The Fresh Loaf

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Achieving true San Fran Sourdough...whatever that means

paul0130's picture

Achieving true San Fran Sourdough...whatever that means

I have been experimenting with different recipes with the goal of achieving the perfect loaf of sourdough bread. It seems that San Fran is the gold standard (never actually had true SanFran sourdough bread). I started looking for some recipes, and the one I made Sunday was REALLY good! My starter has been a bit off for the past few months and I've been trying to save it, but I think it's a lost cause. Luckily I made a dehydrated backup back in February when I thought it was perfect, and it has bounced back to life nicely. Can't wait to use it this weekend!

So question. From what I have read, you don't exactly need San Fran culture to create an authentic tasting San Francisco tasting sourdough bread. It's all in the way you make it. Don't know this to be fact, just something I read on the Internet which we all know must be true. I've been using one recipe for a while which is pretty good, but tried a "authentic San Francisco" recipe this weekend. Looking at the percentages, there is a lot less starter (percentage wise) in the SanFran than my usual. Also, the SanFran called for a water pan in the oven, as well as a cornstarch water baste 10 minutes into the bake. It's also a cooler bake than my usual bake. 400 for about 30 minutes vs 450 for about 20 minutes. Here's some numbers. Hydration is about the same:

My usual:
1 1/2 cups water, 1 cup starter, 3 cups flour (sponge) 4-8 hours
+ 1 cup flour and more, salt
Hydration = 596/1013 = 58.8%

San Fran recipe:
2 cups water, 1 cup starter, 4 cups flour (sponge) 8 hours
+ 1 cup or so flour, salt, sugar
468/793=59.01% hydration final water to flour hydration level


The starter is 100% hydration. There are other factors. My usual goes in wicker baskets and the SanFran just went straight on the pan. This made for a flatter boule, but still pretty good. SanFran had water in the oven and a cornstarch baste. Don't know, I guess my question is, is this really a true authentic SanFran sourdough based on percentages, sponge ferment time, bake temp, and homemade sourdough culture? Thanks!



rgconner's picture

America does not have the equivalent of appellation d'origins contrôlée for many products, but San Fran Sourdough ought to be one of them.

So yes, you made San Fran sourdough, but it is not San Fran sourdough because it was not made in San Fran. =)

Cognac is brandy, but not all brandy is Cognac...

I grew up in San Fran, so I have eaten it all my life. I am not particularly fond of it, unless it is used as a base for a meal.  Cioppino in a bread bowl is something sublime! Or for a local salami sub, awesome.

But for plain eating bread, it is a bit strong flavored. Very sour, far more than my palate prefers. I will dip my bread in Balsamic if I want that much vinegar taste.

I would probably select any of our Fresh Loaf made "sourdough"s over a traditional San Fran Sourdough.

MonkeyDaddy's picture

The regional difference in natural culture breads is not only related to bakers' techniques, but also to the indigenous strains of yeast and lactobacillus bacteria present in the area.  

Yeasts do not produce appreciable amounts of either lactic or acetic acids.  Their main metabolites are ethanol and CO2, so the "sour" flavor of a given culture comes from the lactobacillus species.  In tests of San Franciso sourdoughs, one species of lactobacillus is so prevalent it was given the name Lactobacillus sanfranciscensis to differentiate it from other species that might be present.  It's what gives San Francisco sourdoughs their very characteristic taste and sourness.

Other cultures from around the world have much different properties.  Various strains of yeast are better or worse at leavening dough, and each lactobacillus subspecies has a different flavor profile.  The wild culture that I captured in my own kitchen has a nice sourness to it, but the yeast half is quite poor at leavening bread.  However, a culture I read about from the area around the Black Sea is very vigorous in terms of leavening.

There have been many attempts to mix-and-match yeasts and lactobacilli from different cultures, but not always with great success.  It seems that as they evolve around each other they take on characteristics that produce a wonderful symbiosis with their specific partners that is not necessarily transferable to other pairings.

