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San Francisco History Baked Into Bread

By Edited Nov 13, 2013 2 6

Sourdough Starter Survived Earthquakes, Fires

Location Gives Dough Unique Taste

Backet of Loaves at Boudin Bakery

When most diners choose a restaurant, one of their primary concerns is the freshness of the food.  But at San Francisco’s Boudin Bakery, they boast that their bread ingredients date back to 1849.

Boudin’s specialty is sourdough bread, which bakers make using a culture of yeast and bacteria to leaven bread dough. 

Historians can trace the origins of sourdough back to ancient Egypt. Sourdough starters typically consist of flour made from local grains, sugar and water. The mix is left sitting at room temperature where airborne yeast will get into the mix and create fermentation.

Leavening bread in this way produces a tangy or sour taste which is why the bread is known as sourdough.  Sourdough is popular in countries where rye is prevalent because the grain will not rise as well using ordinary yeast. The local, wild yeasts give sourdough a different flavor based on the place in which the baker makes it.

During the mid 19th century, miners who flocked to California during the gold rush packed

At work in the stope of the California mine, Eagle River Canyon, Colorado, U.S.A.
sourdough yeast starter with them as an essential staple.  By continually “feeding” their sourdough starter with dough from earlier bread attempts along with more water and flour, the miners were able to make bread, pancakes, cake and biscuits any time they wanted. Inventive miners could even use the yeast in the sourdough to start mash for homemade liquor.

The bread starter became so important to the miners that they would put it into bed with them on cold nights to keep it from freezing. The miners themselves eventually became known as sourdoughs.

Over time, each bread baker’s yeast changed with the ingredients that the baker added, start times, refresh times, rest times, elevation and climate.  For large bakeries, this meant that the bread they made tasted different from that of their competitors.

In San Francisco, bread makers noticed that the wild local yeast produced an even tangier flavor to the bread.  San Francisco soon became known for their sourdough bread.

When Isidore Boudin, a descendent of master bakers in Burgundy, France, established his bakery in 1849, it was one of 60 bakeries in the city.  Boudin’s bakery offered something that other bakeries in San Francisco didn’t.  Namely, he used his special family recipe for French bread to produce “San Francisco French Sourdough Bread.”  The bread became a hit with locals and as the gold rush swelled the population of San Francisco from 1,000 in 1847 to 20,000 in 1849, residents flocked to Boudin’s bakery.

Boudin Bakery is one of a few San Francisco establishments that has operated continuously since 1849.  During the great San Francisco fire and earthquake, Boudin’s wife Louise saved their sourdough bread starter by placing it in a bucket and carrying it with her when she fled the fire that wiped out most of San Francisco.

Sea Turtle Bread Loaf at Boudin
The bakery has changed hands several times since its opening, and no longer resembles the original establishment.  But the 30 locations which dot the state of California including Disney’s California Adventure Park and the famed Fisherman’s Wharf area on the Bay are not without immense charm.  At the Wharf location, you will pass bread loaves that have been sculpted to resemble starfish, sharks and sea turtles while wire baskets containing traditional loaves of the delicious French bread pass over your head on conveyor belts.  The bakery also has an expansive choice of baking related souvenirs for patrons to remember their visit by.

Despite the changes, bakers with the company continue the legacy by utilizing the same “mother dough” that Isidore Boudin used to create the famous sourdough bread when he opened the business so many years ago.  Thereby leaving one thing unchanged, a slice of Boudin sourdough French bread is truly is an authentic taste of San Francisco history.



Apr 6, 2011 9:44pm
Wow! Lots of things I didn't know in this article. Time to get back to San Francisco and get some old bread!
Apr 19, 2011 6:13pm
I am a bit of a foodie, and a history buff. This article was an intersection of two great interests.
Apr 7, 2011 10:37am
Great article. Sourdough bread is the best.
Apr 19, 2011 6:13pm
After writing this, I'm interested in making my own sourdough.
Apr 7, 2011 6:49pm
Loved this history. Should be featured :)
Apr 19, 2011 6:13pm
I wouldn't refuse :)
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