Classic American Salt-Rising Bread: a tasty journey into the past

Have you heard of salt-rising bread?

Probably not, if you’re neither a passionate bread baker, nor a resident of certain parts of the country – the southern and western portions of the Appalachians, western New York down into western Pennsylvania, and parts of Michigan. This traditional American bread remains popular in these regions, where it’s often sold in bakeries.

But if you’re living in, say, Colorado, or Connecticut? You probably never heard of salt-rising bread.

So let me describe it to you: it’s a fairly dense, fairly moist, very close-grained white bread, with a distinctive “cheese-y” flavor. It makes wonderful toast. But its most salient characteristic? It’s not made with yeast. And, contrary to its name, it doesn’t rely on salt for rising; in fact, this bread has less salt than many standard breads.

So what’s the deal?

Salt-rising bread had its American origins back in the early 1800s, when commercially produced yeast wasn’t available. Housewives found that a mash of cornmeal and milk (and/or potatoes) could produce a bubbly substance that could then be used to raise bread.

The “starter” was tricky, though, needing consistent warmth to work; it’s thought that perhaps “salt-rising” refers to the rock salt that pioneer women might have heated and piled around their starter, to keep it warm.

These days, those of us experimenting with salt-rising bread find ourselves with the same challenge as our forebears: how to keep the starter warm for the 12 to18-hour, two-stage process it needs to leaven bread.

Heating pad, top of the fridge, near the wood stove, over a heating grate… all of these are imperfect solutions. (I know, I’ve tried them.)

But now, I’ve found the perfect tool for not just salt-rising bread, but all kinds of yeast breads, plus sourdough starter and yogurt, too.

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This “climate controlled” electric proofer offers temperature settings from 70°F-120°, plus a water tray for optimum humidity. If you’re a baker who struggles to find a cozy place in the house for rising bread or feeding sourdough (or salt-rising starter and bread), you might consider this tool.

But don’t worry; while this proofer makes the whole process a lot simpler, I’ve found another “hot spot” in my house; and it’s hopefully one that’ll work for you, too.

If you’ve never made salt-rising bread, please be prepared to trust me through some of the following procedures. Yes, it’s very important to keep the starter warm. Yes, it’s supposed to smell that way.  The bread’s aroma is redolent of cheese, though there’s no cheese in involved; the flavor comes from the slight fermentation of the ingredients during the bread’s preparation.

Speaking of fermentation, be prepared; the starter and dough will smell like… dirty socks? Old sneakers mixed with Parmesan cheese? Somewhat unpleasant, anyway, but please bear with me – it’s just the enzymes and bacteria doing their jobs and giving the bread its special qualities. If you’ve ever made cheese or yogurt, you know exactly what I’m talking about.

OK, let’s get started here, shall we? This bread is built in stages. First stage: starter #1.

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Heat 1/4 cup milk (skim, 1%, 2% or whole) until it’s nearly but not quite boiling; small bubbles will form around the edge of the pan (or microwave container), and you might see a bit of steam. This is called “scalding” the milk.

Cool the milk until it’s lukewarm, then whisk together the milk, 2 tablespoons cornmeal (yellow is traditional), and 1 teaspoon sugar in a small heatproof container. The container should be large enough to let the starter expand a bit.

A note on cornmeal: while you can certainly use “supermarket” cornmeal, organic is probably preferable, since it comes with additional “friendly bacteria.”

Cover the container with plastic wrap, and place it somewhere warm, between 90°F and 100°F. The bread proofer mentioned above is ideal for this, since you can set the exact temperature you want.

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I find my turned-off electric oven, with the light turned on for about 2 hours ahead of time (and then left on throughout the starter’s time in the oven) holds a temperature of 95°F to 97°F, perfect for this starter.

I tried a heating pad covered by an overturned bowl, but it didn’t work. Before you even start this process, find someplace reliably warm for the starter; if you can’t find someplace that’ll stay warm for up to 12 hours at a time, it’s best not to try this recipe.

Let the starter rest in its warm place overnight, or for 8 to 12 hours.

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The starter won’t expand much, but will develop a bubbly foam on its surface. It’ll also smell a bit fermented. If it doesn’t bubble at all, and doesn’t smell fermented, your starter has failed; try again, using different cornmeal, or finding a warmer spot.

Next, we’ll build on this first starter; let’s call this starter #2.

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Combine the following:

1 cup hot water (120°F to 130°F)
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon sugar

Add 1 1/2 cups (6 1/4 ounces) King Arthur Unbleached All-Purpose Flour, stirring until everything is thoroughly moistened.

Stir starter #1 into starter #2.

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Cover the bowl with plastic wrap, and place it in the same warm spot starter #1 was in. Let it rest until very bubbly and doubled in size, 2 to 4 hours.

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Success!

If the starter’s not showing any bubbles after a couple of hours, move it somewhere warmer. If it still doesn’t bubble after a couple of hours, give it up; you’ll need to start over.

If the process isn’t working for you, don’t be too discouraged; even our pioneer forebears found this bread notoriously fickle, working perfectly one day, not so well another. Personally, I think it’s all about finding a spot that’s reliably warm, between 90°F and 100°F.

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Transfer your bubbly starter to a larger bowl, or the bowl of a stand mixer (or your bread machine bucket).

