A Piece of the Gold Rush, Fresh from the Oven

Photo of bakers making special breads at Boudin in San Francisco
Bakers making special breads (like crabs and turtles) at Boudin in San Francisco

(Corrected below, 6/5/10; Updated, 12/26/16, fixed broken links)

When you bite into a piece of bread from San Francisco’s Boudin Bakery, you’re biting a piece of the Gold Rush. Founded in 1849 at the beginning of the Gold Rush, the San Francisco bakery has been baking bread since then using essentially the same sourdough starter (or “mother dough”) that was first created in 1849. Through regular feedings, they have kept the mother dough alive. The starter almost perished in the 1906 earthquake and fire when the bakery at 815 Broadway caught on fire. But a heroic effort by Louise Boudin, who ran into the burning building to retrieve a piece of the original mother dough, maintained the starter’s continuity. I learned these bits of history and many others at a talk by Boudin’s Master Baker Fernando Padilla, a 31 year veteran of the bakery, and docent Terry Hamburg at San Francisco’s Old Mint as part of the Earth to 5-Star exhibition.

Along with gifts of bread for the audience, the presenters brought a tub of the “mother dough,” the mixture that provides the leavening (yeast) and famous sour flavor (bacteria)1. Boudin’s mother dough has been in continual use since 1849. [corrected 6/5/10] The mother dough is refreshed on a regular schedule by mixing a piece of the dough with water and flour. After a suitable waiting period to allow the yeast in the mother dough to activate, a portion of the refreshed mother dough is mixed with flour, salt and water to make bread dough. When Boudin makes a batch of bread, they add some of the mother dough along with flour, water and salt. Then, at sometime in the process, they save part of the dough — about 25 percent — to use as the mother dough in the next batch of bread. 2During a visit to the Boudin Musuem and Bakery, I got a clarification from the docent, who explained that the mother dough and the bread dough follow parallel paths. The mother dough is refreshed on its own schedule, fed with water and flour periodically. Part the mother is mixed with flour, salt and water to make bread dough. Once mixed, none of the bread dough goes back into the mother dough. And thus, the mother dough stays alive, maintains is connection to the past.

Padilla believes that the age of the mother dough is important for Boudin’s flavor — when he has made new starters at one of the Boudin bakeries, the resulting bread isn’t quite the same as bread made from the 1849 mother. The bread’s classic “San Francisco flavor” is a result of yeast and bacteria that live in the mother dough and a long fermentation and proofing — from start to finish it takes 72 hours for Boudin to make a loaf of bread.

Boudin sourdough starter and Boudin bread, San Francisco
Boudin sourdough starter and Boudin bread at a talk about sourdough in San Francisco

The Boudin family didn’t come to San Francisco in 1849 to strike it rich in the gold fields. They came to bake bread, to “mine the miners”, so to speak. And they were successful, building a baking company that is the only one that survives from the Gold Rush era. These days, the company bakes approximately 20,000 loaves a day in San Francisco; has about 150 restaurant clients; operates a complex at Fisherman’s Wharf that houses a museum3, demonstration bakery, restaurant and retail shop (a place I need to visit someday soon); and run several bakeries throughout the City and the state of California.

The cool and damp climate of San Francisco has a strong influence on the mother dough and hence on the flavor of the finished loaf. The microorganisms that live in San Francisco’s air and can colonize a mother dough naturally give bread a distinctive sourness (Padilla was very emphatic about the difference between naturally sour bread like Boudin’s and bread made sour through use of vinegar or other agents). The flavor profile is highly dependent on location: even going across a bridge to Marin or the East Bay, or down the Peninsula you’ll have a different blend of microorganisms and a different flavor. Indeed, a few years ago a microbiologist identified one of specific bacteria that give San Francisco sourdough its flavor and named it lactobacillus sanfranciscensis.

Because of the effect of local conditions on the starter, Padilla said, if you bring the Boudin mother dough to another place, it would start to change as the local yeast and bacteria begin to colonize the mother dough and take over from the original inhabitants. After about four weeks, the transition would be complete and you will have lost the San Francisco sourdough character of the starter. So, to supply their satellite bakeries, Boudin ships new batches of mother dough every few weeks.

There was a lot more that I can’t cover here. It was a superb event, one of the more interesting talks I’ve been to in a while — and in an amazing setting, the Old Mint, constructed in 1874, survived the 1906 Earthquake and Fire. I also came away from the talk with much more appreciation for the Boudin Bakery and its workers. Because of their attraction to tourists, their outpost at Fisherman’s Wharf, the stores in the airport, I looked on the bread as a curiosity of sorts. But hearing Padilla and Hamburg tell the story of the company, I gained a new appreciation for the dedication to excellence and loyalty to the company’s history at the Boudin Bakery. And the bread…it’s quite good – a crisp blistered crust, excellent crumb, a sharp but pleasant tangy flavor.

Photo of Portsmouth Square in San Francisco in 1851 from Wikimedia Commons

Portsmouth Square, San Francisco in 1851 (on the eastern edge of Chinatown)

Other Notes on Old Food and Sourdough Bread

Beyond the ability to have long rising times, a sourdough starter has other benefits. According to the sourdough bread entry in the Encyclopedia of Food Sciences and Nutrition, the acids produced by the bacteria in the starter affect the proteins in the flour, giving the dough better elasticity and extensibility. (This is one reason why many breads made from rye — a grain with relatively low protein content — use sourdough starters.) The lactic and acetic acids produced by the starter might act as antimicrobial agents and inhibit the growth of mold. There is also the possibility that it takes longer for a sourdough loaf to go stale. A few years ago, I wrote a two-part series on sourdough baking over at the Ethicurean. Part 1 is about the starter and Part 2 is about the bread.

There are plenty of foods that have involved components that have been continuously refreshed or fed for decades. Two that I can think of off the top of my head are a Limburger cheese made in Wisconsin and a kettle of oden (a type of stew) in Osaka, Japan. The Limburger was the subject of an interview on the May 1, 2010 episode of the Splendid Table. Cheesemaker Myron Olson — one of the few Limburger makers left in the U.S. — gave credit to his cheese’s excellent flavor to the culture that has been used for over 100 years. The oden was described in The Art of Japanese Vegetarian Cooking, by Max Jacobson:

In Osaka, there is a famous oden restaurant called Tako-Ume (“the octopus and the plum” would be a colorful translation). There, the water in the restaurant’s enormous wooden kettle constantly steams off boiling stock that is replaced by wooden buckets filled with fresh water. At night, when the restaurant closes, the flame is turned down as low as it will go, but never off, so that the contents cook continuously. No one has emptied, or cleaned, the kettle since 1897, the year Tako-Ume opened.

Photo credits

Photos of bakery area, and bread and container by the author; photo of Portsmouth Square in 1851 from Wikimedia Commons.

  1. The mother dough in the tub pictured here is enough to leaven 300 loaves of bread (after addition of appropriate quantities of flour, water and salt).
  2. Correction (June 5, 2010): At the Old Mint talk, I thought I heard that Boudin saves a piece of mixed dough to use as leavening for the next batch of bread. Based on my experience with sourdough baking, that seemed unusual to me, but they were the experts, right? Well, it turns out that I heard wrong (the acoustics in the Old Mint are horrible). During a visit to the Boudin Musuem and Bakery on Monday, I got a clarification from the docent, who explained that the mother dough and the bread dough follow parallel paths. The mother dough is refreshed on its own schedule, fed with water and flour. To make a batch of bread, part the mother is mixed with flour, salt and water. Once the dough is mixed, none of the bread dough goes back into the mother dough.
  3. Bread museum!

1 comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.