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Friday, April 29, 2011

Orton's Whole Wheat Salt-rising Bread

Orton's Salt-rising Bread

What is 'Salt-Rising Bread'?

The term "Salt-Rising Bread" is a very old name for a loaf that is not made by yeast, or by sourdough, or by altus, or even by saleratus (although in some older recipes I've seen, sodium bicarbonate is used, it is not strictly necessary, as this recipe by Mildred Orton proves.  This is not a quickbread.).  In some recipes (as for example, those from Appalachia), this is made with a starter built from flour, milk and potatoes.  But most often, we do not see potatoes, we see corn meal.  In any case, what we have here is a self-inoculating bread, one that apparently leavens itself.

That's right.  This bread leavens itself.

Orton's methodology is succinct, short, but detailed, her ingredients simple.  Plenty of warnings abound in other books that describe the process similarly but say that it is hit or miss.  Any number of things can go wrong, and the bread will not rise at all, they say.  But on this, Mildred Orton is silent.  In her silence, I can almost hear her voice saying, "If you do it this way, my way, you cannot fail."  Despite the strange method, Orton inspires confidence with her silence!

Nevertheless, I expected my attempt to fully fail, because Orton wants me to freshly grind my corn into meal, and I don't have a mill that will handle a corn-sized kernel without the purchase of further attachments.  I am using store-bought corn meal, which most books tell you to avoid in salt-rising bread: overly-processed, with much of the bran layers removed, commercial corn meal will not contain the appropriate numbers of bacteria, I was told.  However, a short series of youtube videos on salt-rising bread baking poo-pooed this idea and convinced me finally to try.*

Leavens itself?  How does it work, anyway?

One opinion quoted by Kohman (which he pretty much debunked) said that it is indeed yeast that makes the bread rise, but that it is a wild yeast on the freshly ground corn.

But most articles say that it is not a yeast but a bacillus bacteria: and there are several candidates offered.  In all cases, the candidate bacillus is believed to be derived from the corn mash, not from the other ingredients; but it grows well in a scalded milk environment; it thrives on sugar, but does well enough on the sugars in flour, or milk; the salt environment inhibits yeast and alcohol formation; and the environment remains acidic.  Because we are not using yeast, we can use higher fermenting temperatures, even near-boiling temperatures, and the bacillus is not destroyed.  Because it is grown in a closed jar, it should be anaerobic.

Kohman says that the leavening agent he found predominates in the salt-rising bread is called by Wolffin and Lehman Bacillus levans.  Hart, R, "Leavening agents: yeast, leaven, salt-rising fermentation, baking powder, aerated bread, milk powder" (1914) discusses Kohman's findings.

Heinemann and Hefferan in their study of Salt-rising Bread in "The Journal of Infectious Diseases", 6.3 (1909) , propose Bacillus bulgaricus as the main leavening agent.  This microbe is useful in the fermentation of milk, for drinks like kefir.  But milk is not strictly necessary for this bread to work, it just helps.

Koser in his study in "The Journal of Infectious Diseases" 32.3 (1923) suggests that Bacillus welchii (the same widely prevalent microbe that creates gas gangrene) is the culprit.  To anyone who has smelled gangrene, this is a rather unappetizing notion.

According to Juckett, Bardwell, McClane and Brown, in "West Virginia Medical Journal" 104(4) (2008), the main leavening microbe of the Appalachian Self-Rising Bread is said to be Clostridium perfringens, commonly found to cause food poisoning in meat; but there have been no reports of poisoning from eating the bread.  Wikipedia claims that C. perfringens is indeed the main leaven (Wiki also says that a Campden tablet can be used to suppress any yeast.  But this is something that the salt may already be doing; and my feeling is that the sodium metabisulfate might also suppress some of the beneficial naturally occurring lactobacillus.)

Although the bread is obviously leavened with a bacillus, there are an incredible number of species, and which ones predominate in any single bread remains to be well studied, because the bread has not found wide acceptance or distribution.  The bread has not been well studied, I think, because it has fallen out of favour.

In literature and reports of oral history, we find references to a distinct odour that comes from kitchens that frequently make salt-rising bread.  Some recipes will even claim that more success is to be had in dirty kitchens, where perhaps there is more beneficial bacteria floating around.  These days, such a symbiotic relationship with the unseen world of micro-organisms is not in vogue.

