San Francisco Sourdough Bread – Legend & History

What makes San Francisco sourdough bread so special? Some believe that there are many factors — the indigenous wild yeasts, the moist, cool air, the humidity, and even the local water that contribute to its unique tangy flavor. San Franciscans are so possessive about their sourdough bread that many visitors assume it originated here.

Aficionados claim that the unique flavor of tangy bread can be attributed to the spores, and bacteria that waft through the San Francisco air. So popular is this theory, that many bakers maintain the same batch of sourdough starter for years and often keep it outdoors to absorb all those atmospheric San Francisco treats.


San Francisco Sourdough Bread – Truths!

San Francisco Sourdough Bread Truths

But the truth is sourdough bread was not invented in the Bay area. The ancient Egyptians whipped up the first batch of sourdough more than 4,000 years ago. The oldest sourdough bread ever found was excavated in Switzerland and dates from 3700 BCE. Columbus supposedly carried a sourdough starter on his voyage to America, and the Pilgrims routinely used sour starters in bread making.

Although it is, of course, possible to bake sourdough bread anywhere, San Franciscans maintain that the flavor of their loaves cannot be duplicated. It's believed that French bakers brought sourdough techniques with them to the Gold Rush, and it still remains a strong force in the food culture of San Francisco. Bread was probably more lucrative than gold, by 1854 there were more than 60 bakeries in the city.

San Francisco Sourdough Bread – Bakeries


Founded in 1849, Boudin Bakery is the oldest in the city. Isidore Boudin, the son of master boulangers from Burgundy, applied French baking techniques to the fermented dough. They have used the same recipe for their sourdough bread since day one. Parisian Bakery was founded in 1856 and supplied the historic Tadich Grill restaurant until the bakery went bankrupt in 2005. In Oakland, Toscana and Colombo bakeries were founded around 1895.

Almost a century later, the Acme Bread Company launched artisanal bread-making in the 1980s with its sourdough bread. Founder Steve Sullivan was working as busboy at Chez Panisse. On a whim, he bought Elizabeth David's English Bread and Yeast Cookery book while cycling in Europe, and he tried to recreate the bread when he returned home.

In 1979 Sullivan became the in-house bread maker at Chez Panisse, and could not keep up with demand. Then-chef Jeremiah Tower encouraged Sullivan to study bread making and to launch his own bakery. Acme Bakery opened in 1983 and continues to be owned by Steve and Suzy Sullivan.


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About San Francisco Sourdough

Sourdough Sam

Traditional San Francisco sourdough is a Type I sourdough. That is to say, a firm dough, fermented in a temperature range of 68° to 86°F. The sourdough starter even has its own name — Lactobacillus sanfranciscensis.

When commercially available yeasts and baking powders began to be produced in the 19th century, sour starter fell out of favor. Once home bakers could readily purchase yeast and baking powder, the use of sourdough starters was largely limited to folks who lived far from settlements. During the Gold Rush of the 1890s, prospectors used sour starters so extensively they earned the nickname of Sourdough Sam.

The sourdough tradition was carried from San Francisco to Alaska and Canada during the Klondike Gold Rush of 1898. Experienced miners would carry a pouch of starter around their neck or on a belt and would fiercely guard it to keep from freezing. However, the truth is that freezing does not kill a sourdough, excessive heat is the enemy.

Old-timers came to be called sourdoughs, a term that is still applied (though not by us!). And since many set sail for the Yukon goldfields from San Francisco, the bread became linked with the city. In fact, the nickname Sourdough Sam is still the mascot of the San Francisco 49ers. Robert Service honored the tradition in his 1907 Songs of a Sourdough poetry collection.


San Francisco Sourdough Resources

    399 10th Ave, San Francisco
    1601 San Pablo Ave, Berkeley
    1517 Shattuck Ave, Berkeley

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