Boudin at Fisherman's Wharf

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July 16, 2015

The Definitive History of San Francisco Sourdough Bread

In the early years of mining mayhem, bakers in San Francisco were perplexed. After biting into their newly baked bread, they found that recipes they had been making in the France had turned sour. Yet, they realized that they liked how the bread tasted – they had struck culinary gold of sorts. Thus, the name of the bread became sourdough.

Bread was so important to the miners that on cold nights they would cuddle with their yeast starter to keep it warm – so it wouldn’t die. These intelligent miners became known as “sourdoughs.”

Initially it was thought that San Francisco was the only place where San Francisco sourdough bread could be made because our foggy climate cultivated this specific type of yeast. Local bakers, including Boudin founded in 1849, swore that no one could reproduce it outside a 50-mile radius of the city – thus adding to its allure.

Now we know that is not true – since scientists were able to identify the particular strain of bacteria responsible for the San Francisco bread's sour flavor. But the good news is that at least we still lay claim to the name of the bacteria – L. sanfranciscensis.

San Francisco is widely regarded as the mecca of sour-style bread and in the 1980s the San Francisco artisan bread movement reinvigorated our bread-making image with an emphasis on great technique.  The likes of Acme Bread (located at the Ferry Building) and Semifreddi's came on the scene.  And more recently in the past 10 years artisan baking has exploded in the trendy San Francisco culinary scene with the likes of Tartine Bakery, Josey Baker at The Mill and Della Fattoria. San Francisco sourdough bread is here to stay.

While you might head to Boudin Bakery on Fisherman’s Wharf for the historical sourdough bread, I would also urge you to try some of San Francisco’s more technically improved sourdough and head over to Tartine Bakery in the Mission District. Mark Bittman from "The New York Times" called it one of the best bakeries in the country – and owners Chad Robertson and Liz Preuitt, won the James Beard Award for best pastry chefs. That’s like the Oscar in the culinary world; you don’t get much better than that. The bread comes out at 4:30 p.m. every day and is available until it's sold out. Get in line ASAP.

Avital Ungar is the owner of Avital Food Tours which takes guests behind-the-scenes in the San Francisco culinary scene on walking food tours in the Mission District, the Haight AshburyNorth Beach and craft cocktails in Union Square. Get more information at www.avitaltours.com.

Photo Prayitno / CC BY

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