What is “salt rising bread”?

Reader Katie asks, since I live in Kentucky, if I’ve ever heard of salt rising bread and if so, could I tell her what it is. Katie, I certainly have heard of it. It’s a type of bread favored by Appalachian folk that’s leavened not with baking powder or yeast but with a bacterium that goes by the name of Clostridium perfringens.

If that name sounds familiar it’s probably because C. perfringens is a well known food pathogen, one that can and very often does make people sick, sometimes seriously so. That however doesn’t stop some people from raising their bread with it. Why? Because unlike just about every other microbe that can grow in a starter bowl (aside from yeast) C. perfringens creates copious amounts of CO2. The rise you get from it is every bit as good, maybe even better, than actual yeast.

People in Appalachia have made bread with it for hundreds of years. How do they not get food poisoning? Because as with yeast, the heat of the oven kills the bacteria, making the bread safe to eat. I’ve never made it because I’d never knowingly grow or work with a culture like that in my kitchen. I know of at least one bakery here in Louisville that makes it and for the life of me I can’t understand why the health department allows it. But people do strange things.

I bought some when I saw it for the first time because I was curious. It’s mild stuff for the most part, but with a vaguely cheesy flavor that comes from butyric acid, a by product of the C. perfringens metabolism. As longtime readers of joepastry.com know, butyric acid smells like vomit. Or parmesan cheese.

If you’re in the habit of making your own bread starter you may have encountered C. perfringens before, in the first day or two of your process. It often takes over the starter bowl at that point, but since it can’t survive in a high acid (or high-alcohol) environment for very long it usually dies off as yeasts begin to dominate the culture. That’s a good thing as far as I’m concerned, since as you can probably tell I’m no fan of salt rising bread. Hope that answers the question, Katie!

15 thoughts on “What is “salt rising bread”?”

    1. Hey Catherine!

      I wasn’t going to mention the gaseous gangrene…pretty disgusting. You can see why they call it that since C. perfringens produces so much CO2. You get these big bubbles when the bacteria takes hold under the skin, which turns purply-black and, ugh…I really don’t want to think about it.

      But Harold is the man! Thanks,

      – Joe

  1. Hey Joe,
    Glam is running an ad at the top of your posts. Even if your cursor doesn’t run over it, it starts running a video. then you have to “quick like a bunny” race to the top and turn it off. Very annoying.

    I always enjoy the information posts. Hope you have good weather soon for pictures! I do not know how you keep your family away from finished pastry in your fridge. Is this fridge out in the garage or something? With a lock on it?

  2. That’s so interesting! I’ve been hearing lots about different kinds of fermentation lately and it’s so interesting. If it’s all bacteria, why the name salt rising bread?

    1. Hey Janelle!

      No one really knows where the name comes from. There are theories but nothing definitive as far as I’m aware. Salt really doesn’t come to play in the preparation of the bread, at least not in its current form.

      Sorry I can’t be more help on that!

      – Joe

  3. Just so you will know how to write truthfully about the C. perfringens in salt rising bread, please take note that scientific studies have been performed which tested several samples of the bread as well as several starter samples, and there were absolutely no toxins found in any of them. In fact, they did not even find the gene for the toxin in any of the samples. Additionally, other studies have shown that no one has ever gotten sick from eating salt rising bread….ever!! Please be more careful when you talk about something that you don’t really know about, as it gives people a negative, and, more importantly, an incorrect, notion of the safety of this wonderful, nearly lost tradition.

    1. Hey Susan!

      I know it’s a tradition for a lot of folks and my intention isn’t to mess with that, but one or two small-scale studies won’t convince me that a C. Perfringens culture is a safe thing to have around in the kitchen. No doubt people who know how to handle it make great bread. As for me I’d never encourage it. But I thank you for the comment!

      – Joe

    2. I would be interested to read these studies of which you speak.
      Could you please oblige with appropriate links?

      1. Just to clarify, the above question was of course addressed to Susan Brown, not Joe Pastry.

      2. Hey Heather!

        Here’s one that I’m aware of:

        Juckett, G; Bardwell, G; McClane, B; Brown, S (2008). “Microbiology of salt rising bread”. The West Virginia medical journal 104 (4): 26–7. PMID 1864668

        Just for the record it’s not the finished bread that worries me but rather growing the culture and having the unbaked dough in a home kitchen. But that’s me!


        – Joe

  4. I remember my mother baking salt rising bread when I was a kid, and how horrible the house smelled. Now I know why! From what I can remember, the bread tasted ok though.

    1. Hehe…yes I know a lot of people here in Louisville who share similar stories. “I could smell it coming down the block! But it tasted good.”


      – Joe

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