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. Pam Skidmore

    Hi PJ! I recently found in the very back of my freezer the very last quarter bag of salt-rising bread yeast bought from King Arthur flour eons ago!! It was one of my husband’s favorite breads growing up in West Virginia. When I purchased the little white bag it came with a recipe but it’s not the same recipe that you have posted. This already contains cornmeal, baking powder, soda, milk powder with a little flour. I purchased a proofer just for this bread. I put the recipe paper (recipe not on the bag) in a “safe” place. Now I can’t find it and promised my husband a special treat. Is there a way to dig in old archives to find that original recipe? I tried to call the help line, and well, that wasn’t a lot of help. Please let me know! Apparently it’s the last of this starter. Thank you!

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Hi Pam,
      It took some sleuthing, but we think we found what you were looking for! We’ve sent a copy of the old instructions to your email address. If you don’t find them in your inbox, please reach back out to us so we can get you connected with this long-lost, beloved recipe. Happy baking! Kye@KAF

    2. pam skidmore

      Thank you Kye!! Indeed that is the very recipe. Yes it makes the house “stinky” but oh so good! The salt rising yeast is still in its original bag wrapped tightly and sealed. Hopefully we can once again savor this very special bread. I am so grateful for you and KAF digging in the archives. I had given up hope and resigned that I would have to use the newer recipe. I just love KAF and all that you do. I am so thankful!
      Very kind wishes to you and KAF.

  2. Alice MacRae

    I grew up with this bread (in NC), where a local bakery offered it on Tuesdays and Saturdays. One had to be there before they opened to get a loaf; and the elderly lady who made it stopped after witnessing a fist fight between two regular customers over the last loaf one Saturday. The selfish “un-Christian” behavior exhibited seemed to her a sin that she was a part of. Sigh. I let her cool off for a week, then flattered her out of the recipe. I’ve been making it ever since then (1965), but have used many recipes over the years. I used the dried starter when you sold it, but since it required yeast as well it wasn’t quite authentic, and fellow aficionados agreed it lacked pungency.

    I’ve used this recipe since it was posted, with great success, and I always double the recipe and use KA cornmeal and flour and correct-sized loaf pans. Recently I moved into a new house, and my oven has a proof setting. The first starter failed and I thought it might be too hot, so I used just the oven light as I have for a decade. The starter was dead again, so I took its temperature: 140 degrees Fahrenheit! I just received my Brod and Taylor folding proofer yesterday and am waiting for my loaves to rise. I disappointed my family after my Thanksgiving failure, but now I can give them all a loaf for Christmas. Thank you.

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      We’re happy to hear that you’re back on track, Alice. Cheers to many more happy rises and bakes to come! Mollie@KAF

  3. Heather

    I’m having difficulty getting it to rise. Both starters work as they should but letting it rise is unsuccessful for me. The loaves come out flat and hard. I do have the proofer suggested. Any tips?

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Hi Heather, troubleshooting salt-rising bread can be tricky. We asked some of our other bakers who have experience with this, and here’s what fellow blogger PJ had to say: “[Salt-rising bread] can be extremely fickle…All I can say is, study the blog carefully, read the recipe carefully, make sure your dough/starter looks like the photos in the blog.” Since you have the proofer, we’re not completely sure why this isn’t working, as temperature is usually the culprit of a failed rise. Perhaps your starter is over-rising and then falling, or there could be too much flour added? Be sure you’re either using a scale to measure by weight or measuring like this. If you’re still feeling stumped, give our Baker’s Hotline a call at 855-371-BAKE(2253) so we can troubleshoot further. Kye@KAF

  4. KateP

    My dad and I used to get a loaf of Van de Kamps Salt Rising Bread every month or so and would enjoy it while the rest of the family ran down the hall crying “oh, no, it’s stinky toast!”
    I got a bread proofer to facilitate this recipe, and am pleased to report a successful loaf – but it wasn’t very stinky. I didn’t notice any scent except very mildly when I raised the lid of the proofer to check the starter. Any ideas how to get more ‘stink’? Thanks

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      The version we made here was plenty stinky for us, Kate, and we’re not quite sure how to increase ‘stink’ without jeopardizing rising ability and/or food safety. Does anyone else have any suggestions for Kate? Mollie@KAF

  5. Karen Kowalski

    I asked my Mom this AM…”Do you remember Van de Kamps STINKY BREAD?” She did and so the search began on Google. We lived in Eagle Rock near their main bakery and I went to high school with the Granddaughters of the founder. My thanks for this receipe …. I will be baking fond memories.

