The Fresh Loaf

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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.

dabrownman's picture

They sterilized the water and utensils and made sure the air in the clean room was sterilized with UV radiation and then mixed the water with the flour and covered it to make sure it couldn't get contaminated by any outside source and sure enough a SD culture was started from the microorganisms...... in the flour only.  

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...


Doc.Dough's picture

Rob Dunn Lab at NC State: HERE
Dig into the data and see what they found.
There is still much to be learned.

dabrownman's picture

that I can see in this post!

dmsnyder's picture

I have chatted this past week with a baker who worked for both Parisian and Boudin for 30 years altogether. Nick's information is correct, as far as it goes. The baker with whom I communicated mentioned these factors making the difference:

1. Boudin cold retards. Parisian "didn't have the room." (I learned at the SFBI that room for a retarder is a major factor in a bakery's decision. Commercial retarders commonly are like walk in refrigerators. Big!

2. The proportion of starter in the final dough differed. Boudin uses a higher percentage than Parisian did.

3. Parisian baked on a deck (some sort of fire bricks). Boudin bakes on a grill. I don't understand why this makes a big difference in flavor, but Ramon said it did.

Both bakeries used low hydration starters with the same hydration as their final doughs. Both had short bulk fermentations and very long proofing. 

I asked Ramon for more details regarding times and temperatures. He has not seemed willing to share that information.


mikedilger's picture

EDIT: sorry didn't realize this was a necro.

Do starters assume the characteristics of the food or the location?  I have mixed results from my personal experience.

I started a starter in January.  It runs slow, too slow for most online recipes, even after frequent feedings and no refrigeration.  It smells like yeast and overripe fruit.   So I picked up a starter from a cafe 10km away that smelled like vinegar and feet.  I ran comparison tests and this second starter operates nearly twice as fast, too fast for most online recipes.  I've been feeding it a diet very similar (but not exactly the same) as the cafe did, but on a more frequent schedule.

The results?  This cafe starter still operates fast, and my starter still operates slow.  The cafe starter smells more yeasty now, the smell of vinegar and feet is gone. There is no hint of overripe fruit like my starter.  They are still different.   I went back to the cafe and smelled his starter again and definitely still has a vinegar and feet smell back at the cafe.

I wonder not so much about yeasts in the air, but about yeasts on our skin.  The guy from the cafe smells differently than I do... and I kind of wonder if skin microorganisms are having an effect...  I suspect it's not so much the location as it is the person who does the feeding.


dmsnyder's picture

I believe there is a consensus among those that have studied it that the principal source of the flora in sourdough - both the yeast and the bacteria - is the grains used to feed it. Maybe there are some floating around in bakeries where flour and dough are present often and in quantity. There are probably differences in bacteria strains according to the grain and where it comes from. I believe there are good studies also documenting different quantities of yeast and bacteria on different grains.

Now, the yeast and bacteria that thrive in a sourdough starter are adapted to an acid environment and to each other's presence. They actually require each other for healthy growth. Once established, they successfully compete with intruders that are not similarly adapted. I suppose there are sick starters that present such a pathologic environment (from the culinary perspective) that other organisms can grow. 

Among the various strains of "good" bacteria, which predominate and how they metabolize sugars depends on additional factors, notably temperature and hydration.

So, one can alter the balance of microorganisms and what chemicals they produce by manipulating what you feed them, how often you feed them, the temperature at which you keep them and how wet your starter is. 

And, by the way, a culture that smells of vinegar and smelly feet is not healthy.


breadyandwaiting's picture

Can you please clarify why the smell of vinegar is an indicator of poor health, David?

I ask because I have noticed a vinegar smell in my starter, linked to temperature (when I let it sit in the proofer overnight vs leaving it on the significantly cooler counter) and feeding ratio (higher ratio = more smell).

I assume this is because I'm creating an environment for a certain type of bacteria to thrive, but these conditions also seem to align with what I thought was optimal for yeast development (~77F and 1:2:2.2 ratios). 

I can get the smell to disappear with a "yeast boosting" regimen of frequent 2:1:1 feedings, but then if I return to the 1:2:2.2 plus proofer, the smell gradually returns. For what it's worth my loaves are only improving, so I'm at a bit of a loss on this one and would love to hear your insight!

dmsnyder's picture

A bit of vinegar smell is good. If it knocks you over, it is usually an indication that the starter is over-ripe and should have been fed a while ago. At least that's my experience. If you have a healthy starter that produces lots of acetic acid smell, I won't argue with your experience. Smelly feet smell can't be good. I once knew the chemical that accounts for that distinctive oder, but I'd have to look it up now.


mikedilger's picture

for precisely the reason you state. I didn't think the smell of feet was a good thing at all. However, the starter performs very well, and on my feeding regimen the smell goes away.

But you must be right, it must just be the flour.  Bakeries don't have starters changing on them when a different worker handles the starter.

I used homeground whole white spring wheat and Champion 11.5% high grade flour.  I should have stuck to stale Pam's whole wheat flour and Champion 10.6% protein flour in the 5kg bag if I wanted the smell of vinegar and feet to persist.  Silly me. :-P

There's a difference between what I'm calling a vinegar smell (sharp cider vinegar) and that smell you get if you neglect to feed it (acetone, paint thinner, nail polish, drywall spackling).