Sourdough Starter Troubleshooting - Let's Fix Your Sourdough!
I'm going to show you how to resolve the most common sourdough starter issues that beginner bakers come across. When baking with sourdough the most important feature is the quality of the sourdough starter. We'll cover what to include and how best to maintain a sourdough starter, plus loads of other tips that I've used in my sourdough baking career. I'm going to try and cover as many sourdough baking issues in detail and also included is a list of the most common sourdough starter feeding methods which you can follow to fit around your daily life and sourdough production rate!
Earlier in the week, I made sourdough bread with a starter that was not fully active. The starter had been left unfed for a couple of weeks and despite 5 days of feedings, it had not returned to its fully active state.
My starter was weak and, sadly, the resulting bread was far from inspiring.
I tried to make a standard round sourdough "boule", but I ended up with a cone shaped bread. It tasted "ok", but wasn't great to look at.
To help you overcome the hurdle of the most common sourdough fails I've written this post to reveal the common problems and answer the common sourdough questions beginner sourdough bakers come across.
Following these tips has helped me to make professional-quality sourdough bread at home - ones that aren't cone shaped!
The importance of a ripe sourdough
When parenting a sourdough culture it really is like looking after a child! You have to keep it fed and control its environment to keep it happy. Maintaining regular feedings is important in keeping the starter active.
A sourdough starter should be fed twice a day. The regular feedings keep the starter nice and active, but once a day feedings can work just fine.
Since starving my starter for a couple of weeks I refreshed it twice daily for 5 days before making my (pointy) bread. 5 days wasn't enough time to re-stabilize the starter. The starters smell was still overly alcoholic and unpleasant. A few more days of feeding would rebalance the ph levels and help the wild yeasts become more potent.
Actually, I fed the starter for two further days after this bake. When I weighed out the starter I noticed the smell improved, the size of the bubbles increased too.
The more active starter made a loaf that was miles better than the previous attempt.
If you are not seeing enough or any activity in your sourdough starter there's a few tricks you can follow to get it pumping. I've written an entire post dedicated to the topic of getting more bubbles in a starter.
Further reading: My starter is not bubbling - help.
Using the fridge during sourdough bulk fermentation
When I made the pointy bread I placed the dough in the fridge overnight for its bulk fermentation. Coupled with the weak starter in doing this I managed to slow the rate of dough fermentation right down. The lack of dough fermentation created a dough that lacks maturity.
We need to bulk ferment the dough correctly to allow the dough to properly mature. If the bulk fermentation was done at room temperature the warmer dough would have noticed an increased the rate of fermentation.
The faster rate of work from the natural yeasts and enzymes increases the maturity of the dough to create a better quality bread.
A well-matured dough has the following benefits:
- Good gas retaining properties
- Better flavour
- Stronger bread-like aromas
- Better gas production
It is important to mature the dough correctly in bulk fermentation as it creates an improved structure in which the dough can final proof. A good bulk fermentation with a powerful sourdough starter supports the bread to rise so we get an improved bread at the end of the baking process.
The fridge is often used for the bulk fermentation or final proofing stages of sourdough bread production. Using the fridge to cool the dough creates additional flavours in artisan bread.
The use of the fridge is also handy to control the ready for the oven times by slowing down the proofing process. Bulk fermentation or final proof should only be carried out in the fridge when the starter is fully active.
Why was my sourdough bread cone shaped?
The dough did not develop enough gas retaining properties which meant the gluten network was not strong enough to properly support the bread during its final proof and oven spring.
How do I know when my sourdough starter is ready to use?
A starter works at it’s best when it triples in size in around 6-8 hours. This requires regular feedings twice a day for a long period to get to this amount of vibrancy. There will be a slight drop in the quality of the bread, though it doesn’t mean a less active starter won’t work. You’ll just have to allow the dough a little longer to bulk ferment if the starter is weaker.
I would like to also mention that the starter doesn’t have to be at the peak of its rise when using. If you use the starter 2-3 hours after feeding it will be sufficiently active to raise the bread.
What is the best feeding ratio used in a sourdough starter?
The most common recipe for sourdough starter is equal portions of flour, water and starter. This ration is commonly used to build and maintain the majority of sourdough starters. Typically 50 grams of each ingredient is used but this can increase or decrease based on how much starter you need for your bread, see building up a starter.
If you find your dough is starving (see hooch) it needs larger feeds to keep it active. This increased feeds will contain more flour and water, or less starter.
How often should I feed my starter?
