San Francisco's sourdough: a bite of history

More than a century ago, San Franciscans discovered the city's famously foggy climate offered the perfect conditions for making sourdough bread. And today, bakeries such as Boudin and Tartine still draw crowds with their fresh loaves

By Ben Lerwill
Published 8 Apr 2019, 23:50 BST
San Francisco’s sourdough: a bite of history
Baking sourdough at Boudin Bakery
Photograph by Getty Images

I'm feeling uneasy. It's 7pm and I'm five customers from the front of the queue at the Tartine Bakery, a hallowed corner store in San Francisco's Mission District. There are just two sourdough Country Loaves left behind the counter — blistered, oven-bronzed, hefty spheres of bread — and I want one of them to be mine. No, I need one of them to be mine. Fresh loaves hit the shelves here at 4.30 every afternoon, and when they're gone, they're gone.

"Hey, you got the last one," smiles the server, two minutes later. I hand over dollar bills victoriously, feeling like I've won some sort of prize. Because while the bakery might be cool — walls covered in art prints, Talking Heads on the stereo, tables full of tea-sipping locals — its award-winning sourdough bread, as elsewhere in San Francisco, is anything but a fad. It harks back to the city's formative days. It's also exceedingly good.

Sour-style bread can be traced all the way to ancient Egypt, but it wasn't until tens of thousands of prospectors descended on California during the 1840s Gold Rush that sourdough started its slow rise to the style familiar today. Bakers found the loaves they were making out in the American West had a pleasant tangy taste. But why?

It turned out that San Fran's famously foggy climate was, and is, the perfect environment for the wild yeast cells and naturally occurring bacteria that give sourdough its characteristic flavour. As the city grew rapidly on gold wealth, claims were soon made that no one could produce a true sourdough loaf outside of a 50-mile radius of the centre. It's since been disproven, although the all-important lactic acid bacteria still goes by the scientific name Lactobacillus sanfranciscensis.

Science aside, the gold miners loved the bread, not least because it kept well, and a good San Francisco sourdough loaf remains a thing of wonder. It's essentially everything bog-standard supermarket bread isn't. It has texture, weight and a rough, robust crust. It tears slowly and beautifully. Add a bit of salted butter and it becomes a challenge to stop devouring the stuff.

"This is our mother dough," says Fernando Padilla, the jovial master baker at Boudin Bakery. He's holding a soft, elastic body of raw dough like a priest cradling a relic. "If you baked with this back in London, the bread would start tasting different within a month." Boudin has been part of San Francisco life for almost 170 years and is now the city's oldest continuous business. Fernando has been baking here for the past four decades.

We're talking in the bakery's vast premises at Fisherman's Wharf. Outside, tourists file past souvenir shops and seafood restaurants, snapping long-distance shots of Alcatraz. Inside, a team of 25 bakers are going about their daily work in an open kitchen. "We use 25,000lbs (11,340kg) of dough a day," says Fernando, matter-of-factly.

Remarkably, Boudin's 'mother dough' (more typically called the starter, and in basic terms the dough that's used to start the rising process) is said to date back as far as the bakery itself, to the Gold Rush era. Come calling today and you can settle into a classy on-site restaurant to sample everything from sourdough pizzas to sourdough-crumbed mac and cheese. Alternatively, you can buy a loaf, wander back into the sunshine, or indeed the fog, and chew over a bit of history.

Four more SF classics

If Marseille has bouillabaisse, San Francisco has cioppino, a rich, Italian-influenced, tomato-based stew with herbs, wine and a medley of seafood. It's said to have originated when local fishermen with poor daily hauls walked the docksides with pots, asking more fortunate colleagues to donate fish from their own catches. The version I try — at the aptly named Cioppino's — is a happily colossal bowl of clams, Dungeness crab legs, mussels, snapper, calamari and shrimp. Paired with dunkable sourdough and a glass of Sangiovese, it's a proper meal.

Anchor Steam Beer
Anchor calls itself America's first craft brewery. It dates back to 1896, and its Steam Beer takes its name from when its brews had to be refrigerated on rooftops, puffing steam into the cool air. A visit to Anchor's Potrero Hill brewery is an atmospheric blast of wooden-clad offices and bulbous copper kettles, while its amber-hued signature beer still gets its distinct taste from lager yeasts brewed at ale temperatures. "Give a man a beer and he'll waste an afternoon," grins brewer Jarred Sorci, surveying a range that now includes porters, IPAs and pale ales, "but teach a man to brew and he'll waste a lifetime."

Hangtown Fry
Step into low-lit Tadich Grill, in the city's Financial District, and you're transported to a different time. A long, wooden counter stretches the length of the restaurant under high, unadorned walls. Ageing waiters in baggy white jackets serve Martinis and filets mignon to sassy septuagenarian ladies who'll tell you they've been coming since the 1970s. Anthony Bourdain and Rick Stein have eaten here, both opting for the Hangtown Fry, an oyster-and-bacon omelette originally created as a Gold Rush-era luxury.

The queues at La Taqueria in the Mission District tell their own tale. Behind the counter, sides of meat are being chopped, Mexican beers are being handed out and tortillas are being stuffed and rolled almost to bursting point. There are plenty of nearby spots to try the district's globally famous burritos, but you won't regret joining the throng at La Taqueria and tackling a super burrito: a deliciously weighty, flour-wrapped cylinder packed with fresh salsa, meat (most opt for pork or beef), cheese, pinto beans, sour cream and guacamole that's been sating San Fran appetites for decades. Don't expect to be hungry afterwards.


British AirwaysVirgin AtlanticDelta and United all fly from Heathrow to San Francisco.  

The Axiom Hotel has a great downtown location, modern rooms and a lobby cafe. Room-only doubles from $131 (£103).

More info:


Explore Nat Geo

  • Animals
  • Environment
  • History & Culture
  • Science
  • Travel
  • Photography
  • Space
  • Adventure
  • Video

About us


  • Magazines
  • Disney+

Follow us

Copyright © 1996-2015 National Geographic Society. Copyright © 2015-2023 National Geographic Partners, LLC. All rights reserved