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.
- The Bread Bible by Rose Levy Beranbaum
- The Bread Baker’s Apprentice by Peter Reinhart
- Flour, Water, Salt, Yeast by Ken Forkish
- The Perfect Loaf Blog
- Elaine Boddy on Instagram
25 Comments on “Troubleshooting Sourdough Starter”
Why does my starter only double and bubble with 1:3:3 whole-wheat flour feeding? It does not double or bubble as much with 1:2:2 or 1:4:4 or with some combination with white flour.
Hi Bettie, I am making little progress with my starter. Am unable to find Whole Wheat flour anywhere but am using fresh King Arthur unbleached AP flour and warm bottled water. All started promisingly with some bubbles and a bit of a nice yeasty smell but that stopped. End of Day 5 and I still just have cement colored paste consistency almost of sticky glue. My room temp is consistently 75. What can I do?
How often should I feed my starter?
Hi, this article goes into feedings and scheduling: https://bakerbettie.com/how-to-make-a-sourdough-starter/
Dear Bettie my question have a starter going but no big bubbles i put some in water it sunk to
is there any other way test my starter before making a big mess up
Thank you for the great content! I have a question that I see quite a few people ask but I’ve never really seen an answer. I started my starter 10 days ago. My house is a bit cold so it took some time going through the stages. However, it did start rising/bubbling consistently around day 7. Days 8/9/10 it has reliably risen to the point that the last couple of feedings it doubles in size and is very bubble/airy.
My question is, even though I am getting double the rise and see lots of bubbles on top and throughout (when I remove some I can see a ton of aeration in there) I do not see large bubbles on the side of the container like in your pics and most others who offer tips. There are a ton of tiny bubbles on the sides and, like I said, larger bubbles on top and when I remove some of the fully risen starter you can clearly see very large pockets inside.
Why don’t I see very large bubbles on the side even though I am fairly certain my starter is strong and active?
I am starting to think all of you who are giving advice know some kind of trick to get the intense side bubbles going? Like maybe a bit more or less hydration than 1:1 or a specific type of flour? Or maybe it happens after you let the starter completely go hungry and then feed (I have never done that, I always feed right after it peaks)?
Maybe I’m being a bit too cautious but I want those big side bubbles to make sure my starter is as active as it needs to be! Thanks!
I figured it out! To anyone else out there who sees pics of starters with massive bubbles on the sides but doesn’t see it in yours….You need a fresh and clean jar.
Right after I made my other comment I decided to switch out my original jar to a fresh one. And, what do you know, the large bubbles that were eluding me were all over the place. Apparently my original jar (been using for around 3 weeks) had developed a film on the surface. The bubbles were there the entire time but I couldn’t see them well because of the film.
I went ahead and baked my first loaf and I am shocked at how well it turned out. It is a bit dense but at the same time has the PERFECT crumb with little and big holes all over the place. I would have liked it to be more sour and rise a bit more but, otherwise, I am very happy. I’m going for round two right now.
Thanks for the tips!
I just want to know where I can buy the jar you used in this post? My starter is doing great thank you for your good good teaching skills..
Search for “sourdough equipment” on my website and you’ll find an article with all the links to products!
Hi thanks so much for your articles and videos…..they are really helpful!
I have been baking bread a while…..but started out using 1/3 cup flour, and 1/2 cup each of flour and water….but I didn’t know how to make a smaller amount to have less starter discard, so looked around for weight and then weighed, the amount I had been using…the 1/3 cup etc. I believe the 1/3 cup starter is more hydrated than the 100% starters?…..and I prefer that….I haven’t tried halving the amount by that weight….but, my question is…..should established starter always be bubbly…..it rises, but doesn’t seem as bubbly as the 100% starter, or is it because I shift it from 100% to the 1/3 cup etc measurements? Should an established starter always be bubbly as it rises, or are some just some mixed tiny bubbles okay….or should it be big airy bubbles?:). thanks so much for any help:)
My sourdough starter is in the maintenace stage. But it does not rise or bubbly within the 4-6 hours as i only do 1 feeding a day..
