Appalahian Cuisine
10:30 pm
Wed April 16, 2014

Salt Rising Bread: An Appalachian Tradition of Longing and Wild Microbes

Salt Rising Bread, an enigmatic yeastless Appalachian soul food that inspires fond memories of grandmothers.
Salt Rising Bread, an enigmatic yeastless Appalachian soul food that inspires fond memories of grandmothers.
Credit Susan Brown and Jenny Bardwell

Salt Rising Bread is an Appalachian traditional bread made without yeast. It’s a baking custom that can be traced back to the 1800s. But not much has been documented about the bread or its history, so two women in Mt. Morris, Pa., began a quest to understand the hows and whys behind a tradition that seems to captivate anyone who catches wind of it. Bakers Jenny Bardwell and Susan Brown have been researching the bread for 20 years.

The Fascination with Salt Rising Bread:

Brown grew up in Greenbrier County where, every Saturday, she would have salt rising toast and eggs for breakfast with her grandmother. She’s passionate about passing down the tradition.

Brown’s friend Jenny Bardwell was introduced to the custom through a neighbor, the recently deceased Pearl Haynes of Mt. Morris, who made the bread for 90 years.

“I’d go visit her and they were making this bread that I had never heard of and it was a very unique bread—there’s no yeast in it. So I immediately latched on,” Bardwell said.

Bardwell is the owner of the Rising Creek Bakery in Mt. Morris, Pa. She and Brown opened the bakery about five years ago and now it’s one of the only places in the country that produces the product.  From the small bakery on the bank of Dunkard Creek in Pa., hundreds of loaves a bread are shipped out each week, including to Shop n Save stores in Fairmont, Clarksburg, and Weston.

Through surveying customers, Bardwell and Brown discovered that, by far, the favorite way to eat the bread is toasted with butter. Others like it dipped in sweet coffee or toasted with milk and brown sugar on top.

Jenny Bardwell on the left and Susan Brown on the right with loaves of Salt Rising Bread
Jenny Bardwell on the left and Susan Brown on the right with loaves of Salt Rising Bread
Credit Susan Brown and Jenny Bardwell

Its History Is a Mystery:

Passed down as an oral tradition, there are few records that hint at its origin. Brown and Bardwell have done some serious research. They’ve even traveled to bakeries abroad looking for connections.

While it’s difficult to draw any definite conclusions, their best guess is that the tradition was born of necessity in remote and isolated Appalachian region in the late 1700s.

“What we’re finding out really is the ingenuity of pioneer women and how they persevered with their cooking," said Bardwell. "They wanted a loaf of bread so they kind of persevered with this very difficult bread to make.”

Even the name “salt rising bread” is a little mysterious. Brown said it’s really a misnomer because recipes call for very little salt. One possible explanation might have something to do with a wagon wheel. Brown said documentation exists of the pioneer women who crossed the country on the pioneer trails keeping their starters warm in the salt barrel which was kept on top of the wagon wheel.

"And as they traveled across the country during the day, the sun would warm the salt which would in turn warm the starter," Brown said, "and then they could make their bread in the evening when they stopped traveling.”

How to Make:

Heat is critical ingredient in dough-making. Bardwell compares Salt Rising Bread to Sour Dough Bread, which requires a type of wild yeast.

“Salt Rising Bread is primarily wild bacteria that you’re culturing with heat," explained Bardwell. "Sour dough happens at room temperature. Salt Rising happens at about 105-115 degrees Fahrenheit.”

There are three phases of salt rising bread: You need to make a starter dough, then grow it, then bake it. You make your starter with potatoes and water and heat… Or milk and cornmeal and heat. (VERY different, right? And yet they create THE same product.)

Then you wait. And watch.

But Bardwell explained that the nature of wild bacteria yields varying results.

“Sometimes it’s nine hours, sometimes it’s eleven hours. You have to be really tuned into this bread. You have to kind of know how to recognize it when it’s ready. Not before, not an hour later,” she said.

Also, depending on which recipe you use, the starters look and smell very different.

