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The Beloved Pioneer Bread that Smells Like Feet and Breaks Food Safety Rules

You may have some older relatives that get all nostalgic about salt-rising bread. You don’t see it much anymore, because it’s hard to make and not all that popular among anyone who wasn’t raised with it. The smell is described like either cheese or dirty socks. But those who love it really love it. Salt-rising bread doesn’t even have salt in it, and no one is sure how the name came about. It was made by pioneering American women who didn’t have access to yeast, and who didn’t always have sourdough starter ready. They made salt-rising bread rise with environmental bacteria. Yes, they did.

In the early 20th century, this lengthy, yeast-less process also became an interest of microbiologists. In 1914, Richard N. Hart noted in his book Leavening Agents that salt-rising bread “seems to fail in a well-sterilized room," and alludes to the experiments of Henry A. Kohman, who discovered that salt-rising dough lacked yeast completely “but literally swarmed with bacteria.”

In 1910 Kohman was funded by the aforementioned bread-obsessed Kansas Governor, Walter R. Stubbs, to learn how bakers may reliably make it, and concluded that a variety of anaerobic bacteria allowed the bread to rise. In 1923, microbiologist Stuart A. Koser began to suspect the mix might include bacteria found in human intestines and wounds.

The experiments Kohman did after that might make you a little queasy, but the fact is that not a single case of food poisoning has been attributed to salt-rising bread. Read what we know about this classic bread, including instructions for making your own starter, at Atlas Obscura.   

(Image credit: Flickr user Wonderland Kitchen)


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i used to make whole wheat bread with no yeast. if you keep the kneaded dough in a warm place (covered with a light cloth to keep the flies off) like on top of your fridge, it will rise in 3-5 days, less if you mix 2 day old cooked brown rice into the dough. this is pretty common in the macrobiotic crowd. the bread is pretty dense and chewy, but the flavor can't be matched. i prefer a bread you have to work at before swallowing, anyway.
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