Can I make real, sour, sourdough bread if I don’t live in San Francisco?

So asks reader Dean (and Liz, and Darren, and Susan). The answer is a definitive “maybe”. There’s no question that bakers in the Bay Area have the edge when it comes to creating very sour breads. However truly sour, naturally-leavened loaves are possible in other regions of the country (or world), provided you can manipulate your starter’s moisture level, temperature, and rising/proofing times in the right way.

Allow me to explain. All bread starters are tag teams of yeasts and bacteria, with yeasts being primarily responsible for the rise, and bacteria for the flavor. The lion’s share of that flavor comes from acid, which is produced by different types of bacteria in varying amounts. As you might expect, the starter bacteria the thrive in the Bay Area,  L. sanfranciscensis and L. pontis, are world champs in realm of acid production. L. sanfranciscensis produces unusually high levels of lactic acid, while L. pontis makes mostly acetic acid, which is the stuff that gives vinegar its sharp flavor.

The thing about these bacteria is that while they do thrive in Northern California, they can be found just about everywhere. Culturing them in large enough numbers is the trick.

Devoted sourdough bakers know that L. pontis likes cooler climates that are also a little on the dry side. Thus to encourage L. pontis growth, they’ll make their sourdough starters with a good deal less water. It’s a technique that can be replicated anywhere, and used with just about any bread that calls for a sponge. It requires a little experimentation, but the results are often striking. For example, I have a sandwich bread I make from time to time that’s starter-based. I’ve found that if I cut the water and make a stiffer starter, the final bread does have more of a tang than the standard version (note: I add the water that I left out of the sponge back to the dough in the mixing step).

Time and temperature can also be leveraged to increase dough sourness. As mentioned, L. pontis prefers cooler temperatures, so longer, cooler rises and proofs are preferred. Temperatures in the 60-degree (Fahrenheit) range are ideal, though they can be hard to achieve in a modern home, especially in the summer time. If you have a basement in an air conditioned house, you might try proofing your loaves down there.

Also, contrary to what most people think, lots of starter isn’t necessarily the way to achieve a sour bread. That’s because a lot of starter creates a more rapid rise (at least by sourdough standards), and rapid rises and proofs don’t give the bacteria the time they need produce large amounts of acid. A smaller amount of starter, like a smaller amount of yeast, will take time to work its magic in the dough. As it does so, it will be steadily making acid and souring your bread.

Other tips and tricks include the dough stretching I mentioned below, which not only helps spread the bugs around in the dough, it gives them lots of oxygen, which they also need to digest starch.

Not being a devoted bread head, I’ve never gotten heavily into this subject, thought I’d like to do more with sponges and preferments as there’s a whole little world to discover in there. Yes, I could always do one of the cheats of adding a little powdered acid or vinegar to a dough to give it sourdough-like flavor, but strangely, I think I’d feel guilty about it.

14 thoughts on “Can I make real, sour, sourdough bread if I don’t live in San Francisco?”

    1. It’s very possible that they do, Darren. Actually it’s likely. Real sourdoughs take time to make as you know, and time (and space) is money, especially in the world of mass-produced bread. You might check the label for clues. Acids of various kinds, like citric acid, are often used as preservatives, so that’s not necessarily a clue. But if you see things like “acetic acid” then you have an indication that something funny is going on.

      Interestingly, last year I worked on the packaging and marketing for a new product from Red Star Yeast that’s a true “instant sourdough”. That is, it combines their regular instant yeast with an actual dried starter for flavor. Whether that’s a cheat is for others to decide, but I thought it was pretty cool, and it’s actually out now. I tried the prototype (which was a little underwhelming at the time) but they told me they were amping up the flavor for the release. If you can find it, I’d be interested to know what you think!

      Cheers,

      Joe

  1. I once made a sourdough Pullman loaf. I found the recipe on-line, I think on The Fresh Loaf, but not sure. Anyway, it was quite a production but it turned out absolutely fantastic. Very, very sour, which is what I like. And soft and fluffy, just like a Pullman should be. It was a wonderful combination. However, it lost its sour! Can you explain why/how this happens? When I make bread I generally slice it and then freeze the slices. By the next day these slices had lost their sour. I’ve never experienced such a taste change in any bread before. Why would the “sour” flavor diminish?

    1. That’s a bit of a head-scratcher, Chana! Those acids don’t start breaking down chemically until temperatures get blisteringly high, so that’s not what’s going on. A guess would be the effect temperature can have on taste buds. Studies have shown that the tongue discerns more, and more varied, flavors when food is warm (like bread fresh from the oven). Cold, we don’t pick up the same nuances. Do you think that might have had anything to do with it?

      I’ll keep noodling that, though,

      – Joe

      1. Hmmm. Don’t think so. I freeze sliced bread but I do defrost it before I take a bite! It was still good, but the tang was gone. Never had another tang like it. Dang. A country tune is coming to me …

        1. I wouldn’t think you’d eat it frozen, just cooler than it might have been on baking day. 😉

          But I admit I’m a little stumped here. But did I mention I play upright bass?

          – Joe

      2. That’s fascinating – I usually find that my sourdough bread gets a bit (not a lot, but noticeably) sharper once it’s sat for a day or two, not the other way around.

  2. Any bread made with starter is “real sourdough” – it’s real bread made with real starter 😛

    It might not be *San Francisco* sourdough, but there’s sourdough from all over.

    1. Hehe…yes Jane I get you. That’s a point I made in the below post: that “natural leavening” and “sourdough” have become synonymous to some extent. Though when you get right down to it, “sourdough”, at least historically, refers to the very sour-tasting naturally leavened bread made famous in San Francisco. That’s the taste, I think, that a lot of bakers set out to replicate, often with disappointing results. Hence my little tutorial here on how to cultivate the bacteria that will impart a little more tang.

      But I appreciate the clarification!

      Cheers,

      – Joe

  3. I completely disagree with your premise of “maybe” – of course you can make sourdough in other places. If the question was “Can I make the characteristic SF sourdough” then I’d be in the maybe camp! I guess it all comes down to how you define what sourdough is.

    1. Hey Chris!

      I did indeed mean the ultra-sour San Francisco style. Clearly naturally leavened breads are possible anywhere. Didn’t intend to insinuate otherwise! 😉

      – Joe

  4. Lucky me, here in the middle of SF. My starter, she is a super sour one! Sturdy as h*ck, too.

    I read with interest your comment about a stiffer starter yielding a tangier loaf. I’ve been a little disappointed with the tang of my finished product, even though the starter is fabulous. (Clearly baker error…my bacteria are doing their bit.) Of course, I’m comparing to the likes of Thoroughbread, Acme, and Semifreddi – can’t afford Josey Baker or Tartine, and rarely slum it with Boudin – so it’s a high bar.

    I will try losing some of the water in step one and adding it back to step three and see how I fare.

    1. Let me know how the experiments go, Essbee, I’ll be curious. Thanks for checking in!

      – Joe

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