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SF Sourdough Starter Question


I am looking for a starter to making authentic San Francisco Sourdough because my husband loves it and says I've never tasted real bread because I've never had it! I realize I need to have the specific culture with the Lactobacillus sanfrancisco. From a search on this site I found Sourdoughs International, a company that sells starters/cultures.


Here's what their website says about their Sourdough starters(under Fermentation Tab):

"the famous San Francisco culture, was extensively studied in an attempt to simplify the sourdough process for commercial bakers. This simplification could not be achieved. There was no way the flavor could be maintained unless the lactobacilli had ample time to multiply and produce flavor compounds and acidity. Some important information did result from this research: it was determined that sourdough cultures are symbiotic and stable. They do not change if taken to another geographical location, nor do they change from contaminates in the air. (This synergism can be destroyed by adding bakers' yeast.


We are often asked "how much do I get in the package?" This really can't be answered, since what you get are microscopic organisms. The quantity of these organisms, even if it could be measured, is not important, since they are living and multiply after the culture is activated. They are in about an ounce of flour. With proper care, you can bake for years with the contents of one culture package.

Only dry, or primarily dry, cultures can be shipped, as a moist culture would become active, expand and destroy the container. You follow the enclosed directions for activation.

Once the culture is activated and in a liquid form, it is placed in the refrigerator where it will maintain its properties and contamination is no longer a problem. It should be "fed" and proofed every four to six months to keep the organisms viable."

Here's my question:

I've read on other posts that the original culture will be taken over by the wild yeast in your area eventually, which contradicts what Sourdoughs International says about their starter!
So, who's right?

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  1. I dunno who's right, but my sister's sister-in-law has a started she got in San Francisco about 15 years ago and has kept alive since here in the Midwest. She claims the bread tastes dramatically different from what it used to be like.

    I've had her bread, and it is truly delicious -- but there's no way to do a blind test on it, so I think everyone has to punt. Then again, you're going to get different results every single time you make a new batch of almost any bread, especially a cultured one.

    1. The yeasts should stay the same, according to this article on Discover what changes are the bacteria present, and even that's disputed.

      1. Everything I've ever read indicates that it will be taken over my local yeast too.

        I guess if you could keep it in a sealed container so that local flora and fauna were excluded you could prolong the time when the Lactobacillus sanfrancisco dominate. But you're still going to be opening the container to take starter out, to feed it and it simply *has* to be aerated from time to time. Each of those activities includes exposing the nutrient mass to the local guys who are better suited to the local level of moisture, temp and god-only-knows-what else is in that local air along with them and the oxygen.

        I can understand that the purveyor of the Lactobacillus sanfrancisco wants to assure you that the product is worth buying.

        If the real thing is very important to your husband maybe it will be worthwhile to buy some new starter every 4 or 6 months...

        1. To my mind, based on my experience, the first quoted paragraph of your initial post says it all. I have formed the opinion that "San Francisco Sourdough" is more a result of fermentation (in many cases, over fermentation) than anything else. No denying that the lactobacilli contribute to the flavor, that's true of any yeast bread, but I don't accept the claim that is has much to do with the "sourdough" taste. Of course, IMHO, some of it is so sour as to be absurd ... but that's another show.

          1. And the in Bay area, where would one go to buy a starter? Or out near Sacramento?

            2 Replies
            1. re: shallots

              In the Bay Area one does not need to buy starter. Just make your own. Can't get more authentic than that.

              Ok, I think I saw some at Rainbow Grocery once.

              1. re: shallots

                I'm in Daly City and could give some starter away if you'd like. Alternatively I've heard that some bakeries will give starter away if asked.

              2. The best answer to this question is found in Scott and Wings "The Bread Builders." An appendix interview with a German mycologist who has specialized in sourdough cultures indicates that cultures even fifty years old are unchanged. In other words, once the symbiosis is formed, the culture is stable, provided it is refreshed regularly and kept at a suitable temperature.