    Reply
  6. John

    I’m late to the party, but at least for the starters, I found that a cheap yogurt maker that keeps the temperature at 110 has been a good warm place and although starter #1 didn’t show bubbles, starter #2 is chock full of them. I had used scalded raw non homogenized milk for starter #1 and maybe it was too thick, or too spread out on the bottom of the yogurt pail. Not sure what I’m going to do for the loaf right now, though. I’m thinking of putting them on the radiator on a board and covering with a towel (the cheap loaf pans I’m using have covers so the towel won’t mash the loaf down. I’d love a bread proofer but no chance affording that just yet.

    Reply
    1. John

      The radiator idea worked very well–the metal was about 90 degrees hot and the surrounding air about 83. I covered the loaf (with a plastic top) with a tea towel and it rose in about 1.5 hours. I had a small mishap when it fell once off the radiator (haste, waste) but I put it back up and it rose again in about 30 min to the height specified in the article above. Success! Thank you so much, everyone at KAF.

  7. Brian Z

    I used to make this from “The Joy of Cooking” but don’t have that book anymore, I think this is close to or identical. Thanks for this recipe! Salt rising bread has a very unique character unlike any other and I find myself always making a few loaves in towards the winter time.

    A few observations for some others:

    It is highly dependent on the Cornmeal. While it’s best to use a more freshly bought one, I have had success with older ones but you have to be observant to notice if the primary starter is successful. Like the recipe mentions, it has to expand and smell fermented. The best input I can give is that it looks “alive” kind of like any other starter/ferment. It will rise a bit and look “fluffy” as shown in the picture, but I use a small clear pyrex container (about 6 oz size) and you can see the change in height a little better. The first starter this round was a fail. It looked gloopy and flat, just as you would expect if you mix cornmeal and liquid and let it sit overnight. The second, in a mere 6 hours using a different cornmeal I had on hand, was noticeably puffed up and light looking.

    That brings me to another point. Success in rising is really about timing. You should see the times as guides, and plan on adjusting your schedule to the bread, not the other way around. I decided early morning after the starter was really in full swing to mix the second starter, knowing by the time I got home later I would have a nice second starter.

    You have to be very patient with this bread, because unlike other types of leaven, it’s a rather slow process. So very worth the wait!

    Reply
  8. yolanda

    My husband was from MO so I had to learn to make SRB without the benefit of a teacher. (1959) When I lived in Northern CA I used a pilot light, a heating pad, a yogurt maker. I have used many recipes for the started. I even used grits when I found myself without cornmeal. I now live in LA and the weatherman tells me when I will make SRB. When the temp will be 90 F or above. I put the starter, the sponge and the bread outside until ready to bake. So for me the only secret to SRB is the temperature.

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Thanks for sharing your valuable experiences with us and our readers, Yolanda! Is today a SRB day? Elisabeth@KAF

  9. Adrienne

    I don’t k ow what keeps going wrong. I e made this five times. Every time, the first two starters bubble and grow, but then the loaf just sits there. I’m using a sous vide to keep it at an exact temperature and have checked the internal temperature, and it’s perfect. I wish I could figure out what is going wrong.

    Reply
    1. MaryJane Robbins

      Hi Adrienne,
      This bread can definitely be finicky. We have some bakers here who have made it many times though. If you can, take some photos as you go along and send them to us so we help figure things out. Just send them along to customercare(at)kingarthurflour(dot)com. ~MJ

  10. Jaroslaw

    King Arthur Flour used to sell salt rising yeast at one time. I think the guy from Canada they got it from passed away. When I moved to Hamtramck, Michigan, they had a bunch of bakeries, still do. I bought some King Arthur yeast and paid them to make the bread for me! This was around 1998. Oddly they told me In years past they sold salt rising bread one day a week. But demand dropped off. I can’t imagine why. They used to carry it up north at the markets in Bellaire, where my maternal grandparents were born. I have an electronic gas stove, so the pilot lite thing is out. Hot pads are too hot. If those bread proofers aren’t too expensive, I’ll try that. If not, salt rising is just a memory for me now since I can’t find where to buy it. Thanks for a lovely recipe and I enjoyed reading all the comments.

    Reply

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