Wild Culture: The Heritage of Salt-Rising Bread

Food Features Fermentation
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Wild Culture: The Heritage of Salt-Rising Bread

In the world of fermentation, there’s always something new to discover; start down the path of being interested in microbes and that interest takes you on a journey. That journey spans history. After all, we’ve been fermenting food and drink for millennia — intentionally and unintentionally — all around the world. Fermentation spans time and culture.

My recent fermentation discovery was salt-rising bread. As a lover of sourdough starter and a fermentation enthusiast, I was surprised to learn that there was an old American tradition of baking bread that I had never heard mention of.

That’s not surprising given my geographic location in the Pacific Northwest. If I had grown up in Appalachia? That would have been another matter.

"For me personally, the most amazing thing about salt-rising bread is how long it has been in my family (at least 6 generations that I am aware of, probably more) and how much all those relatives for all those years have loved, baked, and shared salt-rising bread," says Susan Brown, co-author of Salt-Rising Bread: Recipes and Heartfelt Stories of a Nearly Lost Appalachian Tradition, a new book that explores the history and heritage of salt-rising bread.

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Photo by Anna Brones

Salt-rising bread is a naturally-leavened bread, the starter made with cornmeal or potatoes. This result is a loaf with a distinct taste: a "cheesy" flavor. Social historian J. C. Furnas once wrote that “the flavor was once well defined by my sister as like distant dirty feet.” With age his tastes became more refined, and he took to describing the taste of salt-rising bread “as if a delicately reared, unsweetened plain cake had had an affair with a Pont l’Eveque cheese.”

This distinct bread’s roots can be found in Appalachia, but later spread out along with the pioneer wagons, an easy food to make on the American frontier when leavening agents were hard to come by. Today however, outside of the heart of salt-rising bread country it’s an almost unknown, and that’s a shame, for salt-rising bread is not just an example of natural fermentation at work, but also a food that’s a part of our American culinary heritage.

Brown, along with her co-author Genevieve Bardwell, wanted to document that heritage, capturing not only the recipes, but the traditions of salt-rising bread. Unlike myself, Brown grew up with the taste of the region’s iconic naturally fermented bread. "I love imagining the women in my family baking this bread in the West Virginia mountains for their families, their friends, their neighbors, friends who were sick, church bazaars, county fair competitions, funerals, weddings, covered dish dinners, and more," says Brown. For the two women, salt-rising bread has become more than a passion; it’s a profession. Bardwell runs Rising Creek Bakery (yes, you can get a loaf of their salt-rising bread shipped to you), and Brown is the founder of The Salt-Rising Bread Project.

As I researched salt-rising bread I discovered one thing: the people who loved it, really loved it. There are many memories tied up in salt-rising bread, memories of taste, place and people. I discovered a fervency that’s similar to when you read about people who bake with sourdough starter. Like with many other foods, that passion for salt-rising bread has largely to do with an emotional connection. "I believe that people have such a strong affinity for this wonderful bread because, first of all, it is delicious; secondly, this bread brings back so many precious memories of the people (whom we loved) in our lives who made it for us," says Brown. "And thirdly, salt-rising bread just has a way of feeding one’s soul as well as one’s body; it comforts us as we eat it, taste it, and feel the warmth, caring, and love that the baker of this bread has put into it."

Salt-rising bread, like sourdough, depends on microbes to rise. But unlike sourdough, the culprit in salt-rising bread is Clostridium perfringens, a bacteria often associated with food poisoning. Not to worry; studies have been done on the bread, and the strains of Clostridium perfringens do not usually cause food poisoning, not to mention that baking the bread also contributes to reducing any potential risk. But it’s still going to smell a little weird.

To make salt-rising bread, you make a starter. There are a variety of varying recipes, and many of them have been passed down for generations, but usually a starter is made by cornmeal or potatoes, flour and milk, left in a warm place overnight. By morning it’s foaming and funky ("a rotten cheese smell" as one recipe puts it), at which point warm water and flour are added to the mixture and it’s left to rise a little longer. But salt-rising bread, dependent on a natural fermentation process, is a fickle beast, and even those who have baked it for decades will acknowledge how temperamental the starter and bread can be. "At times, the failures seem to be due to weather, low barometric pressure or a change in the ingredients," write Brown and Bardwell. "For example, the starter may never develop a foamy top. Or the starter will work beautifully, but the sponge doesn’t double in size. At times, the sponge rises well, but the loaves take hours to rise, if they even rise at all. One has to expect such variance with wild bacteria."

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Photo by Anna Brones

The fickleness of salt-rising bread isn’t always something that bakeries want to deal with, and today, you’re more likely to find salt-rising bread baked in someone’s home than a bakery. But if you do come across a commercial variety, be wary. "I must tell you that most commercial bakers of salt-rising bread almost always add commercial yeast to their starters, as this always ensures a successful batch of bread," says Brown. "Here, we call that cheating! We never, ever put this yeast in our salt-rising bread!"

Given its similarity to sourdough and its dependence on wild bacteria, I wondered why salt-rising bread had gotten lost in the fermentation fervor. In all the mentions of kombucha, kimchi, sauerkraut, sourdough and all of the other glorious fermented foods that are popular right now, salt-rising bread seemed like it had been skipped over.

"It’s sad to me to say, but sometimes I feel like salt-rising bread never got as popular as sourdough because it was always, and still is to some extent, known as a “poor man’s bread.” The fact is that it was the pioneer women who first made this simple (yet delicious) bread out of necessity when they had no access to yeast and had no other way to make a risen bread," says Brown. "Another reason that the bread may not be as popular is that it is much more difficult and time consuming to make than sourdough bread … salt-rising bread takes a long time to make, about 16 to 18 hours, and few people nowadays are willing to spend that amount of time doing this."

But in that sense, give our current culinary interest with slow foods and a general cultural trend towards slow living, salt-rising bread might just be primed for a comeback.

Anna Brones is the author of The Culinary Cyclist and Fika: The Art of the Swedish Coffee Break, the founder of the print quarterly Comestible and runs Foodie Underground. Wherever she is in the world, she can often be found riding a bicycle in search of excellent coffee.

Header photo by Wonderland Kitchen CC BY-SA