Troubleshooting Your Sourdough Starter

Troubleshooting Your Sourdough Starter |

Without a doubt, the most intimidating aspect of sourdough baking is understanding its key element: the starter.

What is a sourdough starter you ask?

Simply put: a starter is a live fermented culture of flour and water. Once it becomes bubbly and active a small portion is used to make your bread dough rise- no commercial yeast is required. It’s a technique that can be traced back thousands of years when instant yeast (the stuff that most of us use) was not yet available.

Doesn’t sound too scary, right?

But there’s a catch.

A starter is not just this “thing” you create and walk away from forever.

It must be kept alive and well with additional feedings (flour and water) to keep it bubbly and active. Remember, it’s a living culture which must be cared for with intent. Otherwise, your bread won’t rise. Think of it like a pet that needs to be fed daily, or a house plant that needs water and a sunny window. At its core, sourdough is about understanding and committing to an ongoing relationship.

As with all relationships however, there lies a bit of uncertainty.

You might ask youself: “Am I doing this right? Why does my starter look different than yours? Why is it taking forever to rise? Is it dead?”

That’s why I’ve put together this article for you.

Most of the information is already covered in Artisan Sourdough Made Simple, but I’ve included additional information to answer any questions you might have, and to open up the topic for discussion. Because let’s face it: troubleshooting your sourdough starter could go on for ages!

Two quick things before you begin-

To streamline the process, this post assumes you have a working knowledge of a 100% hydration starter, made from equal parts regular wheat flour and water by weight. This is the most common type of sourdough starter.

This post is also very comprehensive. To avoid loosing your mind as you digest the details, take your time and read through it a few times until the aha moment strikes!

Because eventually, it will…

Troubleshooting Your Sourdough Starter |

1.) Why Won’t My Starter Rise?

Ahh yes… the million dollar question. It’s like asking: “Why won’t my 2-year-old sleep through the night?”

Because a sourdough starter is a living culture, like children of a certain age, they will share similarities. Each one will have their own unique personality and the “one size fits all approach” doesn’t always work.

Some bakers use science to explain these personality differences and others simply observe, follow their intuition, and allow the starter to teach them. I implement both techniques.

Keep in mind, when troubleshooting your sourdough starter, it’s usually a combination of factors. In my experience, the rise time is based on temperature, ingredients, feeding frequencies, type of flour & the quantity of flour used.  

A.) Temperature: Starters love warm environments. The warmer the spot the quicker it will rise. But realistically, finding a warm spot can be challenging especially when baking in the winter. The ideal temperature is somewhere between 75-85 F.

Here are a few things you can do:

Try storing your starter in a cozy cabinet. It’s warm, draft free, and I have to say, my personal starter does really well in this snug little habitat. Experiment with a cabinet that’s near your stove for extra warmth.

Another option is to wrap the starter jar in a heating pad. One of my kombucha readers (Hi, Melanie!) suggested this tip and it’s very clever. The heating pad maintains the starter at an approximate temperature which can be adjusted to your liking.

proofing box can also be used to control the temperature. If you don’t have a proofing box, place your starter in the oven (turned off) with the light on. But please make sure to keep an eye on it and turn the light off, if necessary. It can get very hot in there! Another makeshift proofing box option is to use your microwave; just place the starter inside (turned off) with the light on.

Note: regarding temperature, if your starter is exceptionally strong and vibrant, it will have no problem rising in warm OR cold environments, even in the fridge. My starter is a workhorse and will rise ANYWHERE. This is because it’s well fed and cared for. Keep this in mind as you continue to develop a relationship with your personal starter.

B.) Ingredients: A sourdough starter is made from flour and water. For best results, always use quality ingredients.

For the flour, please use something that is unbleached, unbromated, and does not contain chemicals.

Most non-organic U.S. flours, including my preferred brand King Arthur Flour, are enriched with vitamins and minerals including iron, folic acid and other vitamins. This is okay to use. I also like Trader Joe’s all-purpose flour for feedings.

However, it’s important to note that not all flours perform the same. Flour from the UK is going to have different enzyme and mineral levels than flour from the U.S., Japan, Australian etc. Even organic flours perform differently. 