"That is another big characteristic of Salt Rising Bread—it smells strong. I kind of like the smell. Some people can’t stand it,” Bardwell said.

Science Lessons:

What makes the starter stink is also what makes the bread rise. To find out more, Brown and Bardwell put their science-caps on and headed to a lab at the University of Pittsburgh to visit pathologist Dr. Bruce McClane.

McClane has made a name for himself studying Clostridium perfringens—one of the wild microbes that makes the "rise" in Salt Rising Bread.

“We walk in and [the lab] smelled just like Salt Rising Bread!” Bardwell said laughing as she remembered the visit.

Bardwell and Brown came to learn from McClane that these microbes can be a pathogenic. They can cause gangrene in human beings or enteritis (diarrhea). But, Bardwell said, no one has ever gotten sick from eating Salt Rising Bread.

Bardwell, Brown, and McClane helped write an article with Dr. Greg Juckett for the West Virginia Medical Journal to highlight how SRB has absolutely no history of causing any disease or discomfort. 

In their search for the origin of Salt Rising Bread,  Brown and Bardwell did find a couple very similar yeastless breads; in Greece the recipe calls for chickpeas, in the Sudan, there’s a recipe that uses lentils. They also found scientific studies in Turkey and Greece and Sudan on these similar breads—none of which found pathogenic toxins.

It turns out bacteria like Clostridium perfringens are ubiquitous. They’re found all through nature, on the potatoes, in the flour, in the cornmeal. Somehow, Bardwell suspects, a symbiotic relationship between all of these bacteria raise the bread and give it flavor and texture. But the fact that it doesn’t make anyone sick is still kind of a mystery.

Bardwell and Brown really want to find someone who is interested in researching the bread and the wild microbe. They say, they’re willing participants. Their quest continues even as the tradition seems to be face extinction.

A Fading Tradition:

Brown says there are a couple reasons it’s fallen from fashion: the elder keepers of the oral tradition are dying, along with their way of life.

“Salt Rising Bread requires that you are home all day,” Brown said. “You literally cannot leave your house because you have to be so careful to watch each stage and be there when it’s ready.”

But for now, Bardwell and Brown and at least a few others throughout Appalachia still nurture the wild microbial bread. 

“One of the goals we had when we started this bakery was we wanted to make Salt Rising Bread and send it to the people who have not had it for years but who pine for it and who really have cherished, beautiful, loving memories of it,” said Brown.

“We have accomplished that and that feels wonderful.”

Salt Rising Bread Recipe #1 - Download as PDF

This recipe comes from an expert Salt Rising Bread baker from Mt. Morris, Pennsylvania, who has been making the bread for 80 years. Her starter, or “raisin,” as she calls it, uses fewer ingredients than most recipes and has no sugar or salt in it.

Ingredients:

3 tsp Corn Meal

1 tsp Flour

1/8 tsp Baking Soda

1/2 cup Scalded Milk

Preparation:

Pour milk onto dry ingredients and stir.

Keep warm overnight until foamy.

After "raisin" has foamed and has a "rotten cheese" smell, in a medium sized bowl, add 2 cups of warm water to mixture, then enough flour (about 1 ½ cup) to make like a thin pancake batter.  Stir and let rise again until becomes foamy.  This usually takes about 2 hours.

Next, add one cup of warm water for each loaf of bread you want to make, up to 6 loaves (e.g. six cups of water makes six loaves of bread).   Add enough flour (20 cups for 6 loaves, or about one 5 pound bag of flour + 1/3 bag).  Form into loaves; grease tops of loaves.   Let rise in greased pans for several hours, maybe 2-6 hours.

Bake at 300F for 30 to 45 minutes,  or until loaves sound hollow when tapped.

(If you want to save some of the "raisin" for the next batch, take one cup of batter out of mixture after you have added the 2 cups of warm water and flour to make a thin pancake batter, and after it has risen the second time.)

For other recipes, visit Suan Brown's website dedicated to Salt Rising Bread.

Have a Salt Rising Memory? Share in the comments below!