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Apr 19, ’09 9:57 PM
Apr 19, ’09 11:05 AM
San Francisco’s food scene is probably the most vibrant in the Americas. Whether they’re starting trends or perfecting them, Bay Area chefs have long been among the world’s most creative. But amidst all the innovation, there has been one faithful and beloved constant on the city’s many tables: sourdough bread.
It’s hard to find someone who doesn’t like sourdough, but even rarer are people who know what makes it so distinctive. It’s often thought to be a flavouring, or perhaps a baking technique, something pioneered in Gold Rush-era San Francisco. In fact, sourdough is simply bread in which the rise comes not from a package of shop-bought yeast, but from wild yeast that is in the air everywhere.
As the original leavened bread – all bread was “sourdough” until Louis Pasteur’s germ theory led to packaged yeast – sourdough has a long and storied past. But as a let-them-eat-cake epoch gives way to home pleasures and the local food movement, sourdough is equally suited to our own times. Classic, inexpensive and uniquely local, sourdough is as fascinating to kids and novices as it is to practiced bakers and mad scientists of all ages.
Sourdough is an ancient art, but with just two ingredients its simplicity is as remarkable as its heritage. Flour and water are mixed and left to stand on a windowsill or kitchen counter. In a matter of days wild yeast take over and the mixture begins to froth and bubble with life. If you’ve ever wondered at the origins of this or that cooking method – “who on Earth thought to try this?” – sourdough is that rare thing, a miraculous culinary phenomenon that won’t give you that feeling. With yeast naturally in the air, it’s easy to imagine how an afternoon’s forgetfulness in ancient Egypt led to the invention of leavened bread.