Salt Dough: A Quick Introduction


The art of salt dough making is an ancient one, dating as far back as Egyptian times. Salt and wheat (flour) were two of the most common foodstuffs available to the Egyptians. Bread was the staple diet of most Egyptians and natron, a natural salt found in Egypt, was commonly used as a food preservative. (It was even used in the mummification process!)

In many past cultures dough modelling was tied up with religious beliefs and ceremonies when sculptures would be offered as gifts to the gods, or presents to people on important occasions. Examples of these would be weddings, christenings, funerals etc. In Europe the craft was much favoured, especially in Germany where the art was used widely in home decoration, especially at festive times.

The materials needed to start dough making are very inexpensive, the majority of which you will probably have in your kitchen cupboard. A wide variety of moulds, cutters, knives are available from most stores. And you can use many objects that you probably have lying around the house as templates or texture makers.

2 cups of Plain Flour
1 cup of table salt
1 cup of water

1 tablespoon of vegetable oil (makes it a little easier to knead)
1 tablespoon of wallpaper paste (gives the mixture more elasticity)
1 tablespoon of lemon juice (makes the finished product harder)

Put plain flour, salt and any, or all, of the optional ingredients into a mixing bowl and gradually add the water, mixing to soft dough. This should be neither too sticky, in which case add more flour, nor too dry, in which case add more water. When mixed remove from the bowl, place on a flat surface and knead for 10 minutes to help create a smooth texture. If possible it is best to let the dough stand for approximately twenty minutes before beginning a project. Unused dough can be stored in the fridge, in an airtight container or cling film, for up to a week. Children always love making models, and as long as you donít add wallpaper paste all of the ingredients are natural. So if they are tempted to put it in their mouths, all it will do is taste incredibly salty.

The drying of your work can either be done naturally in the open air, or it can be baked in an oven. However it is not recommended that you have your oven hotter than 100C (200F/Gas Mark 1/4) as this can cause unsightly bubbles and cracks in your pastry. Personally, I tend to start at 50C and after 30 minutes increase to 100C. The drying time needed for each piece varies according to size and thickness, but an average time for natural drying is 30-48 hours, whilst oven times are generally reduced to 3-4 hours. These figures are only offered as a rough guide and remember that both sides must be dried out. (See ĎA Few Tipsí) When your model is dry, turn off the oven and leave it inside to cool down.

The projects I have shown here are all relatively easy to make and should give you a good starting point from which to generate your own ideas. But don't panic if something goes wrong, it surprising how a mistake can teach you something. For example, I was trying to make a lemon with my fingers and thatís how I discovered how easy it was to do strawberries! And my first roses looked like lettuces. Be creative, use your imagination and above all donít get discouraged. It helps to remember that someone with years of experience probably created the glossy, near perfect examples in a book youíre trying to emulate. Therefore view yours as an individual piece of art that stands on its own merit.

The four examples in the photograph were done in the same session, which took me approximately two and a half hours. When finished, give them as personalised gifts that people will appreciate because of the time and skill it took you to produce them.

Prior to Baking

1. Lettering
This letter ĎCí (top right) was produced from a single pastry cutter. The pieces were then moistened with a little water where they overlapped and a tiny piece of dough rolled between the fingers was placed in the centre. Lettering has to be one of the easiest sculptures to make and can be done in a variety of ways, e.g. plaiting, twisting and cutting. Itís an ideal project to get you up and running with little effort or expertise. You could go on to form a full name, place tiny characters made from dough within the letters and paint them as desired.

The colouring of dough can either be done at the modelling stage or after your design is dried. To do it during modelling take an amount of dough, make it into a well shape and add food colorant, either paste or liquid form. This is then kneaded so the colour is spread evenly throughout the mixture. (Mixing two together gives a marble effect) This works best if large areas of the finished work are to be one colour. You could also add the colorant to the water part of your recipe. Alternatively, and as in the examples shown here, the designs were painted with watercolours after they had been baked. (Leave again to dry.) Then, if you wish to protect your finished artwork, it is highly recommended that you coat the creations with either matt, satin or gloss varnish on all sides at least six times. Spray lacquer could be used as an alternative to varnish.

2. Plaque
Cutting around a tin lid made the base for this plaque, two strips of dough were then made and twisted together to form a rope. The outer edge of the base was moistened and the rope attached. The floral decoration was added next in layers and a skewer was used to punch a hole in the top for hanging. The lettering came last and was made from tiny pieces of rolled dough. This piece takes a little more practice than the lettering but for a beginner I recommend you try flowers and leaves as they come in so many shapes and sizes. Then, if they donít turn out as you expect, admirers of your handy work will never know and think you are so artistic!

