Saturday, December 5, 2015

Salt Rising Bread

What is salt rising bread? I remember reading about it as a small girl in various books, such as Little  House in the Big Woods and Old Squires Farm where it featured under the homely title of "Mug Bread". Mug Bread was a reference to the beginnings of the dough and the somewhat uncertain process of capturing wild yeasts from the air, into a mixture of cornmeal and milk. 

From what I understand, this bread was invented as a substitute for yeast-risen bread and was baked in areas where commercial yeast wasn't readily available. Tradition says that this bread was made by early pioneers in the north east and Appalachian areas of the country. 

Ma was busy all day long, cooking good things for Christmas. She baked salt-rising bread and ‘Injun bread,’ Swedish crackers, and a huge pan of baked beans, with salt pork and molasses. She baked vinegar pies and dried-apple pies, and filled a big jar with cookies, and she let Laura and Mary lick the cake spoon.”
– Little House in the Big Woods
The reader may not know it as mug-bread, for that was a local name,
confined largely to our own Maine homestead and vicinity. It has been
called milk-yeast bread, patent bread, milk-emptyings bread and
salt-rising bread; and it has also been stigmatized by several
opprobrious and offensive epithets, bestowed, I am told, by irate
housewives who lacked the skill and genius to make it.

We named it "mug-bread" because Gram always started it in an old
porcelain mug; a tall, white, lavender-and-gold banded mug, that held
more than a quart, but was sadly cracked, and, for safety's sake, was
wound just above the handle with fine white silk cord.

That mug was sixty-eight years old, and that silk cord had been on it
since 1842. Its familiar kitchen name was "Old Hannah." I suspect that
the interstices of this ancient silk string were the lurking-places of
that delightful yeast microbe that gave the flavor to the bread. For
there was rarely a failure when that mug was used.

About once in four days, generally at night, Gram would take two
tablespoonfuls of corn-meal, ten of boiled milk, and half a teaspoonful
of salt, mix them well in that mug, and set it on the low mantel-shelf,
behind the kitchen stove funnel, where it would keep uniformly warm
overnight. She covered in the top of the mug with an old tin coffee-pot
lid, which just fitted it.

When we saw "Old Hannah" go up there, we knew that some mug-bread was
incubating, and, if all worked well, would be due the following
afternoon for supper. For you cannot hurry mug-bread.

The next morning, by breakfast-time, a peep into the mug would show
whether the little "eyes" had begun to open in the mixture or not. Here
was where housewifely skill came in. Those eyes must be opened just so
wide, and there must be just so many of them, or else it was not safe to
proceed. It might be better to throw the setting away and start new, or
else to let it stand till noon. Gram knew as soon as she had looked at
it. If the omens were favorable, a cup of warm water and a variable
quantity of carefully warmed flour were added, and a batter made of
about the consistency for fritters. This was set up behind the funnel
again, to rise till noon.

More flour was then added and the dough carefully worked and set for a
third rising. About three o'clock it was put in tins and baked in an
even oven.
- Old Squires Farm 

There is something rather nasty about the process if you think about it too much. You can read much more about the details of the process of leavening at this link: The Disquieting Delights of Salt-Rising Bread where I learned, to my uneasiness, that this kind of bread was successfully made from bacteria from an infected wound. 

I have always wanted to try making this kind of bread myself. I tried making it once before, as a teenager, but the attempt failed. There were no bubbles or "eyes" after the initial mixing and waiting period and I threw it out. Since relocating to Appalachian country earlier this year I have seen salt rising bread in the bakery section of several grocery stores and so once again was seized with a desire to try to make this mysterious bread. 

I used this recipe from Allrecipes.com and mixed up my milk, sugar, cornmeal and salt and set it in a warmed oven. (and the little girl in me was delighted to use a large blue crockery mug! Just like "Old Hannah" from the above story!) ;) I didn't use a crockpot to keep an even temperature and as the day was rather cold and damp I didn't expect my starter to work. I turned the oven on warm every so often throughout the day and then turned it off after about a half hour. A few eyes had appeared which encouraged me. That night, I shut the oven off completely and went to bed. 

The next morning there were so many bubbles that the starter was frothing and foaming. The starter was making a whistling sound as gases released from the bubbles. Hooray! I mixed in more warm water, some flour and some sugar. The recipe called for shortening but I didn't use any. I let the sponge rise and it doubled in just over an hour. I then kneaded in the rest of the flour and shaped it into two large loaves and let it rise. The bread baked up beautifully golden brown with a distinctive cheesy smell. 

It was absolutely delicious. Everyone enjoyed it sliced with butter and jam, but it was best toasted. 

I plan to make it again for Christmas if all goes well. While I do love the scent and flavor of yeast risen bread this is a very nice change once in a while. 

1 comment:

  1. This was a really interesting read, Sarah! Scary interesting! :) I have made my own sourdough starter before, but I didn't realize that salt-rising was different even from that. Fascinating--it especially makes the Little House reference come alive.

    Krista

    ReplyDelete

Thank you for your lovely thoughts!