About 40 years ago, scientists identified the bug that helped build the American republic. That was the species of bacteria now known as Lactobacillus sanfranciscensis, which not only gives sourdough bread its tangy flavor but also improves its texture, makes it more nutritional, and helps it last longer. Sourdough loaves, with their golden, leathery, and blistered crusts, first appeared in San Francisco during the Gold Rush. From there, hardy L. sanfranciscenis cultures spread across the Western Frontier, helping feed everyone from Alaska gold miners, who were known as "sourdoughs," to Texas cowboys.
For the first century or so of the bread's history, one place you couldn't find sourdough was New York, where bakery shelves were stocked with English, French, Jewish, and Italian-style loaves. That is until the Great Good Bread Drought of the mid-20th century, when many small ethnic bakeries closed and all you could find was crappy supermarket bread. Then around 1970, city gourmet stores began importing frozen San Francisco sourdough loaves. After sampling this delicious West Coast bread, a disparate group of food rebels began making their own sourdough from home-brewed ferments, sparking New York's artisan bread revolution.
It's fitting that we begin of our roundup of the city's great sourdoughs with Eli Zabar, who helped start that revolution. The first handmade bread he sold in his E.A.T. shop was the sourdough ficelle. Eli didn't believe in over-mixing his doughs. Back in the 1980s, his ficelles were dense and sour little batons, frequently streaked with veins of flour that hadn't quite been blended into the dough. Today, the Eli's ficelles are a lot more consistent, but still dense, with a great chewy crust and a thick crumb. All you need is some brie and a bottle of oaky Chardonnay to induce flashbacks of Ed Koch-era NYC.
Most city sourdoughs on the market today range from updated versions of the classic San Francisco loaf, like the Orwasher's Soho Sourdough, to more restrained loaves that are essentially whole wheat breads with a bit of sourdough flavor in the background. It's also a very versatile dough that can be used as a platform for all kinds of more creative loaves, including the Silver Moon Ethiopian Sourdough, made with nigella seeds, and SCRATCHbread's dense and crusty STUYVESANTsour.
With its roots in the 19th century West, the sourdough is one of the most distinctly American of world breads. However, that plucky bacterium, L. sanfranciscensis, does not recognize politics or national boundaries. Scientists have discovered that same microorganism in many traditional European bread ferments, particularly from Italy and France. So if you're looking for a loaf with a sourdough tang, you should also consider those artisan bakeries that European-style starters, like the French levain method. Some of my favorites are the crust Bien Cuit miche, or the blackened City White from Roberta's with its delicious tangy crumb.
Take a look at some of New York's standout sourdough loaves in the slideshow.