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San Francisco Sourdough Bread

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Sourdough is a dough containing a Lactobacillus culture, usually in symbiotic combination with yeasts. It is one of two principal means of biological leavening in bread baking, along with the use of cultivated forms of yeast (Saccharomyces). It is of particular importance in baking rye-based breads, where yeast does not produce comparable results. In comparison with yeast-based breads, it produces a distinctively tangy or sour taste, mainly because of the lactic acid produced by the lactobacilli; the actual medium, known as "starter" or levain, is in essence an ancestral form of pre-ferment. In English-speaking countries, where wheat-based breads predominate, sourdough is no longer the standard method for bread leavening. It was gradually replaced, first by the use of barm from beermaking, then, after the confirmation of germ theory by Louis Pasteur, by cultured yeasts. However, some form of natural leaven is still used by many specialty bakeries.

Sourdough starter is traditionally made with a small amount of old dough, preferably saved from a prior batch. This is traditionally called mother dough or chef, or in more modern usage, seed sour. First-generation starter or spontaneous seed may be created by storing new dough in a warm place and allowing sufficient time for it to sour. This small amount of old-dough starter contains the culture, and its weight is increased by additions of new dough and mixing or kneading followed by rest or leavening periods. A small amount of the resulting dough is then saved to use as starter sour for the next batch. As long as this starter culture is fed flour and water weekly, it can stay at room temperature indefinitely.

Sourdough bread is made by combining the increased amount of starter with another new-dough addition, along with any other desired ingredients to make the final dough. The starter comprises about 13 to 25% of the final dough, though particular formulas vary. This final dough may be divided and shaped, then allowed to rise, followed by baking.

It is not uncommon for a baker's starter dough to have years of history, from many hundreds of previous batches. As a result, each bakery's sourdough has a distinct taste. The combination of starter processes, refreshment ratios and rest times, culture and air temperature, humidity, and elevation also makes each batch of sourdough different.

San Francisco sourdough is the most famous sourdough bread made in the U.S. today. In contrast to sourdough production in other areas of the country, the San Francisco variety has remained in continuous production since 1849, with some bakeries (e.g., Boudin Bakery among others) able to trace their starters back to California's Gold Rush period. It is a white bread characterized by a pronounced sourness (not all varieties are as sour as San Francisco sourdough), so much so that the dominant strain of lactobacillus in sourdough starters was named Lactobacillus sanfranciscensis. Sourdough also became popular because of its ability to combine well with seafoods and soups such as cioppino, clam chowder, and chili.

Sourdough has not enjoyed the popularity it once had since bread became mass-produced. However, many restaurant chains, such as Cracker Barrel, keep it as a menu staple. Manufacturers make up for the lack of yeast and bacterial culture by introducing into their dough an artificially-made mix known as bread improver.

Preparing sourdough products

Sourdough starter can be used in two different manners. Traditionally, a certain amount of sourdough starter (in which the flour is 20 to 25 percent by weight of the flour in the final dough) is mixed into the bread dough, and the bread is kneaded and allowed to rise as normal. The process is largely similar to using a pure strain of baker's yeast, although some care must be taken since the rise time of most sourdough starters is usually somewhat longer than the average for typical baker's yeasts. (As a result, many sourdough starters are unsuitable for use in a bread machine.) When using a particularly liquid starter with a high concentration of lactobacillus or acetic acid bacteria, the large amount of lactic and acetic acids produced needs to be managed carefully, since the acid can break down the gluten in the bread dough; this becomes less of a concern in a stiffer starter, where the yeast usually predominates.

The other manner of using sourdough starter is common for making quick breads or foods like pancakes. It involves using baking soda (and sometimes baking powder) to neutralize some or all of the acid in the starter, with the acid-base reaction generating carbon dioxide to provide lift to the dough or batter in a manner very similar to Irish soda bread. This technique is particularly common in kitchens where the starter is intentionally kept off-balance, with a substantially high acid level, and is particularly associated with areas such as Alaska.

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