San Francisco's sourdough bread renaissance

The best bakers in the Bay Area are taking San Francisco’s signature bread in brave new directions

Margo True

The flagship store is a one-room shop a few miles from Chez Panisse, where Sullivan first began baking. Shelves are stacked with dozens of varieties of sourdough, from classic French pain d’épi to walnut levain to rye. Some loaves are round and golden-crusted, like Boudin’s, but most don’t look anything like them, and the ones I try are only gently sour. Like many artisan breadbakers today, Sullivan doesn’t like his bread excessively sour. “It’s something we work against,” he says. “We try to achieve a balance between sweetness and sourness.”

He thinks the main reason sourdough has done so well here is the climate. “Most of the steps in making sourdough want to take place between 65° and 80°,” says Sullivan. “And nowhere in the world is that temperature as common as here.” There might be something to that fog after all.

Next I head to San Francisco’s Western Addition to meet the breadmaker with the perfect name. Josey Baker started baking as a hobby, but soon realized it was more appealing than his real job of developing grade-school science curricula. So he began baking full-time, and over the past couple of years he’s gained an ardent following through his bread CSA. You can often see him riding around San Francisco, making deliveries by bike. We’re standing inside his cafe-bakery, scheduled to open in late 2013. Baker is installing a mill to grind whole grains fresh daily. “It opens the door to having relationships with farmers, more and more of whom are growing grain for bread,” says Baker, who plans to start slowly, with wheat and rye flours, keeping production to 150 to 200 loaves a day—all sourdough. “None of this feels like work. It feels like getting to do what I want.”

I leave with a crunchy-crusted beauty of a loaf, made with whole-wheat flour and strewn with pumpkin, sunflower, and flax seeds. I rip off a piece: It’s moist and stretchy inside, with layers of subtle, creamy, nutty flavors. If Boudin’s sourdough is history kept alive, this is sourdough that lives in its moment, as hard to pin down as the fog.

Which is exactly what I’m standing in later that day, outside Tartine Bakery, in San Francisco’s Mission District. The bread comes out of the oven at 5 p.m., and I’m not nearly as close to the front of this long line as I’d like to be. Head baker Chad Robertson makes 175 to 200 loaves a day, and just one kind: country loaf, based on the French pain de campagne. Some say it’s one of the best breads in the world. It sells out fast.

As I inch through the gray drizzle, I can feel anxiety building down the line. At last I’m in, and I catch a peek of Robertson, looking intense and flour-smudged near the deck ovens. For all the mystique around Tartine, he believes—like other Bay Area bakers—that there’s no mystery to sourdough starter, and that it can be replicated in a matter of days with no harm to the bread.

But I remember something that microbiologist Maria Marco told me: that over time, unique strains of Lactobacillus and yeast can emerge at a single bakery. These strains affect the bread’s character—how it rises, the way it smells. Robertson is a world-class baker, no doubt, but he’s also created his own helpful, microbial world. And there’s nothing more local than that.

When I reach the front of the line, I buy three fat loaves so big they poke up out of the paper bag. I hug them close to my chest and walk out past ogling eyes. The bread is crackly-crusted yet supremely springy, almost pillowlike, and its radiant heat keeps me warm all the way to the car. I break down and tear into a loaf, and for a few minutes the car fills with fragrant, yeasty steam and the sound of my own chewing.


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