I am a San Francisco sourdough snob. I grew up on the San Francisco peninsula when the gold-rush-era sourdough bakeries for which San Francisco was renowned were still going strong. Our family was particularly partial to a brand called Larraburu — it was a staple at family gatherings — that is, until the bakery closed in May, 1976 due to financial problems. After Larraburu closed, the competing bakeries were taken over by corporate interests which, in the name of efficiency, cut corners in the manufacturing process. They continued to bake for several years and are no longer in operation.
I now live in the Los Angeles area. A supermarket near me (Gelson's) carries a house brand of sourdough. One day I picked up a loaf in the store and sniffed it, thinking "This can't be any good." Much to my surprise, I liked what I smelled. I took a loaf home and sampled some.
It was not exactly the sourdough I remembered from my bay area days but it had a lot going for it. I examined the ingredients and saw that they did two things right: they added lactic acid and a powdered form of acetic acid. No wonder I liked this bread! Lactic and acetic acids are the main souring agents in gold-rush-era sourdough. These two acids gave the bread a very authentic flavor.
San Francisco sourdough bread has been much studied the world over. In the late 1960's the USDA studied sourdough samples obtained from five San Francisco-area sourdough bakeries. The acid content of the bread was studied again several years later and the results published. The two souring agents — lactic acid and acetic acid — are now well known.
Here is a paper in which the acidic composition of S.F. sourdough was studied:
Mythology had it that San Francisco sourdough could only be made within a 50-mile radius of the city due to the magic imparted by San Francisco's fog, the air, the climate, the local yeast, etc. We now know that the microorganisms found in San Francisco sourdough cultures can be found anywhere in the world. Sourdough bread is still available in San Francisco but it is a mere shadow of the breads produced by the legacy bakeries that traced their origins to the California gold rush, brands such as Larraburu, Parisian, Toscana, Colombo and Baroni (Toscana and Colombo were actually baked in Oakland). Modern-day San Francisco bakers produce delicious breads which could be from any city in the world. None of the city's sourdough legacy lives in them; there is nothing uniquely or distinctively "San Francisco" about them.
I had been working on replicating San Francisco sourdough in my own kitchen which is hundreds of miles from San Francisco, with gooey starters and hours and hours of proofing time. I had some success capturing the flavor of the bread. The techniques presented here, though unorthodox, produce a bread which authentically replicates the flavor of traditional San Francisco sourdough, to be used as a guidepost in keeping the legacy alive.
Send me a private message on TFL if you are interested in the formula. From USDA
Scientists at the USDA's Western Regional Research Laboratory in Albany, California, found an unidentified bacterium in starter doughs from local San Francisoco bakeries. It worked cooperatively with a yeast to produce the bread's unusual crust, texture and slightly sour taste. Subsequently, researchers at the USDA's Eastern Regional Research Laboratory in Wyndmoor, Pennsylvania, worked with industry to develop a simple new procedure for making the bread. It used sour whey and vinegar instead of bacteria as sources of acetic and lactic acid. When the acids are added to a French bread formula in the quantities and proportions found in the traditional product, the result is a bread with the resilient body, robust flavor, coarse structure, and crisp chewy crust of the native San Francisco product. As a result, supermarkets everywhere today feature, not only sourdough breads, but also rolls and English muffins.