The Fresh Loaf

News & Information for Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts

Vinegary Sourdough in San Francisco

  • Pin It
chris319's picture
chris319

Vinegary Sourdough in San Francisco

I am in the San Francisco bay area and bought a loaf of Boudin sourdough. It has a distinct vinegary taste and aroma.

What would cause a vinegary taste and aroma? Could it be the use of a cold, stiff levain?

Boudin was never a major player back in the golden age of S.F. sourdough and now I can understand why. The gold standard back in the day was Larraburu.

BTW I have sampled many breads from bakeries in the city this trip and they were mostly awful. It puts the lie to the myth of the "magic" of S.F. yeast, climate, fog, air, etc. as creating great sourdough bread.

There is a bakery/cafe called "Tartine" and its bread is almost pretty good, except that the half loaf they sold me was burnt, i.e. the crust was badly charred.

dosco's picture
dosco

I would speculate their starter has a strain of acetobacter in it.

Alternatively they are adding vinegar to the starter or dough to get the pH low and activate the yeast?

Dunno ... I thought that most of that stuff cooked off while baking.

-Dave

DavidEF's picture
DavidEF

First, a chuckle. From what I've read (as I've never been there myself) the bread you're describing is what SF is known and prized for, all the way down to the charred crust! The vinegary taste is the extreme sourness that people often think of when discussing "sourdough" as a term.

I once switched my starter over to feeding with whole wheat flour only, in order to get more flavor. I'd been feeding with AP, and couldn't get my bread to taste anything but bland. By the time I'd fed it whole wheat for a few days, my bread tasted like it was soaked in vinegar! I was still baking with white bread flour, but the starter was whole wheat. I liked it, although it wasn't really the flavor I was looking for. But everyone else in my household and among my friends really didn't like it at all, so I switched back to white flour at feeding, and it went away. Now I feed with unbleached white bread flour, and the flavor of my bread is rich, but not too sour. Everybody loves it. To each his own, I guess!

pongze's picture
pongze

I got a chuckle, too.  Chad Robertson, the baker/owner at Tartine, is considered by many to be one of the best bakers in America.  His book is a favorite of many people here.  Was the crust truly charred, i.e. did it taste burnt?  I ask because the caramelization of the crust and the grigne ("ear") that forms from the scoring will lead to black appearing areas.  Some will be charred, I guess, while other areas will just be deep caramelization of the sugars in the crust.  Just curious, did you have to stand in line to get your half loaf?

It may be that you are not a fan of sourdough.  I actually don't like the sour taste, so I use a fairly young leaven in my baking.  That might be why the Tartine loaf was "almost pretty good" to you, because Robertson uses a young leaven to get a sweeter, less sour taste.

chris319's picture
chris319

If you've never had the genuine article you really don't know the flavor of S.F. sourdough, which now seems to be consigned to a bygone era. 

If they added vinegar it would have to be on the ingredient label which it is not.

I grew up on S.F. sourdough on the peninsula in the '60s and '70s so I'm quite familiar with the flavor. The sourness is not vinegary but rather comes from the well-known lactobacillus SanFranciscensis, which the USDA spent taxpayer money to discover back in the '60s. The Boudin bread had some l.sanfran flavor but the vinegar/acetic acid flavor overpowered it. Apparently the acetic acid does not bake off. This might explain why Boudin was never a major player among S.F. sourdough brands back in the day.

I did not have to stand in line at Tartine. I walked right in between 4:30 and 5:00 pm and bought half a loaf. The crust was black and had a pronounced charred flavor which was also present to some extent in the crumb. Any of us would have considered it unacceptably burnt. Despite Chad Robertson's qualifications, it all counts for naught if the bread is burnt. They screwed up that day's bake and I hope it eventually came to their attention. By the time I discovered it I had boarded a trolley bus so it was too late to bring it to their attention. I would love to try an unburnt loaf.

Some of the breads had  a downright peculiar flavor. Others were whole-wheat breads and to their credit the bakers were totally up front about it not being classic S.F. SD. I've been able to capture the l.sanfran flavor without a vinegar taste in my own kitchen, but I'm still experimenting with proofing times, etc.

Back to the vinegary Boudin, the research I've done suggests that the vinegar flavor might come from a starter which is cool and stiff rather than warm and liquid. The starter was supposedly brought over from Europe by the bakery's founder, if you believe their legend.

pongze's picture
pongze

about a bygone era... that is such a shame.  What is also a shame is that they would sell you a burnt loaf at Tartine... I would hope that a reputable bakery, especially one with the reputation of Tartine, would not do that.

Regarding what you post about the vinegary flavor possibly being from a cool/stiff starter vs warm/liquid, this morning I posted a link in another thread to an explanation by Debra Wink about that very concept!

clazar123's picture
clazar123

I believe the SFBI students run that bakery and I had THE most delicious coffee as well as pastry there. Oh...and their bread was excellent,too. :) They have a small patio in the back that was a quiet refuge the day the Blue Angels were roaring over all the streets. Thorough is a little out of the way-kind of in the middle of the block and very unobtrusive but well worth the search.

I will be in San Fran this weekend and look forward to some good bread, seafood(Swan-first time) and Mexican(Pedros on Polk). Buy a 3 day bus pass and I'm in heaven.