Luckily, when yeast are exposed to harsh environments, they form a protective capsule around themselves that is very durable and they can wait inside until conditions are right for growing again.  The dehydrated backup you made of your culture is a perfect example of this.  By making a dry storage version of a culture it can be easily sent all over the world, and you can get dry samples of San Francisco sourdough sent through the mail right to your house.  They sell them in gift shops all around the Bay Area, and there are dozens of sources online.  Just rehydrate and start baking.  One caution though:  It's my understanding that over time a foreign sourdough culture can revert to the local wild-type due to cross-contamination from the indigenous population of organisms.  So your culture may stop tasting San Francisco-ish over time.

paul0130's picture

Thanks for the feedback guys. Reading your posts, I believe something went haywire with the lactobacillus in my last starter. The starter had a pretty decent rise, but once the rise was complete the starter would get liquidy real quick. I also noticed that my bread would almost smell like stale bread after only a couple of days. I attributed this to the "something funny in my starter". The final straw was when my wife told me she thought the bread gave her and my daughter an upset stomach. Now my newly revived starter from the freezer on the other hand... this thing rises like crazy, but it has a much sweeter/fruity scent than my last. Seems the yeast is more dominant than the lactobacillus on this one. But as MonkeyDad stated, as the yeast and lacto find their symbiosis, I wonder if it will eventually evolve into what I have now? Time will tell.

So rgconner, sounds like SanFran sourdough is not necessarily for everyone's palate :) I had to lookup appellation d'origins contrôlée and Cioppino. You are correct, it would be nice to have controls in place so if I buy a SanFran culture online I know I'm getting the real deal. And I found a recipe online for Cioppino by Giada that I have to try one day! With sourdough bowl and all. Too good an idea not to try. Also, my wife and kids don't like it too sour so perhaps the goal should just be deliciousness :)

One last crazy question. I bought these wicker baskets online and I've used them a few times. Generally I'll moisten the baskets a little so the AP flour sticks and then let dough rise. But when I first received the baskets they had a funny chemical smell I've never quite been able to get rid of. Last time I used them, I noticed the top crust just had a funny taste. Kinda that stale bread taste I was talking about. Could it be the baskets? I was thinking about using parchment paper on the baskets. Has anyone ever done this? Do I still use flour or will the dough not stick to the parchment? Thanks.

Maverick's picture

You have your hydrations backwards, but that doesn't matter since they are both about the same anyway. I don't think that what you are making sounds quite right as a SFSD. While it is true that technically outside of SF this isn't really SFSD, it can be called San Fransisco Style Sourdough. The lactobacillus sanfranciscensis has been found all around the world, but without special laboratory work you won't know if it is present. Technically without this it won't be the same. Plus the flour being used will make a difference. I recently moved from SF area and am running low on the local flour. I don't really notice a big difference when I use KAF for these though (I only really can tell when making a poolish because of the extra nuttiness).

Really SFSD is just french bread made with a starter and using white flour. The lower amount of starter lends a more sour taste (as does a retarding of the dough if desired). The sugar is optional, but I never use it and don't know any of the good SF sourdough companies that do either so I would leave it out. Some might add malted barley flour. I have never heard of basting it with anything (except maybe to brush some water on it for steaming purposes). The hydration sounds low as well. I tend to use either 65 or 68% for more traditional style loaves like you are looking for but often use higher hydration otherwise. The salt is 1.7% and I might bring that up to 2% but don't know if that would really matter.

Most of the breads are retarded to increase the flavor. Not all are extremely sour, but some do push the limits. The texture is a bit chewy and the crust is not usually boldly baked.

I don't understand the part about putting the dough directly in the pan. Did it not go through a proofing stage first? What pan are you using? If it is a loaf pan then that won't give you what you want.

For your wicker baskets you can use parchment or a floured tea towel. FWIW, normally the banneton is dry when adding the dough. It is possible that you are getting it too wet and creating and environment for mold. You can spray it with water and flour it to condition it when you first get it, but don't put the dough in until it is dry. Don't store wet baskets either. Take a look at this page (and small video).

MonkeyDaddy's picture

Thanks to Maverick for making an additional point.  I actually meant to mention it in my first post but inadvertently omitted it:  L. sanfranciscensis is not endemic to the San Francisco area.  Also, it is not the only lactobacillus species found in samples of bread from bakers in the Bay Area.  However, in the study i came across, something like 70% percent of the samples studied had L. sanfranciscensis as the majority bacteria present.  