If Van Gogh had sketched some Salt-Bread Eaters
their kitchen and dining area would be messy like these potato eaters 

Thus, the bread remains somewhat of a mystery.

I have been wanting to try a version of this bread, ever since I first read of it in the free online book, Kohman, H. "Salt-Rising Bread and Some Comparisons With Bread Made With Yeast" (1911/1942)

To be honest, when I first read of this bread, I didn't believe it was real, I thought it was a myth of some sort.  I knew how long it takes for a sourdough starter to come to leavening strength (days, weeks or months), and thinking that the bread must be using some wild yeasts, I frankly didn't believe that the salt-rising bread with a single overnight fermentation from first mixing would actually work.  How could a successful culture be established overnight?

But myths and mysteries raise our curiosity.  This bread was definitely worth looking into.

The Orton Recipe

Mildred Orton's recipe seems quite typical of the recipes I've seen.  She does not feel the need to name the various stages, I have done that for my own convenience and historical interest.  Here are the weights of the ingredients that I used:
Ingredients for Starter, Sponge, and Final Dough
Starter (sometimes called "The Emptyings" or "Jug-yeast")

236g scalded milk
13g brown sugar
5g salt
79g corn meal


100% starter
300g wwflour
27g brown sugar
483g warm water
40g melted butter


100% sponge
690g wwflour

You need to find a container that fits inside another container.  The 'jar' I used was a crockery, and the outer container I used was a plastic container that (barely) held it.  The larger container would then (barely) fit inside my proofing cupboard (my Excalibur Dehydrator).

The Starter is made the night before.  In my case, I mixed it up around 2230, before bedtime.  The milk is scalded, and while it is hot the other ingredients are added and mixed to a fine mush.  Then, it is placed in a jar, and the jar is placed in a container full of very hot water.  The container of water with the jar is placed in a warm spot, and it is left overnight (I put mine in the dehydrator on a warm, bread-proofing setting).

Orton claims that by morning, there will be evidence of fermentation.  I didn't see any, but I did smell the corn, there was a scent like warm moist corn.  It is kind of like the smell of creamed corn, but of course, it still looks like mushy cornmeal. After 12 hours, I pressed on anyway, and mixed the ingredients of the sponge.

This is placed in the jar as well, and the jar sits in a container of very hot water again, and placed in a warm place.  At this point, I checked the container hourly, because I didn't know if there was going to be anything happening, or when.

I don't know where I got the idea that it should be starting to bubble in three hours, but there seemed to be nothing to be seen at 1 hour, 2 hours, or 3 hours.  I elected to leave it still longer (although you can see, with these flash photos, taken at the hourly intervals, that something is indeed happening!)

At the 4th hour, there was definitely some fermentation happening.  "Huh," I thought.  "It's true.  It's not a myth after all.  There is definitely something to this recipe."  This was the first moment when I believed it.

My sponge was now bubbling, and giving off the aroma of silage.  It is not an unpleasant smell.  Just perhaps not what humans are accustomed to considering food.

I immediately mixed up the Dough with the sponge.

Orton says to knead this for 10-15 minutes.  I kneaded for about 6 minutes and that's all I could stand.  By then, the dough was well incorporated (except for one or two blobs of cornmeal that would have to remain in the body of the bread), and I could tell that there was indeed some carbon dioxide gas being expelled because of the pressure of my hands, and the motion of the dough.  It was sticky, but not overly much.  The dough remained quite warm.

I shaped it into a boule and then elongated it somewhat, squeezing it into my previously buttered longer pan.  I covered it with a cloth and placed it back into the dehydrator to proof.  I continued to check it hourly.  After the first hour, it was rising to what I felt was enough.  I preheated the oven.

The bread is baked at 475 degrees F for 15 minutes, and then another 30 minutes at 375 degrees F.  Although Orton doesn't suggest it, I tossed some water in a pan to provide a bit of steam/moisture for the initial stages of the baking.  I figured it couldn't hurt.

The dough looks quite nice, I think.  It had a nice tan colour to it even prior to the baking.

I did not score the loaf, and it blew apart in the oven along one edge.  That made it unlovely, but it still holds together nice when you slice into it.

