Sourdough Culture: San Francisco’s Famous Bread

When I was growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area I remember a story about how special and unique San Francisco sourdough bread was. The story – possibly an urban legend – describes how a company tried to recreate the famously tangy bread by moving a bakery, brick-by-brick, from San Francisco to a location somewhere in the U.S. Midwest. Once they got the bakery reassembled and functioning, the company was disappointed to discover that the taste was completely different, despite using the exact same ingredients and the exact same factory. There was something in the air that made San Francisco special, so the story went.

Fresh-baked Sourdough Bread (Credit)

Sourdough bread isn’t unique to San Francisco – it’s been around since the time of the ancient Egyptians – but the San Francisco version has a distinctive and tangy taste and is famous throughout the United States. Travelers leaving San Francisco will have many opportunities to purchase the bread as they make their way through the airport to their departing flight. Its San Francisco history dates back to the 1849 Gold Rush, when a baker named Isadore Boudin combined sourdough, the San Francisco climate and the baking traditions he learned in his native France to create a wildly popular bread. What Boudin and others stumbled upon was a group of wild microorganisms that are unique to the climate of San Francisco and scientifically known as “Lactobacillus Sanfrancisco”. The San Francisco variety of sourdough had been in continuous production for over 160 years, with some bakeries able to trace their starters (batches of dough used as a leavening agent) back to the Gold Rush.

Gold miners would purchase starter to mix in with their breads on their mining excursions and when the weather got particularly cold they would keep the sourdough starter next to their bodies to keep it from freezing. Eventually miners with at least a season of experience were given the nickname “sourdoughs,” an acknowledgement that they, like the bread they preferred, had spent some time fermenting in the Northern California foothills.

Even if the bakery relocation story I heard as a youth is an urban legend, it illustrates a point about San Francisco: there is something in the air that makes the city special.

Read more:
California’s North-South divide
Annie Hall and the New Yorker’s view of Los Angeles
Breakfast around the world

About the author

Jason Malinowski
Jason is back from living abroad with his family for a year, volunteering in Peru and travelling around the Mediterranean. He's originally from California and has lived most of his life in the San Francisco Bay area, Los Angeles and San Diego.
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  • I’m headed that way soon, thanks for the tip! (PS: I love bread!)

  • Hi Ana,
    You should definitely try it. Some people love a sourdough “bread bowl” with clam chowder inside.
    Have a great trip.

  • I went to San Francisco and managed not to eat this, and now I’m regretting it! I heard before about recipes that just don’t work when you try to make them in other places. So funny!

  • Liz,
    The sourdough bread is particularly good with crab around this time of year, as well. Now you have something to look forward to when you return.

  • I didn’t know about the gold miner nickname ‘sourdoughs’. How cool. And to think there is a “Lactobacillus Sanfrancisco”! We make a lot of bread in this house, but are too lazy to take care of a sourdough starter since you have to “feed” them every day. Perhaps we should just move to SF so we can buy the best and let someone else look after the starter.

  • Nice post. I’ve loved sourdough bread since the first time I visited SF as a kid! Visiting from Chicago there were so many wonderful things about the area that I loved & the bread was one of them. Still enjoy it today (as an SF area resident)!

  • Marie,
    You know you’re a special place if you’ve got a microrganism named after you. There is no “NewYork-lactobacillus” is there?
    I agree with you that buying the bread is easier than “feeding” a starter. How do you do that, by the way?

  • Hi Cathy,
    If you are a SF resident then you know all about sourdough. It is super tasty. (Now SF needs to work on a pizza that rivals Chicago’s deep dish style)
    Thanks for commenting.