Sourdough Starter Troubleshooting: Your Questions Answered


When I teach sourdough bread baking at my workshops, the overwhelming majority of questions I get are about the sourdough starter. Not only about its maintenance, but about what’s gone wrong if it looks or behaves differently to the norm.

An established sourdough starter is able to survive surprisingly difficult conditions, including neglect. As long as it is given a food source before it is due to be added to dough, and shows some signs of activity, then it can thrive and continue producing great sourdough bread forever.

Maintaining a sourdough starter is a source of concern for many bakers who are starting their sourdough journey, and rightly so. Understanding your sourdough starter is one of the most important keys to making great sourdough bread, so it’s pretty important to be able to troubleshoot and fix anything that has gone wrong before using it for your bread.

So, without further ado, let’s go through some of the most commonly asked questions and troubleshooting scenarios surrounding the mysterious sourdough starter and its maintenance….

How do I Know When my Sourdough Starter is Ready to Use?

If your sourdough starter is established, then it usually goes through a cycle of rising and then going back down to its original level again. The point at which it peaks in height is when it has its most strength in terms of rising power. But starter doesn’t necessarily have to be used at its peak.

In fact, sourdough starter can make good bread even if it is used before or past its peak.

As long as it has been at least a few hours since you last fed it, and it is showing signs of activity, your starter can be used to make bread.

It really depends on what you want out of your bread. For more detailed information on when to use sourdough starter, check out my article here where I go through what happens if you use it at different stages, both before and after it has peaked, and how it affects your bread.

The main signs to look out for to know if your starter is active and ready are:

  • bubbles on the surface or sides of the jar
  • the starter has risen in height

As long as these two things are present, you are good to go!

If you’re not sure, you can always use the float test to see if your starter is ready. The article I mentioned above has details on the float test too, but you basically place a small amount of starter in a glass of water, and if it floats, it’s ready to use.

What’s that Weird Liquid Floating on Top of my Starter?!

Don’t be alarmed when you see this. Runny liquid floating on the surface of your sourdough starter is perfectly normal, and actually shows that your starter is feeding well!

The liquid is called ‘hooch’. If your sourdough starter starts to run out of food (sugars and starches in your flour), then it will start to produce hooch.

Hooch is a runny liquid that ranges in color. It can be clear, brown, grey or even black. Usually, the longer the hooch has been left, the darker the liquid will become. A starter with hooch on the top simply means the starter is hungry for more flour.

What should I do if there is Hooch on Top of my Starter?

Hooch is a runny liquid that develops on top of sourdough starter when it hasn’t been refreshed

If you see hooch on top of your starter, you can simply stir it straight into the starter, and feed your starter the way you normally would. There is no need to drain the hooch out. (This can complicate your hydration levels).

Hooch should only occasionally be found on your starter. (Usually if you have left it a while longer than normal between feedings). If you find that you are seeing hooch on your starter between every feed, then more than likely you are not giving the starter enough flour and water during its feeding/refreshing time.

It is literally running out of food before you are feeding it again. In this case, you need to increase the amount of flour and water you are feeding your starter each time. This should get rid of any hooch developing too often.

How Much Should I Be Feeding My Starter?

Not feeding your starter enough can be problematic if it is done too regularly, but the amount doesn’t have to be super precise either. Here’s a general rule of thumb:

Feed the starter enough to roughly double its volume. The more starter you have, the more flour and water it will need.

For example, if you have roughly half a cup of sourdough starter. Then it will need to be fed a quarter cup of flour, and quarter cup of water. This will mean the sourdough starter will double its volume.

I never measure how much starter I have, but I do weigh how much flour and water I am putting into my starter in order to keep hydration levels accurate. Here’s how I usually feed/refresh my starter:

  • Step 1 – Place the starter jar on some weighing scales and set it to zero.
  • Step 2 – Add in roughly half its volume of flour and make note of how much flour that is by weight.
  • Step 3 – Feed it exactly the same weight of water as I do flour.

This keeps my sourdough starter accurately at 100% hydration without having to measure out how much starter I have each time. If you’d like to learn more about sourdough hydration levels and their affect on bread, check out my article “Sourdough Hydration Explained” here.

Sourdough starter is very forgiving when it comes to how much and how often it is fed, so it’s not necessary to be super accurate in the amount you feed it.

