Text Box: SALT-RISING BREAD - A Continuing Conundrum 

First published in Petits Propos Culinaires 70, July 2002.©) 
by Reinald S. Nielsen, n984652@hypernet.com
        I was delighted by  salt-rising bread when introduced to it by my in-laws in the 1950s.  By that time, there were few bakeries regularly producing the bread.  The relatives  occasionally delivered bread from a surviving baker in Greencastle, Indiana.

 The origin of the salt-rising bread process is unknown.   It may be an adaptation from kenkey -a corn (maize) based West African breadstuff.  Historically, the leavened dough was wrapped in banana leaves and cooked by steaming for several hours.  The leaven is created from corn meal wet with warm water in a covered pot  held for six hours to several days until it ferments.  Scarcity of banana leaves in U.S. slave states would inspire use of pans and ovens as displaced Africans attempted to create a favorite food..  One can imagine that availability of wheat flour, milk, sugar, salt, etc. lead to variant recipes that culminated in salt-rising bread.

 Alternatively, perhaps a frontier woman, without access to yeast, mixed corn meal, flour, salt, and sugar with water or milk in an attempt to produce a bread and recognized the potential when the abandoned slurry turned gassy and smelly.  J.C. Furnas, in "The Americans" remarks: "Harsh things have been said about the smell.  In the 1930's the fumes from a bakery in New York City supplying salt-rising bread for a few addicts so annoyed the neighborhood that its manufacture was suppressed as a public nuisance."

 While a salt-rising bread starter can have a strong odor and baking bread emits a similar,  though milder odor, to we addicts the finished bread smells fine.  Toasted and spread with butter, it is an excellent part of breakfast.  Furnas goes on to declare "Indeed it is, when at its best - as if a delicately reared, unsweetened plain cake had had an affair with a Pont l'Eveque cheese." 

 My wife Nancy and I followed a variety of recipes to sometimes succeed and more often fail to make satisfactory loaves of salt-rising bread.  Visits to used-book stores were often motivated by the search for old cookbooks with salt-rising bread recipes.  "The Practical Housekeeper" of 1867 has the oldest recipe found during my sporadic attempts to trace an origin for the salt-rising bread process.  Dr. Chase's "Third and Complete Receipt Book" was thus found.  The recipe of a Mrs. Bruce, quoted by Chase, proved reliable; success more often than failure.  An early cautionary note also came to my attention.