Another point that Maverick made that I completely missed was the flour.  I had just assumed that the flour shipped to California was the same stuff they spread all over the U.S..  Never even occurred to me that regional differences in flour availability would be a factor.  That's why I love this site - I learn something new every time I log in.

With regard to your wicker baskets.  You said you got them online.  Hopefully it was from a reputable source of quality kitchen wares.  There's something in the news almost weekly anymore about the junk coming out of China (my apologies to any Chinese members on this site).  Everything from imported dog food, to childrens' toys, to furniture varnishes, etc. are being discovered to be toxic because production standards in China are more lax than in the US.  Sadly, production costs are cheaper too, so we're importing stuff from China that used to be made here just to save a buck or two.  Unfortunately a lot of the banneton/brotform baskets I've found online are made in China.

Stepping off my soap box now...

If anybody has found a good source of American or European made proofing baskets please post a name or website!

KathyF's picture

I bought mine at . They sell Kasskonnen Brotforms and Bake-pro Brotforms. 

Kasskonnen® brotforms comply with the general requirement (Article 3) in European Union Regulation (EC) No. 1935/2004 on materials and articles intended to come into contact with food.

Bake-Pro brotforms comply with the general requirement (Article 3) in European Union Regulation (EC) No. 1935/2004 on materials and articles intended to come into contact with food.

And the liners are 100% natural pre-shrunk cotton. Made in the U.S.A.

doughooker's picture

Calling it San Francisco sourdough is fine; we know what you mean. A couple of the prominent sourdough bakeries in the area were actually in nearby Oakland.

There are a couple of things wrong with your recipes. Authentic S.F. SD contains no sugar. It contains 2% salt. There is no baste of any kind.

59% is the hydration you want to aim for but I'm not sure you're calculating it correctly.

I, too, grew up on real S.F. SD from San Francisco. I can't taste your bread so I can't tell how close you are to the real thing. The real thing should not taste vinegary, as the crap they sell to tourists on Fisherman's wharf does.

How do your crusts come out? Are they chestnut brown and crispy or pale and sickly?

There is no baste, but dry corn starch excels as a non-stick powder for your baking surface.

I'm leery of packaged sourdough starters. For all we know they could be a little flour and baker's yeast in an envelope, palmed off on the public as "sourdough starter".

doughooker's picture

Here is your "San Fran" recipe with no sugar and 2% salt. The hydration works out to 58.3%, a wee bit low. Note that the starter is calculated independently of the dough, but the starter hydration is incorporated into the final hydration figure.

Maverick's picture

His hydration percentage was correct, but he listed them in the wrong place (if you reverse the bread they are listed under it is correct).

ProductSan Francisco-Style Sourdough    
IngredientsBaker's % (Straight Dough) Sraight Dough Weight Pre-Ferment (Optional) Adjusted Dough Weight
White Flour100%>1013-134=879
Salt1.7%>17.0- =17.0
Sugar1.5%>15.0- =15.0
% Pre-Ferment Flour13.2% Pre-Ferment Hydration100%Pre-Ferment
 Percentage Sum Batch Weight   Adj. Dough Wt.
 162% 1641 = 1641
doughooker's picture

Here are descriptions of two S.F. sourdough processes:

Finally, if you want it authentic, be sure to use only white flour. Bread flour is preferred but all-purpose will do. Don't go messing around with rye or whole-wheat flour or other grains if you want it authentic.

doughooker's picture

Added note: I believe the proofing temperature of 105 F given in the Larraburu process is too hot. I proof at 86 F as given in the other recipe.

paul0130's picture

Thanks for the feedback folks. Love this site! So I cut out the sugar, and upped the salt a little, but then I made a serious miscalculation. Usually after making the sponge, I calculate flour, water, and starter to figure out current hydration, and then how much more flour I need for 63% which I once read was a good hydration level. Well, as you see on first post numbers, I usually end up adding more flour to get to around 59% according to my miscalculations :) Well, speaking of miscalculations, I made a major goof and forgot to calculate in starter. While adding flour I couldn't figure out why at my usual 59% was still so dang sticky, but I didn't want to add more. What I actually ended up with is about 63%, and here's a pic after 15 minutes of kneading:

Some numbers:


