San Francisco is synonymous with sourdough bread, which has a rich history dating back to the gold rush era that began in 1848. Miners would often carry sourdough starters with them on their journey to ensure they’d always have access to freshly baked bread. Bread was not only easy to transport and a great source of nourishment throughout the day, but also a means to trade for other goods.

The prices of everything from food to supplies skyrocketed during the gold rush due to the influx of optimistic hopefuls looking to get their hands on a piece of the fortune. At the time, eggs were selling for $3 apiece, and a slice of buttered bread would go for as much as $1 — that slice of bread would be over $30 today!

In 1849, Isidore Boudin, the son of French bakers, arrived in San Francisco and opened Boudin Bakery. He combined French bread-making techniques with a starter he had received from a miner, and the signature San Francisco sourdough was born. This 19th-century starter lives on to this day and gives Boudin’s breads their unique flavor and texture.

How is sourdough created?

san francisco sourdough
Photo: The Perfect Loaf

What makes sourdough sourdough? It all starts with a sourdough starter, which is simply made of flour and water. Wild yeast naturally occurring in flour and air breaks down sugars into carbon dioxide. The starter is then “fed” each day by removing roughly half of the “spent” starter and adding additional water and flour. Once active, a starter will form bubbles as gas is created and emit a slight alcohol-like and sour aroma.

The slow fermentation process is what gives handmade sourdough its unique flavor and texture. A well-cared-for starter can last generations and continue to improve over time.

The modern era of artisanal bread

san francisco sourdough - acme bread company
Photo: Acme Bread Company

Founded in 1983 by Steven and Susan Sullivan, Acme Bread Company is one of the most well-known and influential artisan bread makers in the Bay Area. Steven worked as a busboy at Chez Panisse and eventually became the in-house breadmaker when the restaurant’s bread supplier could no longer meet demand. Acme loaves can take up to 24 hours to produce, which gives them a complex combination of flavorful crust and pillowy interior crumb.

Tartine is widely considered one of the best bakeries in San Francisco and won a James Beard award in 2008. Founded in 2002 by Elisabeth Prueitt and Chad Robertson, Tartine truly gets back to the roots of rustic old-world bread making. What other bakeries can say they know the farmers who grow their grains and the millers who mill their flour?

Where can you find delicious San Francisco sourdough today?

san francisco sourdough - boudin
Photo: Boudin
  • Boudin Bakery continues to operate 170 years after first opening its doors and has three separate locations in Baker’s Hall, PIER 39, and Embarcadero Center.
  • Acme Bread Company was born in Berkeley, but it expanded to the San Francisco Ferry Building in 2004. Here you’ll find a wide variety of breads to choose from, and none of them disappoint.
  • Tartine is located in the Mission district and typically draws a line. You may need to pack your patience, but it’s well worth it.
  • The Mill opened in 2013 as a collaboration between Josey Baker Bread and Four Barrel Coffee. It’s known for its toast as well as a variety of artisanal bread.
  • Located in the Outer Richmond, Marla Bakery opened its doors in 2014 and offers brunch options in addition to breads baked in-house.

Let’s sum it all up

San Francisco has a long and complex history with bread. The pioneering spirit that the miners of the gold rush brought with them lives on in the breads we’re consuming today. The willingness to take risks, get back to the basics, and do things the right way is why San Francisco sourdough is so special.

Want to create your own sourdough starter?

Creating your own sourdough starter can be time-consuming, but the results are unmatched by any commercial process. If you’d like to give it a try, check out this guide by The Perfect Loaf.