That’s why when troubleshooting your starter, it’s best not switch back and forth between brands at first. It’s too confusing and you won’t know where you went wrong. Stick to one brand, try to rule out additional factors that might be giving you trouble, and then make changes from there.

For the water, try using filtered or bottled water to avoid any trace chemicals or chlorine if you think it’s having a negative effect on the rise. I don’t have to do this at home, my tap is fine.

C.) Feeding Frequencies: Ever have those days where you’re just ravenous?

Starters can be ravenous too. If at one point your starter was all bubbly and happy, and now it’s not rising anymore, it’s possible that it needs a few extra feedings to boost the yeast development. So, assuming you’ve digested points A & B above try feeding your starter 2x per day and see what happens. Also, if your starter has been stored in the fridge for a while, it’s going to need several feedings at room temperature to become bubbly. Have patience!

**Additional information regarding the starter rise times can be found in Sections 2 & 3 below**

Troubleshooting Your Sourdough Starter |

2.) What Type Of Flour Can I Feed It With?

Feed your starter with the same flour from which it’s made.

Now, let me just clarify: every baker has their own way of feeding their starter. And one method is not necessarily better than the next (just different).

To cut through the noise with reliable results, feed your starter with the same flour that’s in the jar. For example, if your starter is made with all purpose flour, feed it with all purpose flour. If it’s made with rye flour, feed it with rye flour. Easy peasy.

By doing so, you’ll establish a consistent feeding routine and the rise time will become more predictable. Think about it this way: how would your dog feel if you fed him a different type of dry food each week? Starters are no different!

3.) How Much Flour and Water Does My Starter Need?

Feed your starter following a 1:1:1 ratio by weight.

Again, every baker has a different method, but following a 1:1:1 ratio by weight will get you reliable results. Your starter will rise more predictably, and if you’re lucky, it will stay at its peak height for quite a while before it collapses.

For example, if you have 30 g of starter in the jar, feed it with 30g of flour + 30g of water. If you have 60g of starter, feed it with 60g of flour + 60g of water. Please use a kitchen scale for this! You can easily scale the initial starter quantity up or down, depending on how much you want to maintain now or in the future.

Note: to determine the weight of your starter you’ll need to know the weight of the jar first. To do so, weigh the empty jar and note the amount somewhere, either on paper or a piece of masking tape affixed to the bottom of the jar. Then weigh the jar with the starter inside and subtract the original jar weight. Got that?

4.) I Created a Starter Following the Instructions in Your Book… It Used to Be Bubbly, But Now it Stopped and Nothing’s Happening? Did I do Something Wrong? Should I Start Over?

Believe it or not, this is 100% normal.

Typically, when creating a starter from scratch, you’ll see bubbles on the surface around Day #3. When you start feeding it with flour and water on Day #4 and beyond, the bubbles may or may not appear as quickly. It makes sense to think that something’s wrong! But don’t panic.

In order to cultivate and develop the yeast within your starter, you need to feed it for several days in order to see results. The process can be unpredictable, and each person you talk to will have a different experience based on their personal situation and environment. It’s easy to get caught up and compare, doubt yourself, and think it’s not working.

So, should you start the whole process over?

No! Continue to follow the instructions in the book, but make sure to read this post a few times, including Sections 1-3 to familiarize yourself with possible troubleshooting factors. If you’re still stumped, please be patient and continue to feed your starter until it bubbles and doubles in size. Eventually, you will see results. It just takes time.


5.) What Type of Container of Jar Should I use for My Sourdough Starter?

I wrote a whole post on this. Click here.

6.) Does the Starter Jar Need To Be Airtight?

The jar or container can be airtight or covered loosely; it’s your choice.

If it’s airtight, just make sure the jar is large enough to accommodate the starter’s growth as it begins to rise (at least double in size). Otherwise it will burst through the jar.

If you choose a loose cover such as a cloth or something else that’s breathable, and a skin forms on the surface, that means too much air is getting into your starter. It’s not the end of the world if you see this; just peel it off and/ or choose an airtight lid instead.

Troubleshooting Your Sourdough Starter |

7.) What Is That Dark, Smelly Liquid On My Starter?

It’s called hooch which is an indication that your starter needs to be fed.

