Add the bread to the pan with the tomatoes and mushrooms and fry for a couple of minutes each side. The baked beans should be added to a small saucepan and gently heated over a medium setting.

The full English cooked breakfast is now ready to be plated and taken to the table. Salt and pepper will usually be added but tomato ketchup and HP Sauce are equally very popular additions to a cooked English breakfast.

Thank you for your visit to this site. Hopefully, you have found it informative and are of a mood to prepare a full English breakfast at home. Alternatively, you may prefer to try the similar full Scottish breakfast, or - if you are very hungry - the substantial feast that is the Ulster fry. Any feedback or comments which you have may be left in the space immediately below.

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    • Gordon Hamilton profile image
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      Gordon Hamilton 9 days ago from Wishaw, Lanarkshire, United Kingdom

      I personally also tend to avoid the beans, Vic, though I have several friends and family members who insist upon them being served. Thanks for reading and leaving such an in-depth comment.

    • profile image

      Vic Stevenson 9 days ago

      There is no place for baked beans on a British breakfast.

      This only came about with a Heinz TV ad from around the late 70s featuring a kid in a cowboy hat being served a breakfast plate with beans on by his Mum. And so the virus spread. The revolting cheap 'tomato sauce' floods out the flavour and soaks the other items on the plate, quite horrible. The better places to eat a traditional breakfast either do not offer beans or provide them in a separate dish. I am not against beans per se', black bean sauce delicious,baked beans, scummy and disgusting - especially on an otherwise excellent breakfast.

    • Gordon Hamilton profile image
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      Gordon Hamilton 3 years ago from Wishaw, Lanarkshire, United Kingdom

      Hello, ibescience. HP Sauce is short for Houses of Parliament Sauce. It is a brown sauce made from molasses and a wide variety of spices which is a very popular condiment in the UK. Thanks for taking the time to ask.

    • ibescience profile image

      ibescience 3 years ago

      What is HP sauce?

    • Gordon Hamilton profile image
      Author

      Gordon Hamilton 4 years ago from Wishaw, Lanarkshire, United Kingdom

      Hi, Tony. Sorry for late reply to this. Just been so busy lately.

      Saddleworth sausage sounds delicious - two perfect breakfast ingredients in one! You're right about the filling nature of the breakfast. The only time I eat it in the mornings is if I'm going out fishing on the boat. Other than that, I tend to have it for lunch, or even dinner.

      Cheers.

    • tonymead60 profile image

      Tony Mead 4 years ago from Yorkshire

      Hi Gordon

      What is better than this for breakfast, I seldom make it for myself and for health reason poach the eggs and grill everything else, but if ever we are staying over somewhere I always order it. You save on buying lunch too, because this meal lasts me until teatime. We have a local sausage called a Saddleworth sausage which is a mixture of black pudding and pork shoulder, which make a great breakfast sausage.

      Tasty hub Gordon, I've given it five stars and pressed the buttons too.

      cheers

      Tony

    • Gordon Hamilton profile image
      Author

      Gordon Hamilton 5 years ago from Wishaw, Lanarkshire, United Kingdom

      Hi, Pia. Thanks for the visit and comment. I think a majority of people in modern times tend to go for the likes of cereal as the quicker and easier option, particularly on working days. While it is certainly understandable, maybe more of us would be better served throughout the day by making that bit of extra effort in the mornings.

    • PiaC profile image

      PiaC 5 years ago from Oakland, CA

      I'm one the rare fans of British food - from the full English to Shepherd's pie, to toffee pudding I love them all. I'm very fond of the British breakfast - but I think it suits the colder damper weather of England better. Thanks for this Hub. It reminded me of how long it has been since I made myself a cooked breakfast - usually cereal is the way to go for me.

    • Gordon Hamilton profile image
      Author

      Gordon Hamilton 5 years ago from Wishaw, Lanarkshire, United Kingdom

      Hi, Tony. It's amazing how different the breakfasts can be in different places, isn't it? It's maybe just me but I think they tend to be better at hotels or B&B's on the coast, when I'm away fishing. That could, however, simply be due to the fact that I'm looking forward to the fishing as I'm eating them! :)

    • Gordon Hamilton profile image
      Author

      Gordon Hamilton 5 years ago from Wishaw, Lanarkshire, United Kingdom

      Hi, Suzanne. Thanks for the visit and comment. I'm surprised that the English breakfast is popular in Cyprus. Maybe due to the number of British visitors it receives every year.

    • tonymead60 profile image

      Tony Mead 5 years ago from Yorkshire

      Hi Gordon

      another sizzling good hub, I used to stay regularly at a B&B in Doncaster, and the guy there made the best breakfast ever. The fried bread and other ingredients were laid out with military precision; and to make it even more perfect he used to dab away any excess fat from the top of the egg or around the plate it was a work of art. It also tasted brilliant.

      Tony

    • suziecat7 profile image

      suziecat7 5 years ago from Asheville, NC

      I ate many a variety of the English breakfast when I lived in Cyprus. Always good. Thanks for the interesting read.

    • Gordon Hamilton profile image
      Author

      Gordon Hamilton 5 years ago from Wishaw, Lanarkshire, United Kingdom

      Hi, Robie2

      Thanks very much for your visit and your comment. I must admit that I only found out fairly recently that Mrs Beeton had died at such a young age and was really surprised. Kidneys are a very popular food stuff in the UK (particularly in England) and I have a friend who always includes them in his fried breakfast, though you would be unlikely to find them on a hotel or restaurant menu, or even in the majority of homemade English breakfasts. They are more commonly eaten in a pie or pudding for lunch or dinner. The beauty of this breakfast concept is, however, more than anything, that you can really include or omit what you like.

      I hope that you do try it and maybe come up with your own variety. Enjoy! :)

    • robie2 profile image

      Roberta Kyle 5 years ago from Central New Jersey

      Now this is a meaty hub ( to coin a phrase) :-)))) I love that it is full of interesting facts-- like the famous Mrs. Beeton died at 28. Who knew? And why did I always think that a full English breakfast included kidneys as well as tomatoes and mushrooms? That's probably because I have never had a full English breakfast, but have only read about them :-) But now that I have the tricks of the trade from this hub, I just might try it-- thanks for a great read. I'm off to follow you now so I can read more of your hubs

    • Gordon Hamilton profile image
      Author

      Gordon Hamilton 5 years ago from Wishaw, Lanarkshire, United Kingdom

      Thank you, Roberta. It certainly can help to set you up for the day.

    • Roberta99 profile image

      Roberta99 5 years ago

      This breakfast looks great. Good hub.

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