Salt Rising Bread from Drums of Autumn
“No, let him stay, Auntie,” he said, croaking slightly. “He’s a good fellow. Are ye no, a charaid?” He laid a hand on the dog’s neck, and turned his head so his cheek lay pillowed against Rollo’s thick ruff.
“All right, then.” Moving slowly, with a wary glance at the unblinking yellow eyes, I approached the bed and smoothed Ian’s hair. His forehead was still hot, but I thought the fever was a bit lower. If it broke in the night, as it well might, it was likely to be succeeded by a fit of violent shivering — when Ian might well find Rollo’s warm hairy bulk a comfort.
“Oidhche mhath.“ He was half asleep already, drifting into the vivid dreams of fever, and his “good-night” was barely more than a murmur.
I moved quietly about the room, tidying away the results of the day’s labors; a basket of fresh-gathered peanuts to be washed, dried and stored; a pan of dried reeds laid flat and covered with a layer of bacon grease to make rushlights. A trip to the pantry, where I stirred the beer mash fermenting in its tub, squeezed out the curds of the soft cheese a-making, and punched down the slow-rising salt bread, ready to be made into loaves and baked in the morning, when the small Dutch oven built into the side of the hearth would be heated through the night’s low fire.
Diana Gabaldon, Drums of Autumn, Chapter 28
Salt Rising Bread (SRB) is a dense, yeastless white bread that uses a unique overnight fermentation process as its rising agent. While its origin remains uncertain, it most likely came to the United States with 18thC European immigrants. It was made all over the country, but was especially popular in the Appalachian states.
The very name is a misnomer. Salt is not even a necessary ingredient for Salt Rising Bread, although it does lend great flavour to the loaves when included. The bread most likely acquired its name because the starter was originally set in a bed of warm rock salt overnight to maintain the required temperature for fermentation.
It took me 3 attempts to get the starter fermenting on a bed of coarse salt in the slow cooker/crock pot. I finally achieved success with a starter from a woman in Pennsylvania who made SRB for over 80 years. This picture shows the starter just after I uncovered it after 15 hours on the Warm setting.
A much more practical way to keep the starter at temperature is to put it in a tall jar with a lid, and then stand the jar in a crock pot partially filled with water.
Since no yeast is present, the dough is leavened entirely by the gases which are a by-product of the bacterial fermentation. SRB has an exceptionally close grain, a fine texture, an extra-white crumb, as well as a distinctive flat top and a subtle cheese-like flavor and aroma.
But SRB is also infamously tricky. The starter can be tough to activate, and even if you manage it, the life span of the bacterial organisms is limited and eventually terminates. Sourdough starters, in contrast, can be kept indefinitely because they contain a variety of continually growing wild yeasts and bacteria.
To help me in this temperamental baking venture, I enlisted the help of a new online friend from the OK Facebook page. Lori and I share a love of many things, including, obviously enough, Outlander and cooking. And when I found out that Lori also has professional culinary training, I jumped on the chance to have her join me in conducting simultaneous colonial bread baking experiments in our cross-continent modern kitchens. (While I’m in BC, Canada, Lori lives in Louisiana.)
Altogether, Lori and I made 5 successful batches of Salt Rising Bread over 2 long days. We traded photos/tips back and forth, marvelled at our
unexpected success and spent a lot of time, just hanging around, waiting for something to happen. It’s a fascinating process from a different era, and it gives you a very good idea why the Suffragette movement didn’t come about a little sooner.
The women were stuck waiting for the dough to rise.
You’ll find that the times I’ve given in the recipe are guidelines — this dough does not rise before it’s time — the last batch I made took 11 hours to rise once it was in the pans. It’s not exactly instant yeast.
But if you like to bake, I think you’ll find it fun. Pick a day when you’ll be around the house all day, and you should, if all goes well, have 2 fresh loaves of bread for your efforts. Start some Crock Pot Chicken Fricassee after you put the dough into the pans for its second rise, and you’ll have an Outlander-themed dinner worthy of Mrs. Bug.
My thanks to Susan Brown and her Salt Rising Bread Project page. The recipe below is adapted from her Starter #3 Recipe. I highly recommend reading through Susan’s site before starting your own batch. Lori and I both found the information invaluable.
(Click on the title below for a printable version of the recipe.)
A yeast-less bread, well known for it’s dense texture, soft crumb and unusual odour that was popular across the central and southern Appalachian states until the first half of the 20th C.
Yield: 2 loaves
All-Purpose Flour – 1 Cup
Cornmeal – 2 Tble
Water, lukewarm – 1 Cup
Milk, lukewarm – 2 Cups
Butter – 1 Tble
Sugar – 1 Tble
Salt – 1 tsp
All-Purpose Flour – 6 to 7 Cups
Read the whole recipe through at least once before you begin.
Mix together the ingredients for the starter and pour into a pitcher or tall jar and cover with a lid.
Place the pitcher in a crock pot filled with enough water so that it is 1” higher than the level of the starter in the jar. Set the crock pot on warm and leave it overnight. The starter must be kept in a warm place (90-110° F) for 8-16 hours. When the starter has successfully fermented, it will be foamy/bubbly and have developed a distinct aroma of “rotten cheese.” If, after that time, the starter is not activated, discard and start again.
To the fermenting starter, add the milk, salt, sugar, butter and flour to make a soft, slightly sticky, dough that can be easily handled.
Form into a ball, cover with clean towel or plastic wrap, and set aside in a warm, draught-free place until almost doubled in size, approx 2-4 hours.
Grease 2 loaf pans with butter.
Divide the dough into 2 equal pieces. On a lightly floured counter, press each piece into a rectangle about ½” thick. Starting on the shorter end, roll up the dough one section at a time, using your thumbs to pinch the seam closed after each roll. Pinch the final seam closed, then gently rock the loaf to even it out — do not taper the ends.
Transfer the dough to the prepared pans. Ensure the loaf touches both ends of the pan to ensure an even rise. Cover loosely with plastic wrap or a clean dishtowel and set aside to rise again, until the dough is doubled in size and cresting the top of the pans, approx 2-6 hours.
Bake at 350° F for 30-45 minutes.
Ith gu leòir! (Eat Plenty)