Don’t worry, it’s not dead. Just exhausted. This liquid is something you’ll see regularly, either on the surface of your starter or even within the culture itself (as pictured above), so get used to it! Because the liquid is unsightly and smells like gym socks, I pour it off with some of the discolored starter underneath and feed it right away. That’s all you have to do.

PS: hooch is not mold.

8.) What Should My Starter Smell Like?

First all all, your starter shouldn’t smell too vinegary, like gym socks, or nail polish remover. If it does, it just needs to be fed. Don’t freak out over this too much. At some point your starter will smell like this.

On the other hand, when your starter is in good shape it should smell fresh, fruity and yeasty.

So, what does that even mean?

Fresh, fruity,  and yeasty aromas will vary from starter to starter. Some will smell like toasted coconuts and pineapple, others will smell like apple cinnamon. It’s actually very interesting to note all of the differences. Don’t worry if yours just smells tangy and not very “exotic.” Totally normal. The aroma all depends on what’s in the jar and how it’s cared for.

9.)What Happens If There’s Mold Growing On My Starter?

If you see mold, get rid of it!

In all my years of baking, I’ve never had a problem with mold. That doesn’t mean it can’t happen to you. In fact, several of you have emailed me regarding mold (oddly enough you’re all from eastern Australia. Weather issues?).

Mold can occur on the surface of the starter or on the jar itself. Its appearance can range from white and fluffy, to dark greenish brown, and even pink.

What gives?

Here’s what I know about mold: mold spores are everywhere. And it takes a perfect storm of variables (food, temperature, and water) to populate its growth. So, think about your current environment: is your starter jar near a fruit bowl (food source)? Is your current climate on the humid side (mold loves this kind of weather)? Are you using tap water (where trace chemicals and chlorine can be found)?

Because we all live in different environments it’s hard to pinpoint the exact cause. But if you can troubleshoot any of the above, it might lead you in the right direction. Consider moving your starter to a different room if you think location is part of the issue.

Paired with the variables above, mold can also occur if your starter hasn’t been fed often enough. Consider feeding it more frequently. This will keep the naturally occurring bacteria fresh and happy.

And finally: Sometimes mold can occur when something else lands in the jar. Last summer, a fly got stuck in my starter and the whole thing turned pink (not the fly, the starter). I’m not sure if the pinkish color was true mold or just a result of the unfortunate casualty. Either way, it’s something to pay attention to.

10.) How Do I Get Rid Of Fruit Flies?!

Short answer: you can’t.

When summer rolls around, get used to seeing fruit files because they LOVE sourdough starters. Love. Love. Love. It’s hard to prevent a fleet of flies swarming the jar but there’s a few things you can do.

First, make sure your starter is not near any fruit (for obvious reasons). Second, just relocate it. Sometimes, I keep mine in my bedroom and completely out of the kitchen where the main food sources reside- my husband thinks this is totally weird. Third, keep the lid on. This will not keep out the flies completely but it will help especially after you’ve moved the jar out of the kitchen.

If you have additional ideas on this one, I’m all ears!

Troubleshooting Your Sourdough Starter |

 11.) Can My Starter Be Used With Gluten Free Flours To Make GF Bread?

Short answer: NO

Most sourdough starters are made from wheat flour and water, so therefore it contains gluten. If you want to bake gluten free sourdough you’ll need a gluten free starter. Remember that. I get many emails asking if my starter can be used to create gluten free sourdough, and it’s just not the real deal.

12.) If I Forget To Feed My Starter, Is It Going To Die?

Short answer: NO

No matter what I tell you here, the first time your starter gives you trouble, or it’s taking forever to rise, or whatever, you’re going to think it’s dead. I guarantee it. The Internet has scared people into thinking if your starter doesn’t rise instantly with a trillion bubbles on the surface, it’s completely broken and will never be usable again. EVER.

Please have a little faith. I have a starter that’s been siting in my fridge for over 1 year, unfed. I forgot it was even in there. After transferring it to a new jar, feeding it for several days in a warm spot, and just being patient, guess what?! It was still ALIVE!!! That’s all you have to do if you suspect your starter needs a little love. Starters are resilient creatures which require practice and patience.

Which brings me to my last point (hooray!)…

13.) Be Patient.

This is THE hardest tip to follow. But it’s undoubtedly the most important.

