The Fresh Loaf

News & Information for Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts

Lactobacillus San Francisco Sourdough

Nickisafoodie's picture

Lactobacillus San Francisco Sourdough

I came across the following link/article on Lactobacillus San Francisco posted in 2004 by Mark Preston on a site called “Danger! Men Cooking!”

The article describes how over several weeks one could replicate the SF Sourdough culture started by Isadore Boudin himself in 1849.  And be able to maintain it locally with minimal effort after the initial series of builds and at the recommended temperature for various steps.

This article is fascinating because many posts on TFL and the web in general say that any culture purchased or created will eventually assume the characteristics of the bacteria naturally present on the wheat, i.e. being local to where the wheat was grown.  Or that over time it assumes the characteristics of the wild bacteria present in the bakery/household in which the culture is maintained. Or a combination of both, which to me seems to be plausible- i.e. that once started from say a purchased culture, you cannot maintain it.  Is in fact that assumption correct?

The author says otherwise referencing a $192 technical book “HANDBOOK OF DOUGH FERMENTATIONS by Karel Kulp and Klaus Lorenz. (NY: Marcel Dekker, c.2003), some 328 pages long.  The book is listed on Amazon:

To quote: “Well theories on that point differ radically. Some say the microorganisms are wild and floating around in the air. Others speculate that the quality of the flour has much to do with the fermentations. I have read a serious scientific paper on the quantity of lactobacillus microorganisms being greater on wheat near humanly populated areas than wheat in less populated areas. Another research paper says that there are about 400 types of microorganisms in a fermenting loaf. Other papers say that the sanfranciscensis microorganism is about 36% of that 400, that is to say, by quantity it predominates, naturally. So the question becomes how to nurture those San Francisco organisms along and not get anything bad going. That's what the Handbook of Dough Fermentations is all about. The piece of information lacking was to not make bread after two to three or four days, but that the starter needed about two to three weeks of refreshments. And it needed specific amounts of water and flour and at very specific intervals.”

Boudin is the oldest sourdough bakery in San Francisco. Mr. Boudin came from a village along the Swiss French border. The boat trip across the ocean allowed no baking so it likely took weeks of feeding to establish the culture. The Boudin Bakery still uses the same starter and the production method at the bakery also has to be taken into account.  I can honestly say it is the best sourdough that I have ever tasted and a must stop attraction for those visiting the Wharf in San Francisco.

My homemade culture using fresh ground rye has thrived for years.  Over time I have come to have a better understanding of some of the variables that we control to target a given bread style. These variables combined with the fermentation times and temperatures allows for an infinite range of bread styles – from a hardly noticeable and not desirable sour (baguettes) to the high levels typical in Northern/Eastern Europe as in Polish, Czech, German or Russian ryes. 

The essential elements are by controlling the buildup for a given bake in terms of:

1)       Intervals between feedings/buildup

2)       Percentage of starter used in the final recipe

3)       Temperature during the builds

4)       Hydration levels of the starter ranging from stiff to very loose (75% to 150%, each giving a different characteristic).

5)       Fermentation time and temperature of the dough

Yet as good as they are, the taste is not that of Lactobacillus Sanfranciscensis.  Should I be happy?  Yes.  Yet the pursuit of bread perfection is never achieved and continues!

The feeding cycle expansion from the initial start point is 312,500 times!  And the feeding cycles alternate between 8 and 16 hour cycles and follow specific temperature guidelines.  The author says after a few weeks you will have it.  Note: regarding the build table shown, there is a typo in the row that shows 12,500 water – the flour amount should be 10,000 not 1,000. 

In summary, a very interesting read that represents one approach that surely is not the final word on the subject.  There are many articles on the web regarding Lactobacillus sanfranciscensis and Candida milleri, likely counter to some of the points raised in the post.  This is leading me to do more research and explore other information on the web regarding this infamous grouping of complementary bacterias.  

