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Diary of a Foodie

Salt-Rising Bread

Diary of a Foodie: Season One: Noble Rot

Makes3 loaves
  • Active Time:45 min
  • Start to Finish:1 1/2 days (includes rising and cooling)
If you are in the mood for a trip back in time—to the days before supermarket yeast made breadmaking easy—rather than in the market for something tried-and-true to plan a party around, this curiosity is for you. The recipe is a bit of a science experiment, and it's hit or miss in three ways. First, the starter has a strong smell that may be a turnoff. Second, the bread did not rise for us every time, and we don't know why. (It may be that wild yeasts are not abundant enough in modern kitchens; also, if you don't have an oven with a pilot light, it's hard to maintain the proper temperature for the rising.) Finally, the end result drew mixed reviews in our test kitchens. We liked this bread best when it was toasted.
January 2007

For Starter

  • 2 medium potatoes
  • 4 cups boiling-hot water
  • 1/4 cup stone-ground cornmeal
  • 2 tablespoons sugar
  • 1 teaspoon salt

For Sponge

  • 1 1/2 cups warm milk (105-115ºF)
  • 1/4 teaspoon baking soda
  • 4 cups all-purpose flour

For Bread Dough

  • 7 or 8 cups all-purpose flour plus additional for kneading
  • 2 1/2 teaspoons salt
  • 6 tablespoons vegetable shortening (preferably trans-fat free)
  • Special equipment:

    3 (8 1/2- by 4 1/2-inch) loaf pans (about 3 inches deep)

Make starter:

  • Peel potatoes and thinly slice. Put potatoes in a large bowl, then pour boiling-hot water over them. Stir in cornmeal, sugar, and salt until sugar and salt are dissolved. Set bowl into a larger bowl of hot tap water (about 130ºF) and let starter stand in a warm draft-free place (such as the inside of a turned-off gas oven), replacing hot water in larger bowl every 8 hours, for 24 hours. (Starter will be covered with a light, airy foam and have a pungent cheesy aroma.) Discard potatoes.

Make sponge:

  • Add warm milk, baking soda, and flour to starter, whisking briskly until mixture is smooth. Cover bowl tightly with plastic wrap and set into a larger bowl of hot tap water (about 130ºF). Let sponge rise in a warm draft-free place (such as the inside of a turned-off gas oven) until doubled in bulk, about 3 hours. (Sponge will be covered in a thick layer of cappuccino-like foam.)

Make bread:

  • Whisk together 4 cups flour and salt in a bowl. Blend in shortening with your fingertips or a pastry blender (or pulse in a food processor) just until mixture resembles coarse meal with some small (roughly pea-size) lumps.
  • Add mixture to sponge and beat with a wooden spoon until combined well. Stir in enough of remaining flour to form a soft dough (it will be sticky).
  • Turn dough out onto a well-floured surface and knead, adding more flour as needed to keep from sticking, 2 minutes. Let dough stand 10 minutes, then knead on well-floured surface, flouring your hands as needed, until smoother (it will not feel as elastic as a traditional yeast dough), about 10 minutes more.
  • Divide dough into thirds and place each portion into a buttered loaf pan. Cover loaves loosely with plastic wrap and let rise in a draft-free place at warm room temperature until increased in bulk by one third (it will reach almost to rim of pan), about 3 hours.
  • Put oven rack in middle position and preheat oven to 350F.
  • Bake until golden brown, 45 to 50 minutes. Turn loaves out onto a rack and cool completely.