468 (sponge)
134 (268/2) half starter

573 (sponge)
148 one cup added for dough
21 added for 63% (miscalc) way too sticky
54 added for 58% (miscalc)
23 more because still too sticky
134 (268/2) half starter

602/953=63.1% (does not calculate for 20g salt)

So, my plan is to shape out the boules, then flour the heck out of em and drop it in parchment paper lined wicker baskets. This is in hopes that it wouldn't stick to the parchment paper. Then, let it proof in 90 degree oven. I'll bake at 400 for about half hour as recipe calls for, with water pans in oven (made from aluminum foil squares) and cornstarch water baste 10 minutes in (this might be a cheat, but really seemed to add a nice golden brown crust). With this higher level of hydration does this seem like a plan or do I need to change heat and/or water in oven, etc.? Thanks all!


Jane Dough's picture
Jane Dough

Why don't you try going to the "Handbook" (link in the upper navigation) and putting together the loaf called "San Francisco Style Sourdough" by JMonkey.  He has been fairly clear in his direction.  If there is something that doesn't make sense to you just ask. 

Once you make a few successful loaves and start understanding the process you will be able to manipulate the crust and flavor of your loaves.

dabrownman's picture

who have tried to recreate the SFSD they loved.  Most notably David Snyder here

Where was recreating his take on Larraburu's published recipe of low hydration and stiff starter and his own take of his favorite SF bakery, Pariasian here  I think he is up to SFSD version 4 now with added whole wheat,

The truth about SFSDis that it has always been a moving target that actually changed many times over the years.  SFSD has never been Larraburu, or Parisian or Colombo , my favorite, or Toscno or Boudin the only pre 1900 SF bakery still in existence now the oldest business of any kind in SF sin 1849.

Like now, where the SFSD bakeries are all different, making different bread different ways the same was true throughout history.

The bread being made in SF in the old days in the 1850's when there were over 60 bakeries in SF, was much different than the bread being made in the 1930's which was different than the bread made in the 1970's and different than the bread being made today/  The flour was different in the 1850's than the 1930's even though the methods were similar than they were in earlier times but still different from bakery to bakery.

By the 1970's the hearth ovens of the bakeries founded before 1900, had pretty much been replaced by commercial ones so that the few bakeries left after consolidation and financial difficulties, could crank out much more bread.  Before Colombo closed in 2005 it was making 220,000 loaves of bread a week - you aren't doing that by hand in a wood or coal fired oven.

The hydration was still low because they were proofing free form and the starter was stiff because it was basically old dough that was stiff.  Generally speaking the bread was less open and more sour due mainly to the hydration and the crust was thinner and lighter even though Boudin baked a bolder crust.

The 1970's were hard on the original SF bakeries that were started before 1900.  Larraburu went bankrupt when they were sued for $2 million in 1978 when one of their delivery trucks ran over a child's and they didnlt have enough insurance to covert the court' liability award..  Toscana, Colombo and Parisian where bought up by Boudin when they all got into financial trouble at various times and placed into a separate company that was eventually bought by Interstate bakeries of KCMO ( of Wonder Bread, Twinkies and Ho Ho Fame) and they all went out of business when Interstate went bankrupt the first of 3 times in the 2000's!.    Which left Boudin as the last old bakery standing and it had gone bankrupt in 1949 itself but managed to reorganize and stay afloat. 

Throughout SF history, the bakeries have really been about neighborhoods and the different bread that was made in each.  In the old days, the immigrants lived in distinct neighborhoods.  Bakery founders were mainly French, Basque and Italians who brought their SD techniques with them from 1849  to 1900.  So depending on where you lived played a big part in what your fondest memories of what SFSD meant to you.  If you were a visitor it was where you brought the bread you came home with.  The airport, wharf, Oakland etc. Now a couple of things have changed.

People are more mobile and can and do get around more and there has been a big resurgence of 'Artisan' bread in SF.  But it isn't the traditional artisan bread made up to 1930 either if you discount Boudin and Josey baker's The Mill with some other exceptions.  The flour is different, the holes are bigger, the bread less sour (because the starter isn't a stiff old dough and much higher in hydration)., it is baked at a higher temperature and wood or coal fired ovens are still pretty few and far between.