Many bakers just add a little flour and a little water without any measurements at all, and the starter does just fine. (I only like to measure because I like to keep my sourdough starter at 100% hydration).

QUICK TIP: A sign that you are not feeding your starter enough, is if you find it developing ‘hooch’ (a runny liquid) on its surface regularly. If this is the case, increase the amount of flour and water you are feeding it by a little.

What if I’m not Home to Feed my Starter?

This is a very common question that beginners have. If you are used to feeding your sourdough starter every day and leaving it on your counter top, what happens if you want to go away on holiday? Or you simply don’t have the time to keep feeding it on a regular basis? The simplest solution is to place it in the fridge.

Sourdough starter can be placed in the fridge to slow down its fermentation rate considerably. I now store mine regularly in the fridge, and only take it out when I want to bake some bread.

Sourdough starter can be kept in the fridge

How to Store your Sourdough Starter in the Fridge:

  • Step 1 – Refresh your sourdough starter and place in a clean jar, with enough space on top for the starter to rise up and down.
  • Step 2 – Close the jar with a tight fitting lid.
  • Step 3 – Place it in the fridge.

If you would like to store your sourdough starter for a much longer time than a couple of months, have a read of my article “How to Store Sourdough Starter Long Term”. I go through a step by step illustrated guide on how to store your starter 3 different ways depending on how long you want to keep it for. (You can freeze it, dry it, or keep it in the fridge; my article will explain in detail how to do all three)

QUICK TIP: You can go many weeks without feeding sourdough starter if it remains in the fridge. If you see hooch becoming quite dark in color, give your starter a mix, feed it, and then pop it back in the fridge again. Sourdough starter can be kept like this until you are ready to bake with it.

I Forgot to Feed My Starter!

Absolutely no need to panic! If your starter is established i.e. older than a few months, it can take some neglect and still thrive. Forgetting to feed it occasionally will not weaken its strength. Simply wait until the next feed time, and continue feeding it as normal. It will be just fine.

Can I Use Different Flours to Feed/Refresh my Starter?

Sourdough starter should ideally be fed the same flour every time. This helps you to learn the behavior of your starter and when and how to use it. It also helps the specific groups of bacteria and yeasts in your starter to remain established and growing. But if you happen to run out flour one day, it’s fine to use a different flour that you have on hand as a one off.

Can I Change my Starter to a Different Flour Permanently?

If you would like to permanently change the flour you use, simply make the switch and start feeding it with the new type of flour. Your starter may take a few days to get used to the new flour, so it’s a good idea to keep a routine of feeding it daily for a few days during this time on your counter top.

After that, it will have adjusted to the new flour and you should be fine to use it. Be aware, that using a different type of flour will mean that the starter will also behave differently. For more detailed information about using different flours in your bread, check out my flour guide here.

IMPORTANT TO NOTE: What you don’t want to do, is feed your sourdough starter a different type of flour every time you feed it. The collection of bacteria and yeast that thrive in your starter will be slightly different for every type of flour. Switching from flour to flour too often will constantly change the balance of the culture and ultimately weaken it.

I Don’t Have Enough Starter for My Recipe!

A sourdough starter can be fed a larger amount if necessary, and there is no need to ‘build up’ the amount of starter you have in order to have enough for a recipe. If you are going to be mixing your dough tomorrow, then feed your sourdough starter enough flour and water to fit your recipe amount. It will be ready to use the next day, and you will have exactly the amount you need!

I have Too Much Starter!

This is a common one. Especially at the beginning when you’re still trying to figure out a regular schedule. Firstly, you don’t have to throw away your starter discard. Check out my post “16 Inventive Ways to Use up Leftover Sourdough Starter” for some inspiration.

Secondly, if you find that you’re getting too much sourdough starter to know what to do with, there are a couple of options. You can either:

  1. Feed it less at every feeding – try giving it the smallest amount you can get away with, without getting hooch on the top. It may take some trial and error to know how much at first.
  2. Only keep a tiny amount of starter – This will mean you only need to feed it a tiny amount. (Refer to “I Don’t have Enough Starter for My Recipe” above).

The smaller the amount of starter you have, the less flour and water you will need to feed it.

