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 was not yet available to bakers.
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 yourself: “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 my book 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:
1.) 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. If you don’t have a starter, you can purchase one here.
2.) 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 Stater
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.
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.
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 mature, well fed and cared for starter. Keep this in mind as you continue to develop a relationship with your personal starter.
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.
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**
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.
4.) I Created a Starter Following the Instructions in Your Book… It Used to Be Bubbly, But Now 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.
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.
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!
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 :)