A unique Appalachian recipe demands one part history and one part science.
John Fahey woke up before dawn and drove thirty miles to The Rising Creek Bakery on the border of Pennsylvania and West Virginia.
He orders his breakfast of stewed tomatoes over salt-rising bread. He looks excited. Growing up in Weston, West Virginia, Fahey ate the bread all the time, but until he stumbled upon this bakery, he hadn’t had it in decades.
“It has a density, it has a different taste to it that a loaf of regular bread or a loaf of whole wheat bread doesn’t have,” he said.
Salt Rising Bread is an Appalachian tradition dating back hundreds of years. The bread isn’t salty, as its name would imply. Its dense and chewy and has a slightly funky, cheesy taste. What makes it different hits you as you enter the bakery’s kitchen.
“Wobbly and smelly,” is how Jenny Bardwell, the owner and head baker here at Rising Creek, describes the aromas filling the air in her kitchen. “It has a really strong smell which is a very good sign with salt rising bread.”
The difference between a loaf of regular bread and salt-rising bread has to do with the yeast, or, in Bardwell’s kitchen…the lack of it.
“Of course there’s no yeast in salt rising bread, its just a natural fermentation that is with cornmeal and or potatoes and has to sit overnight in a heated location,” she said.
Jenny Bardwell’s bakery is one of the few places that makes this bread. That’s because its takes a long time—anywhere from 9 to 12 hours and the art of making it has been dying with generations.
This bread is believed to have originated here in Appalachia. Pioneer women crossing the country in wagon trains lacked yeast to make bread—commercial yeast wasn’t available until the mid 1800s. So they’d combine ingredients along the salt barrel that was on the outside of the wagon train wheel. The day’s sun, would make the ingredients bubble and ferment; thus a starter culture. By night they could bake their bread.
When Bardwell opened this bakery, she had to learn how to make this bread.
“We went back to kind of the source of salt rising bread the women who make it in the hills around here,” she said.
Every bread needs a new starter culture. Rising creek makes theirs with cornmeal, water and time—in a chemical bath.
In that starter culture is a common bacteria: clostridium perfingens.
At Bruce McClane’s lab at The University of Pittsburgh, hundreds of strains of this bacteria are scrutinized. The bacteria is in the starter culture that combines with cornmeal and flour to make salt rising bread.
Clostridium perfingens is a common bacteria found in soil, in raw meats and in the intestines of normal healthy people. McClane, a professor in microbiology has spent decades studying this bacteria.
Twenty years ago, Jenny Bardwell and salt-rising bread blogger Susan Brown approached McClane hoping to learn more about the science behind this bread. Despite having spent his career studying this bacteria, he had never heard of the bread.
They studied the starter culture. It’s an anaerobe, it doesn’t grow in the presence of air and its killed by heat, including the long, steady heat this bread needs to rise. That’s why its not toxic in salt-rising bread.
“We’ were able to do some genetic testing on them. And again the batches we looked at we didn’t find the anatoxin gene which is the bad guy,” said McClane.
Back at the Rising Creek bakery, John Fahey says the food reminds him of the food he ate as a child in the 60’s.
“Salt rising bread which is a food from my young days along with stewed tomatoes…I just thought, wow, this is big deal. This is a treat.”