Searcing, Sieving, Sifting, and Straining in the Seventeenth Century

By Kristine Kowalchuk

“Take a pound of double refined sugar, searce it

through a tiffainey sieve….”

And so begins a recipe “To make sugar pufs.” As any scholar of early modern English cookery books can testify, the terms searce, sieve, sift, and strain come up with surprising frequency in recipes and remedies of the period. Those in the three manuscripts I focused on for my forthcoming critical edition, Recipes for Sharing, were no exception; searce comes up 28 times, in this spelling as well as scarce, scearce, scerck, search, seirce, serce and shvrch. Sieve comes up 33 times, including as cive, scive, sefe, seive, sieff, and sive. Sift comes up 29 times, and strain comes up no less than 129 times, usually as straine.

“To make sugar pufs,” from MS V.a.20 Image courtesy of Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington DC
“To make sugar pufs,” from MS V.a.20
Image courtesy of Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington DC

What’s with all this searcing, sieving, sifting and straining? I thought I’d take a closer look at the instances of these terms in the manuscripts I focused on—Folger manuscript V.a.20 (otherwise known as the Receipt Book attributed to Constance Hall, and the source of the sugar puff recipe above), Folger MS V.a.430 (Receipt Book attributed to Mary Granville and Anne Granville D’Ewes), and Folger MS V.a.450 (Cookery and Medical Receipt Book attributed to Lettice Pudsey)—to see if I could, well, sift out any specificities. Or should I say searce?

While one might at least assume that sifting, and the historical term searcing, are for dry ingredients, and straining for wet (to filter out solids)—indeed this is what the Oxford English Dictionary would have us believe—in practice the terms seem to have been more muddled. They are used as both nouns and verbs (the noun sieve being associated with the verb sift). They are also often used in combination, as is evident in the sugar puff example above. Likewise, a grated penny loaf is “searced through a siue” in “To make Mackaroones” (V.a.430). However, these terms could be reversed: “sift [sugar] with a fine searce,” appears in “To mack the best sort of beskett” (V.a.450). Searcing and sifting are both used for sugar (in various grades, from loaf sugar to double-refined), bread, spices and lead, although sifting is also used for wetter ingredients such as ginger and lady’s smock blossoms. Straining, meanwhile, while indeed called for when dealing with medicinal waters, creams, and juice for jellies, is also used for drier ingredients such as herbs, butter, bread, and horse dung. I also recalled perhaps the most intriguing instance of straining in all early modern recipes: the Countess of Kent’s oil for an ache in the sciatica, which calls for a boiled and strained middle-aged badger.

The material specified for each term in their use as nouns—as physical tools—does offer some distinction. While searces, sieves and strainers are all often indicated as being made of cloth, the specific cloths differ (the frames are not described, nor whether the cloth was simply stretched or tied over a bowl). Searce is sometimes specified as “searce-net,” or sarcenet, a very fine, soft silk, indicating the etymology of the original term. Sieves are often specified as linen, cotton or tiffany—and, commonly, as hair, meaning horse hair. Strainers were specified as linen, cotton or canvas. This progression from fine to course weave suggests different uses. And it seems the tools for the job were not always interchangeable. “To make a carrett pudding” (V.a.430) calls for the cook to “grate a penny loaf & sift/ it thro a sive cullender.”

A colander comes up in another instance in the manuscripts too, as does a mazarine, a deep plate pierced like a colander (but shallower). The tool that stumped me was in a recipe for “bottel water”: “drawe [the water] forth into your bottels through / a sriprius bagg that it may run cleare from the yeast &…spicess” (V.a.450). My hunch that “sriprius” linked to cypress was half-correct. But it took an online call-out via the South West Heritage Trust and the Rural Museum Network for a basket-weaver from Thornbury named Jenny Humphris to come forward and fill me in on Scirpus lacustris—the common English bulrush, which for centuries has been used in weaving of chair seats and baskets. Jenny writes at the end of her email, “PS the bag would have acted as a sieve.”

Modern English bulrush bags. Image courtesy of Ruby Taylor,
Modern English bulrush bags.
Image courtesy of Ruby Taylor,

So what to make of all this? Based on my three sources, searcing is for dry ingredients only, sifting mostly dry, and straining mostly wet, and the materials used for each provide a range in granularity, but there is significant overlap. But why all the soft food in the first place? Early modern cooks did have to perform a lot of basic processing: flour for bread, butter, and medicinal waters all needed searcing, sifting, or straining. But so ubiquitous were paps and purees that one wonders if something else was going on. I look forward to Joseph Imorde’s upcoming talk, “Royal Cavities: The Bitter Implications of Sugar Consumption in Early Modern Europe.” While recipes for soft foods extend back to Roman times (see Apicius’s references to gruels and vegetable mashes), meaning sugar couldn’t be the only culprit, this doesn’t mean western Europeans haven’t had a long history of bad teeth. And ironically, the ingredient most often searced and sifted in the manuscripts I studied was…sugar.

