Those interesting emails just keep right on coming! Tara wrote in just this morning to say:
I have written today to come to the defense of the delicious salt-rising bread [you wrote about in your] Non-Starter post…I am a microbiologist (well, almost… I have a few more weeks of my masters) and one of the lucky few who have an addiction to cooking as well…I didn’t grow up on salt-rising bread, but I’m a food adventurist so I gave it a try a few months ago and I love it.
Back to the point, I am just going to say that you may have an irrational fear of the old C. perf. (Clostridium perfringens). Through my schooling and cooking/baking experience, I have learned which bugs are to be feared and which are fine. I would say that E coli and Salmonella top my list. C perf is at the bottom. This is why I will never eat pre-bagged lettuce (E coli) and I am anal about cleanliness when I handle poultry (Salmonella). If you look at where C perf foodborne outbreaks occur, its usually cafeterias and lunch halls. The food is made and then sits out for a long time. Since C perf is a spore-former the cooking activates these spores, then when the food sits out it is essentially incubating a large bacterial broth. This problem is solved by the multiple starter sequence that salt-rising bread calls for. You make a starter and hold it around 100F for 12-24 hours, then make a sponge and hold it at 100F for about 2-4 hours. You add salt to inhibit yeast growth and maybe a little baking soda to make the pH optimal for C perf growth, so all the spores activate. During this process the spores are activating and the C perf is growing… then you bake the bread for an hour and kill all those little suckers (insert machine gun noises here)! There should be no remaining spores in the finished product, because they all bloomed in the starter.
Even if there are, C perf is found frequently enough that most of the population has antibodies against it anyway due to exposure from the environment…especially here in the Valley (I live in Dayton, OH). I would say the only danger in salt-rising bread is you were to take a nice, big swig of the starter. Also, you can make this starter the night before, and just let it work (I put it in my yogurt maker for temp control) then make the sponge and bake the next day. You don’t have to work with it for 5+ days.
All I can say is, there’s nothing like a spirited discussion of microbiology to make a guy feel alive. So thanks right off the bat for that, Tara. My first response is that you wouldn’t want to say any of this in a room full of fast food entrepreneurs. You’d come off like one of those wild-eyed Russian scientists from Chernobyl, complaining that Americans have an exaggerated fear of radiation.
That said, I understand what you’re saying. On the Big List of Baddies, Clostridium perfringens doesn’t pose the kind of threat that other bugs do. It’s mostly just an annoyance, though there is a type — admittedly rare — that can cause a very serious condition known as necrotic enteritis (also known as pig-bel disease). For this reason, it’s a bug that every food sanitation class in the nation covers.
Strains of this critter are just about everywhere in the eastern U.S., which is part of the reason salt rising bread was as successful as it was with early settlers. You can start a culture with a piece of potato, with unpasteurized milk, even with tree bark if you want to, it’s that ubiquitous. And I completely agree that the only real hazard salt rising bread dough might pose to a person is if he/she drank the starter or ate the raw dough (in fact this is where the old notion — that bread dough makes you sick — comes from). It’s only in population that microbes like this are dangerous.
Still, kitchens are nothing if not Meccas of cross-contamination. Which is to say you never know — in the heat of battle…or a dinner party — when you might give a bug an opportunity to make some major mischief. Very few people would approach the making of salt rising bread with the care of a microbiologist. Since you are one, I wish you continued enjoyment of this mountain delicacy. For my part, I can’t bring myself to shop at any of the local bakeries (and there are at least two that I know of) who sell the stuff. I simply can’t believe their health inspector would ever allow it.