Classic American Salt-Rising Bread

Adapted from Bernard Clayton

This recipe comes to us courtesy of the late Bernard Clayton, a fine gentleman and author whose books we've long admired. We've made a few minor changes, but a very similar version of this recipe appears in Bernard Clayton's New Complete Book of Breads. Clayton, in turn, cited its publication by the Ladies Aid Society of the First Presbyterian Church of Polson, Montana, in 1912. Now, we're pleased to pass it along to you. This traditional American bread recipe, made without yeast, is worth saving — and savoring.

We urge you to read this recipe start to finish before beginning, in order to plan a timeline. We also suggest you read our "tips," below — so you're not surprised by the bread's unusual aroma as it rises and bakes.

15 mins
35 to 40 mins
14 hrs 15 mins
1 loaf
Classic American Salt-Rising Bread


Prevent your screen from going dark as you follow along.
  1. To make Starter 1: Heat the milk until it's nearly but not quite boiling; small bubbles will form around the edge of the pan (or microwave container), and you might see a bit of steam. This is called "scalding" the milk.

  2. Cool the milk until it's lukewarm, then whisk together the milk, cornmeal, and sugar in a small heatproof container. The container should be large enough to let the starter expand a bit. Whisking vigorously will help prevent lumps.

  3. Cover the container with plastic wrap, and place it somewhere warm, between 90°F and 100°F. We find our turned-off electric oven, with the light turned on for about 2 hours ahead of time, holds a temperature of 95°F to 97°F, perfect for this starter.

  4. Let the starter rest in its warm place overnight, or for 8 to 12 hours. It won't expand much, but will develop a bubbly foam on its surface. It'll also smell a bit fermented. If it doesn't bubble at all, and doesn't smell fermented, your starter has failed; try again, using different cornmeal, or finding a warmer spot.

  5. To make Starter 2: Combine the hot water (120°F to 130°F) with the salt, baking soda, and sugar, stirring to combine. Add the flour, stirring until everything is thoroughly moistened.

  6. Stir Starter 1 into Starter 2.

  7. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap, and place it in the same warm spot Starter 1 was in. Let it rest until very bubbly and doubled in size, 2 to 4 hours. If it's not showing any bubbles after a couple of hours, move it somewhere warmer. If it still doesn't bubble after a couple of hours, give it up; you'll need to start over.

  8. Transfer your bubbly starter to a larger bowl, or the bowl of a stand mixer (or your bread machine bucket).

  9. Stir in the soft butter, salt, and flour. Knead until smooth; the dough will be soft, and fairly elastic/stretchy.

  10. Shape the dough into a log, and place it in a lightly greased 8 1/2" x 4 1/2" loaf pan.

  11. Cover the pan, and place it back in its warm spot. Let the loaf rise until it's crowned about 1/2" to 3/4" over the rim of the pan, which could take up to 4 hours or so. This won't form the typical large, domed top; it will rise straight up, with just a slight dome.

  12. Towards the end of the rising time, preheat the oven to 350°F.

  13. Bake the bread for 35 to 40 minutes, until it's nicely browned. Again, it won't rise much; that's OK.

  14. Remove the bread from the oven; if you have a digital thermometer, it should read about 190°F to 200°F at its center. Wait 5 minutes, then turn it out of the pan onto a rack to cool.

  15. Store cooled bread at room temperature for 5 to 7 days; freeze for longer storage.

Tips from our Bakers

  • Can you double this recipe? Thanks to our intrepid readers, who tested this out for us, yes. One reader reports having better results with the doubled recipe when cooling the scalded milk in starter #1 to lukewarm before combining with the cornmeal, so keep that in mind.
  • If you've never made salt-rising bread, please be prepared to trust us through some of the following procedures. Yes, it's supposed to smell that way. Yes, it's very important to keep the starter warm. If you're willing to take on a challenge (which this will be, if you live in a drafty house in a cold climate), the end result will be a distinctively flavored, fine-grained loaf of bread that will stay fresh for almost a week; and makes wonderful toast, as well.

    The bread's aroma is redolent of cheese, but there's no cheese in this bread; the flavor comes from the slight fermentation of the ingredients, during the bread's preparation. Speaking of fermentation, be prepared; the starter and dough will smell like... dirty socks? Old sneakers mixed with Parmesan cheese? Somewhat unpleasant, anyway, but please bear with it — it's just the enzymes and bacteria doing their jobs and giving the bread its special qualities. If you've ever made cheese or yogurt, you know exactly what we mean.