Damper is an iconic Australian soda bread made from wheat flour, water or milk, a pinch of salt and a rising agent. You may use milk powder instead of fresh milk, and add butter or oil. Using these simple ingredients, you make a soft dough, which you knead lightly and bake immediately. While the best way to cook damper is in the hot coals of a campfire, either directly or in a camp oven, you can also produce a delicious, light and crusty damper using a conventional oven.

You’ll find my recipe for damper at the end of this post.

Damper: Once a staple food

Australia’s early European settlers made damper in lieu of bread made with yeast. Furthermore, it was a staple food for swagmen and an important part of the diet of drovers and itinerant stockmen. When “on the road”, they ate it as an accompaniment to an evening meal of salted meat and vegetables (savoury) or with their morning or afternoon cup of tea, spread with jam or treacle (sweet).

Billy tea and damper in the bush, Queensland, 1899. Photo source: State Library of Queensland. Public domain.
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1899. Drovers relaxing over a cup of Billy tea and damper in the Queensland bush. Photo source: State Library of Queensland. Public domain.

Sometimes, we are told, old-timers made damper with flour and water and no rising agent. The resulting bread must have been quite “leaden”!

Australia’s indigenous people made what is known as bush bread (not to be confused with damper), by combining ground seeds with water and baking the dough in hot coals.  

While you can make damper at home and bake it in an electric or gas oven, damper (like bush bread) is best cooked in the hot coals of a campfire. That’s the old-fashioned way.

A camp oven placed on the hot coals of a dying camp fire. Hot coals are also piled on the lid of the camp oven. Photo source: Judith Salecich, Blackdown Tableland, 2016.
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A camp oven containing damper dough placed on the hot coals of a dying camp fire. Hot coals are also piled on the lid of the camp oven. Photo source: Judith Salecich, Blackdown Tableland, 2016.

In days gone by…all cooks knew how to make damper.

As part of a cookery course published in 1886, “a mother” gave her fellow home cooks the following advice about making damper:

A damper is very easily made, but still it requires a certain amount of knowledge to make it, and more than all to bake it. Nowadays, most men travelling carry baking powder, but years ago I have often been amused when bushmen have asked me for a small quantity of soda for their dampers. I have argued with them that soda alone could be of no use, save to give a most unpleasant flavour, that they must have acid to counteract it; but it was to no purpose. They always used a pinch of soda, and, right or wrong, they preferred keeping to the old custom. … The great art in making soda bread is to get it out of hand and into the oven as quickly as possible. If you let it stand as your own common sense will tell you the effervescence is going on, and if not baked before it is all over the bread will be heavy.

Why is damper a “soda bread”?

Instead of yeast, one uses soda, more correctly sodium bicarbonate or bicarbonate of soda, as a rising agent in damper. Bicarbonate of soda is one of the components of “baking powder”. As well as bicarbonate of soda, baking powder includes cream of tartar (potassium bitartrate – a salt of tartaric acid), the two ingredients combined in the ratio 1:2.

Self-raising flour (which we can purchase in grocery stores in Australia) comes with the rising agent already in it. All-purpose flour, or plain flour, on the other hand, has no rising agent added. If you use plain flour to make your damper, you must add baking powder. The recommended quantity of baking powder is 2 teaspoons per cup (150 grams) of plain flour.

Making damper the old-fashioned way

In a 1925 magazine article entitled “Cooking a Damper, and other Recipes”, Helen Rawson asked the question: How many “Good Australians” know how to cook their “National Damper”? She concluded, “Not many.”

I could ask the same question today. And the answer may be the same.

Ms Rawson went on to describe how to make a damper the old-fashioned way (in the hot coals of a campfire):

To begin, light your fire, taking care that you light it in a safe place, where there will be no danger of starting bush fires, and choose wood that will give you some good coals. Scoop out a little hollow in the ground and light your fire in that. While it is burning get your materials ready.

When the coals are red and glowing, mix your flour, rising agent and salt with enough water, or milk, or milk and water, to make a nice soft dough, just stiff enough to handle with floured hands. Quickly scrape away the hot coals from the centre of the hollow and drop the dough in. Cover it with hot coals and ashes and bake for about 20 minutes.

The modern method is to use the camp oven, and bake in the same way, with coals below and on the lid of the camp oven.

If you don’t have a camp oven, you can use two frying pans. Make the hollow in which you build your fire big enough to hold the bottom frying pan. Flour the inside of the pans lightly. Put in your dough. Cover with the other frying pan, inverted. Scoop out the ashes, put the pans in the hollow, and cover the top pan with the hot coals and ashes.

Bake for about 20 minutes.

