Mike Rose, co-owner of Semifreddi's Bakery, holds a tray of fresh Dutch Crunch rolls. (Amanda Font/KQED)
ay you’re standing at a sandwich counter and ordering lunch. What kind of bread do you choose? Maybe sourdough, or wheat if you’re trying to be "good," or — if you’re in the Bay Area — you might go with Dutch Crunch. It’s a pretty common find at sandwich shops and deli counters in San Francisco or Oakland ... but get about 10 miles outside the Bay and that option disappears.
“It’s a very pleasant combination of a crunchy exterior and a soft, slightly sweet white bread on the inside,” says Jonathan Hillis of Oakland.
He and his fiancee, Lauren Alexander, originally from Austin, Texas and Boston respectively, stepped into the golden light of knowledge when they became Bay Area transplants and discovered Dutch Crunch at sandwich shops like Ike’s and Mr. Pickles. The couple were delighted with the texture and flavor.
“It holds up to cheese, avocado, any of the kind of soft things that you put on a sandwich,” says Lauren, “And it has a nice bite, but it’s not too crunchy.”
But with the revelation of discovery comes more questions. Where did it come from and why had they never heard of it before? So they turned to Bay Curious: “Where does Dutch Crunch bread come from?” ask Jonathan and Lauren. “How does everyone know about San Francisco sourdough, but not about the Bay Area’s best bread?”
What makes it so dang good?
Local bread comes from local bakers, and Semifreddi’s is a Bay Area institution. At their world headquarters in Alameda they’re turning out loads of loaves daily, including about 6,000 Dutch Crunch rolls. They let us into their huge, airy bakery to see what makes this particular bread unique.
The signature crunchy, crackly topping of a Dutch Crunch roll is the result of a special paste that’s applied to rolled dough while it rises. The topping ingredients are rice flour, water, sugar, yeast, oil and salt. All of those things get mixed together and then sit for a few minutes to let the yeast develop.
Meanwhile, the dough is poured into a large machine that portions out roll-sized pieces and rolls them along a conveyor line to the waiting hands of a bakery employee. They get a final hand-shaping before pastry bags are used to apply the topping mixture to each roll.
Once they’re fully risen, they’ll go into the oven and emerge like beautiful crackly phoenixes from the fire.
Is it Dutch?
It seems to be. The earliest mention of a bread with a crispy, rice flour topping comes from the Netherlands in the early part of the 20th century. Over there they call it Tiger Bread (in Dutch: Tijgerbrood), which is a nod to the sort of stripy topping pattern. It can still be found there under that name and in some other countries, including the United Kingdom, where it is widely available in sliced loaf, roll and large loaf forms.
In 2012, the grocery chain Sainsbury’s renamed their version "giraffe bread" at the suggestion of a 3-year-old girl who astutely pointed out the much closer resemblance in pattern to the long-necked ungulate.
How did it get here?
It’s difficult to trace Dutch Crunch’s emergence in the United States, but it was first mentioned in newspapers from Eugene, Oregon, in the 1930s. In 1941, we get the first clear reference to what makes the bread special — the topping — in some enticing ads. Eventually the bread makes it way to California and the Bay Area, but the recipe changes. Instead of the rice flour topping giving Dutch Crunch its crunch, local bakers use sesame seeds, possibly in an effort to differentiate the California recipe from the Oregon version. However, by the 1970s the rice topping recipe becomes the dominant form in the Bay Area, and it really takes off from there.
Why can’t you find it other places?
It’s not impossible to find it outside the Bay Area, but it’s very uncommon. Just ask your relatives from exotic locations as close as Southern California and as far away as Pennsylvania.
There’s no explanation why the secret of Dutch Crunch’s deliciousness hasn’t gotten out and gone viral. Some similar forms of bread are commercially available around the country, and a small number of sandwich shops appear to offer it as an option in Portland, but it appears most frequently in sandwich shops in the Bay Area. Maybe it’s better that way.