An Ode to San Francisco Sourdough Bread

Malin Elmlid is the force behind The Bread Exchange, a blog about baking around the globe that blossomed into this autumn’s beautifully photographed cookbook. Here, Elmlid expounds on one of her favorite types of bread—San Francisco’s famous sourdough—in a passage from her book.


Photo: Fred Bschaden/Chronicle Books

When I was fourteen years old, I got the idea to move abroad. I knew that the smartest way to get my parents to allow this was to convince them I should study abroad. Of course, they thought I was far too young but I determinedly filled out the application, wrote all the letters, and practiced English by recording every episode of My So-Called Life on VHS, watching them over and over again. I collected photos for my personal portfolio so I would be prepared when the day came. Two years later, my parents finally agreed to let me go.

I decided my destination would be the United States. My dream was to live on the East Coast, preferably in New York City or Boston. The teenage me was fantasizing about preppy high schools and Ivy League style. I had a clear vision of what I’d find there: maple leaves, duffel coats, and tennis skirts. On my application I listed all the fitting activities: sailing, swimming, golf, and horseback riding. I constructed all the reasons I could conjure to ensure I wouldn’t be placed in the kind of small town I already knew well from home. I claimed I was allergic to animals, and was a fan of the theater, concerts, and the opera. I only had one main stipulation—not San Francisco! I was terrified of earthquakes. I had the 1989 earthquake and Bay Bridge collapse playing in the back of my mind. It all went well in the end. I was sent off to the more stable state of Ohio, far from San Francisco.

Today, my childhood anxieties and fear of unstable ground have faded. And while madly researching bread for my Bread Exchange project, I learned that San Francisco is the home of the white sourdough. I knew that not even the threat of an earthquake would hold me back from going. When I got a call from a publishing house in San Francisco almost fifteen years later asking me to write down my Bread Exchange stories and recipes, it was not hard to convince me to get on a plane bound for earthquake country.

As Californians know, white sourdough bread became popular in Northern California during the Gold Rush in the mid-nineteenth century. While working their mining claims far from neighborhood bakeries, miners and gold prospectors nearly subsisted on naturally leavened (sourdough) bread and flapjacks, and so as a result the miners became known by the nickname “sourdough.” Even 150 years later, San Francisco still claims ownership of the popularization of sourdough nationwide. In the 1950s, most of the country, as well as much of the world, turned to industrial bread making for its ease and increased profitability.

The classic characteristic of a San Francisco sourdough bread is its pronounced sourness, which differentiates it from the typical levain you find in France. The sour tang of San Francisco sourdough makes it an excellent match for seafood dishes, soups, and chowder—all favorites in the foggy Bay Area.

There seem to be a lot of myths about San Francisco sourdough. Some people even say that there is a certain strain of San Francisco sourdough bacteria that likes to grow only in Northern California. And that the starters that make their home in the Bay Area are the secret of successful bread. I have heard that if a bakery moves from one city to another, its sourdough bread will never be the same because the bacteria culture is naturally restricted to its location.

In the early ’70s, a species of bacteria Lactobacillus sanfranciscensis was found in a sourdough starter that had been alive and propagated for more than one hundred years in San Francisco. But if you ask the scientists, this bacterium is not actually exclusive to San Francisco. It can be found in sourdoughs all over the world and is the predominant key bacterium in traditionally fermented sourdoughs. If you were to test my sourdough here in Berlin, you would probably find the same strain.

My sourdough bread has tasted the same regardless of where in the world I have baked it: New York City, Afghanistan, Stockholm, Antwerp, San Francisco. The variables have been whether I could find quality ingredients, the weather conditions, and my personal motivation and energy. In Gunnison, Colorado, the conditions were a bit tricky because I was not used to the high-altitude effects of baking at 7,703 ft/2,348 m above sea level, and at a humidity of 20 to 30 percent.

Apart from the philosophy of how a sourdough is supposed to taste, I believe that the magic of the San Francisco sourdough lies in its history. The idea that a sourdough has outlived its baker is captivating and can be just as powerful as its taste. It’s the same with how the magic in my own sourdough starter is in the stories of people I trade with at places all around the world.

So why has sourdough bread always done so well in San Francisco? Is it the weather? The San Francisco weather is steady, never really too cold nor too hot. It’s generally between 65 and 80°F/18 and 26°C, which is an ideal temperature. Cold is not life threatening for a sourdough starter, but heat is.

When I tried a slice of Tartine Bakery’s bread for the first time—actually, there is no need to pretend to be civilized, as it was not a slice—I ate the bread directly out of the bag on my way back to the room I was renting. I had been searching around the world for the perfect sourdough loaf for more than five years. The bread that Chad Robertson bakes at Tartine is without a doubt one of the best breads I’ve ever eaten. The bread I ate out of the bag had that perfectly chewy crumb. Airy, but not dry. The crust was hard-baked, just like Bo Bech’s bread that I tried years earlier in Copenhagen. Chad is a man with high ideals. I asked him if I could use his oven during my time in San Francisco. I told him about my motivations and what I was striving for. I told him about Bo Bech in Copenhagen, whose bakery had inspired me to eat bread again because it seemed to lack all compromise. I think that was what we connected over, the lack of compromise. Chad had just returned from Scandinavia, where he had gone for inspiration and had found it in the heirloom wheat and rye flours used in Sweden. Chad was striving for quality, which always carries a story. And I was striving for stories, without compromising on quality.

Somehow the journey of the Bread Exchange started in San Francisco without my even knowing it. It started with an aim I had, to make bread that I had imagined but couldn’t find anyone making back at home in Berlin. It should be white with an airy, moist, and chewy crumb all at the same time. It would have a substantial dark crust as a nice contrast to the interior. And it would be sour and carry the distinct taste of grains. That this bread already existed, and had its roots in San Francisco, was unknown to me when I started baking in Berlin. I had never tasted Chad Robertson’s bread; but still, his bread is as close as it gets to what I was dreaming of. And so this is where my journey ends; where it actually started. In San Francisco.

Reprinted with permission from The Bread Exchange by Malin Elmlid, Chronicle Books.

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