San Francisco-Style Sour Bread

They don't make sourdough bread like they used to — not even in San Francisco! The city used to be renowned for its sourdough as far back as the California gold rush of 1849. I call this recipe "sour bread" because it does not use a traditional sourdough culture; thus, it would be misleading to call it "sourdough".

San Francisco sourdough has been closely studied by microbiologists and food scientists through the years. The microorganisms that produce the two acids that give the bread its tangy flavor are well known.

This recipe is for a basic yeasted bread; it does not use a conventional sourdough starter. It captures the flavor of old-school sourdough by adding the two main souring agents, lactic acid and acetic acid (vinegar), directly to the dough. This recipe is the product of much research and many, many test bakes to get the blend of lactic and acetic acids just right. I grew up on San Francisco sourdough in the 1960's and 1970's and am satisfied that this recipe almost exactly captures the flavor of that bread. Because it uses baker's yeast, proofing time is greatly reduced, from 16 hours to 2 hours. As an added bonus, you don't have to maintain a sourdough starter.

These directions are for one small loaf or boule. You can make a larger bâtard simply by doubling the ingredients.

A digital scale
Lactic acid powder (available through
White vinegar
An eyedropper
All-purpose flour
Instant or "rapid rise" yeast.

VERY IMPORTANT!!! Do not use "active dry" yeast. Make sure the yeast is "instant" or "rapid rise". If Fleischmann's yeast is used, look for the bright yellow packets.

An electric mixer is helpful but not required.
Some knowledge of artisan baking techniques is helpful.

As you can see, we are dealing with very small quantities. It is thus very important to measure the ingredients as precisely as possible. I use an eyedropper to measure the vinegar drop by drop.

Start by making the following "cocktail":
92 grams water
3.5 grams (one half packet) instant dry yeast
1.5 grams white vinegar

Combine the following dry ingredients in a mixer bowl:
146 grams flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon diastatic malt powder
1.2 grams lactic acid powder

Disperse the dry ingredients with a wire whip or fork.
Add the "cocktail" to the dry ingredients and mix until a dough ball forms. DO NOT OVERKNEAD!!!

Place the dough ball on a towel or preferably a flax linen cloth and allow to proof for 2 hours in a warm place.
With a sharp knife or blade, make some slits in the top crust, about 1/4 inch deep. These slits allow the crust to expand while baking.

Bake at 400° to 425° F for one hour. You can steam the oven in advance of baking by placing a shallow pan of water in the oven as it heats up, or bake in a Dutch oven or roasting pan.

During baking, the slits you have cut into the crust will open up. This is an indication of oven spring, or the degree to which the yeast has raised the bread.

VERY IMPORTANT: It is important to let the loaf cool completely after baking. This will take some time, anywhere from one-half to one hour. The flavor is still developing as the bread cools, so for the best flavor it is important to allow the loaf to cool completely.

Ingredient Baker's percentage: Grams boule: Grams bâtard:
Flour 100% 146 292
Water 63% 92 184
Salt 2% 3 6
Instant Yeast 2.4% 3.5 7
Diastatic malt powder 1/2 tsp

Druids Grove Lactic Acid Powder 0.8% 1.2 2.4
White Vinegar 1% 1.5 3
Total Dough Weight
247 494
Hydration 64%

GARLIC BREAD: Combine one clove of crushed garlic with 1 stick (1/4 pound) of softened butter or margarine. Cut the bread into slices and spread with garlic butter. Optionally, sprinkle with grated Parmesan cheese. Toast in your still-warm oven at 350 degrees F (this may be done in lieu of allowing the loaf to cool completely), or you may toast the bread under the broiler.

Residents of the San Francisco bay area who prefer to buy rather than bake their own bread can get an acceptable sourdough in several local markets. I have sampled many brands of sourdough from the bay area. Acme sourdough, though significantly milder in flavor than the old-school sourdough bread for which San Francisco is renowned, has the distinctive tanginess that comes from the blend of lactic and acetic acids. None of the other present-day sourdoughs I have sampled in the San Francisco area — none of them — comes close to the old-school sourdoughs such as Larraburu, Parisian, Colombo, Toscana, Baroni, Pisano, etc. Acme bread can be found at the following retail locations and possibly more: Piazza's, Draeger's, Whole Foods, Mollie Stone's, Andronico's, Lunardi's, Costco.

© Copyright Chris Clementson