The history of sourdough bread in San Francisco goes way back to the time of the gold rush, when Basque migrants started baking bread in the area using the natural yeasts and bacteria present in the air for fermentation. San Francisco is widely regarded as the mecca of sour-style bread, though that reputation really has more to do with the culture of bread baking, the high concentration of great bakers, and the stiff competition than any sort of magical bread-baking climate (despite occasional claims to the contrary).
The baking scene in San Francisco these days is better than it's ever been, with the 1980s-era stalwarts of the artisan bread movement—Acme, Semifreddi, and the like—still going strong, and the newer bakers—Tartine, Josey Baker Bread, and Firebrand, to name a few—bringing on some serious competition and challenging the status quo of what San Francisco bread is supposed to taste like.
What's the state of the scene today? We tasted a dozen different loaves available in San Francisco to get a lay of the land.
What Makes San Francisco Bread Sour?
What gives San Francisco sourdough its particularly sour flavor? Some argue that it's the makeup of the wild yeast strains native to the area, but if that were the case, you wouldn't be able to make sour breads in other localities without introducing some of that extra-sour San Francisco yeast first. This is clearly not the case, and indeed, once the particular strain of lactobacillus bacteria responsible for San Francisco bread's sour flavor was identified, it's been discovered all over the world. L. sanfranciscensis is what French and Italian country-style loaves owe their sourness to, it turns out.
"Good sour flavor really comes down to technique."
In reality, good sour flavor really comes down to technique. All starter-based breads—those are breads in which the leavening comes from a batch of yeast and microbe-infested dough, rather than from dried or blocked commercial yeast—are made by combining a proportion of starter dough with fresh dough. That starter is packed with little buggers.
According to Discover Magazine, a single teaspoon of active starter contains as many as 50 million yeasts and 5 billion lactobacilli bacteria. There are more bugs in a half cup of starter than there are humans who have ever existed in the universe. Think about that next time you bite into a loaf!
When these organisms are mixed with fresh flour, they start eating, producing alcohol, carbon dioxide, and other by-products in the process. It's the carbon dioxide that cause bubbles to form in the dough, giving it a light and airy structure, and the by-products that provide sourdough bread with its unique flavor. San Francisco bread is made with a particularly high ratio of starter to fresh dough—sometimes over 50%.
We wanted to do a side-by-side tasting, so in the interests of sparing our stomachs and minimizing palate fatigue, we decided to narrow down our selection to 12 loaves of bread. Eight are baked in San Francisco itself, and four are baked in the surrounding areas (Oakland and Sonoma), but readily delivered in the city.
When possible, all breads were purchased directly from the bakery. A few loaves had to be purchased from a retailer (we shopped at Bi-Rite, Whole Foods, and Urban Bread), but all breads were baked the day they were tasted, served after cooling to room temperature and resting at that temperature for at least two hours, in order to negate any effects that absolute fresh-out-of-the-oven crispness might have on the results.
- Bakery 1: Noe Valley Bakery's Organic Sour Dough Batard ($2.50)
- Bakery 2: La Boulange Bakery's Whole Grain Batard ($3)
- Bakery 3: PANoRAMA's Whole Wheat Boule ($5)
- Bakery 4: Acme Bread's Pain au Levain ($4.29)
- Bakery 5: Sour Flour's Country Sourdough ($3.99)
- Bakery 6: Semifreddi's Country Levain Batard ($3.49)
- Bakery 7: Artisan Baker's French Country Sourdough ($3.99)
- Bakery 8: Boudin Bakery's Sourdough Long Loaf ($3.59)
- Bakery 9: Tartine Bakery's Country Levain ($8.25)
- Bakery 10: Firebrand Artisan Breads' Country Sourdough
- Bakery 11: Josey Baker Bread's Country Boule ($5.99)
- Bakery 12: Della Fattoria's Country Boule ($6.99)
The breads were served sliced and placed on plates marked only by number. Tasters were asked to comment on several qualities or characteristics.
The quality of the crust: How crisp is it? How dark? Does it have good flavors? What are those flavors?
The quality of the internal crumb: Hole structure, tenderness, stretchiness, and chewiness.
The aroma of the bread: Tasters were instructed to stick their noses right into the slice and inhale to get the full range of aromas from each sample.
The overall quality of the loaf, ranked on a scale from 1 to 10.
As some panelists pointed out, some of the bread was sliced thicker than others, due to the difficulty of slicing a very soft loaf into thin, even slices, which may have slightly affected the assessment of the internal crumb structure. Still, I'm confident that the results we achieved are fair and unbiased.
Post-tasting refreshments were also served.
Note to self: when you ask 22 people to bring "something that goes well with bread," you will receive more cheese than you can possibly consume in a lifetime.*
*We had reports that the cheesemonger at Bi-Rite figured out that all of these folks coming in saying "I want some cheese that will go well with a bread taste test" were going to the same party, which was great for us—over 15 different cheeses and not a single repeat!
Our 12 contenders are ranked below, with our number one bread being from Tartine Bakery. Second place ranking went to Josey Baker Bread, and Della Fattoria ranked third.