3. Lattice Work
The latticework is formed first in this piece, working directly onto your foil lined baking tray, as recommended in ďA Few Tipsí. The strips are interwoven, first under then over alternate pieces of dough until the desired area is achieved. Donít try to make your sculptures to large; this finished basket measures no more than three by four inches. The rough edges were then carefully removed with a sharp knife, and the rope effect added. You can also use a fine grade sandpaper to gently rub down your sculptures. Once again I have used flowers and leaves to decorate this piece, letting them overlap the edge of the latticework to give it a pleasing shape. This latticework looks particularly effective when used to create 3D decorative baskets.

4. Fruit Wreath
Attempting this project will take you a step further because the wreath is made out of three pieces of dough and therefore needs to be plaited, rather than just twisted. It takes a little patience and you may not complete it on your first attempt. However persevere and your efforts will be rewarded. Next, arrange fruits that have been sculptured by hand onto the bottom of the wreath. To enable the fruit to stick better first slightly flatten and moistened the area before attaching. You donít have to use fruits, you could put anything you wish, vegetables, lettering, bows, animals, flowers, anything you wish.

5. Egyptian Symbols
These well-known Egyptian symbols are all fairly easy to make as most of them involve a flat base to which hand rolled pieces of dough have been added to give relief and decorative detail. From left to right, the Ankh, Horus, Djed pillar and Wadjet eye were all cut out from a rolled piece of dough using a sharp kitchen knife, whilst the Scarab, Heart and Shabti were pressed into shape by hand from lumps of dough. Remember do not roll your dough too thin before cutting out the shape or it will distort and twist when drying, approximately a quarter to half an inch should be okay.

The ancient Egyptians loved colour so paint them as vivid, or as plain, as you wish. If you feel a colour is too dark you could try removing some of it with a damp kitchen sponge. But donít get carried away and soften the dough too much! You could also blot a painted area with a dry sponge to withdraw some of the colour and give it a mottled appearance. (But remember the majority of colours dry a couple of shades lighter than when they are applied.)
Many Egyptian symbols and hieroglyphs make ideal salt dough projects. Even small cracks that may appear in your dried dough can help give your Egyptian sculptures that Ďauthenticí look as most Egyptian artefacts are thousands of years old and often have that worn, cracked look!

  • If the dough starts to stick as you craft it, flour your worktop and hands lightly.
  • Itís recommended that the dough is worked directly onto a foil-lined baking tray when building up pieces, that way, you donít have the horrendous task of trying to carry your finished piece off the work top and onto the tray.
  • Before baking, certain areas of the model can be covered with egg white to brown them, whilst others can be covered with foil to keep them white.
  • Different flours and salts give different results. For example whole-wheat flour gives a much grainier and browner texture. Experiment and donít be afraid to mix different textures together to form more interesting designs that donít have to be coloured.
  • When making long strips of dough for plaiting, use the palm of your hand to roll the pastry rather than your fingers, as this gives a more even surface.
  • When plaiting, try to lift the dough as little as possible as this will stretch it until it finally breaks, better to carefully drag it along the lightly floured work surface, or lift it in one, carrying the full length in the palm of your hand. The same a lso applies to latticework.
  • Keep your knives and cutters clean, because when dough sticks to their edges it causes them to drag at the mixture instead of creating a clean cut.
  • You can use a fine grater to give the impression of pitted skin - e.g. oranges, lemons, and strawberries. Just roll the dough over the graters surface; alternatively you could use a skewer. If you press dough onto a wicker basket and peel off you have that texture imprinted on your mixture. Try using unusual surfaces and moulds to form exciting designs.
  • When turning your dough over in the oven to dry out the underside put the pressure on the foil rather than on the sculpture when separating the two.
  • When a piece is turned over in the oven make sure any part of the artwork that doesnít touch the baking tray is supported, otherwise this area may sag under the weight. I usually use an upside down ovenproof plate that the dough can rest upon.
  • Once you feel confident you can then use moulds to produce 3D sculptures, and why not add other materials to your finished projects. For example cloths, dried flowers, lace, metals, shells, ribbons, buttons, glitter, the list is endless.
  • Every one at some stage has a piece that either breaks or cracks. Rectify this by sticking the pieces together again with some fresh dough, then bake/dry out as before. Alternatively you could use suitable glue.

Obviously the above projects illustrated here can only give you a Ďtasteí of a very fascinating and historical craft. Once you have mastered the basic techniques the possibilities are endless. Some of my favourite sculptures are Christmas decorations. These can either be made by hand (e.g. biblical figures, snowmen, lanterns, Santa) or created using pastry cutters (e.g. animal designs, flowers etc). You can even make Christmas tree baubles by wrapping stripes of decorative salt dough around a plastic bag full of rice. Then, once the dough is completely dry, the bag can be cut with a pair of scissors, the rice empted and the bag carefully removed. To learn more about the art of Ďsalt doughí and to see some of the wonderful sculptures that can be produced go along to your local public library where you will find numerous books available on the subject.

Good luck and enjoy making plenty of dough!

Copyright Janet Wood 1998 All Rights Reserved.
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