ACME Bakery on the Wharf had pretty tasty bread but was rather expensive. The best thing I had at the Fisherman's Wharf was a roll-almost a pastry-stuffed with various savory fillings (can't remember the name of them but they are Brazillian). Delicious!

Any recommendations for places you liked?

 

 

pongze's picture
pongze

I know your question wasn't directed at me, but I feel compelled to share.  If you are a fan of seafood, Hog Island Oyster Co. in the Ferry Building has an amazing clam chowder.  And if you are a fan of sandwiches, in particular Vietnamese banh mi, Saigon Sandwiches is a hole-in-the-wall, but has the absolute best banh mi ever!

I guess that was two recommendations lol

chris319's picture
chris319

I have not tried Thorough Bakery but lived around the corner from it on 15th street many years ago. I used to catch the M streetcar at the corner and then off to S.F. State.

There is no place I can recommend on the basis of its bread, sorry to say.

I am giving Acme sourdough another try and it is far and away the closest to classic S.F. sourdough of the many I have tried recently, and the loaf was not burnt. I would like it if the tanginess that comes from l.sanfran were quite a bit stronger in Acme. If I still lived in the area, Acme is what I would buy and spare myself the trouble of baking my own.

DavidEF's picture
DavidEF

Here is a link to an article I read comparing various bakeries in San Francisco:

http://www.seriouseats.com/2013/08/taste-test-the-best-sourdough-bread-in-san-fr.html

I thought it was a pretty good read. But, as I said above, I don't know any of this stuff for myself, so my opinions can easily be wrong. Funny, the Tartine was their top pick, and the Boudin was last place! And, they did mention the Tartine was baked very dark and was charred. So, maybe you can relate to their findings.

chris319's picture
chris319

The loaf I got from Tartine bakery was beyond "dark"; I would describe the crust as badly burnt, with a charred flavor throughout. The taste testers on that panel must have gotten a less well-done loaf.

Still, the closest thing to the genuine article is Acme in my judgement. "Authenticity" was not one of the criteria in that taste test, understandable because they don't have a frame of reference.

Davo's picture
Davo

What's dark/ charred, pleasantly charred etc is very subjective. Personally I like bread baked to a darkish brown, but no trace of black, but some intentionally bake till it really is charred, and with some black in it. On this, I remember reading where a baker was noting how he intentionally baked to a slightly blackened charred state, and justifying that. On how much was enough, there was some comment along the lines of "you can't really burn bread". Now, I happen to disagree, and I don't like that bitter charred flavour, either. Maybe your's was a really overbaked loaf even in their eyes, but it also may not have been - to them.

chris319's picture
chris319

I don't know how many times I have to repeat my point. It was seriously burnt by any standards. It's supposed to taste like bread, not charcoal. I've had dark-baked bread before but this was way beyond.

clazar123's picture
clazar123

I am in San Fran right  now and had some bread from Boudins.It had a dark blistery crust (not burned like you described tthe Tartine bread,thank goodness) and it had a definte sour taste. There was definitely something missing and I think that it had JUST the sourness and not much other flavor.It was unbalanced. I believe this tends to make it seem more sourthan it really is.

Then, at another restauranr, I had a similar appearing loaf (not from Boudin) and that one tasted as if it was brushed just onthe surface with vinegar-not in the crumb at all.Makes me wonder. The crumb tasted pretty good but I would bet it was a loaf made with Dry yeast. They all swear that their loaves are "sourdough". All of these loaves are chewy and obviously made with high protein bread flour.

Still hoping to get to Thorough Bakery but it is a wild and crazy town this weekend with Santa Con going on.Google for pictures.

 ing

Xenophon's picture
Xenophon

...if they did add some vinegar but I hasten to add that of course I don't know in this particular case.  But I do know 2 bakeries in Europe that have quite a reputation for their sourdough breads (rye and others) where they definitely  add a small quantity of malt vinegar to the dough (in one of those I know one of the baking staff, in the other they reluctantly acknowledged doing this after I asked point blank if they added vinegar, yes or no.  The breads are not sold pre-packed  and there's no legal obligation to provide a list of ingredients, don't know how it is in the US.  It doesn't taste bad at all but personally I consider it bad form to do this.  

chris319's picture
chris319

clazar: Interesting observation about "something missing" from Boudin. I agree Boudin was missing much of the traditional "San Francisco flavor" which comes from l.sanfranciscensis and has too much of a vinegary flavor.

Acme has no vinegary sourness but the l.sanfran flavor is a bit mild.

Yes, adding vinegar does seem like bad form.

clazar123's picture
clazar123

I have added vinegar to a dough in my early days for one reason or another but it doesnt really contribute much to flavor unless you get into significant amounts. However, I believe the 2nd loaf  tasted as though vinegar was used as awash over the surface much as a egg wash . Bread tasting contiues today with all the hungover Santas in town.

Apologies for punctuation. Keyboar has some idiosyncracies I refuse todeal with.

ajrosen's picture
ajrosen

the two well known bakers of artisan breads and such Jim Leahy and Tartine book all show really brown/black bread crusts and maybe thats offset by different toppings and cheeses but i am not a fan of char except on a filet mignon

However that being said their recipes are good just bake according to brown or burnt   some folks dont even like dark brown making a lighter thinner coating. if u make the breads in a dutch oven you can leave the top on most of the cooking time and have much softer crust.