Furthermore, if you are not already doing so, take advantage of your refrigerator! Keeping your sourdough starter in the fridge when you are not using it will mean you only need to feed it at a MAXIMUM once a week, giving you much less chance of having excessive discard. (See section above about how to store sourdough starter in the fridge).

Zero Waste Sourdough Starter Maintenance Method

Here’s how I keep my starter these days to make sure I have minimal to no discard:

  • Step 1 – Store starter in the fridge until I need it for baking.
  • Step 2 – A couple of days before baking, take it out of the fridge, and feed it a small amount of flour and water.
  • Step 3 – Several hours later, check for bubbles and activity. If the starter is active, feed it the amount I need for my bread recipe.
  • Step 4 – Several hours later, use it for my recipe.

This method of maintenance means I only ever make enough starter that I know I’m going to be using up. It’s a brilliant way to avoid having excessive amounts of starter and discard, and is really easy to keep up with.

My Starter is Sluggish/Not Active: Is it Dead?!

This is a bit of a bigger question. There are a number of reasons why your starter may be ‘inactive’. And the first thing to investigate is if it really is inactive or not.

Does No Bubbles and No Rising Mean a Starter is Inactive?

Granted; the best way to see if a starter is active is to see it rising up the jar and to see bubbles. But not all starters have to rise and deflate, or show bubbles to prove they are active. A couple of scenarios come to mind:

  1. If your starter is particularly thin and runny, you may not see it grow in size, because the gas bubbles manage to mostly escape through the runny liquid. And that’s also why you may not see bubbles.
  2. If you are using a flour that contains a different type of gluten, for example Einkorn flour. It won’t rise as much, or produce as many bubbles as other starters do.

However, from time to time, you’ll most likely have to deal with a sluggish starter that just doesn’t have the ‘oomph’ it used to. So if this happens, here’s how to revive it back to life…

How to Revive a Sluggish Sourdough Starter

Sourdough starters that are thin and runny may not show as many bubbles

If your starter truly has become sluggish or inactive, it’s a good idea to revive it rather than make a new one from scratch. In my experience, the quickest and easiest way to revive a starter that has become sluggish or inactive is to follow these steps:

  • Step 1: Discard most of your starter, leaving only a little in the jar (literally a half teaspoon’s worth is enough!).
  • Step 2: Using a spatula, scrape all the remaining starter out of the jar, and place in a clean glass jar.
  • Step 3: Add 20 grams of flour and 20 grams of water in to the new jar, and mix thoroughly with the remaining sourdough starter.
  • Step 4: Clean off the sides using your spatula, and leave starter on the counter top in a draft free area with a loose lid over it.

6 to 12 hours later you should see some activity in your starter! It may need a couple more feedings (morning and evening) before it springs back to life, but this should be enough to bring it back.

QUICK TIP: If for whatever reason the above steps don’t seem to do the trick, try feeding it a little rye flour. Rye will boost sourdough starter quickly, and help give it the nutrients it needs to be able to revive itself. (If you’d like to learn more about Rye flour in sourdough baking, check out my article “6 Reasons Rye is Popular in Sourdough & What to Know Before Using it”)

Why Does a Sourdough Starter Become Sluggish?

There can be several reasons why a sourdough starter can become sluggish, and it’s important to try and figure what is causing it so that you’re able to stop it from happening again. Here’s a quick list of a few common ones, but I’ll go through some tips to keep your starter healthy and active later on in this article:

  • Too many temperature fluctuations
  • Feeding too often
  • Feeding too little
  • Low quality flour or water
  • Neglected for too long

If any of the above are present, it may be the cause of a sluggish sourdough starter. Refer to the tips at the end of this article to keep your starter active and healthy.

I Can See Mold on My Starter. Can I Salvage it?

Mold on a sourdough starter is not a good sign. It means that there is not enough good bacteria surviving in the starter to be able to keep the bad bugs out.

If the mold is only on the surface, you can carefully remove it. Then take a tiny amount of visible clean starter and place it in a fresh jar. Continue to then feed it the way you normally do.

It’s important at this stage to keep a close eye on it and feed it regularly. Morning and evening, or once a day is a good routine. If you find mold is still developing, it’s time to say goodbye and start with a fresh one.