I would also like to hear from people that may have purchased the SF cultures and whether or not they evolved over time to something other than when started?  That would seem an easy way to start if in fact one could maintain it so it doesn’t evolve away going forward.   Thanks to all…


Crider's picture

I've been following them off and on trying to get an idea about how they do things there. Mostly, online videos have given me some of their secrets. First off, they have a cool process. In the old days, they bulk fermented their dough in the basement of their 10th (or 14th) street bakery. 58.3° F is the annual mean temperature that this document shows for "San Francisco C.O." So I figure their basement was likely around 65°? Perhaps they have a special temperature for their mother dough, as Boudin calls their sourdough culture, but why would they do that in 1890 before they had practical, inexpensive refrigeration? 

As I recall from a very informative video that I lost track of (curses!), their mother dough cycle is one day and is refreshed at a 1:10 dough ratio. Their hydration of the mother dough looks like it is the same as bread dough hydration, and in this video at about 1:30 in, their Master Baker is asked why their mother dough is darker than their loaf dough. He answers that they use a 'very strong flour' for their mother dough to 'feed the bacteria'. Interesting!

And then there is a video showing delivery of the mother dough to a new Boudin branch in Stockton, California. Their Master Baker Fernando Padilla is standing in front of a stack of 50 lb. bags of Mello Judith flour. This is produced by an old line milling company that once milled in San Francisco, and since bought out by ConAgra. Pdf spec sheet here.

Mello Judith is a rather low protein flour and is unbleached. 

Based on what I remember about that lost video where they explain their production, I believe that the mother dough, refreshed at 10% old mother to new dough, is refreshed every day and is kept at a cool temperature. The bread dough is also made with 10% mother dough, does not have unusual high hydration, uses somewhat of a low protein Mello Judith flour, and is bulk fermented for 'a day' at a rather low temperature. Then the loaves are formed and allowed to rise at an unknown temperature until ready to bake in a steamed oven. I remember being impressed at how simple their process is.

I don't think there are any wild, precision complicated processes needed to engineer the right sour taste, but here I am sitting in the heat of summer and would be unable to duplicate what I believe is their simple recipe without a large cool room at 65°!

Crider's picture

I sat back down and tried to find that darn video. I thought it maybe had been an episode of an old TV show called John Ratzenberger's Made in America but I couldn't find the vid online, except on iTunes for a paid download. I later found a transcript of that episode, and although it turns out it wasn't what I was looking for, there were a couple of secrets about their production — the mixing and baking:

"For a batch of 350 pounds dough there is a mother dough, salt, flour, and the water, and I am going to mix for twelve minutes."

"So the bread is inside, and now I'm gonna put 20 seconds steam and bake 'em for 25 minutes."

Nickisafoodie's picture

Crider, thank you for the follow-up posts - very informative and much appreciated!  Thank you.

grind's picture

I had my sourdough culture analysed by a lab several years ago and this is part of what the report said -

The species composition (combination of homo- and heterofermentative lactobacilli) of the sourdough is typical for wheat sourdoughs that are used as sole leavening agent. The combination of L. rossiae or L. spicheri and L. paralimentarius is much more frequent in Italian and French (wheat) sourdoughs compared to other areas of Europe or North America.

Now, I started my culture in Vancouver about 7-8 years ago, using probably Canadian flour.  How I got those European strains, I have no idea.  When I asked the good Professor how this could have happened, he said something about feeding cycles, etc.  I actually don't remember everything he said, but one thing that I'll never forget is he said that sourdough scientists have no definitive idea from where this bacteria come from.  So, since then, I've always wondered about this terroir thing.

Nickisafoodie's picture

Question for anyone in the know: Whenever I travel to San Fran my personal preference is Boudin Bakery makes a far superior sourdough than Parisian. They are owned by the same company baked in two different locations.  Any color on why (if you agree) Boudin is so much better (relatively speaking as both are good)? 

It does not seem possible that the starter or technique is the same given how different sourdough bread from these two bakeries is...