Kristine Kowalchuk is a scholar of early modern English literature and cultural studies, with a focus on food, agricultural and land-use writing. Her critical edition of seventeenth-century Englishwomen’s receipt books is forthcoming from the University of Toronto Press. Kristine works as an English instructor at the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology in Edmonton, Canada. 

11 Replies to “Searcing, Sieving, Sifting, and Straining in the Seventeenth Century”

  1. Well done Kristine! I’ve recently been experimenting with new recipes and wondered if you might have a 16th century suggestion?


  2. Brilliant! True scholarship. Insightful. Thank you. I have done quite a lot of work on sifting terminology for bread and cake flour. What you have done here is truly excellent. As I have been focused on dry ingredients, only, I hadn’t thought of the wet/dry issue. The OED, wonderful as it is, is not an encyclopedia and is thus not well positioned to offer the level of detail culinary historians need to understand culinary terms. Over time, work like yours, will help the OED catch up with today’s scholarship.

  3. Terry, one of the points I make in my upcoming book is that these 17th-century receipt books are overwhelmingly conservative, looking back rather than forward; the recipes build on earlier recipes. But if you really want a recipe from a 16th-century text, I would search something like “16th-century recipe EEBO” (the last bit is for Early English Books Online) and go from there. The Folger Shakespeare Library also has freely accessible digitized images, so you could do some searching there too (

  4. William, thank you so much for the kind feedback! It was your post, on your excellent Bread History and Practice Facebook site, that sparked the idea in the first place for this article. So I am very glad and humbled to hear that you found the piece useful. The interesting thing about the OED is that the terms come from usage, and not the other way around, and so yes, it is probably always in a state of catching up. One of my thesis committee members was a former OED scholar, and he was so helpful in modelling how to unravel etymological mysteries. We co-published an article on “hoxy-croxy” (also from these 17th-century receipt books) for the OED’s publication _Notes and Queries,_ which is apparently a kind of stepping-stone to the OED itself. And that experience helped me figure out how to tackle the “sriprius bagg” here.

  5. Kristine — Thank you for the kind words. One structural problem with OED craft definitions is, as you point out, that they are built from usage. I am certain that with at least a few bread-related words that the citations are by people who are using the cited word in a way that a non-specialist will roughly understand but not with the precision that that same informant used the word when speaking with a craft peer. I think this is particularly noticeable in the citations taken from British dialect dictionaries.

  6. Terry — The The Good Huswifes Handmaide in the Kitchen (1594) is a well written accessible 16th-century cookbook. If you can’t find a text online — and I’m pretty sure the the EEBO Text Creation Partnership website has it up — write to me directly and I’ll send you a PDF.

  7. I’m pretty sure this was often (not necessarily always) just another word for “sieve”. It was derived from the French “sasser” (which is no more clear in usage in the examples I’ve seen):

    In French, the word is simply a synonym for “sift”:
    “[Corresp. à sas1] Passer au sas ou au sasseur. Synon. cribler, tamiser. Sasser de la farine, du plâtre (Ac.).”;s=1420515750;r=1;nat=;sol=0;

    This source specifically says to “searce it through a fine hair sieve”:

    This too refers to a hair-searce:
    “Having scummed off this water, take a hair-searce of eighteen inches diameter and eighteen inches in height ; ”

    And this dictionary specifically defines it as a hair-sieve:
    “A Searce, a fine Hairsieve. To Searce, to sift thro’ such a Sieve. ”

    This cookbook refers to laying things on a searce, suggesting it was pretty sturdy, whether or not it was made with hair:

    In mining, this source specifically refers to a searce as “an iron sieve” and goes into some detail on using it:

    plate XIX

    I know in French medieval texts there are distinctions between bolting, sifting, sassing, etc. (that is, the same meal might go through each of these operations), but by the eighteenth century they tend to be used synonymously and I suspect something similar occurred with this word.

  8. The rush bag is unlikely to remove yeast. More likely the word sriprius is a corruption of Cyprus, a type of silk used in the sieving of fine flour to produce manchet bread.

  9. The Searce, or Searcer, it is a fine Sieve with a Leather cover on the top and bottom of the Sieve Rim, to keep the Dant or Flower of any pulverized Substance that nothing be lost of it in the Searceing.

    1688 The leather covers would explain why the searce is only for dry material

  10. Stuart Peachey, thank you. I suspect you are right. Does _Textiles and Materials of the Common Man and Woman 1580-1660_ discuss Cyprus silk?

  11. Stuart Peachey, thank you for the searce info as well! Very helpful. What is the source of the definition you give above?

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