An Insider's Guide to Tartine Bakery in San Francisco

What to order at Tartine Bakery in San Francisco. [Photographs: Maggie Hoffman]

There's an easy two-step method to recruiting friends to San Francisco. Step one: casually walk them to 'the neighborhood park' where the trees are palm trees, the picnickers are drinking freely, and the jawdropping view goes over the pretty city and out to the Bay Bridge. Step two: pop down the block to Tartine Bakery. Open mouth. Insert pastry. It's a trick that was pulled on me a few years ago and I haven't failed yet using it on members of my own crew: one bite into Tartine's pain au chocolat and they're pretty much packing their bags for California.

There are, of course, standout bakeries all over the US, but to me, Tartine stands out above them all, baking up superlative pastry, cakes, and breads, and constantly pushing the boundaries to make each bite better. Tartine croissants are the type you dream about: shatteringly flaky outside, with swirls and swirls of interior layers, soft and pillowy but never gummy or dense. The flavor: butter, but better. There are few 30-minute lines I'd advocate standing in, but the line for fresh pastries at Tartine is worth it, without question. And the line for fresh country loaves in the afternoon? Also worth it...though I have some tips on that matter to share below.

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I asked the Tartine crew if they'd let me behind the scenes a bit to learn about what makes Tartine's sweets and loaves so special. The results: this guide to pretty much every darn thing their kitchen creates, and the scoop on what's next for the San Francisco bakery.

Tartine Bakery by the Numbers

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On an average day, the bakery serves anywhere from 600 to 1200 people out of the Guerrero Street storefront. Weekends (plus Thursdays and Mondays) are the busiest. Currently, they bake bread seven days a week, totalling about 180 to 200 loaves each day. Between bread and pastry production, they use about 3,000 pounds of flour per week.

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The bakery goes through five to seven thousand eggs a week, sourced from Petaluma Farms in the North Bay. Between lemon bars and lemon tarts, they use four to six cases of lemons each week. A 44-pound block of European-style butter from Oregon doesn't last long: Tartine needs two to four to make it through the day's production.

What to Order

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What are they making? Let me introduce you to a few of my very best friends... Below, you'll find the 10 most essential must-order items at Tartine Bakery. Curious about the rest? Head over to the slideshow for info on the whole lineup, plus a few more behind the scenes photos.

Morning Bun

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While Tartine's pastry program is certainly French-inspired, it's also undeniably American, and this popular many-layered breakfast is a prime example, made from a traditional laminated croissant dough that's rolled and topped with a mixture of sugar, orange zest, and cinnamon. "You don't see much cinnamon in French pastries," notes pastry production manager Laurie Ellen Pellicano. That sugar mix creates a nice crisp texture to contrast the bun's softer inner folds.

The dough for morning buns as well as croissants and their variations is made a day ahead—the overnight rest helps to develop flavor. The batches of dough weigh around 200 pounds before 70-some pounds of European-style low-water, high-fat butter are added in several stages of folding to create the layers. The dough is divided into 12 to 14 batches and one person typically works on the folding and shaping throughout the day. "One person will literally touch every piece of dough that goes through these doors...and every moment that you're working with the product you're working it as a quickly as possible," says Pellicano. "If we were a cross country team, these would be our sprinters."

After the butter is added and the dough is chilled again, the baker rolls the morning bun dough out with a mechanical roller until it covers the entire length of the working table, then brushes it with clarified butter, which remains liquid at room temperature and dries slowly, working to adhere the mixture of sugar, orange zest, and cinnamon. Rolled into a cylinder and cut into pucks, the buns go into a pan 24 at a time and are baked in two or three loads.

If you want to experience a fresh morning bun, a morning visit is your best bet. If you come right when the bakery opens (at 8 a.m. on Monday and Saturday, 7:30 a.m. Tuesday through Friday, or 9 on Sunday) you'll likely get them hot out of the oven, though there are typically more warm ones a few hours later. Come afternoon, they'll likely be sold out, which is intentional: these treats are best eaten fresh.

