It all began in someone’s kitchen, atop the wood burning cook-stove hundreds of years ago, and many generations past. This is when early American pioneer women figured out how to make bread without yeast, known as salt rising bread. There have been other names, such as ‘Light’ bread or ‘Emptyins’ bread, but the names salt rising or salt raisin’ have stuck (the mystery of how the bread got its name is another story). This is a uniquely Appalachian bread. The oldest recipe we found is from southern West Virginia (1791), and similar recipes are from the southwestern area of Pennsylvania (early 1800’s).
The origin of salt rising bread was most likely an accident. Perhaps someone’s gravy had fermented overnight at just the right temperature on a far corner of the hearth or wood stove. When found in the morning, this concoction would have risen substantially, had foam on the top and undoubtedly been a little smelly . Someone with a keen eye must have seized the moment, made the concoction into dough and baked it, thereby discovering a phenomenally great tasting bread. Through the years, this skilled knowledge was passed down from generation to generation. The family baker was humbly providing a daily service for her family, giving nourishment and comfort. Similarly, this is how foods across the world have become a shared human experience and launched memories that have lasted for centuries.
Salt rising bread has become a personal quest for me. I was given my first taste 30 years ago, in an old-fashioned kitchen that dated back to the 1800s in Greene County, Pennsylvania. The flavor is marvelous and different than any other bread. The wild microbes that raise the dough create a dense crumb with a cheesy-like flavor. After decades of success and failures, extensive searches for what little has been written about this bread, and asking for advice from expert elders in this southwest Pennsylvania locale, I can honestly say I have mastered the making of this artisan bread. What has sustained my passion for salt risin’? First, there is plenty of mystery behind this bread – How is the bread raised? Why are peoples’ memories so strong regarding this bread? And, what is its heritage? Then there is the challenge of making a successful batch of salt rising bread. What temperature is needed for the natural fermentation? Why do failures occur when making this bread? My culinary and scientific microbiology degrees have served me well in attempting to answer these questions, as has help from colleagues. Over the years, we have worked through many of the mysteries and challenges of making salt rising bread.
Currently, I am hoping to gain cultural heritage status for salt rising bread – at least for Pennsylvania and hopefully at the national level. Food enthusiasts all over the globe can benefit tremendously from tasting this bread, understanding the natural fermentation, and learning about the historical culture of southwestern Pennsylvania.
Genevieve Bardwell and Susan Ray Brown have written a book, titled Salt Rising Bread: Recipes and Heartfelt Stories of a Nearly Lost Appalachian Tradition.