Fred R. Conrad is a patient man. In his 40-year career as a staff photographer for the New York Times, he maintained a fondness for film well into the digital era. As a portrait specialist, he found that fiddling with rolls of film, double-checking light levels, let him settle in with his subjects, ease them past their self-consciousness.
Retired from the Times since 2014, but a frequent contributor to New Jersey Monthly (including the story on the Gateway Tunnel in our May issue), Conrad is spending these pandemic days at his home in Woodcliff Lake, fiddling with one of America’s more obscure styles of bread—a yeastless white loaf called salt-rising bread. Beloved for its tight crumb and tangy flavor, it is notorious for the pungent aroma it exudes while fermenting.
“I grew up with this bread in Michigan,” he says. “My father, grandfather and great grandfather were full-time professional bakers. My great grandfather came from Germany and brought the first rotating commercial bakery oven to America, around the turn of the 20th Century.
“My father baked salt-rising bread at home. When he made the starter, it smelled like a dirty gym sock. But my recollection is that, when the bread was toasted, having it with butter and strawberry jam was the best possible breakfast.”
Now baking the bread himself—thanks to a slender 2016 book called Salt-Rising Bread by two Pennsylvania women—he has confirmed that impression. “I’m reliving my childhood,” he says.
The loaves, Conrad says, “look like Wonder Bread. When you slice it, it’s a pretty pathetic piece of bread to look at. It’s very white. But when you toast it, the taste is transformed and becomes even better. The flavor is different, tangy, kind of cheesy.”
According to the book, by Genevieve Bardwell and Susan Ray Brown of Rising Creek Bakery in Mt. Morris, Pennsylvania, salt-rising bread “was born in the hills of Appalachia more than 200 years ago and spread from there along the pioneer wagon trails.” With yeast not readily available, a starter was fashioned from heated water or milk mixed with cornmeal, flour or sliced potatoes, which contained enough wild microbes to launch fermentation.
Before finding the book, Conrad says, “I tried over the years to recreate the bread, failed miserably and gave up.” Beginning again recently with book in hand, he soon had his 24-year-old daughter, living at home again, holding her nose. “My wife,” he notes, “loves the smell.”
Though salt is part of the bread’s name, “salt has nothing to do with” the rising of the dough, Conrad says. Modern recipes call for a starter made from sliced potatoes, sugar, baking soda, flour and water. Rising depends on keeping the gloppy stuff warm overnight. Conrad covers the bowl of starter with plastic and floats it in his sous vide machine, the water at a steady 108 degrees Fahrenheit.
“I wake up in the morning, and boy does it smell,” he says. “It’s like, ‘There’s that gym bag I lost.’ In each batch, I tweak the starter method I use, and that’s kind of fun because you don’t know what the hell you’re going to get.”
With the baking, he’s gotten good results. But overall, “It’s very finicky. There are times it fails and you don’t know why. People have all sorts of stories of not going to bed at night because they’re watching their starter, or not allowing their kids or animals in the kitchen when the starter is doing its thing. It’s all voodoo. That’s the charm of this bread.”
Fred Conrad writes, “I’ve been trying out different starter recipes that are written about in Salt Rising Bread by Susan Brown and Genevieve Bardwell. The recipe [in the book] that I had luck with is from Alma Davis of Bridgeport, West Virginia:”
1) Peel and slice up two medium potatoes and put them in a jar with 2 tablespoons of sugar, 2 tablespoons flour, and 2 tablespoons of yellow corn meal. Add 1/4 teaspoon of baking soda and cover with almost boiling water. Loosely cover and put it in a water bath at 110 degrees for 10-12 hours.
2) If it smells funky in the morning, give yourself a star and create a sponge by adding enough flour to make a pancake-like batter. Put the jar or bowl back into the water bath, Let it double in size (2-4 hours).
3) To make the dough, add 2 cups of hot water, 2 tablespoons of sugar, 1 1/2 teaspoons of salt and a scoop of shortening (I use butter). Add about 5 cups of flour to get a sticky dough. Let it rest for a few minutes. Knead it for 5-10 minutes. Proof it until it rises and bake it off at 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
“Thank you, Alma,” Conrad writes. “You make it look so easy.”Click here to leave a comment
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