Croissant

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The first thing most people notice about a Tartine croissant? They're huge. Like, cover-a-whole-plate, almost-too-big-for-your-mouth huge. Like most of Tartine's baked goods, it sports a burnished brown exterior from darker baking in the deck oven: Tartine bakers seek to caramelize the sugars and brown the flour itself. "The goal is more intense flavor," explains Pellicano. "We definitely like to take a lot of our product to that point because it heightens all of the other elements of it—like a sear on a steak. It's not just textural, the contrast between the outside and the inside, there's also the visual contrast and the flavor elements of heightening all the senses."

The result is hard to argue with: crackly and deeply flavored on the outside, with delicate spirals of tender and buttery layers within. It needs no jam, and it's one of the best mouthfuls you can find in the city of San Francisco.

Pain au Chocolat

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The dark bake on these crossiant variations works its magic with a punch of melty chocolate; this is the pastry I most often recommend for first time visitors. Each pain au chocolat has almost a full ounce of 66% cocoa Valhrona chocolate feves—an oval mega-chip shape designed with a slight dent in the middle for even melting. At Tartine, croissant batches are divided in thirds, so that plain, chocolate, and ham and cheese croissants are all available at once for maximum choice, rather than baking them one after another.

Frangipane Croissant

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At many bakeries, almond croissants are a way to use up leftovers of the classic type. Here, though, a separate set of croissants is baked specifically with a frangipane future in mind. They're baked a little lighter than usual, then sliced and soaked in a brandy syrup and filled with a frangipane cream (an aromatic mix of butter, sugar, pastry cream, slivered almonds, and brandy.)

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They're closed and topped with a little more of the frangipane and then they rest overnight to soak up the flavor. After baking in the deck oven the next morning, they're topped with powdered sugar. These tend to sell out quickly—so make them part of your morning plan.

Bread Pudding

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The bakers at Tartine say that is all about the fruit. And the fruit is gorgeous—changing each day (and sometimes within the same day) from peaches and nectarines to plums and pluots, raspberries and blackberries. But let's be honest. It's also about the pillows of brioche (baked specifically for the pudding), sometimes mixed with any misshapen-but-delicious or somehow unsold croissants or morning buns that can't be sold, soaked in a vanilla-laced custard. Tartine's bread pudding is luscious, tender, rich, and comforting. And it's totally a valid breakfast order.

Quiche

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Quiche never seemed exciting to me until I tasted this one. The blind-baked flaky crust shell (it's the same one that's used for the banana cream and coconut cream tarts) is stellar, but the star is the remarkable custard. Light in body but enriched with tangy creme fraiche, it's silky and delicate and delicious. Each day there's usually a ham version and one with seasonal vegetables like corn or chard, young onions or nettles; it doesn't much matter which you order, since the custard is the thing you've gotta experience. I find that it's smart to add a slice of quiche to your breakfast order to balance out the sugar rush of everything else you can't leave without trying.

Chocolate Pudding

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This gluten-free dessert is nothing like the pudding you make from a packet. It's jaw-droppingly rich, silky, and intense, made with cocoa powder and chocolate added to an eggy custard. It's topped with lightly sweetened whipped cream and shreds of chocolate, sometimes with a little cookie on top.

Buttermilk Scone

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This is as good as scones get. "It's not a British scone," notes Pellicano. "Ours is very flaky. When we bake them there's still a lot of visible butter chunks that create air pockets that give lift and create layers within the scone." The interior is a butter-lover's dream, but the exterior is remarkable, topped with thick crystal sugar that creates a crackly coating. Buttermilk lends a bit of savory quality and currants add an intense raisiny flavor. Arrive early: at opening or a few hours after that, and you'll score a warm one.

Passion Fruit Lime Bavarian Cake

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Even if you're not usually a 'cake person,' this will knock your socks off. My favorite of the cake selections by far, it's filled with a puckeringly tart passionfruit curd that's lightened with whipped cream. The light and fluffy cake is soaked in a lime and simple syrup mixture, then finished off with lightly sweetened whipped cream and untoasted coconut that adds flavor without sweetness. Available by the slice in addition to six-inch and twelve-inch whole cakes.

Lemon Cream Tart

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This tart crust has a little richness from eggs and a bit of sugar. The filling is a silky custard of eggs, fresh lemon juice, and what Pellicano says is "a whole lotta butter." It's topped with a dollop of whipped cream, and fresh flowers in summer (candied fruits or toasted nuts in winter.)

