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Salt rising bread is a yeastless Appalachian soul food. (Susan Brown and Jenny Bardwell)

Bake Bread Like A Pioneer In Appalachia ... With No Yeast

by Glynis Board
Apr 23, 2014 (West Virginia Public Broadcasting)

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Growing up in West Virginia in the 1960s and '70s, Susan Brown would have a slice of salt rising bread, toasted, for Saturday morning breakfast. Her grandmother baked the bread with the mysterious and misleading name.

There's little or no salt in the recipe. No yeast, either. The bread rises because of bacteria in the potatoes or cornmeal and the flour that goes into the starter.

The taste is as distinctive as the recipe. Salt rising bread is dense and white, with a fine crumb and cheese-like flavor.

"Indeed it is, when at its best, as if a delicately reared, unsweetened plain cake had had an affair with a Pont l'Eveque cheese," wrote J.C. Furnas in The Americans: A Social History of the US, 1587-1914.

Today, Brown herself bakes the bread. So does her friend, Jenny Bardwell, who owns Rising Creek Bakery in Mt. Morris, Pa. And the two have become experts on this unusual loaf.

Like the neo-butter churners and the cacao bean grinders, Bardwell and Brown are keeping a labor-intensive culinary tradition alive. And they're giving some members of their community who grew up on the bread a nostalgic taste of childhood.

Their research hasn't yielded the definitive origin story. The best guess is that salt rising bread dates to the isolated Appalachian region in the late 1700s, where enterprising women who did not have access to yeast figured out a way to make a yeast-free bread.

The origins of the name are also unclear. One explanation is that pioneer women who crossed the country kept their starter dough warm in the salt barrel, kept atop the wagon wheel.

By day the sun would warm the salt, which would warm the starter. The bread could be made in the evening.

Another possibility: The starter was placed on a bed of rock salt in a box by the hearth.

Either way, the starter takes a long time to ferment.

"Sometimes it's 9 hours, sometimes it's 11 hours," says Bardwell. "You have to be really tuned into this bread. You have to kind of know how to recognize it when it's ready. Not an hour before, not an hour later."

Heat is critical. "Salt rising Bread is primarily wild bacteria you're culturing with heat, about 105 to 115 degrees Fahrenheit," explains Bardwell. She believes the different bacteria interact when heated, raising the bread and giving it flavor and texture.

To find out more about the process, Brown and Bardwell headed to a lab at the University of Pittsburgh to visit pathologist Bruce McClane, who studies Clostridium perfringens — one of the microbes that makes the bread rise.

"We walk in and [the lab] smelled just like salt rising bread!" Bardwell says, referring to the strong smell of the starter, which some people liken to rotten cheese.

The microbe is ubiquitous, they learned — and McClane told them it can be responsible for medical conditions such as gangrene and diarrhea. But the strains in the bread do not usually cause food poisoning, he says. And baking the microbes "significantly" reduces their number, "to the point where they should not be a threat."

The two bakers collaborated with McClane and family medicine professor Greg Juckett on an article for the West Virginia Medical Journal to highlight how SRB has no history of causing any problems.

Meanwhile, the small bakery on the bank of Dunkard Creek is one of the only places in the country that produces the bread, selling it in the shop and shipping out hundreds of loaves each week. Customers surveys reveal that they like to toast the bread and eat it with butter, or drizzle milk and brown sugar on top, or dip it in sweet coffee.

And for many who grew up with salt rising bread, the bakery offers a welcome taste of the past without having to prepare the time-consuming loaf.

Recipe: Salt Rising Bread

There are a half-dozen or so recipes for the pioneer bread on the Internet. This one is featured on Susan Brown's website and comes from Pearl Haines, a Pennsylvania woman who started making the bread when she was about five years old and baked it for nearly 90 years. (Haines passed away this year.) Her starter, or "raisin," as she called it, uses fewer ingredients than most recipes and has no sugar or salt.


3 teaspoons cornmeal

1 teaspoon flour

1/8 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 cup scalded milk


Pour milk onto dry ingredients in an ungreased quart glass jar or metal, glass, or pottery bowl that holds about four cups. Stir. Cover with saran wrap — and punch a hole in the wrap to keep it from sinking.