If the mold has gone into the body of the starter, again, it’s best to throw it out and start over. If you don’t want to make one from scratch, the best place to purchase an established starter is Etsy (here’s a link to a selection of sourdough starters at Etsy, which are made from a variety of different flours).

My Starter Smells Weird!

Different sourdough starters will have different characteristics

Sourdough Starters are strange little creatures. They are as unique as you or me. And so is their aroma! Sourdough starters can have a range of different aromas and have been given a whole host of different descriptions, including:

  • old socks
  • nail polish
  • bread
  • vinegar
  • fruit
  • paint
  • alcohol

In the end, the way your starter smells is NOT a reflection of how ‘good’ the starter is. It’s a reflection of the types of wild yeast and bacteria that live in your starter. And this is unique to every starter.

NOTE: You may find that the starter smells more on the nail polish/alcoholic side if it’s developing hooch on the top. But that should be remedied by sufficient feedings. It’s not a sign that your starter has gone bad.

Do I Have to Discard my Starter Every Time I Refresh it?

Most definitely not. When you first establish a sourdough starter, it is useful to discard some of it before feeding to help it develop enough good bacteria to overcome the bad.

But once a sourdough starter is established, there is absolutely no need to discard every time you feed it. Simply add flour and water to the jar, and stir.

5 Top Tips to Keep your Sourdough Starter Healthy and Active

Making your own sourdough starter is very rewarding, and when you finally crack it, you get an amazing sense of achievement. But then the daunting task of keeping it alive kicks in. What if I do it wrong? What if it dies? Do I have to start all over again? What if I want to give it a different flour? What if I forget to feed it?

Hopefully all the above information will help you troubleshoot your sourdough starter and keep it thriving. But here 5 tips to help make sure your starter continues to give you awesome sourdough bread.

Tip #1: Keep it Away from Drafts

Notice I didn’t say ‘keep it in a warm environment’. This is because it doesn’t need to be in a warm environment. In fact, you can keep it in the fridge if you want until you need it. The most important factor is to keep it in a draft free area so that the temperature doesn’t fluctuate too much.

Your best bet is to keep it in the same spot as much as you can. This way, you will understand more easily how often to feed it due to the temperature being quite consistent.

You may find that it stays more active in certain spots than others. And it’s usually because these areas have more consistent temperatures.

Tip #2: Stick to a Schedule

Feeding your starter on a schedule is the best way to keep it healthy. Now this doesn’t mean that you have to feed it twice a day, or every day, or even every week. It just means stick to a schedule.

Your starter will need feeding as regularly as it needs according to how you keep it. So if it’s kept in the fridge, it will need a weekly feeding. If it is kept on the counter top, it will need once a day feeding. Do what works for you.

Tip #3: Let it Breath

Sourdough starter needs plenty of air to ‘breath’

When refreshing/feeding your starter, be sure to give it a vigorous mix. Sourdough starter likes oxygen and this helps it to thrive. It’s also important to leave the lid loosely on, and have plenty of empty space in the jar so that more air can easily get in.

NOTE: If you keep it in the fridge it’s important to leave the lid closed securely so as not to contaminate the starter with other aromas in the fridge. It’s also a deliberate form of slowing the starter down too.

Tip #4: Check the Quality of your Water

Depending on which area you live in, it may or may not be okay to use tap water for your sourdough starter. If your tap water is heavily chlorinated, or contains other chemicals or contaminants, then the sourdough starter will struggle to survive.

If this is the case, you have a few other options:

  1. You can use bottled or filtered water.
  2. You can use boiled water that has been cooled down to room temperature.

Tip #5: Use the Right Flour

It’s also really important to use a good quality flour to feed your sourdough starter with. The flour is the food source for you starter, and so it’s pretty important to give the starter a good source of food in order for it to thrive. Consider the following:

  • Unbleached flour
  • Organic flour

These options are not absolutely necessary, but if your starter is struggling, it may be an idea to switch to one that is either organic, or at the minimum unbleached to help revive it back to life again.

NOTE: As mentioned earlier, rye flour is also a really good choice of flour if you want to give sourdough starter an extra boost.

Aysha

I've been baking sourdough bread at home for years now and have had a journey full of successes and failures. This has given me great experience in understanding what makes a good bake!

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