Last updated on April 15th, 2020
Salt Rising Bread is uniquely delicious. I love its heady aroma, chewy crumb, and crackling crisp crust. And would you believe all this goodness comes not from yeast, but from the bacteria in fermented potato water? Here’s how to make this long-forgotten Appalachian awesomeness:
Salt Rising Bread: A Brief History
Early settlers in the Appalachian Mountains developed Salt Rising Bread. The title is a misnomer — the bread contains almost no salt. Far less salt, in fact, than ordinary bread. To maintain a warm environment for the bread’s potato-based starter, which was made in an earthenware pot, the clever pioneers buried the pot up to its rim in an insulating bed of rock salt. Hence the name “Salt Rising.”
Recipes for Salt Rising Bread have been passed down from generation to generation. My version is based on one published by James Beard in his enormous tome American Cookery (1972; Little, Brown and Company). I’ve simplified the recipe to good effect.
Blah, blah, blah. Let’s make this long-forgotten bread!
Making the Potato Starter
To make the starter, slice a well-scrubbed russet potato into 1/4-inch rounds.
Put the slices in a clean, quart-size mason-type jar, filling the jar only halfway.
To the potatoes, add 1 tablespoon sugar…
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda…
1/4 teaspoon table salt…
And 3 tablespoons all-purpose (a/k/a “plain”) flour.
Now add enough boiling water to cover the potatoes…
And stir the works as much as you are able to with the handle of a soup spoon. Add more boiling water, if necessary, to insure the potatoes are fully submerged.
Then place a piece of cling film over the jar, and cut a slit in the film so that gasses can escape.
This potato starter requires 8-12 hours in a warm, 100°F – 105°F location in order to become active. A proofing oven is ideal. Otherwise, consider a heating pad or a warm water bath in a crock pot to provide steady warmth.
The starter is ready when it foams to the top of the jar, and it emits a smell that I can only describe as downright disgusting. James Beard said the aroma can be quite…”startling.” And he wasn’t kidding. But this foul-smelling starter is responsible for what, in the end, will be a delightfully scented bread.
Making the Potato Water Sponge
Pour the starter’s foam and liquid into a sieve set over a large bowl. Discard the potato slices.
To the bowl, add 1 cup of warm (100°F) water.
Then gradually whisk in 2 cups of flour until a pancake-like batter develops. This batter is the “sponge.”
Cover the bowl with a towel, and let the sponge rise in a warm location until doubled in volume and quite bubbly — about 2 hours. (Psst: If you can make a pancake batter, then you can make my uber delicious English Muffins. Here’s the recipe.)
Making, Kneading, Forming and Baking the Salt Rising Bread Dough
To the bubbly sponge, gradually stir in 2 cups of flour until a thick, shaggy dough develops. The dough will be very sticky at this point.
Turn the dough onto a well-floured work surface, and sprinkle additional flour (1/2 cup or so) on top of the dough.
Gently knead until the dough becomes flexible but still quite soft — about 5 minutes. Knead only by hand — a machine will overwork the dough and press out its leavening gasses.
Now cut the dough into 2 equal pieces…
And press each piece into a 9-inch long rectangle.
Roll up the long edge of the dough as if rolling a cigar…
And place the cigars in 2 greased, 9-inch-diameter bread pans.
Cover the pans with a towel, and let rise in a warm location until the dough expands all the way to the top of the pans — about 2 hours.
Bake at 400°F until the bread is brown and it emits a hollow sound when rapped with knuckles — 35-40 minutes. Unmold the loaves onto a wire rack and let cool completely.
Salt Rising Bread is absolutely delicious. The crust on my 2 loaves remained crackling crisp even after the bread had achieved room temperature. Amazing!
Think you’ll give this traditional bread a try? You can let me know by posting a comment below. Also, kindly let me know if Salt Rising Bread is a part of your family’s history.
Here’s the printable:
Salt Rising Bread
For the potato starter
- 1 large russet potato, cut into 1/4-inch slices
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- 1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
- 1/4 teaspoon table salt
- 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
- Boiling water to cover
For the potato water "sponge"
- 1 cup warm (100°F) water
- 2 cups all-purpose flour
For the dough
- 3-4 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting
For greasing the bread pans
- butter, shortening, or vegetable spray
Making the starter
- Put the potato slices in a clean, quart-size mason-type jar. Use only enough slices to reach halfway up the sides of the jar. Add the sugar, baking soda, salt, and 3 tablespoons of flour. Then pour on enough boiling water to cover the potatoes. Use a chop stick or the handle of a spoon to lightly mix the ingredients. (Don't worry if clumps remain.) Add additional boiling water, if necessary, to insure potatoes are fully submerged. Cover the jar with cling film, cut a slit in the film, and place in a warm (100°F-105°F) location until the jar fills with foam -- 8-12 hours.
Making the sponge
- Strain the starter liquid and foam into a large bowl. Discard potatoes. Add to the bowl 1 cup warm (100°F) water. Then gradually whisk in 2 cups of flour to achieve a pancake-like batter. Cover the bowl with a towel, and keep warm until the sponge doubles in volume -- about 2 hours.
Making and Kneading the Dough
- Generously flour a work surface.Gradually stir in 1 or 2 cups of flour into the sponge to create a rough, sticky, or "shaggy" dough. Scrape the dough onto the prepared work surface, and sprinkle more dough -- 1/2 cup or so -- onto the surfuce of the dough. Knead by hand just until the dough softens and becomes less sticky -- about 5 minutes.
Forming the loaves
- Cut the dough into 2 equal pieces. Take one piece, and pat it out into a rough 9-inch rectangle. Roll the long edge into a cigar shape, and place it, seam-side-down, in a greased 9-inch bread pan. Repeat for the remaining piece of dough. Cover the pans, and let rise until the dough reaches the rim of the pans -- about 2 hours. About 20 minutes before the loaves are fully risen, center the oven rack and preheat the oven to 400°F.
Baking the bread
- Bake in the preheated oven until the bread browns attractively, and it emits a hollow sound when rapped with the knuckles -- 35-40 minutes. Cool completely on a wire rack.