Troubleshooting Sourdough Starter
Having trouble getting your new sourdough starter going? This troubleshooting guide should help answer all of your questions!
The popularity of baking sourdough bread is growing bigger each and every day. This makes me incredibly excited! Sourdough has brought me so much joy in life and I love sharing that joy with others!
But as more and more people get interested in starting a sourdough starter, I am getting similar questions over and over again. So I wanted to address the most common ones I am getting all in one place in this one troubleshooting guide.
Here are the most frequently asked questions I have been getting for those who are in the process of making their starter. If you are brand new to sourdough and don’t yet have a starter, you can follow my guide for how to starting your own sourdough starter from scratch.
Watch the Video!
Why am I not seeing bubbles in my new sourdough starter?
The biggest thing to keep in mind with your starter is that every single one is individual. Each environment has different yeast and bacteria available to it, and there are so many things that can affect how fast it ferments.
- The temperature of the room
- The kind of flour you are using
- The elevation of your location
- The water quality
All of these things, and more, can affect how quickly your starter gets active. My number one tip is to be patient. This is a natural culture that must be fostered until it is strong.
To encourage faster fermentation make sure the water you are using is slightly warm, around 85-90 F (29-32 C). Make sure you are using whole grain flour, like whole wheat or rye flour.
You can also make sure that you are keeping it in a warm spot. I have always been able to get a sourdough starter going in my kitchen (around 72 F, 22 C). But if you are having trouble getting yours going, warmer temperatures in the beginning will help.
You can try in your oven with the oven light on. But make sure you leave a note on the oven so you don’t accidentally turn it on!
My starter is bubbling but not growing in size. Is it ready to bake with?
Seeing some bubbles in your starter is a great sign! It means that your starter is alive. However, it doesn’t mean that it is necessarily ready to bake with.
If your starter isn’t strong enough to raise itself up, it definitely isn’t strong enough to leaven your bread dough. You want your starter to be at least doubling in size 4-6 hours after feeding it before you start baking with it. This is a good indicator that it is strong enough to raise bread.
I saw bubbles the first few days and then they stopped. Did I kill my starter?
It is very common for a starter to get a surge of activity, or bubbles, during the first few days of creating it and then for that to die down for a bit before it surges back. This is called a “false start” and essentially the culture is just trying to get established and stabilize.
If this happens to yours, do not throw it out and start over! It is not dead. It is just in a difficult teenager phase. Keep feeding it on schedule and trust in the process.
You can also make sure that you are keeping it in a warm spot to help encourage fermentation at this early stage.
My starter smells really bad after a few days of trying to start it. Should I start over?
Funky smells in the early days of getting your starter going is really common. If it smells like stinky feet or stinky cheese, this is totally normal!
There are some bacteria in it that aren’t desirable, but the good bacteria will eventually take over and it will sort itself out. Just keep feeding it.
If your starter smells really acidic or like alcohol, this is a sign that it is needing more food and getting too hungry before you feed it. You can try increasing the frequency you feed your starter, or give it a larger quantity of food. You can also try keeping it in a bit of a cooler spot.
Why is there mold growing in my starter?
Unfortunately, if you see mold in your starter, you will need to start over. This is more uncommon than people thing, but mold is a sign that it has been contaminated.
A few things that can cause mold to grow:
- Old flour
- Tools that aren’t clean
- Starter getting too hungry before feeding it
- Starter is neglected on not fed on schedule
I have a layer of liquid on top of my starter. Is it dead?
The liquid that can appear on top of the starter or even in the middle, is called hooch. It is usually dark grey, or even black looking. This is completely normal and very common.
Hooch is a byproduct of the alcohol creation from the bacteria in your starter. It is a sign that your starter needs more food. If you are consistently getting hooch on your starter you can do one of a few different things to help it. Whichever works better for you.
- Feed your starter more frequently. If you feed yours once a day, consider adding a second feeding.
- Feed your starter a larger quantity of flour and water. This is a good option if a second feeding doesn’t work well for your schedule. You can increase to a 1:4:4 feeding or even a 1:5:5 feeding.
- Find a cooler spot to keep your starter. This will slow down how quickly the starter works through the food.
Hooch can be poured off the starter or stirred back in. Keeping the hooch tends to lead to a more sour flavor. I always pour it off if I have any. It is not harmful to the starter.
How do I know if my starter has gone bad?
Sourdough starters are much harder to kill than people think. Especially once a starter is established, they are extremely resilient. That said, there are a few signs to keep in mind that yours has gone bad.
If you see visible signs of mold, unfortunately, you will want to get rid of your starter and start over. Also, if you see pink or orange spots or streaks in your starter, this is a sign of contamination and you will also want to discard the starter.
To avoid having to start over completely with an established starter, I always keep some backup. There is always a jar of a bit of discard in my refrigerator and if my jar that I am keeping fed were to ever show signs that it has gone bad, I can take some of the discard and feed it to replace.
Remember, discard is just unfed starter. It can always be fed again to make it lively and active.
I know sourdough starter can be really intimidating, especially if you are new to the process. If you haven’t already gone through my whole playlist walking through the whole process, I highly recommend starting there!
And remember to be patient. Sourdough is all an act of patience. It is actually one of the most beautiful parts of it. You nurture and grow your starter and it will in return leaven beautiful loaves of bread for you.