What else is in the case? Get the details in the slideshow »

The Bread

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If Tartine only offered breakfast pastries, that would have been enough. If they only made breakfast pastries and also tarts, cakes, and cookies, that would have been enough. But this isn't just a destination for sweets: it's also the workspace of one of the country's best bread bakers, Chad Robertson, and his dedicated crew of bread bakers.

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The loaves are deeply burnished, with a crackling crust giving way to some of the springiest, most flavorful bread I've ever encountered. Robertson has shared his methods—which include natural leavener and a very sticky, wet, dough that rests overnight and is folded instead of kneading—in detail in a series of books, but I asked him if he could sum up the key to the bread's exceptional crumb and flavor. "The main thing we do as a team of bakers at Tartine is really sweat the details," Robertson says. "Making Tartine bread requires very careful management of many stages of fermentation; the variables are constantly changing and need to be reacted to and adjusted by us to get something consistent in the end." If it's raining where the flour is coming from, they adjust. If the weather in San Francisco changes, they adjust.

Add to that very high hydration, and what would be considered by most standards an over-fermentation in every sense, and you have a precarious process. A dough like this requires very deliberate and gentle handling—it's something that takes a long time to learn. That challenge is what we love about making bread; and the characteristics you describe—what our bread is known for—cannot be achieved without all those factors working together in just the right way. It's a constant challenge for us to try to get it right.

The long rise of Robertson's country loaf developed over the years: in part so the poor guy could get some sleep! "The rising time got longer and longer over the years so I could eventually get a full night's sleep instead of sleeping in split shifts (which I did for several years)," says Robertson.

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The country loaf is tangy and stretchy inside, flavorful and complex. It cleaned up in our San Francisco bread taste test, and I agree with Kenji, who pronounced it "some of the best bread we've had anywhere. It's currently available seven days a week.

Walnut, Almond, Sesame

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The walnut loaf came about when Robertson was selling bread next to Full Belly Farm at the Berkeley Farmers market in the mid-'90s, incorporating the Full Belly walnuts in a loaf inspired by a French country bread typically served to accompany cheese. "CA is 'walnut country' and there are a lot of great options available," notes Robertson. "When I was first learning to bake from Bourdon in the Berkshires I remember reading about Jean Luc Poujourain in Paris using exclusively organic nuts imported from California in his natural leavened breads. It was a very radical thing back then (especially in Paris!)"

The key to full flavor in this loaf is toasting method for the nuts: "It is important to toast the nuts just right," says Robertson. "We are not looking for a perfectly uniform toast per se; rather, we accomplish this by toasting the nuts in a hot oven first, creating a darker toast on the outside with the very inner nut still almost raw. The idea is similar to our bread, to craft a range of flavors from crust to crumb." This bread is currently available seven days a week.

The olive bread is made with a mix of herbs that varies, but the olive always remains the same: Lucques. "They have a wonderful meaty flavor," notes Robertson. "When selecting the olive I was careful not to choose an overly salty olive for the bread. Lucques is richer yet less assertive than its dry-cured cousins, so it doesn't overpower the bread as much as some other olives." It's great topped with ricotta or other cheese. This bread is currently available on Wednesdays, Fridays, and Sundays.

Finally, an under-appreciated classic: the sesame loaf. "Sesame is very traditional," says Robertson. "I made sesame loaves at the first bakery I worked, and they are found in recipes reaching back to the birthplace of leavened bread in the Fertile Crescent." To boost this loaf's flavor, the sesame seeds are toasted dark and added into the dough itself as well as to the crust. "They are very aromatic—in a savory way, which complements so many other foods well. It is still my favorite bread to make grilled cheese or eggs sandwiches on," he says.

Baguette

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"The Tartine baguette is in constant evolution," Robertson explains. The goals include a thin, crackling crust, very little sour flavor, "and for it to be exceedingly tender and not chewy." The process involves three different pre-ferments and combining some very soft flours with some stronger ones to create something right on the edge of collapsing before baking.

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"Our baguette dough is also much wetter than a traditional French baguette," he notes, "which makes it tricky to work with but ultimately very rewarding when they come out the way we want." It's bread that will stop you in your tracks: that thin and crisp crust gives way to a delicate, fluffy crumb, and it's hard not to devour the whole thing by the handful before dinner. Lately, this bread has been sold before the rest of the loaves at the bakery, between 4 and 4:30 each day.

