I have never, ever been as frustrated by a recipe in my life as I am with this salt-rising-bread conundrum. I mean, how hard can it be to mix up some cornmeal and milk, heat it up, and keep it hot until it ferments?
Turns out it is very difficult. On my desk is a stack of a dozen old books with recipes as different as can be. The one thing in common is the heat that must be in constant attendance upon the bowl of starter. Even newspapers as far back as the late 1800s warned that this bread took a steady heat, unlike the beginnings of yeast breads or sourdough breads.
Upon scientific research — which Google enables even the least scientific mind to do — one finds that the starter works because of a pathogen that loves heat. Clostridium perfringens is its name, and making gas is its game. It needs heat to grow, but it can be killed by heat too, so that is where a steady, warm 104 to 110 degrees is needed.
Other names for the starter are "leavings" or "emptings." Descriptions of the aroma are various, too: old cheese, rotten cheese, stinking feet, dirty socks ... Well, you get the picture. Some people just can’t get past the odor. At the rate our starter is not starting, we may never know.
Google does have a number of sites that include recipes. Two websites are of special note. One is a bakery in Pennsylvania that specializes in salt rising bread. Rising Creek Bakery at 105 Main St. in Mt. Morris, PA will even ship the loaf to you.
If you are really interested in learning more about the pathogen that activates this loaf of bread, go to Popular Science, salt rising bread, and look for Harold McGee’s paper on the whole matter. By the way, he does like salt rising bread, and even has a recipe. He makes for a very interesting, if not a bit terrifying, read. If, after perusing his article, you are still inclined to try your hand at this, more power to you. After reading the whole paper, it was all I could do to throw out the unsuccessful first starter and make a second batch to move forward. A more intrepid baker looking on just mumbled, “It will be okay. We might as well see it through.”
Forty-eight hours later, we had a very cheesy odor around the crockpot heat source. So, according to King Arthur’s website recipe, we mixed up a sponge to add the starter to. That done, we opted for a bit cooler, out-of-the-way heat source. The oven light bulb provides about 90 degrees of heat, so that is where the large bowl — placed in larger pan of warm water — was put. Five hours later, the sponge was bubbly on top.
It was ready to make it into a loaf of dough. Following King Arthur’s recipe, we mixed, kneaded, and shaped a ball of beautiful dough that only slightly smelled offensive. Put to rise, it had about four hours to get to the top of the pan. It didn’t quite make it to the top, but rose a little more while baking. We were advised to let it cool completely, so cutting would wait for the next day.
In between the sponge and the kneading, a most welcome email came from the Clark County Library that the one book written on salt rising bread was waiting for me to pick up. Just weeks off the press, Salt Rising Bread by Genevieve Bardwell and Susan Ray Brown is the essential of everything having to do with this bread. Susan is the founder of an online resource called Salt Rising Bread Project. Genevieve is the proprietor of the Rising Creek Bakery, mentioned earlier. For anyone contemplating baking this bread, their book is the first step in a whole new baking experience.
Our loaf of bread baked up fine, smelled mildly cheesy, and sliced clean. Taste was reminiscent of mom’s cheese bread, sourdough bread, and something hard to describe. Toasted it was okay, but how were we to know? We had never tasted this bread. So we took half the loaf to the only man we know of who could tell us if it was even close: Mr. John Brown of Enon. We told him to be brutally honest. He was happy to try it, said it didn’t really smell strong enough. Then he told us about making it with potato starter.
We’ll be trying this bread again, using the Salt Rising Bread recipe for a potato starter. I mean, how hard can it be?
Contact Connie at mooredcr@Juno.com if you know about or have baked this bread. She needs all the help she can get.
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