#1: Tartine Bakery (8.5/10)
"OMG, my favorite" and "DAMN, that's good bread" pretty much sum up the sentiment here. The San Francisco favorite baked on Guerrero, in the Mission, is known for its long lines (you can order the bread in advance, but it's also available through the regular bakery line after around 4:30 p.m.), but in our estimation, the hassle is well worth it. This is some of the best bread we've had anywhere.
Its crumb is described as "very moist and stretchy," with a "yeasty and complex" aroma. Like a few of the more recent bakeries, their flavor profile tends toward a "pleasant char mixed with sourness." This was one of the darkest-baked loaves we tried.
#2: Josey Baker Bread (7.6/10)
Another winner with a strong, deeply charred flavor and moist, stretchy crumb."Beautifully moist and easy to chew," and "absolutely delicious" were used to describe its crumb and aroma. Some folks even went as far as to describe its character as coffee-like.
The young, tattooed, internet-savvy New Englander-turned-San Franciscan Josey Baker (that's his real name) has only been making bread since 2010, but his loaves already have a well-deserved reputation as some of the city's best.
#3: Della Fattoria (7/10)
Plenty of whole grain and oat-y flavor in this loaf, the third in a row which came with a dark, dark char and a deep, fire-kissed flavor. Some folks found its crumb to be slightly too soft and would have preferred more resistance or larger bubbles, but its moist, wheat-y flavor was enough to push it into third place.
#4: Firebrand Artisan Bread (6.9/10)
An upstart from Oakland, Firebrand's bread was a crowd-splitter. Some folks appreciated its deeply toasted flavor, while other described it as burnt. In particular, the bottom of this loaf was significantly darker than the rest. One comment summed up our feelings: "This is surprising and interesting, but I'm not sure that I'd want to eat too much."
#5: La Boulange Bakery (6.6/10)
Since its inception in 1999, this local French bakery has grown dramatically into a mini-chain of several locations, serving over 6,000 guests a day. Their loaves are not as overtly sour as some of the others, and their crust isn't quite as crisp or bubbly as some of our winners, but it's a respectable loaf nonetheless. Tasters were split on the multigrain seeds in its interior.
#6: Noe Valley Bakery (6.3/10)
One of the smallest loaves of the bunch, Noe Valley's loaf has an extremely crunchy crust, reminiscent of a baguette in terms of its crispness and thinness. Its crumb has a classic clean, sour flavor without the overt wheatiness of some of the whole wheat doughs. Think of it as an improved and updated version of the classic white sour loaf from Boudin.
#7: PANoRAMA (5.9/10)
PANoRAMA caters mostly to restaurants, but you can get fresh loaves from Urban Bread. Their dark, dense loaf has a faintly malty aroma and very small bubbles. It bordered on dryness with a slightly leathery crust. This loaf is a good candidate for slicing and toasting.
#8: Sour Flour (5.4/10)
A community-oriented young bakery, Sour Flour has some strong devotees in the Bay Area, and indeed among our tasters. "Interesting aroma with mild but complex flavor" and a "great airy-but-still-moist crumb" were some of its high marks. Others were not so impressed, describing its crumb as "dry" or "gritty and sandy."
#9: Semifreddi (5.2/10)
An older bakery baking up classic pale sourdough loaves, we enjoyed their clean, soft, and moist crumb along with their very mildly sour aroma, but found that they needed a bit more salt to draw out flavors, and that the crust was slightly too pale and not crisp enough to push it into the higher ranks.
#10: Acme Bread (5.2/10)
Surprisingly low marks for one of San Francisco's most famous and respected bakeries! We were sure Acme would fare among the top, but compared to other loaves tasters found Acme's bread to be distinctly lacking in salt, with a "very bland" aroma. One even went so far as to call it "almost tasteless."
As sourness goes, its flavor was very faint, but some people appreciated the fact that its wheatier "cereal" flavors easily came to the forefront without the sourness to keep it in check. As far as looks go, this one is picture perfect from the outside.
#11: Artisan Baker (4.8/10)
A very disappointing loaf from from one of Sonoma's celebrated bakeries. It was strange to look at from the start with an irregular rolled shape and a very pale crumb. To some tasters is looked more "like white bread" with a fluffy, soft crumb and very few large bubbles or stretchiness. It wasn't bad bread—we'd happily make a sandwich out of it—but it didn't embody the real nature of sourdough. One taster said it's like "really good Wonder bread," if that helps clarify.
#12: Boudin (4.6/10)
Holding the record as San Francisco's oldest continuously running company, Boudin bakery started as a tiny family-run affair in 1849 and has since expanded into a full-blown tourist attraction on Fisherman's Wharf, with museums, tours, and several locations around the city. Unfortunately, their bread fell firmly to the bottom of our taste test with a "dry," "dense," and "uniform" crumb structure, a "strangely shiny" crumb (perhaps from an overenthusiastic steam-injector in the oven), and a "one-note" vinegary sourness that lacked the more complex wheatiness of our winning brands.
Our Tasting Methodology
All taste tests are conducted completely blind and without discussion. Tasters taste samples in random order. For example, taster A may taste sample 1 first, while taster B will taste sample 6 first. This is to prevent palate fatigue from unfairly giving any one sample an advantage. Tasters are asked to fill out tasting sheets ranking the samples for various criteria that vary from sample to sample. All data is tabulated and results are calculated with no editorial input in order to give us the most impartial representation of actual results possible.