In this modern-day-take-it-out-of-the-freezer-and shove-it-in-the-microwave world, we often lose sight of what real food tastes like. Not too surprising, when you look at the ingredient lists on most prepared foods. I figure if you can’t even pronounce half the ingredients, you shouldn’t rely on it as a major food source. Many so-called foods have more chemicals than food ingredients. Just think about beef stew or chili simmering slowly through the day, ready to warm the cockles of your heart – not to mention your cold hands – come dinner time. Or home-made breakfast burritos or Cornish pasties, stored in the freezer for those mornings when you can barely find the kitchen, let alone think up a menu.
From “Little Women” by Louisa May Alcott
Hannah had left a pan of bread to rise, Meg had worked it up early, set it on the hearth for a second rising, and forgotten it. Meg was entertaining Sallie Gardiner in the parlor, when the door flew open and a floury, crocky, flushed and disheveled figure appeared, demanding tartly…
“I say, isn’t bread `riz’ enough when it runs over the pans?”
Sallie began to laugh, but Meg nodded and lifted her eyebrows as high as they would go, which caused the apparition to vanish and put the sour bread into the oven without further delay.
In the days before commercial yeast was developed in 1860 or thereabouts, salt-rising bread and sourdough bread were the two types most cooks produced. Sourdough uses a starter from wild yeast that must be regularly fed to keep it alive, while salt-rising bread relies on the natural bacteria found in fresh-ground corn meal or potatoes as well as wild yeast for its leavening power. Salt-rising bread works best at warmer temperatures of about 100-113 degrees while sourdough prefers room temperatures. The salt in the bread is actually minimal and the name may have come from the practice of using heated rock salt to maintain the higher temperature to incubate the bread sponge. The bread has a characteristic odor (which disappears when the bread is toasted) and a fine crumb.
Salt Rising Bread
1 cup milk
1/2 cup cornmeal
1 tablespoon white sugar
1 teaspoon salt
2 cups warm water (110 degrees F)
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons white sugar
3 tablespoons shortening
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 tablespoon warm water (110 degrees F)
6 cups all-purpose flour
To Make Starter: Heat the milk (110 degrees F), and stir in 1 tablespoon of the sugar, the cornmeal and 1 teaspoon of the salt. Place this in a jar in an electric skillet or crock pot with hot water in it. Maintain the temperature around 105 to 115 degrees F for 7-12 hours or until it shows fermentation (many crockpots will get hotter than this even on low, so check yours first). You can hear the gas escaping when it has fermented sufficiently. The bubble foam, which forms over the starter, can take as long as 24 hours. Do not go on with the bread-making until the starter responds. As the starter ferments, the unusual salt-rising smell appears.
When the starter is bubbly, it is time to make the sponge. Place the starter mixture in a medium-size bowl. Stir in 2 cups of the warm water, 2 tablespoons of the sugar, the shortening and 2 cups of the all-purpose flour. Beat the sponge thoroughly. Put bowl back in the water to maintain an even 105 to 115 degrees F temperature. Cover and let rise until light and full of bubbles. This will take 2 1/2 to 3 hours.
Dissolve the baking soda in 1 tablespoon of the warm water and combine it with the sponge. Stir 5 1/4 cups of the flour into the sponge; knead in more flour as necessary. Knead the dough for 10 minutes or until smooth and manageable. Cut dough into 3 parts. Shape dough and place it in three greased 9x5x3 inch pans. Place covered pans in warm water or uncovered pans in a warm oven with a bowl of hot water, maintaining a temperature of 85 degrees F. It will take approximately 5 hours for the bread to rise 2 1/2 times the original size. The bread will round to the top of the pans. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Bake bread at 375 degrees F for 10 minutes. Reduce oven temperature to 350 degrees F and bake for an additional 20 minutes or until light golden brown.
You can dry salt rising culture. Save 1/4 cup of a successful sponge and pour it into a saucer, cover with cheesecloth and allow to dry. Store dried flakes in plastic in a cool, dry place or freeze until needed for salt rising bread. When ready to make the bread; dissolve the flakes in the new warm starter and continue with recipe. This will give a flavor boost to your bread.