This should really be properly called – “Pain in the Butt Bread”. No less an authority than James Beard said a good many negative things about it. But even Beard admitted that it is delicious when you get it right.
I had salt rising as a normal thing as a child. There was a neighborhood bakery nearby that made it on a regular basis. I can remember, somewhere around age four or five, going in with my mother about once a month for our fix of salt rising. Oh wow, the smells in that old-fashioned bakery were heavenly. I think it was an old German couple that ran it, but memory is somewhat iffy after all these years.
Salt rising has a particular pungency like no other. The crumb is smooth, creamy and tender. The crust is thin and delicate. The taste is addicting. I like my salt rising cut thin and toasted with a heavy layer of butter. It also makes a nice tomato sandwich, cut thin with a good slathering of mayo, fresh tomatoes, salt and pepper. Add some crisp bacon and a layer of lettuce for a real classic.
Salt rising was quite popular in the first 200 years or so in this country, and it is a real oddball. It does not rise from yeast, the lifting mechanism is the bacterium Clostridium perfringens. This is a three stage bread. First, we have to lasso the wild and wily Clostridium perfringens, this is the starter. Then we make a sponge. Then we make the bread. The bacterium is not as efficient a leavener as yeast, so the rise takes a good bit longer in each stage. We also do not get quite as much lift, even with the longer rise.
There are a ton of different recipes, some involve potatoes, some cornmeal. I even saw an article where one fellow had produced the starter from tree bark. Be forewarned, it may take several tries before you capture your wild Clostridium perfringens. Don’t bother going any farther until you have produced a healthy starter. It may take several tries. Generally, it’s going to be finicky the first time. If you do get good results, put a 1/8” layer of the successful sponge in a small salad bowl and cover with a cloth. When it dries scoop it out and seal it up. Then use a bit of it with the next batch to kick your starter off. It will be even better than the first lot. I tend to use this variation since the more exotic starter recipes involve straining the starter and I’m just too lazy to get involved in all that extra fuss.
Here goes –
Mix up the starter. Scald a cup of milk. That is, gently heat it up to around 180°, stirring constantly. Add ½ cup of cornmeal, a tablespoon of sugar and a teaspoon of salt. You want to hold this at 110° for up to 24 hours. A good electric skillet filled with water does fine. Set the bowl – glass, or at least something non-reactive – in the skillet and cover with a cloth. When you are successful you will have a layer of foam on top and a good, pungent smell. Not sour, just pungent. The smell of salt rising is unmistakable.
When you have a good starter, make the sponge. Add 2 cups 110° water, 2 more tablespoons of sugar, 3 tablespoons of soft butter, and 2 cups of unbleached AP flour. Mix completely, beating until it is smooth and silky. Put back in the warm water and cover. Let it rise until it is light and bubbly, 2 to 3 hours. It does not rise as much as a yeast bread would, only a 10% to 15% increase in volume, if that much.
Make the main dough. Mix up ½ teaspoon baking soda with just enough warm water to dissolve it and add it to the sponge. Mix in 5 cups AP flour, add just enough more flour, ¼ cup at a time until you have a good consistency: slightly sticky and somewhat tough in feel. Knead for a good 10 minutes. Maybe 5 minutes if using a mixer with dough hooks, when the dough climbs the hook and/or the mixer moans and complains you are there. Cut and form 3 loafs and place in greased bread pans 9x5x3. Grease up the top of the loafs and set aside covered to rise in a warmish place. You can still use the electric skillet, just set to 85°. I like to use butter for the grease as it lends a very nice taste to the crust. Let it rise until it is about 2 ½ times original size, somewhere between 3 and 5 hours.
Bake at 375° for 10 minutes, then drop the oven down to 350° for another 20-25 minutes. Alternately a straight 350° for about an hour. Whichever way you are looking for a nice brown crust and a done loaf. Do the thump test as for a usual loaf.