Keep starter warm, at 105-115 Fahrenheit, overnight until foamy. Three suggestions: 1) Wrap the bowl in a heating pad at the lowest setting, then wrap a towel around it. 2) Set the bowl in an electric skillet with about half an inch of water, set at the lowest temperature. 3) Put it in an oven if there's a light bulb inside that's about 60 watts and you can keep the bulb turned on, or if the oven has a "proof" setting.

Brown suggests having a thermometer on hand to check the starter's temperature several times during the rise.

After "raisin" has foamed and has a "cheesy" smell, put it in a medium-size bowl. Add 2 cups of warm water, then enough flour (about 1 cups) to make a thin pancake-like batter. Stir and let rise again until foamy. This usually takes about 1 1/2 to 2 hours. Monitor the temperature during this stage as well.

Next, for each loaf you want to make, add one cup of warm water and 2 to 3 cups of flour (enough to be able to form the dough into a ball). Shape the dough into a loaf and place in a small loaf pan (about 8 1/2 inches by 4 1/2 by 2 1/2) greased with butter, Crisco, Pam or oil.

Let rise 2 to 3 hours. (If it doesn't rise at that point, you'll likely have to start over, Brown says.)

Bake at 350 degrees Fahrenheit for 35 to 40 minutes, or until the loaf is a light golden color and sounds hollow when tapped.

The bread has a long shelf life. "It can keep on your counter for a good week ro ten days without going bad," says Brown, "and if you put it in your refrigerator it'll keep for another couple of weeks."

If you encounter any problems, Brown invites you to email her at

Copyright 2014 West Virginia Public Broadcasting. To see more, visit

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Robert Ellis. (Courtesy of the artist)

Robert Ellis On World Cafe

Apr 23, 2014 (WXPN-FM)

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Robert Ellis and his road band perform songs from his fine third album, The Lights From the Chemical Plant, in this World Cafe session. After his last record, 2011's Photographs, Ellis wanted to push his music in less of a country-oriented direction, so he worked on the new album with producer Jacquire King (Tom Waits, Kings Of Leon).

Ellis also discusses his love for the songcraft of Paul Simon and describes how growing up on the industrial south coast of Texas led to these new songs.

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Thousands of federal prisoners convicted of drug offenses are expected to file for expedited clemency under a new administration initiative that would release inmates from long sentences. Antwain Black, left, was released early after sentencing laws were first eased in 2010. (AP Photo/Seth Perlman) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

A Path Out Of Prison For Low-Level, Nonviolent Drug Offenders

Apr 23, 2014 (WXPN-FM)

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Thousands of nonviolent drug offenders serving time in federal prison could be eligible to apply for early release under new clemency guidelines announced Wednesday by the Justice Department.

Details of the initiative, which would give President Obama more options under which he could grant clemency to drug offenders serving long prison sentences, were announced by Deputy Attorney General James Cole.

Cole listed six factors the Justice Department will use to "prioritize clemency applications" as part of the administration's effort to address long mandatory minimum sentences meted out after the crack-fueled crime wave of the 1980s. Those mandatory minimums were revised under the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act, designed to reduce the disparity between sentencing rules for crack and powder cocaine.

Inmates seeking clemency, he said, must meet the following criteria:

  • They are currently serving a federal prison sentence that is longer than current mandatory sentences for the same offense.
  • They are nonviolent, low-level offenders without "significant ties to large scale criminal organizations, gangs or cartels."
  • They have served at least 10 years of their sentence.
  • They do not have a "significant criminal history."
  • They have demonstrated good conduct in prison.
  • They have no history of violence before or during their current imprisonment.

"For our criminal justice system to be effective, it needs to not only be fair, but it also must be perceived as being fair," Cole said in a statement. "Older, stringent punishments that are out of line with sentences imposed under today's laws erode people's confidence in our criminal justice system, and I am confident that this initiative will go far to promote the most fundamental of American ideals — equal justice for all."

