Golden Gate Bridge

How to Make
San Francisco
Sourdough French Bread

by Joe Jaworski

If you're a bread lover, nothing beats the tangy taste and chewy texture of sourdough bread. From its hard crust to its soft interior, sourdough bread has a unique flavor that is hard to resist. Although traditionally served with shellfish or seafood, sourdough bread can be served with most dishes, including red meats and poultry.

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There is no doubt that the best sourdough bread is made from true San Francisco yeast cultures, prepared in the french-style baking method. You probably have tasted this bread in the past, even if you do not live in San Francisco. Many supermarkets now carry prepackaged loaves as well as most major airports in the U.S. However, nothing can compare to the taste of a warm, fresh baked loaf right from your oven.

Over the past year, I have tried many methods to reproduce the flavor of true San Francisco sourdough at home. My goal was to create a bread with equal or superior taste to the famous San Francisco bakeries of Boudin, Parisian, and Colombo. This article describes the process that I have developed that will produce excellent results in any home kitchen. My method is relatively simple, and if you currently bake any kind of yeast breads, you should have little difficulty following my recipe. While the start to finish time of baking this bread takes about 36 hours, there is very little to do most of this time.

Start with a Starter

Regular breads are made with prepackaged yeasts. Sourdough breads are made from a starter. The starter (or sometimes called a sponge) is a flour and water mixture that contains the yeast used to rise the bread. You need a starter to make sourdough bread. To create a starter, you must first obtain some yeast. The only way to bake real San Francisco sourdough bread is to use a yeast culture from San Francisco. You can purchase dried yeast starters at some gourmet cook shops or larger health food stores. If you are associated with a cooking school or club, you might be able to get a bit of someone else's starter to start your own. On the net, Sourdoughs International sells various starters. In any case, you cannot bake authentic San Francisco sourdough bread with just any sourdough starter, and certainly not with one made from commercial yeast like Red Star or Fleischmann's.

It will take 24-36 hours to make a loaf, so plan ahead. I usually prepare my starter on Friday morning before work for bread that will be ready for Saturday's dinner. If you need more details on the ins and outs of sourdough starters, see my web page The Care and Feeding of Sourdough Starters before proceeding. If you're already baking sourdough but are having difficulties, see my sourdough FAQ for answers to common problems.

Sourdough Starter

About a day and a half before bake time, remove your starter from the refrigerator. Dump out about half the mixture. Next, add the following ingredients:

  • - 1 cup (125 g) of bread flour
  • - 1 cup (250 ml) of water

Stir the mixture for a few minutes using a wooden spoon (never use metal bowls or utensils with yeast). The idea is to get lots of air into the mixture, which will help the yeast develop. The starter should wind up having the consistency of thick gravy or pancake batter. Do not be overly concerned if there are a few lumps in the mixture.

You need to "proof" the starter, which is simply placing it in a dark, warm place to promote the fermentation process. Ideal proof temperature is around 90-95F (35C). If you have an oven with a proof setting, set it to 95F and cover with a hand towel. For a gas oven, the heat from the pilot light may create enough heat. If you can't quite achieve 90-95F temperature, then the proofing will take longer.

Starter at its peak

The starter needs to ferment for several hours. If you are familiar with sourdough baking, you know that sourdough starters have a "peak" in their bubbly activity, then tend to go flat or dormant after that. For best results, you want to ferment your starter right up to its peak. Depending upon how strong or weak your initial starter is plus temperature, the peak might take anywhere from 3 to 8 hours. With a new starter, check it every few hours or so to get an idea of when your starter reaches its peak. Don't worry if you are too early in the peak. But too late, and your bread won't rise enough. If you see lots of tiny bubble on the surface of the starter, it is ready to use.

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