                That said, the results of the baking can change because both the Candida milleri and the Lactobacillus sanfranciscensis reproduce best at different temperatures. So you can get different flavor balances in your bread depending on how you handle the starter and dough and how mature the leaven is and what temperatures you use for bulk fermentation and the final proof.

                If, however, you let the starter go so long between refreshments that you have a massive die-off, you introduce a variable that may result in different strains, but I don't know if there has been any testing for this.

                I have a heritage starter that was begun in Russian California (i.e. the Sonoma Coast about two hundred years ago). It was brought to Kodiak, Alaska. From Kodiak, it came to the Seattle area, where I got it in the nineties. I lived in Berkeley, then, and I started a culture from scratch before I got the heritage culture. They were indistinguishable in flavor, although I thought the heritage starter had marginally better leavening power.

                With this one starter, I can bake bread that has a mild tang or bread that has a strong acid flavor, depending on how I handle it.

                I conclude from all of this that you can get your Sourdoughs International starter with confidence. But if you want a San Francisco flavor, you will have to try different approaches to baking it.

                1. There is not such a big difference in taste in sourdough breads from sourdoughs that have been properly maintained and that are 'grown' the correct way(tm). (yes, there is a correct way that yields optimal results (mainly for pros who run a 24 hr bakery)) and a second good way that gives amateurs great results too. The other ways still give you an OK bread, but really, sourdough baking is actually more pet keeping than bread making when it's done right -- which in short is: 1st feed 8am at cosy temps(say 24C), 2nd feed 12pm less cosy temps(say 20C), 3rd feed 16pm coolest temps(say 17C), and at 8pm you're ready to bake. Take note of the falling temperature here, because this favours different critters at different times, not to put too fine a point on it, you're not only growing more friends in the dough, but you're also umm, carefully managing (and encouraging) their (ahem) waste products. See 'Principles of Brewing Science' by George Fix for a very good general description of what yeast and other critters do to beer in fermentation and how the taste is affected, the same mechanisms are very applicable to bread as well.

                  The way you grow the culture in your dough (temperature and timing is everything) is far more of a factor in the final taste, as well as is how you maintain the culture.

                  The air adds some bacteria, but as with fermenting beer any lively fully grown culture will just crowd out any intruders, unless they turn up in enough numbers, they won't stand a chance at all.

                  The vast majority of the new bacteria and yeasts introduced to your dough is on the rye itself, which is why it's so easy to make a new starter with just rye flour, but in the end, this will always change the sourdough into the 'local flavour'.

                  So, if you want authentic San Francisco sourdough bread, you should make sure to get the same rye(flour) as the bakers are using there.

                  3 Replies
                  1. re: Sauerteig

                    San Francisco sourdough is largely mystique. Yes, San Francisco air does contain a bacteria (lactobacillus sanfranciscus) and a yeast (candida milleri). That's why it was discovered 150 years or so ago that SF bread had a particular tang.

                    But today, SF bread manufacturers use very sophisticated air filtering systems that filter out the airborne bacteria and yeast. San Francisco sourdough is made from a starter anyone can make using a base grain -- usually rye. It's then grown, like you can do anywhere in the world.

                    Rye is the grain that naturally already has the bacteria and yeast you need -- they are already adapted to grow on rye. That is why you begin all sourdoughs with rye grain even if you are making white bread or wheat bread.

                    So, yes, you can make San Francisco sourdough anywhere. No need to order anything. Just go to a store that sells flour in bulk bins (like Whole Foods),
                    and buy a small quantity of rye grain (what I use) or rye flour.

                    Your sourdough will take amost a week to be ready. You will see very little action on Day 1 -3, then a mixture with some activity and bubbles on Days 4 and 5, and finally by Day 6, the sourdough starter will look like a sourdough starter, and you can use it to make wonderful bread.

                    This LA Times article has great tips on making the starter and the bread:
                    Scaling Mt. Sourdough

                    I do everything Reinhart suggests in the LA Times story in making the starter, but
                    I use rye grain that I grind at home in the food processor or a coffee grinder reserved
                    for special ingredients.