Who has patience these days when we have access to whatever we want on demand? Sourdough will teach you all about patience whether you like it or not. You can’t rush it. There are no shortcuts. No cheat sheets. Again, like parenting, eventually your 2-year-old will sleep through the night. 

So, please read through these tips slowly and carefully and see what troubleshooting factors apply to your personal situation. Some days you’ll have a beautiful bubbly starter and other days it will act like a diva. And just remember: it’s usually a combination of factors that contribute to sourdough starter issues. Your starter behaves this way not to make your life miserable; it just wants you to pay attention. Take your time, feed it a million times if you have to, move it to a warmer spot, and just honor the relationship. It’s the only way you’ll learn.


My intent with this post was to include enough information to satiate your questions, without making you feel exhausted. Believe me, this topic can go on for ages- there’s just so many scenarios. Feel free to comment below with additional thoughts and tips. Based on your feedback, I will make periodic updates to keep this post fresh and relevant! Happy baking, friends :)


  1. Dag says

    Hi I’ve been trying to get a rye starter going all winter but they were all very weak until this week when we got some warmer temps (my house is usually 19 degrees Celsius) and I followed your book’s directions and for the first time ever the starter rose above the rim of the jar. (It floated in water too!) So it then collapsed and I started feeding it but besides some bubbles, it hasn’t risen again. Is that normal? Is it only supposed to rise that first time or after every feeding too?

    • Emilie says

      Hi there! I’ve just re-posted your comment from a different post on my blog. I think you’ll find the tips in this space more relevant to your question :). Your starter should bubble and rise after every feeding (it’s not supposed to rise only that first time). Have a look at the troubleshooting options above and see what applies to your personal situation. It could be a combination of temperature, ingredients, type & quantity of flour, feeding frequencies etc. You’ll get there!

  2. Laura says

    Hi Emilie, I recently purchased your new book on making sourdough breads. I am at day 11 with my starter and am wondering if you know why I am getting a “skin” ( like when pudding isn’t covered with plastic ) on the surface of the starter. And it still has an odor until I remove the skin and feed it. It has bubbles but not as many as your picture on page 11 in the book. I am using organic all purpose unbleached flour and tepid water when I feed it. Because my house is kept cool I am storing the starter on top of my furnace, a warm place , but not too warm that I cannot touch it. I love to cook and bake and really want to develop sourdough skills. Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated. Thank you. Laura

    • Emilie says

      Hi Laura! I’ve just re-posted your comment from a different post on my blog. I think the troubleshooting tips in the space will be very helpful. To answer your question: if your starter is developing a skin, in my experience, it simply means your starter has been exposed to too much air (like pudding). See Sections 5 & 6. Thank you for supporting the book!:)

  3. says

    I seem to have a lazy starter. The top gets covered with bubbles but it’s never bubbled frothily like yours though I’ve noticed a slight difference since reading your book and feeding it with plain flour instead of strong flour. However, the bread it makes rises well (usually) and tastes good so maybe it just conserves its energy for the oven, which is fine by me. Just goes to show that every starter is different. Am now going to reread your post and see if I can’t get it a little frothier though.

    • Emilie says

      Hi Anne! That’s the thing about starters; they will share similarities but each one is so different. I’m glad you’re having better luck with plain flour for the feedings. Using the right type of flour makes all the difference in the world. Also, I would be curious to see if the flour you’re using in the UK is enriched (like most US flours). This makes a difference in enzyme activity which would results in how the starter rises and bubbles. It’s not better by the way, just something to note. Feeding your starter following the 1:1:1 ratio really helps too (instead of eyeballing it.) xx

  4. Rosemary Heather says

    Hi, Probably off topic, but I started with your sourdough recipe, a year ago now. No Problems. None at all. Great bread, that has just improved, along with the Yeast, over the past year. I now bake for family and friends. Soooo Good. Thanks

    • Emilie says

      Hi Rosemary! Off topic comments like this one are always welcome ;) Thank you for letting me know! Glad to hear your loaves are turning out with success. xx

  5. Lou says

    Hi Emilie

    I have a wholemeal based starter (100% hydration) that I use to produce wholemeal bread. I’d like to try some white loaves – can I use my existing starter or should I develop a new one based on strong white flour?