Plus our memories aren't as good as we think either so our ideas of our favorite SFSD bread of the 70's when the old time bakeries were still around may be a bit off.  The fun is in trying to re-create what you think it was like.  Luckily we don't have to try to recreate the new SFSD bred with so many books, posts and videos of it being produced and all you need is a DO and some SD :-)  It is surely some of the greatest SFSD bread of all time even if different but the bread was always different depending on where you were in SF.

And don't forget that great Italian style SFSD bread like this one - one of my all time favorites since Colombo was my favorite:-)

and Josh's Super Sour old time SFSD heremade by Syd - my personal favorite for the old time re-creations

Happy baking the SFSD way.




doughooker's picture

If you're going to build a house you need to be able to read and follow a blueprint. If you're going to cook or bake anything successfully you need to be able to follow a recipe. Sourdough is one of the simplest recipes having just four ingredients if you count the starter. Baker's math is unambiguous and makes it easy to scale quantities up or down. I don't understand your ad-hoc additions of flour and water and your calculations after the fact and guessing or miscalculating the final hydration. You have the recipe in both gram measurements and baker's percentages. Just measure the ingredients called for in the recipe, just measure and mix, no guesswork and no miscalculations.

You mention a starter at 100% hydration which would be a very thick batter, not a sponge, then you mention a sponge. Which is it?

You haven't made any mention of proofing times.

We have established that you want a hydration of 59%, then you switch to 63% which you read somewhere. I don't know where you're getting these recipes -- I can't fathom a sourdough recipe that calls itself "San Francisco" that adds sugar.

Here is San Francisco sourdough from the documented process rather than being a modification of your earlier recipe. Note that it uses a stiff sponge. Do you already have a properly-ripened liquid starter or sponge that you're using?

Maverick's picture

Did you bulk ferment or go straight from kneading to the basket? If you bulk ferment, it will be easier to handle for shaping. Plus it will taste better. Going from kneading to final proof will not be nearly as good.

paul0130's picture

Well, I guess it's obvious I'm kinda winging it :) But I'm also trying to learn. I'm fairly new to bread baking and decided to just jump straight to the advanced class with sourdough. Some of my terminology may be off because all my education is coming from the Internet. I think it's time to buy a good book!

I made my own starter about a year ago, and it's great! My first attempt failed and I finally dumped it down the sink after a couple of months of effort. I bought King Arthur's starter online just so I could get an idea of what a good sourdough starter was supposed to smell like, act, look, etc... I was then able to make my own from scratch.

The recipes I find online always use measurements by volume and not weight. My two favorites say 4-5 cups flour, or 4-6 cups depending on the time of year, where you are in the country, humidity, elevation, etc... But just for my own records, I always log the amount of starter, flour, water, salt I use to figure out the hydration and exact weights that I use so when i finally do get a perfect loaf, I will stick to those precise measurements as opposed to "about 4 or 5 cups".

The reason you see all those additions on there is because I weight out my bench flour. If the dough is too sticky, I'll add flour until it's workable, and then I'll jot down exactly how much flour I used to add to my final calculation.

So for the recipe. It says to start with 1 cup starter (this is where the 100% hydration came from, my starter is 100%), 2 cups water, and 4 cups flour. Mix and let sit 8-12 hours (I did 12). This is what I'm calling "the sponge". Next step says to add 2 - 4 more cups flour half cup at a time until dough is stiff. Then knead, which I normally do for about 15 minutes until the dough passes the window pane test. Then cover and let sit 2 to 2 1/2 hours. Then punch it down and knead until smooth, form into rounds. Let rise 1 to 1 1/2, and then bake at 400 for about half hour.

As you can see, this type of recipe is completely different than the ones you guys have referenced. But frankly, I would much prefer as mixinator put it, a "blueprint" with exact measurements that is a little more fool proof. I guess you could say that I'm using volume measurement recipes, logging the weight and hydration, and then when I feel I have the perfect loaf I'll be able to reverse engineer and have the perfect recipe I'm looking for. At the same time, I'm experimenting with SF style recipes because this seems to be the gold standard. Making a good sourdough loaf and maintaining my own starter has become a very cool hobby for me, and since I can't afford a 70's street rod yet, creating that perfect loaf is what I'm going to stride towards for the next couple a few years until I get that project car in the garage :)

Jane Dough's picture
Jane Dough

You really do not want to dump your sourdough discards down the sink drain. :). The possibility of your worst plugged drain ever moves that much closer to reality.  

