Flour power in San Francisco’s sourdough

Sourdough has risen from a miner’s calling card to the modern urban dweller’s go-to bread, legendary around the world and iconic to the foggy city by the bay.

The day began with heavy rain soaking San Francisco’s hilly streets. But as we made our way to the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market, walking along the seagull-dotted piers that jut out onto the bay, the sun began to cut through thick fog and silvery clouds. We wandered past artisanal cheese stands, organic chocolate shops and vendors hawking avocados and oranges. As the briny air wet our cheeks, a familiar craving arose; my stomach was longing for that San Francisco tradition: sourdough bread.

Sourdough is the quintessential San Francisco comfort food, with yeasty and earthy aromas wafting out of the city’s bakeries, hinting at warm loaves fresh out of hearth ovens. Thick and hollow, sourdough is crusty on the outside and soft and chewy on the inside. Its complex taste is uniquely tangy, thanks to the pre-baking fermentation process that creates naturally occurring lactose acid, strains of wild yeast and copious flavours. In the San Francisco Bay Area alone, more than 3.5 million sourdough loaves are baked each week.

Bake like an Egyptian
“Sour” dough, one of the oldest known fermentations, likely began accidentally in Ancient Egypt around 4000BC. As the story goes, an Egyptian baker on the Nile set out to make unleavened flat bread with grain porridge, but left the dough to rest too long and wild yeast took hold; once baked, the bread naturally puffed up. Archaeologists and food historians point to both Egyptians’ well-documented relationship with yeast and remnants of sourdough discovered in Ancient Egyptian sites as evidence to this theory.

For centuries, the process uncovered in Ancient Egypt was the only form of leavening available, and generations throughout the Middle East and Europe passed down their recipes. It was not until 1860, when French chemist and microbiologist Louis Pasteur identified yeast as the cause of fermentation, that it was subsequently isolated and produced commercially for bakers.

All sourdough begins with a starter: a mixture of flour and water that is left to ferment for days – and in some cases years – at room temperature, creating a bubbly, sour mixture of wild yeast and bacteria. As long as flour and water are replenished to the starter, the dough remains active and its cultures alive. In just two cups of starter – enough to make a loaf – there are more than 200 million yeasts and 20 billion lactobacilli bacteria.

Sourdough rush
It is not clear when sourdough first landed in the United States. Local legend points to Basque immigrants who migrated to South America, mainly Argentina and Paraguay, during the Spanish civil wars of the 1830s. When news hit of gold in Northern California, thousands of Basque and pioneers from across North America rushed to San Francisco in search of wealth. From 1847 to 1849, the city’s population swelled from 1,000 to more than 20,000.

Lore credits these Basque migrants as the original carriers of sourdough starter. Sourdough was soon a staple of the miners who relied on it to make biscuits, breads and pancakes at their camps. They would mix flour into portions of their starters each morning, then slowly bake the blend in a large cast iron pot fitted with a lid, placed on coals in the ground and covered with dirt. Each night when they would arrive back at camp after a long, arduous day, the bread was baked, warm and ready to fill their bellies. So common were the loaves in the gold camps that “sourdoughs” became a nickname for the miners themselves (who – they say – slept hugging their starters to keep them warm).

San Francisco’s wild child
The Gold Rush is firmly entrenched in San Francisco’s history, its legends and traditions woven into the city’s fabric. Sourdough is no exception. The hyper-sour taste unique to San Francisco has taken it from a miner’s calling card to the modern urban dweller’s go-to bread, legendary around the world and iconic to the foggy city by the bay.

The principal wild yeast strain found in San Francisco’s bread is native to the region and it is the defining factor in its distinctive tanginess. Microbiologists Frank Sugihara and Leo Kline identified the strain in 1969, naming it lactobacillus Sanfranciscensis in honour of the city. Any sourdough starter left to ferment throughout the area will breed this native yeast.

But just as the weather affects the Bay Area’s surf, it also changes the taste of its bread. More humidity means a slower rise. Higher temperatures accelerate the production of leavens. And as starters ferment, the flavours are enriched as yeasts and bacteria work in symbiosis to produce a complex dough with as much character as San Franciscans themselves.

Louise, la baguette!
Legendary San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen famously wrote in the 1990s: “Fresh cracked crab with Boudin [Bakery] round ‘dark bake’ sourdough and a well-chilled bottle of California chardonnay is still the quintessential SF meal.”

