Whatever you call it, it's Country's all-time most requested recipe.
In December 2006, Country published an article “Pioneer Bread” from Doris Musick of Cleveland, Virginia. Little did we anticipate the impact. Honestly, it’s nearly six years later and folks still write in for the recipe.
I’d joined Country‘s team as editorial assistant years after Doris’ article, so when I had the chance to share the recipe on this blog, I had to go back and find it. (That’s Doris in the photo, just as she’s pictured in the article. See the bread pans lined up on the counter, next to the rooster lamp!) I started to read:
“I have long marveled at the ingenuity of past generations,” Doris wrote. “So, when my 90-year-old father-in-law gave me one of his old books full of recipes, I found I couldn’t put it down.”
“As I pored over the worn delicate pages, I chuckled over one dish with instructions that began, “Take 7 or 8 hog’s heads …” There was an intriguing recipe for lye soap. The first ingredient was homemade lye, which they just assumed you had. The recipe my family got most excited about, though, was salt-rising bread. Since pioneer settlers rarely had yeast, they depended on a replacement, using a starter made with cornmeal.”
The rest of the article takes you through Doris’ baking experience—notes that are woven into the bread recipe below. Then, at the very end, Doris takes the bread from the oven, and takes me right back to my childhood.
“As soon as the bread cooled enough to cut, we were lavishly smearing butter on the warm slices. And broad smiles all around the table proved the results were well worth the work. Some things never change.”
And I’m nodding to myself, thinking that there’s some things you don’t want to change. So, even though there are thousands of loaves of gourmet bread out there waiting to be purchased, and millions of bread recipes in libraries and online, I want to make a loaf of salt-rising pioneer bread.
If Doris and her recipe inspires you, too, tell us about it below, in the “comments” section.
Doris Musick, Cleveland, Virginia
The night before you wish to do your baking:
Use a pint jar in which you will put 8 tablespoons of cornmeal (the original recipe measures this in inches high, but it will work out to about 8 tablespoons.) The grist mill ground is best because it is ground much slower and doesn’t “burn” the heart of the corn. Add a pinch each of salt and soda, along with just enough sugar to fill the palm of your hand. This works out to be about 1 teaspoon. Then fill the jar with “scalding” water. Stir well. Cover with a lid and let stand overnight in a warm place (the old recipe says to wrap first in a towel and then place in a paper bag, but the point is to keep it very warm and out of a draft. In later years, the cook would place this concoction near a hot air register to keep it warm.)
The next morning, take 1 quart of milk (or you can use 1/2 milk and 1/2 water), combine the starter with 1/2 teaspoon salt and add enough “plain” (all-purpose) flour to make a stiff batter. (I found this to be around 4 cups.)
Stir well. Cover the batter and place the entire bowl in a container of warm water (just warm enough to put your hand in it.) Try to hold the same temperature by setting this in a warm place. You will likely have to drain some of the water off and replace with warmer water on a continuing basis. Try not to make any drastic change in the temperature as you are adding the warmer water, change only a small amount of water at a time to hold the temperature as constant as possible. It will take 3 to 4 hours to rise. (If it is very slow in rising, you can stir it again, then place the bowl back in the warm water.)
When the dough rises, combine 1 teaspoon salt, 3 to 4 tablespoons of shortening (butter or lard says the old recipe) and flour enough to make a stiff dough. Then knead for 10 minutes.
Shape into 3 loaves. Grease the sides of the loaf pans well with butter, then place the loaves in pans and let rise until they are doubled in bulk. This is usually about 45 minutes to 1 hour.
Bake at 375 degrees for 30 to 40 minutes. When the bread has finished baking, grease the crust heavily with butter as soon as you remove from the oven.
Note: the instructions were not specific as our recipes are today, and it may take more than one try to get it right, but the results are worth it!