Editor’s Note: While regular columnist Gloria Yoder is taking a week off to settle in with her two new foster Children, I reached out to Susan Schlabach whose family owns one of my favorite Plain-owned businesses, The Home Place, in Georgetown, Ohio. The Schlabachs belong to the Beachy Amish-Mennonite church. The Beachy Amish-Mennonite church hews to many of the same traditions as the Old Order Amish, but are more progressive in their adoption of technology and participating in missionary work. Susan and her husband Delbert and family own and operate The Home Place Bakery, 7771 US Route 68, in Georgetown, Ohio. I hope you enjoy her exploration of a topic that has sparked interest among column readers over the years: salt-rising bread! — Kevin Williams
Salt Rising Bread?
The label puzzled me, a seasoned bread baker who had just moved to southern Ohio from northern Indiana. I researched it in books. I asked around. I bought any available loaves for sale. I developed a file for SRB recipes and information. I found the somewhat elusive loaves at a small homespun bakery in Orangeburg, Kentucky, known locally for its transparent pies and salt rising bread, and at an old order Mennonite bakery in Bainbridge, Ohio. My Mennonite friends of Leesburg, Ohio, blessed me with instructions and a recipe.
My success soared and plunged by turns and the most predictable ingredient I included was fervent prayer!
One farmer suggested that my kitchen was too clean. Another told me not to run the container for the fermented mixture through the dishwasher. One lady chuckled as she told me her salt-rising ancestor would take the mix to bed with her. Several things became crystal clear to me: temperature for the 10 to 12-hour fermenting process was of utmost importance. A dependable thermometer in the mix eliminates guesswork. I finally distilled all my incubation methods into one that worked 90 percent of the time. An Igloo picnic cooler held a small lamp with a 40-watt bulb. My glass pitcher with the cornmeal mix was placed in a larger bowl of warm water. Therein resided the hope and expectation of dozens of golden salt rising loaves. I cheered when getting out of bed in the morning with that keen tingling sense of “stinky bread” wafting from my mix. It has been dubbed the smell of dirty feet, or worse. While working with the raw mixture, it is deemed malodorous by nonconnoisseurs, but aromatic by the one who’s babied and nursed the mess. One can judge by the aroma whether the sponge will grow and deliver. If it doesn’t have the right smell, there is no profitable use for the mix but to throw it out and start over.
My mix began to prosper more than it failed. I was elated!
When I bake several loaves for home use, I pet and coax it as in the yeast-free recipe, in an optimum environment, temperature wise. For the loaves baked at the store, I adapt with a very small addition of instant commercial yeast to give the loaves an extra nudge, due to the sheer quantity of loaves, time frame and cool-ish environment. I have clients who are my fans and laud my loaves loudly. Others insist that it’s still not like grandma’s, and I readily grant them that. While the addition of commercial yeast has been said to mask the cheese-like flavor, I maintain that my version is unmistakably pungent.
Why would a busy bakery entrepreneur persevere for years to perfect a single weekly product, throwing away enough products to fatten a hog?
We all know that in food, “texture is everything.” The crispy outside of a toasted slice of SRB, covering the almost velvety inside, defies description. Add to that the cheesy flavor, and we deem the product to be well worth the journey. It’s been a heartwarming adventure to discover other fans of this artisan bread. Everyone has a story, a memory and advice. We’ve been captivated by the spell; or should I say smell!
SALT RISING BREAD
1/3 cup cornmeal
2 1/2 tablespoons all purpose flour
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
1 3/4 cups scalded milk (170-degree), can be whole milk, 2 percent or skim
Scald milk and stir well with other ingredients. Place in large glass container. Place plastic wrap over top loosely, positioning thermometer in center. Cover loosely with towel. Place in larger water bath of 110-degree water. Place in Igloo cooler or box with bulb, proofer, or oven with pilot or whatever you have experimented with that yields desired temperature.
In the morning, when the foam seems right and is still rising, add 6 cups water (or less, depending on how many loaves you wish to make) and enough flour to reach the consistency of thick pancake batter. Return to site of incubation for 1 to 2 hours. Cover loosely. (Before I knew better and closed it tightly, allowing pressure to build, I ended up with bomb-like projectiles that called for disaster clean-up!)
When sponge has risen to about double, pour into large warm mixer bowl. Add 6 tablespoons salt and 1 1/4 gallons hot water. Add about 10 pounds flour, kneading slowly with dough hook. I also add a dollop of vegetable oil and just a tad of sugar, even though some recipes omit those two ingredients. Continue to add several additional cups of flour, if necessary, to end up with dough on the wet side. Work out into loaves. Now it’s crucial for the bread to rise in a warm environment. Like turn your oven on briefly, then off. Allow to rise until the loaves rise a half inch above the top of the bread pan. Bake at 375 degrees for 15 to 20 minutes or until bottom is nicely browned.
SALT RISING FACTS AND RESOURCES
FAQ about Salt Rising Bread:
• Origin? Probably early settlers who couldn’t access commercial yeast. The Laura Ingalls books refer to it. My mother-in-law, who raised a family in the jungles of South America, said, “Oh, the bread without yeast.”
• What’s the salt about in the title? Is it salty? One thought has it that the wood stove with a salt cellar or salt barrel alongside was the perfect incubation space for the starter overnight. Thus…”salt raisin….” Or the “saleratus” early settlers carried with them used in baking biscuits and breads may have given it its name.
• Is it like sour dough? No, the only resemblance is that it also takes time and naturally occurring bacteria.
• Do loaves of SRB keep well in the freezer? Yes, very well. In fact, at home I like to keep my sliced loaves in the freezer and from there to the toaster. I don’t want to risk losing any on the counter. Freeze for several months or until your next trip to The Home Place. I usually make it every Friday morning. It is generally out on bakery shelves by early afternoon. Call if you want to be certain (937-378-3400). We also try to keep frozen loaves in the merchandising freezer, all week.
• What’s wrong when I follow your recipe and it doesn’t work? I cannot stress enough the importance of using a thermometer (that has been calibrated) and checking it frequently to monitor keeping the temperature of the starter incubating at 104 to 110.
Susan Brown and Genevieve Bardwell of Rising Creek Bakery, Mount Morris, Pennsylvania, wrote a book in 2016 titled “Salt Rising Bread: Recipes and Heartfelt Stories of a Nearly Lost Appalachian Tradition.” This has got to be the SRB Bible of all time. I began to understand that my own flopped batches and loaves with cavernous holes had lots of company. Susan and Genevieve would always graciously answer my questions by phone, or by email.
• Potatoes or cornmeal or both in the starter?? There are various ways; they can both work. I use milk and corn meal.