In comments Monday, Attorney General Eric Holder said the difference in prison terms being served by drug offenders sentenced before the 2010 act, and those sentenced after, is "simply not right."

Cole also announced Wednesday that Deborah Leff, acting senior counselor at the Justice Department's Access to Justice Initiative, will head the office overseeing the clemency program. The Access to Justice Initiative was established in 2010 to promote fairness in legal representation and sentencing "irrespective of wealth and status."

In the interest of providing a "thorough and rapid review" of the expected wave of new clemency applications, Cole said he has asked lawyers throughout the Justice Department to help review new petitions.

Inmates will be notified in coming days about the clemency program, and how to access pro bono lawyers through a working group called Clemency Project 2014. The group, formed after Cole asked lawyers to help with the clemency initiative, includes federal defenders as well as representatives from groups including the American Civil Liberties Union and the American Bar Association.

While the move has been hailed by groups working for fairness and sentencing, as well as further changes to mandatory minimum drug sentences — including bipartisan efforts on Capitol Hill — some prosecutors have expressed skepticism about the clemency initiative.

"Americans want to rest assured knowing that 10 years means 10 years, and life in prison means life in prison," says Scott Burns, head of the National District Attorneys Association. "Prosecutors' fears are that our low level of serious crime in America will begin to rise — and nobody will monitor the cost of re-arresting and re-prosecuting offenders when they commit new crimes."

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In a photo taken earlier this month, U.S. reporter Simon Ostrovsky, right, stands with a pro-Russian gunman at a seized police station in the eastern Ukraine town of Slovyansk. Ostrovsky has reportedly been seized by the pro-Russian insurgents. (AP)

American Journalist Kidnapped By Ukraine's Pro-Russia Insurgents

Apr 23, 2014 (WXPN-FM)

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An American journalist operating in eastern Ukraine has been kidnapped by pro-Russian gunmen, the separatists said Wednesday.

Simon Ostrovsky, working for Vice News, was seized at gunpoint early Tuesday by masked men in the restive eastern Ukrainian city of Slovyansk.

Stella Khorosheva, a spokeswoman for the insurgents confirmed Wednesday that Ostrovsky was being held at the local branch of the Ukrainian security service, seized more than a week ago, according to The Associated Press.

"He's with us. He's fine," Khorosheva told the AP, who said the journalist was being held because he's "suspected of bad activities," which she refused to explain. She said insurgents were holding the journalist pending their own investigation.

State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the U.S. is "deeply concerned" about the reports.

"We condemn any such actions, and all recent hostage takings in eastern Ukraine, which directly violate commitments made in the Geneva joint statement," Psaki said.

The reports come in the same week as a visit by Vice President Joe Biden to Ukraine.

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Black Prairie visit a taxidermist (Courtesy of the artist)

Black Prairie, 'Let It Out'

Apr 23, 2014 (WXPN-FM)

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Black Prairie, a six-piece rock-infused bluegrass band that includes four members of The Decemberists, has been a mostly instrumental band for years, but on its fourth album, Fortune, just out yesterday, there's a whole lot of singing. The band has always had a good sense of humor and this video for "Let It Out," which features violinist Annalisa Tornfelt on vocals, will give you a good peak at their twisted ways. Black Prairie's driving force and humorist, Chris Funk, sent me a note explaining the evident fascination with taxidermy:

When you tour with people for a long time, after a while the stories start to run out. Though one day in the van Annalisa revealed that she in fact used to hunt squirrels with her friend Bethy in the woods. Not unusual for an Alaskan teenager I guess, however she then revealed they would make purses out of them and wear them to high school, even the bones in their hair to keep their buns up. And I thought smoking cloves while listening to The Smiths was edgy .... So it's not altogether too surprising that Annalisa came up with the loose concept of *shooting* (pun fully intended) our video in a working taxidermy shop at which point our director (Jason Roark) and his team (Ken Meyer, Kyle Eaton) ran with the story line and art direction. We were honored to have cameos from fellow Oregonians Michael Hurley (folk legend) and Claire Coffee (Grimm) take the time to enjoy the scent of salted animal hides and taxidermist glue.

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