Ancient Grains and More

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Every day, there are three brown breads available at the bakery—baker's choice. There's generally an 'ancient loaf' made with heirloom grains, a porridge loaf, and a loaf incorporating sprouted grains.

Robertson is on a mission to draw attention to ancient grains and pseudo grains: "They are varieties that are interesting but went out of favor because of lower crop yields and not being as easy to use." At Tartine, you'll see grassy, nutty einkorn (the oldest cultivated variety of wheat), emmer (a hard wheat also known as farro), and high-protein kamut in these loaves, as well as more familiar ingredients like quinoa and buckwheat.

He notes, though, that he's "just as excited about modern grains that have been selected and will be used moving forward based on their flavor and nutrition." He's tested new hybrids that are being currently developed at Washington State University and hopes to use them in full production levels in the coming years. "This undertaking is very similar to what has been happening in Denmark, where they have been selecting grains for flavor and nutrition for many years now. Denmark is a small and determined country where the visionary efforts were very focused, so change happened relatively quickly (15 to 20 years). Chefs and bakers are now using these grains including René [Redzipi] at Noma and Christian [Puglisi] at Relae. Their continued progress serves as inspiration as we continue to develop grains stateside."

The porridge loaves incorporate hot soaked mixes of grains, a technique that is traditional in a number of European countries. It allows for the use of grains that might not normally work well as a base for bread, such as barley. "We started with oatmeal and then ended up cooking all kinds of grain into porridge," says Robertson. "The notable thing is that we came to understand that we can incorporate a large percentage of grains that aren't typically suitable for making a loaf of bread into a loaf of bread with a Tartine style texture."

The sprouted loaves incorporate sprouted grains like barley, rye, amarynth, and buckwheat into the already-mixed and developed bread dough. "Each grain has its own flavor and when the grain is sprouted, the flavor changes because it transitions from a seed to a plant. For example, amaranth has a very subtle, almost a collard green taste." Robertson also notes that some people find sprouted grains easier to digest "because germination opens the grain and begins a dynamic enzymatic process making all the nutrients more accessible to us."

What's Next for Tartine

Life at the bakery is about to undergo some major changes as they expand into a new space in the Heath Ceramics building on the other side of the neighborhood—opening a new Tartine that'll serve breakfast, lunch, and dinner. "We will be moving our bread production to the Heath space and delivering hot bread to the Guerrero Street Tartine Bakery three times a day." (The estimated opening date is summer 2015.) They'll be redesigning and enlarging the pastry kitchen, coffee and wine bar, and seating area at the Guerrero Street space, making the cafe more comfortable.

Over at Heath, a new pair of bread ovens will arrive soon. I asked Robertson to tell me about them. Normally, he looks at the masonry mass of an oven, looking for "strong radiant heat transfer relative to the amount of dough being baked." But the new oven for the Heath space "works with different technology," he says. "Instead of masonry mass, it relies on circulating thermal oil." Robertson notes that the oven should have exceptional baking abilities and also remarkable power efficiency. "This technology has been perfected over many years to achieve excellent results using more difficult grains like rye, which is more commonly used in Europe. It turns out that the same technology is well suited to baking Tartine style bread for the same reasons (only different grains). We will be producing almost all of our bread from this new oven."

Next to the thermal oil deck oven, they'll be installing "a traditional Roman-style wood-fired oven" designed by local artisan Malcolm Chase, with a goal of illustrating "the contrasting technologies of modern and ancient. The interesting part I'm expecting we'll see (and hope to show) is that the results vary slightly if at all, while the means to get there are so distinctly different." The fire will keep burning all day, says Robertson, who worked with a similar oven when he first baked in Point Reyes: "First it burns black and then it burns white when it gets hot enough. Then ashes will be swept out and you are left with a big hot oven that can be used for hours. In the morning we will be baking a small quantity of what we are calling the 1995 loaf: what we used to make in Point Reyes. For dinner we will be baking our Tartine version of flatbread/pizza while the fire is burning. It will be made with fresh milled flour and the oven will be hot."

Want to see the rest Tartine Bakery has to offer? What else is in the case? Check it all out in the slideshow »