Add the following:

4 tablespoons soft butter
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 1/4 to 2 1/2 cups (9 1/2 to 10 1/2 ounces) King Arthur Unbleached All-Purpose Flour

Start with the smaller amount of flour. In the depths of summer, when your kitchen is hot and humid, you may need to use more. But usually you’ll only need about 2 1/4 cups to make a dough that’s cohesive and elastic yet still a bit sticky, as pictured above.

Hey, what’s with the salt being added after the dough was already partially kneaded, you ask? Simple; I forgot to add it when I added the butter and flour. Good lesson: when you forget an ingredient in yeast bread dough (including the yeast), simply knead it in when you remember.

In fact, sometimes you forget the yeast and only realize it when your dough doesn’t rise. Go ahead and knead the yeast into that unresponsive lump of dough, and give it an hour or so; it should be fine.

OK, back to business. Knead everything until smooth; this took 7 minutes at medium speed in my stand mixer. The dough will be soft, and fairly elastic/stretchy.

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Shape the dough into a log, and place it in a lightly greased 8 1/2″ x 4 1/2″ loaf pan.

Cover the pan, and place it back in its warm spot. Let the loaf rise until it’s crowned about 1/2″ to 3/4″ over the rim of the pan, which could take up to 4 hours or so.

This won’t form the typical large, domed top; it will rise straight up, with just a slight dome.

Towards the end of the rising time, preheat the oven to 350°F.

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Bake the bread for 35 to 40 minutes, until it’s nicely browned. Again, it won’t rise much; that’s OK.

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Remove the bread from the oven; if you have a digital thermometer, it should read about 190°F to 200°F at its center. Wait a couple of minutes, then turn it out of the pan onto a rack to cool.

Run a stick of butter over the bread’s surface, if you like; this will add flavor, and a lovely golden sheen.

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Here comes the hard part: DO NOT slice the bread until it’s completely cool! You’ll make the loaf gummy if you do. And after all you’ve been through to get to this point, you surely don’t want impatience to get the better of you now.

Once it’s cool – enjoy! Toast it. Use it for sandwiches. Make grilled cheese. This bread keeps quite well at room temperature for 5 to 7 days; if there’s any left over after that, it’s best to wrap it tightly and stow it in the freezer.

Salt-rising bread can be quite a journey; but the end result is well worth it, in my book. Partly because I feel good keeping alive a very old tradition; and partly because, hey, who doesn’t like cheese-y bread?

Please read, bake, and review our recipe for Classic American Salt-Rising Bread.

Print just the recipe.

 

 

PJ Hamel
About

PJ Hamel grew up in New England, graduated from Brown University, and was a Maine journalist before joining King Arthur Flour in 1990. PJ bakes and writes from her home on Cape Cod, where she enjoys beach-walking, her husband, two dogs, and really good food!

comments

  1. Tammy

    God, do I remember this bread! Local bakery used to make it all the time; a dozen loaves a day that were usually gone by 10:00. Both my grandmothers, however, made their own twice a week and we all looked forward to the toast! Funny, but I don’t remember the smell as being particularly bad, just different. As you say, it really isn’t that complicated, just time consuming. I’m looking forward to my first attempt; I wish Dad was here to help me with it.

    Reply
  2. Evelyn Barrett

    I have made this recipe three times now after nearly a year of my husband’s search for it in restaurants, bread stores and grocery stores. We have been very pleased that each loaf did rise and had the “stinky” quality and distinct taste associated with salt-rising bread. The first two loaves, though, were more dense than I remembered. The third loaf looked just like the salt-rising bread my family enjoyed in the 1940’s to 50’s from Hecht’s Bakery in Bristol, VA/TN. However, when we sliced the bread, using an electric knife and a slicing form, the top crust separated from the body of the loaf on just about every slice and much of the bread crumbled. Still tasted good, but not very toastable! Can you advise me on how to prevent this? Thank you for any help and the great recipe and instructions.

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Hmm, that’s tricky! In general, a crust that separates from the rest of the loaf usually indicates that the dough has over-risen a bit. We’ve not had good luck with electric knives for bread in general, so you might have better luck with a well-sharpened serrated bread knife. If you’d like to dig deeper into what might be making your bread extra crumbly, we’d encourage you to get in touch with our Baker’s Hotline so we can troubleshoot in a more specific way. Happy baking! Kat@KAF

  3. Evie

    I grew up in western Pa and we always had it with our Sunday breakfast after church. I now live in SC and when I go back for a visit my Mom always has a loaf ready and waiting. Before heading back to SC have to place a order for several loafs to bring back to family here. I’m just starting starter #2 but looking good so far. Have never made it past the first starter before so very optimistic this time it’s going to work. Thanks for sharing your instruction have saved the day. 🙂

    Reply
  4. P T

    Every year I make salt rising bread As one of my moms Christmas presents and she loves it so much she says it taste just like the Vandy camp bread that we grew up with it in California it’s recipe is easy but it does take a long time give yourself at least a day and a half to make it but it is so worth it 😋😋

    Reply
  5. Marianne

    First time making this bread. I followed the wonderful directions and mine turned out exactly as pictured ( using oven light method). But, the smell! I know I was warned but it was something else! Nothing at all like dirty socks or smelly feet. That I could take, this is in a class by itself! I had to put the loaf in a spare room to cool. Still haven’t summoned the desire nor courage to cut a slice and try it.

    Reply
    1. Terry

      I remember this bread (from Van De Kamps bakery in Los Angeles) back in the 60’s.
      My brother and I referred to this bread as ‘stinky bread’, but we sure loved it. I wish it could be produced again by a bakery.

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