I haven't been baking SD long  (or naturally leavened bread as you will see it referred to also). You already have a head start in that you have successfully created a starter.  Work with someone else's experience - like the San Francisco style sourdough or look up the 1-2-3 method on this site - and recreate their success. It won't take long and you will have a much better understanding of the process.  I'm willing to bet you will be pleased with your results.  And you will have the formula available to recreate and modify once you have baked a few great loaves.  

The biggest lesson in SD baking for me has been patience.  Now that I have a couple of years invested in baking naturally leavened baking I have a better idea of what to expect from my starter, from my ingredients and from my environment throughout the year.  When I started, after a couple of not so good bakes,  I began to bake (I think it's called practice)  the same simple loaf again and again  (a formula that already was deemed successful by someone else) interspersed with some more challenging recipes/formulas.  I soon began to get better and more consistent results. 

I should have offered two words of caution :). This is a pretty compelling hobby or occupation.  One always seems to be striving for a better bake whether it be flavour (by grain choices or starter manipulation), more spring, bigger holes etc.  But it's a lot of fun and the TFL community is an incredible resource. 

Arjon's picture

Having a "blueprint" is a fine idea, but all blueprints are probably not equally appropriate. Some require more knowledge and skill to execute properly than others. 

When I started baking a year ago, I fell prey to the temptation to try to do a lot. While I was lucky enough not to produce anything inedible, some of my loaves were definitely less than completely satisfactory. What helped me a lot was going back to basics - a straightforward recipe using just plain white flour. By doing so, I was able to learn what a basic dough looks like and how it behaves. After a couple of successful bakes, I started changing or adding things, like using part whole wheat flour, changing the hydration, adding seeds, etc. - usually only one thing at a time, which let me see and learn what difference each change made. I still have a great deal to learn, but have been much more successful when I tried some of those imperfect bakes over again because I now know much better what to expect from them, things to watch for and avoid, etc. 

Maverick's picture

Those timings seem pretty short for the amount of starter being used. The bulk ferment (first rest) is okay (even if it could be pushed longer), but the proof (final rise) seems really short unless it is going into the refrigerator after that time (which I recommend trying). Eventually you will learn that you need to watch the dough, not the clock. This is especially true with sourdough.

doughooker's picture

At least you have the kneading and fermentation/proofing down.

I'm perfectly fine with volume measurements for dry ingredients. I find weight measurements are the way to go for wet ingredients.

It would probably serve you well to learn baker's math. You have already been shown an excellent calculator, at least for sourdough.

Without tasting your product I can't judge how close it comes to the real thing, and I do have a very good memory of what it tasted like. The closest I can describe it is that it will be tangy, kind of like unflavored yogurt or sour cream.

If there's a good baking book, I don't know what it is. Jeffrey Hamelman knows his stuff and has a series of videos on YouTube. I have learned mostly by trial and error.

Wild-Yeast's picture

Experts agree they really don't have clue as to what San Francisco Sourdough French Bread (the official name for it) tasted like in 1849. Why? Seems no one can name the actual flour type used to make it. There's a lot of educated guessing but no solid evidence. Then there's details like dough preparation and biological composition of the original starter and as everyone comes to understand, everything counts in sourdough. 

The University of California Davis should come to the culinary world's rescue and find an enterprising soul to step up to the challenge of documenting what can only be the greatest Masters if not PhD ever completed at that institution...,  


doughooker's picture

The USDA studied five sourdough bakeries in the late 1960's. One wonders if they kept records of the type of flour used in more detail than "clear flour".

Information dating back to the gold rush may be lost to the ages.

gerhard's picture

I have been playing with sourdough for 10+ years and discarding part of the starter down the drain weekly and haven't had a plugged drain yet and also felt that the septic systems health may have benefitted from the weekly inoculation. 


dabrownman's picture

to put down the drain once a week that has special LAB in it to eat the crud in the pipes from the house to the street.  Well he didn't give it to me......,like all plumbers i had to pay through the nose for it :-)  They have wee beaties that will eat just about anything now a days - oil sludge, radioactive waste, etc.  It's called Bioben