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WV Culinary Team: Tracing the Appalachian roots of salt-rising bread

By By Candace Nelson
WV Culinary Team
Courtesy photo
Salt-rising bread is an Appalachian creation that doesn’t require yeast to rise.
“SALT RISING BREAD” | Courtesy photo
Jenny Bardwell, proprietor of Rising Creek Bakery, learned to make salt-rising bread from Pearl Haines, a woman who attended her church and made salt-rising bread in a wooden bread bowl. Haines’ wooden bowl has been passed down to her great-grandchildren who continue the tradition of salt-rising bread.
“SALT RISING BREAD” | Courtesy photo
A collection of several handwritten salt-rising bread recipes from women in West Virginia.

If you grew up with your grandma or great-grandma making bread in West Virginia, there’s a good chance it was salt-rising bread.

Don’t let the name fool you — there’s no salt in this bread. And there’s no yeast.

This dense white bread is an Appalachian creation that doesn’t rely on yeast to rise. Yeast, which was likely only found at a brewery in the 18th or 19th century, may have been difficult to come by in rural areas during the early pioneer days. Innovative women likely crafted this recipe out of necessity or happenstance.

Salt-rising bread relies on the bacteria in potatoes or cornmeal and flour that goes into the starter to rise. The exact science of this bread is a bit shrouded in mystery, but time and temperature are key variables in the process — a lot of both.

As for the name, “salt-rising bread,” there are a few theories: In the early days, women kept the starter dough warm by placing it in the salt barrel on top of the wagon wheel while they traveled, and it was warmed by the sun.

Another is that the starter was surrounded by rock salt that was kept warm on the hearth. And yet another is that it’s an evolution of “saleratus,” which was an ingredient used in the early recipes prior to baking soda.

Whatever the origin, it’s a tradition that has been passed down through generations in Appalachia, though very few people continue to make the bread in this authentic way.

Jenny Bardwell and Susan Brown, authors of “Salt Rising Bread: Recipes and Heartfelt Stories of a Nearly Lost Appalachian Tradition,” are working to keep the craft alive and document its history.

Bardwell, proprietor of Rising Creek Bakery in Mount Morris, Pennsylvania, which specializes in salt-rising bread, and Brown, who is the founder of The Salt Rising Bread Project website, traced salt-rising bread’s history. The earliest recipe they found, for Salt Risen Bread, comes from West Virginia in 1778.

“The pioneer women who discovered that they could ‘raise’ bread dough without yeast may not have understood how it happened, but they seized the moment and repeated the process until they perfected it. And they shared,” the co-authors wrote.

Bardwell and Brown are sharing their knowledge with others through classes at the bakery, and they have taken it upon themselves to be the “chroniclers and preservers” of this nearly lost tradition.

“I’m devoted to this bread because I learned it from my grandmother, and it has been in my family for generations, and it’s a precious tradition that I don’t want to lose,” Brown said. “This is our heritage, and it was made by these Appalachian women who didn’t have another way to make bread, so they relied on their ingenuity and resourcefulness. And I think it’s important to keep that spirit alive.”

Brown said so few people make this traditional bread for a few reasons.

“One, it can be tricky, and two, it’s very time consuming. It’s a lot of hours to be at home and make sure you’re there to tend to it. And many women are working full-time and aren’t home like they used to be. So the tradition — which had been handed down through families — is being lost, and that’s why it’s important to keep it alive however we can,” she said.

Those who grew up with the bread long for that cheese-like flavor and fine crumbly texture. Those who aren’t as familiar often scrunch their noses at the microbial bread’s distinct smell but fall in love at first bite.

This bread is much like our region — steeped in tradition and resourceful. It’s these qualities that help define Appalachia, and paying homage to these traditions helps keep our history alive.

The Appalachian bread is important in our state’s culinary history, and through devotees like Bardwell and Brown, this tradition will not be lost.

Candace Nelson is a marketing professional living in Charleston, W.Va. She’s also the author of “The West Virginia Pepperoni Roll,” a comprehensive history of the unofficial state food, and blogs about West Virginia food culture at CandaceLately.com.Follow @Candace07 on Twitter or email Candace127@gmail.com.

Pearl Haines’s Salt Rising Bread Recipe

1/2 cup scalded milk

3 teaspoons cornmeal

1 teaspoon flour

1/8 teaspoon baking soda

Pour milk onto dry ingredients and stir.

Keep warm overnight until foamy.

After the raisin’ has foamed and has a rotten cheese smell, in a medium-sized bowl add 2 cups of warm water to mixture, then enough flower (about 1½ cups) to make like a thin pancake batter.

Stir and allow to rise again until it becomes foamy. This usually takes about 2 hours.

Add 1 cup of warm water for each loaf up to 6 loaves (e.g., 6 cups of water makes 6 loaves of bread).

Add enough flour (20 cups for 6 loaves or about one 5 pound bag of flour plus 1/3 bag of flour).

Form into loaves and grease tops.

Let loaves rise in greased pans for 1.5 to 3 hours — sometimes longer if it is a cold day.

Bake at 350 degrees for 35 to 45 minutes or until loaves sound hollow when tapped.

Recipe from “Salt Rising Bread: Recipes and Heartfelt Stories of a Nearly Lost Appalachian Tradition.”

Katheryn Rippetoe Erwin’s Salt Rising Bread

1 medium Irish potato, sliced and placed in a jar

1 tablespoon cornmeal

¼ teaspoon soda

¼ teaspoon salt

2 cups boiling water

Cover and let rise in a warm place until morning. (I set mine on top of the pilot light on my hot water tank). If the mixture is foamy and has the salt-rising bread “aroma” the next morning, pour off the liquid and throw away the potatoes.

Mix 2 cups of very warm water with ½ cup of shortening.

Add 1 teaspoon salt, 4 teaspoons sugar and 5 cups flour.

Combine with rising mixture (starter) to make a stiff batter.

Let rise until doubled in bulk.

Work in 6 cups of flour, to make a soft dough.

Divide into 3 portions.

Let rise 10 minutes.

Knead for 3 minutes.

Place in 3 greased pans.

Let rest until dough reaches the top of the pan.

Bake at 450 degrees for 15 minutes, then at 400 degrees for 25 minutes.

Recipe from “Salt Rising Bread: Recipes and Heartfelt Stories of a Nearly Lost Appalachian Tradition.”

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