Salt-Rising Bread (story and recipe)

Posted on December 18th, 2012 in Commentary,Recipes by EngineerBoy

Heaven-scented memories…

When I was a kid in the 1960’s in Southern California, we would buy loaves of Van De Kamp’s Salt Rising bread at the grocery store.  The whole family *loved* this bread, it smelled heavenly while it toasted, and tasted even better.  The ultimate was to pair it with Knott’s Berry Farm Boysenberry Preserves…yum!

We then moved to Texas, and found that the same bread was available here, too!  But, alas, after a couple of years all the Van De Kamp’s products disappeared from the shelves, including our beloved salt-rising bread.  This was the early 70’s, and over the next few years we would get our salt-rising fix by bringing home a bunch of loaves any time we traveled to California, which was usually once or twice a year.  We didn’t get to have it all the time, but it turned into a special thing since we only got it once in a while.

But then it disappeared in California as well, as Van De Kamps stopped producing salt-rising bread some time in the mid 70’s, then eventually went out of business completely.  And that was the last of the salt-rising bread for me, for the next 30 years, or so.  Then 5-6 years ago I got a wild hair to figure out how to make it myself, and turned to the internet.

What I found was that the King Arthur Flour Company actually sold a Salt-Rising Bread Yeast, and I ended up buying some and making salt-rising bread at home.  It was good, but it’s a two day process, so I only made it a few times.  Then King Arthur stopped selling the yeast, and as of today the page linked above contains this disclaimer:  “Sorry, this item is currently unavailable for purchase”.  It has said that for the last few years, so I’m not optimistic they are ever going to bring it back, so I figured I needed to figure out how to make it from scratch.

That led me to find some homemade recipes which turned out to be tricky to master, but after a couple of false starts and failed starters I eventually found a combination of ingredients and steps that work beautifully and predictably, and you can find that recipe below.

Here’s where the story gets a little more interesting.  My grandmother passed away earlier this year, and one of the things that came up as we sorted through memories of her were details I’d never heard before.  In the 1930’s, during the height of the Depression, she moved to Los Angeles seeking employment, and ended up working at the Van De Kamps Bakery store.  It was there that she met my grandfather, who was a regular customer, and they ended up getting married.

So not only does salt-rising bread thread through my earliest childhood memories, but in actuality the connection with Van De Kamp’s goes back even further, which makes it taste that much better.

If you are an intrepid baker looking for a challenge, the recipe is as follows:

Salt Rising Bread Recipe

Ingredients:
2 baking potatoes, peeled and cut into thin slices
4 cups water
10 cups all-purpose flour
1½ cup milk
¼ cup corn meal, non-degerminated (very important!!)
6 tablespoons shortening
3 teaspoons salt
2 tablespoons sugar
¼ teaspoon baking soda

Making the Starter
Boil the water and pour it over the potato slices in a large bowl (that can withstand boiling water).   Stir in all the cornmeal and sugar, plus 1 teaspoon of the salt.  Here comes the first tricky part – you now want to place the bowl somewhere that will remain as close to 105 degrees F as possible to allow it to ferment.  For me it involves taking a large, heavy-bottomed pot, putting it on a small electric stove burner on low, placing a cork trivet in the bottom, then setting the bowl of starter on top of the cork trivet, and putting a loose lid on the large pot so that the bowl is enclosed.  Note that although I have never had a problem with this setup, there could be danger in a cork trivet in a pot on an active burner, so please use your own judgment and caution when attempting to derive a proper warming solution.

I strongly recommend placing a meat thermometer inside the pot and checking it regularly to maintain the temp as close to 105 degrees F as possible.  Leave the starter procreating for 12-15 hours.  You’ll know it’s done because it will be frothy and stinky.  If you don’t have a frothy stank after 15 hours, the starter didn’t start, so you should stop and start again.

Note that I had a lot of trouble getting my starters to start until I found a tip about using non-degerminated corn meal.  It’s sometimes tricky to find, but usually if a corn meal says that it’s stone ground and/or whole grain, that’s usually the ticket.  Many grocery stores carry Bob’s Red Mill Corn Meal, which is usually whole grain.

Making the Sponge
Once the starter is done, remove and discard the potatoes.  Heat the milk until it is warm/hot to the touch (not scalded or boiled), then add the milk, baking soda, and 3½ cups of flour to the starter and beat by hand until smooth – you want to get all the lumps out at this point, fyi.  Then cover the bowl with plastic wrap and put it back in your warming place at 105 degrees F.  After 1.5 to 3 hours it will have doubled in size, and will look creamy.  Once it has doubled in size, immediately move on to the next step, meaning don’t leave it long after the doubling or it will go past ‘pungent’ and get into ‘sour’ territory.

Making the Dough
Once the sponge has doubled in size, put 4 cups of flour in a large (different, empty) bowl, add 2 teaspoons of salt, and mix them together lightly.  Add the shortening and work it in until you have a meal-like consistency.  Now add this mixture to the sponge and beat together thoroughly.  Once it’s fully mixed, add another cup of flour and combine by hand to make a nice dough.  Turn the dough out of the bowl and onto a floured flat surface.  Note that this dough is STICKY, so you’ll want to keep dusting your hands with flour during this next part, which consists of kneading the dough for 2-3 minutes, then let it rest for 10-15 minutes.  Resume kneading for another 10 minutes or so, remembering to dust your hands as you go so you don’t end up with loaf-hands.

Once finished with the kneading, divide the dough into three equal portions that are roughly loaf-shaped, and place each piece into a greased loaf pan.  Cover the loaf pans with plastic wrap and set in a warm place for the dough to rise.  A couple of tips here – first, I like to spray the bottom side of the plastic wrap with oil (like from an oil spritzer or cooking spray) before placing on the loaf pans, because as the dough rises it might get high enough to hit the plastic wrap, and you don’t want it to stick.  Also, you’ll need a different ‘warm place’ for the loaf pans, as they won’t fit in a the pot as described above.  What I like to do is have my oven preheated to baking temperature (350 degrees F), set a cooling rack (like for cakes) on top of the stove, set the loaf pans on the baking rack, and then lay light dish towel over the whole thing like a tent, to help keep the rising heat in by the loaf pans.  Again, you may have to experiment here – you don’t want it too hot, but it does need to be warm for the dough to rise.

Let the dough rise for 2-3 hours.  It won’t double in size like typical bread, but will rise and additional ⅓ to ½, roughly.  After rising, remove the towel and plastic wrap and bake at 350 degrees F for 50 minutes, or until golden brown. It’s better to bake this bread a little longer rather than under-cook it, fyi.  Once it’s done baking, turn the loaves out onto racks to cool.

The Eating!
Now comes the best part – eating it!  Long experience has shown that we like it best sliced pretty thin, toasted, then buttered and served with Knott’s Berry Farm Boysenberry Preserves.  You may prefer it differently, so feel free to experiment.  You’ll know the bread is good if it smells like pungent cheese while it toasts.  Mmmm, heavenly!

There you have it, Salt-Rising Bread!  You’ll notice that there isn’t really much salt in the recipe – the name comes from the fact that the starter and sponge used to be made by placing the bowl in a large pile of rock salt that had been heated on the top of a wood stove.  The salt retained heat, and kept the starter and sponge warm enough to take.

Enjoy, and if you try making it, please feel free to come back and post your results and comments below!

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