A sourdough bread bowl brimming with creamy clam chowder is a quintessential San Francisco experience, maybe best loved by ravenous teenagers and tourists, as well as piratical seagulls, shivering in the fog at Fishermen’s Wharf. Soup and sandwich combined, it is a spectacle to behold: a golden boule bigger than your face, and not that fancy new sourdough either, but the old-school heavyweight that’s divisively dense and tangy, and filled to the brim with cockle-warming soup. Have bread bowls fallen out of favor? Hog Island, clam chowder authority, skips the shtick, and fair enough. People hate carbs. It’s kind of a lot for lunch.
But times and tides have changed, and people are now throwing caution and carb counts to the wind. Bread bowl lovers, keep an eye on the horizon: The classic has been popping up around town, much like a mustachioed sea lion surfacing where least expected. Of course, sourdough bread bowls never leave the menu at Boudin Bakery, that great tourist trap, which claims to have a mother starter from a gold miner. But there are a few hot takes. First, Lupulandia, that new Tijuana-style brewpub in the Mission, put the throwback on the menu, filling it with a chile-infused tuna chowder. (“Oh God, it’s fucking delicious,” co-owner Anthony LaVia told Eater SF.) And once shelter in place went into effect, bread bowls also appeared as specials on menus at Prairie and Thorough Bread, if only for a few days.
Thorough Bread is particularly exciting, given that it’s the bakery affiliated with San Francisco Baking Institute, known for textbook croissants and sourdough, and welcoming students from all over the world. “We only offered the bread bowls for one weekend, as something fun that might catch people’s eye,” disclaims Miyuki Togi, baking instructor at SFBI and production manager at Thorough Bread. “But we are offering baking kits that come with recipe cards, for how to make basic sourdough at home.” Given that everyone is already baking up a storm, why not try out a slightly different shape, and go big on soup night? Because in fact, bread bowls are fun and easy to make at home and only require a couple of tweaks to any simple sourdough recipe.
Just like regular sourdough, bread bowls do not call for any special ingredients. “Flour, salt, water, and starter, and you’re all set,” Togi confirms. For equipment, home bakers will need a cast-iron Dutch oven, which imitates the action of a commercial oven, sealing in heat and steam. The instructor explains, “The steam is important, so the skin doesn’t get too firm, and the crumb can expand, while still getting that nice and shiny crust.” A set of four bread bowls might require an extra-large, oval-shaped Dutch oven and a couple of batches. But Togi has complete confidence. “Using a big Dutch oven and doing two smaller loaves at a time is a great idea. Two loaves will generate more steam, so the dough should do even better.”
For mixing the dough, Togi recommends one important tweak: Reduce the amount of water, so the consistency is a little stiffer. For those using the Thorough Bread kit, specifically, she reduces the water in the final dough from 580 grams (2½ cups) to 540 grams (2¼ cups). That will help the bowl to puff up into a perfect round that’s deep enough to dig out with a soup spoon.
Then simply shape the dough into smaller rounds, dividing into four pieces instead of two. Make sure to rest them in the fridge overnight, using bowls lined with tea towels, instead of bread baskets, to let the skin dry out and get good and chewy. Finally, in a Dutch oven, bake with the lid on for 20 minutes, then remove and continue to bake until deep brown, 5 to 10 minutes longer.
It’s a little different than with a larger loaf, where the goal might be to get that big airy crumb that lets butter and jam trickle through the crevices. Remember, sourdough bread bowls have a very important job: A tighter crumb and thicker skin better hold precious cargo like clam chowder.
Ready to roll? Those who have their own starters already bubbling can try it anytime. Those looking to get in on the game can grab a baking kit from Thorough Bread, which is open on the weekend for curbside pickup. And for anyone who’s troubleshooting and looking for additional sourdough support, SFBI has an old-school channel on YouTube and the occasional hot tip on Instagram.