The Distinct Smell of Hillbilly (Salt Rising) Bread


In today’s culture of artisan breads, there’s certainly no shortage of wonderful bakeries that bake hearty, healthy, and wonderful loaves.   You can get anything from sunflower seed to a rustic baguette. But amongst all these truly amazing breads , there’s one I really miss from my childhood. My grandpa used to make something called salt rising bread at his bakery in northern Kentucky. It’s very hard to find at even the older bakeries still around.     As a close cousin to sourdough, it’s comes from a very old tradition.   Even though rare, its tradition is still carried on in Kentucky, West Virginia, Western New York, and Western Pennsylavania.

Salt rising bread is a dense white bread that was widely made by early settlers in and around the Appalacian Mountains.    You might call it Bluegrass bread or holler bread.   The process doesn’t use yeast, or baking powder or soda, but natural organisms to help the dough rise.  The salt in the name is a misnomer, because there’s not much salt in the bread. In fact, it ususally has less salt than most yeast leavened breads. The thought is that salt was used in the early starters to suppress yeast growth and to promote the growth of other natural bacteria.     Or, it might have been the chunks of rock salt that early pioneer women used to warm and incubate a starter over night. Commercial yeast wasn’t available until the 1860s, so pioneer women had to innovate and come up with another way to make bread on the frontier. So, they turned to nature, using the local probiotics around.

The main leavening agents of salt rising bread are a bacterium called Clostridium perfringens, as well as lactobacilis, if milk is used in the starter, and other wild microbes. Clostridium perfringens, or c-perf is one of the fastest growing anaerobic bacteria. It’s commonly found in rotting vegetables and also native to the human GI tract. Although it’s one of the most common causes of food poisoing in the U.S., no one has ever been known to become sick after eating salt rising bread.

In 1923,  Stuart A. Koser, a USDA microbiologist performed a particularly macabre and gruesome experiment with salt rising bread.  He analyzed commercial salt-rising starters and found them teaming with the c-perf bacteria, then known to be found in gangrenous, putrefying flesh wounds.   He wondered if a known disease strain could grow well enough in dough to leaven it and so pose a hidden hazard to the consumer. So he obtained a bacillus culture from the army that had originally been taken from a soldier’s infected wound. It was called the “Silverman” strain, probably after the soldier or his doctor. And Koser made bread with these wound bacteria.   He reported that it compared in size and texture to the commercially made c-perf starters.  Regrettably, Koser didn’t report on flavor or test for toxicity of his wound-made Franken-bread starter.   So his test was relatively unconclusive, other than to point out there are different levels of toxicity from the c-perf bacteria.   But the moral of his story is, don’t lick the spoon or eat any raw dough when making salt rising bread!

A salt rising starter begins with boiling water or milk, and pouring over a mash of wheat flour and corn or potatoes, with some other minor ingredients.     The bubbly substance resulting after 18 hours incubation can then be used to rise bread.  If you use cornmeal for your starter, you want to make sure it’s organic, which comes with friendly bacteria for free!   A salt rising starter is different from a sourdough starter in that it incubates at higher than room temperature, while a sourdough is incubated at lower than room temperature.

Salt rising bread has a very pungent odor that some find very pleasant and some very repulsive. I just remember that growing up, when Mom was cooking breakfast and you smelled salt rising bread being toasted with that distinct sulphery smell, you knew there was going to be a good meal.   It’s smell to me was almost as good as the smell of sizzling bacon.  The bread went well with sunnyside up eggs, goetta, bacon, or just about anything.   The kind my grandpa and uncle made had a more yellowy color  than typical white bread, even though it’s made with wheat flour.   And it was fairly dense, so it had a great crunch when toasted.

C-perf bacteria produces a cocktail of volatile organic acids that include acetic and lactic acids but also butyric. Butyric acid is what gives the characteristic sharp smell of aged cheese.   C-perf also produces  propionic acid, which gives an aroma typical of Emmental-style Swiss cheese. A hot loaf of just-baked salt rising bread releases just enough of these volatile acids to sting the inquiring nose.   That sting is either deliciously good, or horrifyingly bad.

So this chemistry imparts the great cheese-like flavor, that followers of salt rising bread love.   My grandpa’s version had a stronger smell, more like limburger cheese and strong parmeson. It’s as if an unsweetened plain cake had a love child with any smelly European cheese.   Haters of the bread might say it has a taste close to dirty socks, but to those of us who love it, that smell means you’re about to have one delicious breakfast!!


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