If i want the starter to be active, what is the time frame for me to increase the number of feeding and do i need to wait till it peak then feed or feed according to the time frame (e.g 1st feed of the day is 7am then 7 hour gap second feed at 2pm)
Hi Bettie, I’m on day 8 of making my sourdough starter for the first time and I am not seeing any activities yet. I am using whole wheat flour and around 84-86F water to feed it once a day. It usually stays in about 80-84 degree temperature ( I live in tropical climate). I am about to go on holiday on day 10 so I will only be able to feed it up to Day 9. At this point (where i’m not seeing any activity), Is it ok to leave it in the fridge until I return, and then continue feeding it daily from there?
Hi I have been making sourdough for a number of years but I am keen to make the sourdough sandwich loaf. You say to feed the starter twice before making the dough. Do you discard the excess starter or can I add it to the original starter? I really appreciate the information you share,
Thank you Frances
I am on day 11 of my sourdough starter. I have been following your TikTok on how to. I also privately messaged you on there.
The last time it rose was on day 7 and on that day I increased my feeding to 1:3:3 because it had a small dome that had flattened out. But it hasn’t risen since; only has a small amount of bubbles.
I keep it in my oven with the light on because I keep my house so cool.
I am not sure what to do at this point. Continue on as I am or do something different?
You mention keeping some of your discard in the fridge as back up in case anything happens to the stuff you are regularly maintaining. How long is the discard good for? Do you replace this with “new” discard every time you feed?
Also, I feed my starter once a week(ish) and it grows and bubbles within the hour. Does this mean my starter is very healthy? Or established?
Thank you for your time.
I have been feeding my starter 1:3:3 for about 3 weeks. It has not matured to double in 4-6 hours. It will double in 10-12 for sure. Ideas to help me get over this hump? Thank you
I’m on day 9 of my starter and it finally started having bubbles again after a false start. The only problem I’m having is that it keeps forming a crust on top. Is that normal? I’ve tried giving a higher proportion of water, putting plastic on top. I’m using the same Pyrex snap container you have in your how to start a starter tiktoks
I had a wonderful starter from a friend when I lived in China. Bread making is not exactly a Chinese forte—they make steamed bread, but noodles and rice dishes are wonderful! Anyway, I made bread and bagels mostly. It rise just about as fast as regular yeast!
Now I am trying to make my own starter. So far, it looks pretty good—I only began YESTERDAY and it’s bubbling like crazy. I am as glad to read that it can do this at the beginning and then level out itself, because it’s risen a lot in just a day!! I am not supposed to start feeling it until the day after tomorrow. Any advice?
I’ve been baking sourdough for just about a year and find your instructions among the clearest, most reliable, and easiest to follow. To broaden my understanding of the process, I have looked at other instructors, many of whom are excellent as well; But, I always go back to your videos and written instructions. Thank you so much for sharing your expertise in such an approachable way.
Thanks for sharing! I’m glad I could help!
So I paid 25.00 for a pie class.
Can you tell me what the date is in case I missed it
I am on day 10 and my starter still hasn’t doubled in size after 4-6 hours. I have been leaving 25gr of my starter and discarding the rest when I feed it each day. The thing is I have been using the same jar and a lot of starter has dried on the inside of my jar no matter how much I try to scrape it off. So my 25gr of wet starter is less than a tablespoon. Is that enough to build my starter? Should I leave more of my starter? I am afraid I am throwing all the good bacteria away each day and it’s struggling. Thanks in advance!
Thank you so much for your website, and your videos were extremely helpful.
I am on day 4 for my starter. Both yesterday and today my starter consistency seems more like a thick liquid then like yours appeared in your videos. I do have lots of small bubbles and the small seems right. Just wondering if this is normal. Any advice you can give will be greatly appreciated.
It’s normal! Everyone’s will look a little different. Keep going!
Hello, my starter is active but the air holes are tiny. As result, my leaven is not active enough and bread turned out to be fenced. Suggestion?