Tuesday, March 22, 2011


Why did (do) people make this stinky bread?
Salt-rising bread, or salt-risen bread, is an old-fashioned, crusty white bread that develops its unusual flavor from the fermentation of grain. No yeast or other type of leavening is necessary. A particular feature of this bread is that it rises with salt-tolerant bacteria. The starter (rising) is exposed to the air until bacteria fall into it, causing fermentation and letting off a stinky yoghurt or cheese-smelling gas. The bread is baked like other regular, yeast-raised bread, but the preparation time is much longer due to its fermentation process. The finished product has a finer texture than regular bread, and the s-r odor is just perceptable.

Thought to be European of origin, s-r bread was common in United States from the early 1800s. It was immensely popular in West Virginia, Kentucky, Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylania, New York (and probably elsewhere). During both the 18th and 19th centuries, in those states, s-r bread was the most popular kind of breads along with (soda-leavened) cornbread and bisquets.

The most likely reason for its early popularity was that people lived in rather isolated communities and yeast was often in short supply and expensive. (Baking powder, a factory-made product that was not produced in the U.S. until 1850.) In the late 19th century, what with increasing industrialization and better transportation systems, s-r became only one choice among many great breads. Since the process was not easy and the odor strong,  in more recent years, almost all home-baked bread is made with yeast. S-r bread continues to be made in local, specialty bakeries, but today it's all but a lost art.

A family story about s-r bread
You may be thinking, if it stinks a lot and takes almost a full day to prepare, why would anyone want to continue with this tradition? Well, according to those who like it, it’s worth all the labor and even more. My Dad and my grandmother (we called her Mawmaw) swore that it was the most delicious of all breads. I remember that Dad considered it a real "find" when he ran into it, and, without any help, could eat half a loaf, served hot with butter. Even so, I don’t think that Mawmaw made it very often, and our usual source of s-r bread was a local bakery.

As far as my other childhood memories go, my Mom was not as thrilled as Dad to eat s-r bread and didn’t make it herself. On the other hand, I never noticed her refusing it. I liked it pretty well and joined in eating it, although sometimes I held my nose. I consulted with my sister on this subject and she remembered it being eaten in our home but not much else about it. She said she didn’t remember the taste at all and wondered if it ever got past her nose. (Children, of course, have a much better sense of sense of smell than their elders.)

By the way, back then, I was told, and am almost sure it’s true, that this bread should be eaten the same day it’s made because it tends to get rock-hard by the second day. (You can use hard bread to make bread cubes or crumbs.) On the other hand, I don’t ever remember a time when we didn’t eat it all, greedily, within a few hours of its appearance in our home.

If you’re willing to do some work, try making s-r bread
Here's your chance to carry on a long-standing tradition by learning to make s-r bread. To get you started, I’m passing on a recipe for this valuable piece of our heritage. So, this post is for all of you convinced, from-scratch cooks, like GrandmaS, who are eager to try out recipes for good food that don’t call for a lot of industrial products. I hope you’ll join me making s-r bread, and that its unique aroma and excellent taste will continue in the kitchens of future generations.

This kind of bread takes dedication and a lot of patience, taking from start to finish: eight or more hours overnight for the starter and from four to six hours (or more) for dough preparation the next day. I’m sorry to say I can’t duplicate Mawmaw's recipe for s-r bread. The fact is she never consulted recipes when she baked any kind of bread, at least I never saw her do it. If she left notes behind about her s-r bread, I never heard of any. So, I’ll tell you how I make sr-bread. It’s a combination of recipes from those that I found in several different cookbooks and cooking blogs.

To get the rising (starter) going, put 3 tablespoonfuls of sifted, corn meal in a large glass or crockery bowl. Pour a cup of boiling water over the cornmeal and stir it. Quickly add a cup of cold water so that the liquid is hot to the touch but not scalding. Then add ½ teaspoonful of salt, a pinch of soda, and a teaspoon of sugar. You may place a sliced white potato in the cornmeal water. Some cooks can get their rising to happen with only the potato and don’t need to use any soda at all. The potato, if used, is removed in the morning.

Set the mixture with a cloth on top on the back of the stove or in the oven with the pilot light lit, or anywhere else that will be warm all night – between 80 and 110 degrees. (I use my rice cooker – no lid - on the warm setting with a small plate under the bowl.) In the morning and after at least 8 hours, check to make sure the rising is frothy and has the unique s-r odor. (It should have no particular color. If blue or red strings appear, spoiling has occurred and the rising must be thrown out). Don't make more rising than you think you'll use the next day because, refrigerated or not, it doesn't keep.

In another big bowl, pour the rising and add enough lukewarm milk or water to make a full 2 cups. Add 1 teaspoon of salt, 1/3 cup of shortening, and 7 cups of flour. Knead everything together. Keep the mixture in a warm place until it has again doubled. Push it down, divide the dough in half (2 loaves), and place each half in a rectangular baking tin. Allow the dough to rise in the tins until doubled. Then bake at 350 F for about 50 minutes or until cooked through with a golden crust. Serve hot with butter or margarine and jam.

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