Here I'm retrieving our cooked damper from the camp oven. Photo source: Ruth Salecich-Brown, Blackdown Tableland, 2016.
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Here I’m retrieving our cooked damper from the camp oven. We lined the camp oven with alfoil, although this was not necessary. Photo source: Ruth Salecich-Brown, Blackdown Tableland, 2016.
Voila! Our camp oven baked damper revealed. It tasted as good as it looks. Photo source: Ruth Salecich-Brown, Blackdown Tableland, 2016.
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Voila! Our camp oven baked damper revealed. It tasted as good as it looks. Photo source: Ruth Salecich-Brown, Blackdown Tableland, 2016.

Now, for a modern twist (!) on damper: Twisties.

Twisties, or “damper on sticks”, are a camp favourite with adults and children alike. The dough for twisties is the same as for damper. The dough is divided into portions, wound around a stick and cooked by holding the stick over hot coals (like making toast).

Adrielle proudly showing us her twisty, freshly baked over the hot coals of our campfire. Photo source: Judith Salecich, Blackdown Tableland, 2016.
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Adrielle, a family friend, proudly showing us her twisty, freshly baked over the hot coals of our campfire. Photo source: Judith Salecich, Blackdown Tableland, 2016.

The stick needs to be about one metre long and, at the “fire” end, about 1.5 centimetres in diameter (like an adult’s index finger). Each dough portion should be about the size of a peach. With floured hands, you roll the dough ball into a 20-centimetre long “snake”, which you then wind around the end of the stick, ensuring the end of the twisty is sealed.

Held over hot coals and turned regularly to ensure even cooking, a twisty should be cooked in 8-10 minutes. It will be lightly brown on the outside and, when tapped gently, it will have a hollow sound.

To eat, gently twist the damper off the stick (beware, it will be hot) and fill the hole with syrup. Yes, syrup – only syrup!

I reckon you’ll be back to the fire in no time, cooking another twisty! Twisties are so delicious.

My husband adding golden syrup to a freshly baked twisty. Photo source: Judith Salecich, Blackdown Tableland, 2016.
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My husband adding golden syrup to a freshly baked twisty. Photo source: Judith Salecich, Blackdown Tableland, 2016.

DAMPER

Ingredients

Whether you are cooking your damper in hot coals over a campfire or at home in a conventional oven, use the following ingredients.
2 cups self-raising flour
¼ teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons melted butter or olive oil

milk

Damper ingredients. Photo source: Judith Salecich, 2021.
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Damper ingredients. Photo source: Judith Salecich, 2021.

Method

The following steps assume you are making your damper at home.
  1. Mix all ingredients adding sufficient milk to form a soft dough.
  2. Work the dough into a round or oblong shape on a floured board then place on a papered or lightly greased baking tray.
  3. Bake in a moderately hot oven (180 degrees Celsius, 160 degrees Celsius fan-forced) for 20-30 minutes.
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Freshly made oven baked damper. Photo source: Judith Salecich, January 2022.

REFERENCES

A COURSE OF COOKERY. (1886, August 18). Morning Bulletin (Rockhampton, Qld. : 1878 – 1954), p. 5. Retrieved January 25, 2022, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article52052431

Rawson, Helen. (1925). Cooking a Damper, and other Recipes. The Australian home beautiful: a journal for the home builder. Retrieved October 26, 2021, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.obj-2958097428

Wikipedia. (Website). Damper (food).

Voss, V. (Ed). (1934). Cookery Book: Compiled by Miss Vivian Voss in aid of the funds of the Young Women’s Christian Association Rockhampton. Rockhampton: Federal Press Pty Ltd.

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Author

Judith Salecich

Writer, researcher, former secondary and tertiary teacher and public servant, wife, mother, grandmother, child of God, photography enthusiast, lover of life, history, food and all things creative.

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6 thoughts on “Damper: Have you made this iconic Australian soda bread?”

  1. A wonderful reminder of my time as a Cub, a Scout, working on a cattle station and a veteran soldier. The memories are palatable and remain as fresh as a newly baked damper. Golden syrup is still a staple in my pantry. Thank you for a most appropriate article on this Australia Day.

    Reply
    • Martylou, thank you so much for sharing your warm response to my post. I am so pleased my story about damper brought back so many cherished memories for you. What a rich and interesting life you have led. Happy Australia Day!

  2. Would not be Australia Day without some Billy tea and Damper. I have been eating damper for years on different occasions but I admit that I have never made one.A little story some years ago we were on a Bus trip out of Alice Springs and stopped at this station for a visit and smoko . Smoko Billy Tea and Damper Can remember the syrup running down my arm and the host asking who can swing a Billy of tea . I can I bellowed and he insulted me he put cold water in the Billy Your cooked damper looked very inviting Judith cheers Happy Aussie Day.

    Reply
  3. Dear Maurie. I agree – Billy tea and damper is a perfect combination for Australia Day. I’m glad you appreciate them and have consumed them on a number of occasions. Your account of the incident at Alice Springs brings a smile to my face. Oh dear! That man didn’t know how good you are! Memories…

    Reply

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