    Also; I need to get hold of a copy of your book having read some really great reviews. I can only see a paperback copy on the Amazon site – is a hardback copy available by any chance?

    • Emilie says

      Hi Lou! You can do both. In my experience, the wholemeal starter will give the white loaves a slightly different look and taste (all depending on what recipe you’re following). So, you might want to experiment with the two types of starters and see what combination suits you best. Regarding the book, as of right now, it’s only available in paperback. :)

  6. Janice says

    Love the picture of the overflowing sourdough starter. I started both my starters (rye and gluten free) using your advice and both are healthy and happy and have made wonderful breads. If there’s one piece of advice I would pass on, it would be: “Be Patient”. My rye was started 2 years ago, and it has just started making amazing bread. I think it
    Took time for the starter to be strong enough to build the bread. Gluten free starter has been a challenge to get sour enough, but it is young and I’m sure it will gain strength with time.

    • Emilie says

      Hi Janice! I agree. Having (and maintaining) patience is key advice which certainly can be frustrating for some, but absolutely essential to good sourdough. Sometimes starters do need time to develop. Hopefully with the tips here, you’ll have continued success. Sounds like you’re well on your way!

  7. amy says

    When feeding the starter, do I need to always remove a portion of the starter in my jar? I just purchased your book and created my first starter. On day 3, it states to remove a portion of the starter and then feed it. Days 4,5,6 are to follow the Day 3 feeding process – does that mean to 1) remove a portion of the starter and 2) then add to it?

    Thanks so much for your help!

    • Emilie says

      Hi Amy! Yes, according to the instructions in my book, in general, it’s best to remove a portion of the starter before feeding it. If you don’t, the starter will grow to a monstrous size and eventually overflow (and be difficult to manage). You’re also doing this to maintain balanced acidity levels within the starter for flavor.

      To answer your specific questions:
      1.) On Days 4,5,6, remove a portion of the starter before feeding it.
      2.) Then, once you have removed some of the starter add more flour and water to the jar.

      Hope this helps!

  8. Meg says

    Thank you so much for taking the time to write this…. I just passed on some of my Juno, granddaughter of Priscilla starter, and instructed the adoptees…. I said so much if what you’ve written, and it feels good that stuff I’ve worked out is shared….yes, the starter is a living entity. I confess I talk to her! I also put a rubber band on the jar to show the level after I’ve fed her, so I can see immediately how active she is.

    I’ve been working my way through your book, I just love it.

    • Emilie says

      Hi Meg! I love that our starters are related ;) Sourdough truly is a living entity and don’t worry, I talk to my starter too. When I was at the tail end of writing my book, I honestly thought I was going to take my starter out to the bar for celebratory drinks! We are in such a committed relationship, lol. Glad to hear that you are enjoying the book. I certainly enjoyed writing it.

  9. John Carlomano says

    Thank you Emilie for your fantastic book and the detailed sourdough starter troubleshooting guide. I had tried creating a starter and baking sourdough bread for a few months last winter and then gave up for a few reasons. I picked up again this winter, looked for beginner recipes and came across your wonderful book and step by step action plan. I can tell other readers that your action plan works. I have baked 5 different sourdough breads so far this winter and have been pleased with each of the them. Key things that make a difference:
    1. Find a warm spot for the starter – my starter (1:1:1) was being fed 2 times per day (8am & 8pm) for 2 weeks but did not show a healthy rise and fall when stored at room temperature (70 degrees). Putting it in the oven with the light on raises the temp to the high 70’s / low 80’s and made it grow bubbly and rise and fall as your photos show. Word of caution – put a post it note over the oven’s on – off switch to remind everyone not to turn the oven on. I learned that one the hard way – it cost 2 cambro tubs, plus bread dough plus levain.
    2. Using a weck jar with straight sides and a close fitting glass lid for the starter makes it easy to clean and feed.
    3. I feed the starter with King Arthur AP flour and bottled water.
    4. When I don’t expect to bake for a few days I feed it at the same time in the morning, then let is rise for 3 hours then put it in the fridge. The day before I want to bake, I take it out of the fridge around noon, feed it again that night and then 12 hours later use some of the discard to make levain for the recipe.
    Thank you for all that you do. I realize that taste is personal, but anything that you can to share about how to turn up the volume on the “sour” taste is greatly appreciated!