A Bay Area institution, Boudin Bakery lies at the origins of San Francisco sourdough. Well-known French bakers, the Boudin family arrived in San Francisco around the time of the Gold Rush. On an October day in 1849, Boudin Bakery opened its doors selling what is now the city’s most iconic loaf, its Sourdough French Bread.

Master baker Isidore Boudin – the story goes – borrowed a spoonful of starter from a gold miner and married it with a standard French-style bread dough. The resulting starter – affectionately known as the “Mother Dough” – is still in use today, the cultures kept alive by adding water and flour to the mixture daily. So treasured is the Mother Dough that Isidore’s wife, Louise, is said to have rushed in to the bakery to save it during the Great San Francisco Earthquake of 1906.

Over time the bakery expanded, fought off bankruptcy and changed hands to the Giraudo family. Today, Boudin Bakery is a sourdough empire, making more than 9,000kg of dough a day for its dozens of California locations. In 2005, Boudin opened tourist extravaganza Boudin at the Wharf: a behemoth, high-ceilinged facility at Fisherman’s Wharf that has everything from a demonstration bakery to a market, cafe, bistro and museum. Their signature sourdough bread bowl, hollowed out and filled with creamy New England clam chowder, is a favourite.  

Rounds and loaves
San Francisco brims with creativity and intellect, innovation and swagger. Home to the most restaurants and farmers markets per capita in North America, this is where food trends are made and redefined. And when it comes to the city’s sourdough, the competition for a standout loaf is fiery.

Locals flock to French-inspired Tartine Bakery & Cafe, a long-time favourite tucked away on a corner in the Mission District, where it brilliantly executes pastries, cakes, pies, sandwiches and breads. Baker/owner Chad Robertson, is obsessed with crafting the finest loaves imaginable. “Bread, to me, is a mixture of flour and water that is transformed into something through the course of fermentation that transcends the simplicity of those basic ingredients,” he said.

This passion manifests into some of the city’s best sourdough. The loaves are complex and yeasty, full of earthy flavours, a touch of tang and a distinct underpinning of char. The crust is dark and heavy, owing to the dough’s long rise. Inside is moist and springy.

Robertson’s breads find their way into the cafe’s sandwiches, served alongside soups and tucked into puddings. To snag a freshly baked loaf, check online every day after 4:30 pm or pre-order your sourdough three days in advance. Scoring a loaf of sourdough to be enjoyed in a nearby park, the thick fog inevitably rolling in, is well worth the wait.  

For a Berkeley-born favourite, make the trip to the historic Ferry Plaza Farmers Market on the edge of San Francisco Bay, where artisanal food vendors, organic farm stands, legendary coffee shops and a host of restaurants buzz with chatter, tasting, slurping, clanging and eating. At Acme Bread Company, pick up a sourdough loaf that is said to have launched an artisanal bread-making revolution in the 1980s. Co-founder Steve Sullivan began his career as a busboy then baker at another Bay Area institution, Alice Water’s Chez Panisse. In his early days of baking, Steve created a leavener with a starter inoculated with wild yeast from wine grapes. The result was the bread that kicked off a movement.

Acme’s sourdough has a wheatier, cereal-like taste with a notably mild sour flavour. It is baked fresh daily in a hearth oven and remains the exclusive bread of Chez Panisse. Purchase a round and head next door to Cowgirl Creamery’s Artisan Cheese Shop for some exceptional soft aged cheeses, the perfect accompaniment to any picnic.

And then there is Sour Flour, a community-focused bakeshop in the Mission District. Founded in 2008 by Danny Gabriner, it began as a home experiment with sourdough baking that resulted in a doughy vision. The first 1,000 loaves of bread baked each day are given away for free to neighbours, “collaborators and anyone who expressed an interest in Sour Flour”.

In addition, bread making classes fill their monthly roster. Two-hour workshops teach students everything they ever wanted to know – and more – about maintaining sourdough starters and the fermentation process. Bread-baking protégées flow out of their classes, hands covered in flour and fresh loaves happily tucked under their arms.  

The number of noteworthy, must-try San Francisco sourdough spots far exceeds the word count of this article (Josey Baker Bread and their newest venture, The Mill; and Della Fattoria at the Ferry Building, for instance). With a plethora of stunning loaves and rounds, it is perhaps the eternal San Franciscan love for creating something from the ground up, native to the land and deeply connected to its consciousness that makes this city’s sourdough so unique.