Salt-Rising Bread - Gastro Obscura

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Salt-Rising Bread

Bacteria that cause gangrene are the magic ingredient in this cheese-scented loaf.

Women traversing the American frontier didn’t have time to worry about keeping a bread starter. Salt-rising bread, whose rising depends upon neither salt nor yeast, became their solution. Pioneers cultivated bacteria in the potatoes or cornmeal that they mixed with flour to make a funky, fresh loaf.

Culinary innovators, particularly in Appalachia, relied on Clostridium perfringens to make what came to be known as “salt-rising bread.” The microbes create hydrogen, which leavens dough the same way carbon dioxide from yeast does. These bacteria are everywhere. They’re the same ones that can cause diarrhea and gangrene. One scientist in the 1920s even baked salt-rising bread using bacteria from an infected wound. But the strains in salt-rising bread rarely cause food poisoning. Besides, baking the loaf kills most of the bacteria off.

To cultivate a starter, bakers boil cornmeal, sugar, salt, and milk. Then, they leave the mixture somewhere warm (around 100 degrees Fahrenheit) for eight to twelve hours. Afterward, the starter is ready for the “sponge,” or flour component, of the recipe. Given a few more hours, the exterior should produce a bubbly foam coating—a sign of its signature stink. Children might compare the finished result to “distant dirty feet,” but adults tend to enjoy the cheesy aroma of the fine-crumbed, dense, and tender loaf.

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