A wood-fired brick oven, hand-mixed dough, and a pioneer spirit mark this historic bakeshop in Old Salem, little changed since 1800.
story & photos by Bakery Boy
If you want to see how bread was made before modern machinery and taste the all-natural results, go to Winkler Bakery in Old Salem. You’ll find a wood-fired beehive-shaped brick oven and dough mixed in manger-like troughs by bakers gripping long wooden paddles. These period-costumed artisans are as much interpreters as bakers, patiently explaining each step in the process to curious visitors.
Established in 1800 by Moravian families from Eastern Europe who settled in what is now Winston-Salem, North Carolina, the bakery uses methods unchanged for centuries. Bakers stack split white oak firewood into little log-cabin-like ricks, shove them into a 9-feet-deep, 7-feet-wide, 10-feet-high oven with a flat floor and a domed ceiling, and light them early in the morning. As fire heats the oven to 600 degrees, the bakers mix dough, weigh, knead, and shape loaves at a sturdy wooden table, and set them near the oven’s warmth to rise.
They also make sugar cakes and cutout cookies, timing each batch to bake as the oven, swept clear of embers and ashes, slowly cools to just the right temperatures: 450 degrees for bread, lower for cakes, and lowest for cookies. The workday isn’t complete until bakers haul more firewood from a nearby shed and arrange it for the next day’s production.
“This is the way bakers have done things here for more than 200 years,” says baker Bobby James. “People can step in, watch us work, and ask questions. They’re always interested in how things happened before everything became so mechanized. It’s really a very simple process.”
One thing is different. “We use a thermometer now to determine oven temperature,” says baker Jeffrey Sherrill. “In the old days bakers knew from experience. They would toss in a pinch of flour and count how many seconds it took (24 was good) to turn a golden brown.”
ABOUT THE NAME The first bakers to work here weren’t named Winkler. Christian Winkler arrived a few years later in 1807 and baked for 30 years. His descendants ran the bakery until 1926, plenty of time to make the name stick.
WHAT THEY MAKE Winkler Bakery makes three main products daily, all for sale in the next room from women wearing long cotton dresses and neat white aprons and bonnets or from men in suspender-held trousers reminiscent of the early 1800s.
Bread: They start with the basics—water, flour, butter, eggs, sugar, and yeast—then for variety add honey, rosemary, garlic, and other ingredients to some batches.
- Moravian Sugar Cake: A dense, gooey coffeecake similar to what some call honey buns or monkey bread, it’s rich with brown sugar, butter, and cinnamon.
- Cookies: Thin cutouts, often laced with ginger, come in the shapes of flowers, stars, leaves, crescent moons, Thanksgiving turkeys, Christmas trees, and more.
In the shop you’ll also find oatmeal raisin cookies, cinnamon raisin bars, banana nut bread, and other treats made at a newer facility nearby. There’s an entire line of construction-paper-thin cookies too, packed in tubes or tins, that feature ginger, lemon, cranberry-orange, apple, maple, chocolate, and other flavors.
MAIL ORDER Can’t get to Winston-Salem soon? Some baked goods, especially a variety of thin spice cookies, as well as Old Salem beeswax candles and other items, are available by mail. Click here to see the mail-order menu.
IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD Winkler Bakery sits at the heart of Old Salem Museums & Gardens, a lively historic village that recalls the community’s formative years in the late 1700s and early 1800s. It includes 100 acres of restored landscapes, heirloom gardens, 80 preserved buildings, a tavern, a gunsmith shop, and the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts.
Also in the historic village stands Salem College, the all-female liberal arts institution founded in 1772 that pioneered equal education for women in this country. Just seeing so many young people (the student population is about 1,100) moving around Salem’s brick streets and grassy paths lends a surprising exuberance to a setting known for showcasing antiquated farming, baking, building, and blacksmithing skills. Their presence reflects the original Moravian settlers’ philosophy, which held schooling in high regard.
LOCATION Winkler Bakery, 525 South Main Street, Winston-Salem, NC 27101
HOURS 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Mon-Sat, 1-5 p.m. Sun