If you asked people to pick a food to represent the year 2020, surely most would pick the sourdough bread they baked at home during the lockdown. Suddenly finding themselves with excess time on their hands and little control over the future, people all around the world turned to baking to help pass the time and to add a comforting sense of structure to their lives. Google reported an all-time high in queries about bread, and, as supermarkets began running out of supplies, searches for ‘how to make bread without yeast’.
Whether people turned to sourdough simply because it doesn’t require commercial yeast, or because they wanted a longer project they could really invest in, we will never know. Many people believe that baking can help reduce anxiety, distracting the mind from the outside world, and allowing the baker to feel in control again.
For the uninitiated, sourdough is a type of bread that is made using a live starter culture that can be made at home from fermented flour and water. Sourdough does not require commercial yeast, as the wild yeasts and bacteria in the starter will help it to rise. These ‘friendly’ bacteria also make sourdough easier to digest than most breads and give it a delicious tangy flavour and chewy texture.
Whether you’re an experienced lockdown baker looking for ways to improve your sourdough game, or a new baker in search of some advice, there are few better places to look than the spiritual home of sourdough, San Francisco.
Sourdough has been synonymous with San Francisco for decades, with residents lining up outside the city’s many artisan bakeries each morning to collect freshly-baked loaves. San Francisco sourdough is said to have a complex, extra tangy flavour - like regular sourdough but more so.
So what’s their secret? Nobody knows, exactly. The tangy flavour is due to the acetic acid that forms during fermentation, but why San Francisco’s bread should have more of it remains unclear. It was previously thought that the reason was a bacteria called lactobacillus sanfranciscensis, discovered in the city in the 1970s and thought to be unique to the Bay Area. Unfortunately for this theory, lactobacillus sanfranciscensis has since been discovered alive and well in several countries around the world.
Although there is no one special bacteria unique to the area, it is still possible that the San Francisco flavour is caused by bacteria. Many bakeries have passed their starters down for generations, and their success may simply be the result of a thriving starter colony made up of a particularly tasty combination of bacteria.
Another contributing factor could be the unique food culture of San Francisco, where quality ingredients and authentic recipes are paramount. Here, customers are willing to pay more and wait longer for properly made bread, giving artisan bakers the confidence to invest in quality ingredients and to wait that little bit longer for the perfect prove and the perfect rise.
The History of Sourdough
Sourdough is one of the oldest types of bread, with records of fermented bread dating back at least 4,500 years to Ancient Egypt. Its relationship with San Francisco began during the gold rush of the mid-nineteenth century, when the area was flooded with would-be prospectors. In just over a year, the population swelled from around 1,000 in 1848, to 25,000 in December 1849. As demand for food and provisions rapidly outstripped supply, prices skyrocketed, with a single slice of buttered bread costing $1, over $30 in today’s money. Unable to afford these prices, the miners began baking their own bread using starter cultures, which some believe were brought over by miners from the Basque Country.
So important were these starters to the miners that it is said they hugged them as they slept to keep the precious microbes warm. The miners even gained the nickname ‘sourdoughs’, after the tangy flavour of the fermented dough they carried around with them. There is a theory that the extra-tangy flavour of San Francisco sourdough may have originated with these miners, who could have left the dough to ferment for longer than usual while distracted by their search for gold.
Soon, enterprising shopkeepers and artisans were also making the journey to San Francisco to take advantage of the gap in the market, and it is often said that these people made more money than the prospectors themselves. One of these artisans was a man called Isidore Boudin, son of a family of master bakers from Burgundy in France.
Boudin is said to have purchased a spoonful of starter from one of the miners, using it to start his own bakery. The unique, tangy flavour of the starter, combined with his baking skills, soon made Boudin’s Bakery famous, and they are still trading to this day, using the same tangy starter culture, or ‘mother dough’ as when they first began. Just as it was for those early miners, the Boudin mother dough has become extremely precious. It is even said that Isidore’s widow, Louise, ran back into the building to rescue it during the great earthquake and fire of 1906.
Preparation of the San Francisco sourdough
If you want to make your own artisan sourdough the way it’s done in San Francisco, take a look at this recipe for San Francisco sourdough from Weekend Bakery. Based on a recipe by legendary baker Peter Reinhart, from his book Artisan Breads Every Day, this sourdough is a real labor of love, taking four days to create. It takes time and dedication to bake a truly exceptional sourdough loaf, and this recipe talks you through every step, from selecting the perfect ingredients to a four-day timetable outlining each stage of the process.
How to make sourdough bread at home
Of course, you won’t always have four days to spare, but that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy a freshly-baked loaf of bread. For sourdough that’s ready in a few hours, try our easy sourdough recipe and your kitchen will be smelling like an artisan bakery in no time.