                    1. re: maria lorraine

                      Maria Lorraine is absolutely correct. But I should note that every now and then a particular environment is unfavorable to getting a starter going. John Thorne had no trouble in one house in Maine but couldn't get it started for love or money in another house, using the same procedures. The only time I have failed was when trying to get a starter going in a newly renovated guest house in St. Louis. My assumption is that off gassing of building materials or perhaps fungicides used to kill mold spores may have caused the problem. So if someone doesn't have luck getting a starter going, it is good to know they can get one from other sources. I regularly give pieces of mine away.

                      1. re: maria lorraine

                        My last starter was made this way (using pineapple juice). I killed it through neglect, however, when I went through a non-baking phase.

                        Here is a good site with a step-by-step ....


                    2. Want to have some fun? Dump a tablespoon of white vinegar into the poolish for the initial 12 - 24 hour period. See if he notices any difference.

                      8 Replies
                      1. re: todao

                        White vinegar is used to fake sourdough flavor all the time in bread manufacturing. It's used because it's fast and easy, and a lot quicker than waiting for the sourdough bacterium lactobacillus to pump out its two acidic by-products lactic acid and acetic acid (vinegar). I'd be worried that adding vinegar would over-acidify the starter, killing the bacteria and yeast. Even though the bacteria are unusual in that they can survive in an acidic environment, too much acid may be their undoing.

                        1. re: maria lorraine

                          Yeast in general are very acid tolerant, it's common practice when reusing yeast for brewing to acid wash it with phosphoric acid to a pH of 2 for several hours to kill other undesirable critters.

                          1. re: rockfish42

                            Acids are commonly used to kill yeasts. But acids vary widely in potency (pH), and individual yeasts also vary widely in their tolerance of an acidic environment. In your example above, you are using acid to kill off unwanted yeasts and bacteria in order to isolate the hardier yeast.

                            I spoke with the "discoverers" (at least the ones that were still alive at the time!) of San Francisco sourdough, and they said that sourdough is actually kind of a miraculous environment -- that the lactobacilli (there are two types in sourdough) pump out outrageous amounts of acid, and that it is highly unusual that a yeast could live in that acidic of an environment.

                            Even though the sourdough lactobacilli pump out lactic acid and acetic acid, a stronger acid with a low-enough pH, or a higher proportion of acidity that they can themselves create, will kill them. Hence, my caution about adding vinegar to a starter. But if you had a good starter, you wouldn't need the vinegar anyway.

                            By the way, from my reading (Gamble and others), the sourdough yeast plays a very minor role in the starter, both proportionately and in activity level. The yeast provides little or no leavening (CO2). Most of sourdough's flavor and leavening come from the heterofermentative lactobacillus bacteria, which favor a temp below 85 degrees F. The other lactobacillus bacteria -- homofermentative -- just pump out lactic acid and do their thing above 85 degrees F. (By the way, the sourdough yeast dies at the same temp.) By controlling the temp of the starter, you can vary the flavor of your bread: a cooler starter favors a tangier, more complex bread. A warmer starter will have less tang but still some complexity.

                            1. re: maria lorraine

                              Maria, I'd have to go back and check sources--chiefly Scott and Wing--but my understanding is that while a loaf can be entirely leavened by the lactobaccilus, at about 81 degrees both the yeast and the bacillus contribute about equally to the leavening. But my experience is that a warm fermentation increases the acidity--and I think there it is mostly acetic acid. Scott, in fact, recommends, bulk fermentation at a low temperature and spiking the acid content by proofing the loaves at a higher temperature if that is what the baker likes. Certainly, however, the cooler fermentation leads to more complex and interesting flavors. The slow fermentation gives time for more enzyme action and also more development of lactic acid.

                              1. re: Father Kitchen

                                I sure have admired your posts on Chowhound, Father Kitchen.

