Sourdough bread – is San Francisco's too sour?

Baking at Tartine

If you could choose one type of bread that you feel represents San Francisco – what would that be? If sourdough comes to mind, you wouldn’t be alone. After all, our prized Boudin on Fisherman’s Wharf is the oldest bread-maker in the city. But there’s more to the city than sourdough. This month’s San Francisco Magazine explores the history of bread in San Francisco in an article written by Todd Oppenheimer. KALW’s Ben Trefny sat down with him to talk bread.

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TODD OPPENHEIMER (reading from the San Francisco Magazine article): Little defines San Francisco’s foggy spirit more viscerally than its sourdough bread. Those tangy white loaves are the signature of the city’s earliest days – the offspring of San Francisco’s original ’49ers, those scruffy miners of the gold rush, who, for lack of manufactured yeast, ate bread made with a starter that they kept alive in a dank corner of their stream­side tents.

TREFNY: So you bring bread back to the Gold Rush. Tell me about the history of this bread as you were speaking of it there.

OPPENHEIMER: Well, the history of the bread, what’s fun is that it actually traces its roots to France, it is a French sourdough, from well before 1849. And then San Francisco gave it its own unusual sour twist, basically because of the history you’ve just heard. And that came from essentially inattention. The miners were not concerned with the quality of their bread, they were concerned with the quality of what they found in the rivers and in their pants. So these sourdoughs just got totally neglected, and the more you neglect them, the more sour they get. And then this became sort of an acquired taste, and, in a sense, a local habit.

TREFNY: So – I don’t understand the science, exactly, of how bread works. The overfermentation, I hear that with beer for example, beer is fermented. Tell me about the chemistry that goes into making bread.

OPPENHEIMER: Basically, you begin with what’s called a sourdough starter and that is a natural form of the yeast that everyone has to use to make bread. Most people today, because of commercial yeast, use a powdered form which is called instant yeast. That’s what we all buy at the grocery – when you go to make bread, you buy one of those little Fleischman packets of instant yeast. And those can make a dough begin to rise extremely quickly, and that helped commercial bakeries, when instant yeast was first created in the early 1900’s. Especially in the latter part of the 1900s – that helped commercial bakeries greatly by just speeding their processes so they could turn out greater quantities of loaves.

TREFNY: How long does regular yeast take?

OPPENHEIMER: Regular yeast, if properly done, can take at least five or six hours, and if you want really the best quality of bread, it’ll take almost a 24-hour cycle. So the instant yeast can give you an oven-ready ball of dough in a few hours, if you want it. The problem with this, instant yeast, is that it happens artificially and by happening artificially, that natural flavors, that you are supposed to get out of dough, don’t develop. The yeast makes it rise basically before the dough is ready to. So, when you use a wild form, a sourdough starter, that’s what a wild yeast is, then the dough rises when it’s fully formed, when the flavors are fully formed. And then you know you are ready for a fully flavored loaf.

OPPENHEIMER (reading): Beyond ingredients, the quality of bread rests on two variables: time and temperature. If a baker knows how to juggle these variables, they can afford considerable flexibility; otherwise, the smallest changes can wreak great havoc. Heat, for example, nurtures the microflora, essentially  bacteria and yeasts, that give bread its creamy or floral flavors. But if the dough gets too warm or cools too drastically, or for too long a time, the bread can sour. All these flavors are essentially microbial poop and farts, since bread’s aromas come largely from the acids and gases that fermenting microorganisms excrete.

TREFNY: That sounds disgusting. So – how do those come together to make a really good bread?

OPPENHEIMER: Well, that’s what’s fun and that’s what’s fun about this guy Chad Robertson, who is essentially the profile subject of this story.

TREFNY: He’s the lead bread baker at Tartine.

OPPENHEIMER: He’s the head bread baker at Tartine. He and his wife established Tartine.

TREFNY: And for people who don’t know Tartine, it’s in the Mission district in San Francisco and it’s considered to be one of the best bakeries, possibly in the world.

OPPENHEIMER: Right, and one of the things that has made Robertson’s bread stand out, not only internationally, but especially in the Bay Area, is that he has figured out a way to create a mild sourdough starter. He does what’s called a young starter; he feeds it quite often. Most people – the classic thing to do, is you feed your starter and you let it sit overnight – 8 hours, sometimes 24 hours. Boudin’s, one of the reasons the Boudin bread is sour is that they let theirs sit for 24 hours and then they mix it and then they let it sit for another 24 hours in the fridge, at this long, long cold fermentation, with a very stiff sourdough and that’s what creates the intense sour flavor that is Boudins’ signature. So, the really good baker can use this sour starter and build up the flavors and go for a long fermentation, because the longer the fermentation, the more flavor you get but if you don’t know what you’re doing, the longer the fermentation, the more sour the bread is. So the expert baker can go for a long fermentation with a sourdough starter and get a mild bread. That’s the signature of excellence.

Todd Oppenheimer's article is in this month’s San Francisco Magazine.