The scent is unusual, and indescribable (but when has that ever stopped me from trying?).  Your nose knows that this has been fermented.  It will also tell you that it is now safe to eat.  The scent is faintly sweet, refreshing, but not in a green grass way.  I wouldn't exactly call it 'cheesy'.

The loaf is dense to cut, surprisingly heavy, even hefty.  The crust is faintly crunchy, with a taste of sweet corn.  Even with the thinnest scraping of butter, the loaf does not taste salty, it tastes sweet: and there is lots of flavour there that you will not find in any other bread.  This bread claims its own name, and deserves it, because it is so different.

I tried some with honey, but found that to be overly sweet and rich.  It was better with a tiny bit of cheese and some pimento.  A bit of hot pepper and a cheese melt would complement this bread nicely.  I think I'll toast some tomorrow and try a melt.


* The Salt-Making Bread Videos:
Here is a link to a very interesting series of cute Youtube videos that for some reason have not yet been well-viewed (the counter says I am only the second one to view it, which means it has not yet gone viral!).  Jenny Bardwell and Susan Brown for Expert Village (filmed by Danniel Fishler) give 14 lessons in short videos, detailing how to make Salt-Rising Bread.  The two home-bakers are obviously having a lot of fun together, despite the fact that they have completely different baking styles!

They describe the crumb of the loaf as 'dense' or 'fine', the taste of the final bread as  'cheesy', but in certain stages the pre-ferments smell like 'old tennis shoes'.  I can't understand why this bread hasn't widely caught on…

The salt-rising bread-making process requires controlled temperatures and in some of the videos, the ladies have lots of interesting ideas on how to keep the starter, sponge, or bread dough warm, using what they have on hand in the home and kitchen.

I find it curious that they use white flour and commercial corn meal.  Susan Brown says that she has been using commercially prepared corn meal all her life, and her grandmother used it too, and they never had a problem making salt-rising bread, despite what the recipes say: most will say that they require stone-ground.

The videos seem to be filmed and presented out-of-order; Video 8 and then 11 are probably the introductory videos, but the ladies don't introduce themselves or their topic until long after the sun has risen.  The ladies start well before dawn: Videos 12, 13 show them working away when it is still quite dark out.

Notes to Myself
  • This bread is worth making again some day.  I wonder if it would stand up to being baked without a baking tin?
  • Score the loaf.  It is certainly dense enough that you won't have to worry about deflating it.
  • Believe that the loaf will rise by itself.  It really does.
  • Try it with the potato method (as described in various recipes easily available, or even with the method shown by the ladies in the videos).  If you get rid of the corn meal entirely, will the 'silage smell' go away?
  • A couple of days after making this, I discovered the blog "Bread Experience" which has recently made a salt-rising bread.  Looks good, I'll continue to check out this blog, and add it to my bread feed.


  1. Hi. this is Susan Brown, from the Salt Rising Bread video. Just wondering if you ever tried SRB again, after the one you wrote about here?

    1. I have not! But that is not because I didn't enjoy the bread or the process. It is just such a different taste, and one that I will have to try again. I'm sure it will grown on me. I don't eat a lot of corn, but it isn't a hard and fast rule with me. I just like other grains more. Have you ever tried to make it without corn? Is there something about corn that makes it possible, and it just wouldn't work without corn?

      As I reply to you, I am currently fasting from all bread for a year. I expect to get back to baking and eating one day, however. So far, I haven't given up on bread experiments, and that includes salt-rising bread.

      I'd like others to try this kind of bread and tell me what they think. My guess is that it is an acquired taste, and you start to appreciate the nuances the more you try it.

      By the way, thanks very much for the videos, I enjoyed them!

  2. It looks like your initial starter did NOT ferment properly, but that you managed to get enough fermentation from the wheat flour to do it. Salt Rising Bread requires cornmeal or wheat flour that has NOT been de-germed in order to develop the right bacteria to raise in a way that is different from yeast breads. It has a distinctive cheesy odor, in both the starter and the bread.

    I have done it with using 2 X the amount of FRESH milled whole wheat flour instead of the cornmeal, and it worked, though the gluten in the wheat flour gives you an actual puffy mixture instead of just bubbly like the cornmeal is supposed to do (I could not get the right cornmeal so I used the wheat from a different recipe instead).