                                Let me first say that what I've learned, I've learned from others. I’ve been reading some studies written by Michael Gänzle in 2007 (not Gamble as I wrote earlier), and Darrell Greenwood’s great sourdough bread site to which Dan Wing and Michael Gänzle have contributed:

                                I just finished reading a bunch of stuff by Debra Wink, who's been the co-author on a number of scientific sourdough articles.
                                She oversees a great bread baking website:

                                Wink sums up things nicely there:
                                -- more fermentation time generally means more acid
                                -- higher temperatures mean a higher ratio of lactic to acetic acid
                                -- lower temperature increases the percentage of acetic acid
                                -- lower temperatures produce acids more slowly; higher, more quickly
                                -- lactobacilli prefer wetter doughs, so a wetter dough favors acidity
                                -- yeast don't seem to mind low hydration, but lactobacillus bacteria do
                                -- flour plays a big part---whole grains generally result in more acetic acid and more total acid

                                Roland Saldanha writes on Greenwood's website that the homofermentative “lactobacilli that produce only lactic acid like rather high temperatures of 99-104 degrees F.” and that the heterofermentative bacilli that produce acetic acid [and lactic acid] like rather low temperatures, 68-77 degrees F.

                                I've read several times that the yeast stop activity at 85 F.

                                Each author also comments on the sensory contribution of acid to flavor. The ratio of acetic acid to lactic acid that produces the best flavored bread varies by individual. And since whole grains and a high hydration also increase acidity, you can adjust your starter accordingly to create a more or less acidic bread. A starter made with whole grain and with 100% hydration that's fermented at a cool temp will produce the most acidic bread.

                                But my understanding is limited. Ganzle’s and Wink’s detailed stuff about biochemical pathways in bread fermentation is out of my league, but I’ll try to get a better handle on things in the next week or so. If you find anything interesting in the above websites, please post.

                                1. re: maria lorraine

                                  Fantastic! I haven't been able to keep up with the literature or the posts even on thefreshloaf, so I appreciate this. And I haven't taken notes on my own bread in a long while, so I wasn't able to comment on temperature and its influence on the lactic vs. acetic acid production.
                                  Still, what you list fits nicely into the San Francisco sourdough mystique. The marine layer in S.F. produces cool conditions that ought to explain the tang of sourdough bread there which is rather high in acetic acid. My own taste runs to a predominance of the lactic acid.
                                  By the way, there are other, less well studied, yeast and bacteria flora. A book I read on the technology of flatbreads--I don't recall the name or author at the moment--lists quite a few others. I should think that breads baked from natural leavens along the Persian Gulf would have a somewhat different flora. But again, perhaps they are only differently adapted strains of the same group of yeasts and bacteria.

                                  1. re: Father Kitchen

                                    Maria Lorraine, Sunday at nine p.m. I mixed some no knead sourdough: 32 ounces of flour, 1 tablespoon of sea salt, 24 ounces of water, and 1 rounded tablespoonful of dough starter. I folded it with difficulty at five in the morning and again at 9 a.m. It was almost a batter. Our kitchen temp was in the mid 70's as the evenings had been cool. So with a wet dough and cooler temperatures, I expected a tangy loaf. Actually, I got a beautiful flavor with the lactic acid predominating. Perhaps if I had let it go a bit longer, the acetic acid would have come to the fore.

                                    1. re: Father Kitchen

                                      Love your report, Father Kitchen. I think you may have hit the sweet spot, the perfect cusp, in your proof temp and hydration. Most bakers who've indicated a preference like something along the lines of 80% lactic and 20% acidic. That does mean you have to watch how long you proof/prove.

                                      I wonder if you know Peter Reinhart, because I’m a big fan of his. Here’s a fantastic lecture of his (about 15 minutes) on bread making with stunning metaphors of life and death. Thought it might appeal to you:

                                      Reinhart says that bread is a transformational food on four different levels — literal, metaphoric, ethical and mystical — and so naturally bread is thought of as being a symbolic food.