    John C

    • Emilie says

      Hi John! You are quite welcome :) Thank you for posting this information regarding your sourdough starter. I like the tip about leaving a post it note on the oven- makes 100% sense.

      Boosting the “sour” taste in your bread is a little bit tricky because there’s no “one size fits all answer.” Starter quality, ingredients, temperature, specific bread recipe etc. all come into play. However, assuming you have a starter that’s fed at a 1:1:1 ratio with all- purpose flour, and you are following the Everyday Sourdough recipe from the book, here are a few things you can do based on my experience:

      1.) Dough temperature makes a difference. Do the bulk rise at 80- 82 F (try the oven light trick for this), followed by an overnight second rise overnight in the fridge. I get great flavor results using this technique although sometimes the dough can be over proofed in the morning.

      2.) Follow tip #1, but swap out 20 g of bread flour for whole wheat flour. The enzymes and minerals in the whole grains adds to the flavor profile.

      3.) Don’t refresh your starter as often. The more you feed your starter (frequency, not amount) the more balanced the acidity levels will be. And you can tell by the aroma in the jar. If it smells fresh and fruity, the acidity levels are more balanced; if it’s strong and vinegary it will add a different flavor profile to the bread.

      Now, with that said, to achieve a more “sour” bread you typically have to utilize a combination of these factors. Play around with the Everyday Sourdough using the techniques above and see what happens before moving onto another recipe. It takes a bit of practice but eventually you’ll achieve the results you’re after. Good luck!

  10. SueV says

    Fruit flies, as soon as you see them take a small mason jar put Apple cider vinegar, a little water and 3 or 4 drops of dish soap. Set it near where you see them, the vinegar attracts them, the soap makes them unable to fly out. Great article, answered alot of questions I have had about starters.

    • Emilie says

      Hi Sue! I love this tip, thank you! I’ve never heard of it before but I will certainly remember it this summer when the flies take up residence in my kitchen! Excellent.

  11. Tania says

    First time of making sour dough. Although my starter was lovely and I’ve been feeding it for 7 days now, my bread is too dense and heavy. There doesn’t seem to be air enough in it. Should I have left it to rise a lot longer. Left it for 5 hours and it doubled in size. My receipe didn’t say to knock out the air and let it rise again – should I have? Advice much appreciated. Flavour of the bread is beautiful.

    • Emilie says

      Hi Tania! It’s hard to say without seeing a picture of your loaf, and reviewing the exact method you’re following. However, in my experience, dense and heavy bread is usually a result of a dough that didn’t rise long enough, rough handling, and/or incorrect measurements. Regarding knocking out the air and letting it rise again, I typically always do a second rise for my sourdough loaves. As a rule of thumb, if your dough looks dense before baking, it will be dense when it comes out of the oven.

  12. Laura says

    Hi Emilie,

    I purchased your book and absolutely love it and am anxious to begin making some sourdough breads. I am on about day 11 of my starter. It definitely doubles in size when I feed it and has loads of bubbles throughout, but it is not as frothy as the starter in your pictures and will not float when I put a drop in a glass of water as you suggested in your book. Is it just that it needs more time to culture or is there something else I should be doing to develop it more?

    • Emilie says

      Hi Laura! It sounds like the yeast within your starter is definitely developing, which is a good thing.

      However, you might be performing the float test after it has collapsed slightly (although it looks double in size). For best results, do the float test when your starter is at its peak height, or in other words, before it collapses. This can be tricky to judge sometimes, especially if you’re not at home. I would recommend putting a rubber band around the base of the jar to mark its growth as it begins to rise. This way, you’ll have some indication of the growth rate. You’ll also see when it collapses, as the starter leaves streaks down the side of the jar when it decreases in size.

      Regarding the frothiness, you starter will look different on different days. It won’t always look like mine, which is normal. It won’t look like anyone else’s starter either. Starters are unique to you and your environment, regardless of the recipe you’re following. I wouldn’t worry about this too much. As mentioned above, try the rubber band trick and see if that helps you. Good luck!

    • Emilie says

      Hi Kelly! So glad you enjoyed it. Sourdough is one of those things that can be incredibly confusing, you know? Thanks again for your feedback :)

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