The sourdough should be fed twice a day for best results. I feed mine in the morning and again before bed. The sourdough should be refreshed at least 2 hours before removing a portion to make bread, this ensures the sourdough is at its peak.
To reduce the amount of time you feed your starter you can use the fridge with one of the feeding methods below.
How to store a sourdough starter
A sourdough starter left at room temperature needs frequent refreshments to keep it active and prevent it from turning bad. Feeding daily is a lot of effort for the majority of home bakers so the fridge can be used to slow down activity.
Yeast fermentation and bacteria multiplication will slow at cool temperatures, therefore, putting the sourdough in the fridge reduces the regularity of feedings required. The starter should be built up so that it is fully active before a fridge storage method can be used.
To find out how to start a sourdough starter and bake a simple sourdough bread, take a look at the sourdough guide for beginners page. It also covers many Faq's on sourdough baking.
Here's a list of the most popular sourdough starter feeding methods:
Popular sourdough starter feeding methods
A popular question when it comes to maintaining a sourdough starter is ”do I use the main starter to make the bread, or remove a piece and refresh it?” To explain, we'll call the main sourdough the "Mother dough" as it is called in some countries.
Some recipes require a portion of the mother dough to be removed and refreshed to be used in the recipe.
Others say to keep the mother dough active and remove what you need to make the bread when required. It doesn’t matter in terms of the quality of the sourdough but it will affect how much time you will need to invest in maintaining your sourdough and the amount of discard or bread it creates.
For each of the following methods, the starter recipe stays the same. The differences between them are in how the mother dough is stored and how often it gets refreshed.
Removing a piece from the mother dough for refreshment feeding method
One of the most popular methods and used in commercial bread production, this is possibly the most common method of maintaining a sourdough.
Remove the correct weight of starter from the mother dough and refreshing it by exact amounts of flour and water gets the exact amount of starter needed for the recipe. The mother dough can be left in the fridge and fed weekly to keep it active.
Following this method removes the need for daily feeding of the mother dough so saves waste and also allows extra ingredients or flours to be added to the sourdough to flavour the bread. This method is also helpful when making large amounts of dough as it reduces storage space.
Refresh the whole mother dough feeding method
Using the refresh the whole mother dough technique will have to be done twice a day. This way works great if you bake bread every day but will create more discard waste if not. It can lead to very interesting uses of the discard including crackers, crumpets, pasta and biscuits!
I prefer this method as I always have an active starter so I can bake bread any day I want with prior planning, I just need to remember to activate my starter.
Once a day feeding method using the fridge
You can get around twice-daily feedings by refreshing the sourdough, placing in the fridge for the day and then pulling it out of the fridge overnight to mature at room temperature. The timings take a bit of adjustment due to how cold your fridge is and how warm the kitchen is but is a fantastic way to maintain your starter for regular use.
The once a day feeding method can be used in conjunction with the previous method when going out for the dough or can be perfect for partners and children to help out with the family bread, without being too challenging!
Zero waste sourdough starter feeding method
This way works well if you make sourdough bread once a week. After building an active starter, bake a loaf with it and without refreshing it, place it in the fridge for 4-5 days. A couple of days before you plan to make bread, remove it from the fridge and start building the starter up with feedings twice a day.
Instead of discarding part of the starter, begin with smaller feedings of flour and water and gradually increase them whilst retaining the whole amount of starter in the bowl. After two days of twice-daily feedings, the starter will be active enough to make bread and the process can be repeated. Alternatively, if you want to make bread the following day just refresh the starter as normal.
The amount of starter kept in the fridge can be tiny, just scrapings stuck around the edge of your bowl can be used. Using this method means you have zero discard waste when making sourdough so it’s great for morally conscious bakers, you just need to forward plan a little.
Do I want my sourdough starter to be runny or thick?
Thinner starters are faster to activate, some bakeries use viscous sourdough water as their mother levain. They are quicker to raise the bread and need refreshing more regularly. A thicker starter creates more flavour and better bread so is preferred by most home bakers. It is also easier to manage refreshments as they are done less often.
To thicken your starter, reduce the water slightly when refreshing. A ratio of 1:3:4 of starter, water and flour can be used to achieve a successfully thick starter.
What if I’m not home to feed my starter?
If you are going to miss a feed for a day or two, just pop it in the fridge after it’s refreshed. You can always feed, place it in the fridge and ask a family member to take it out so it’s ready for you to bake with. If it’s been in the fridge for only a couple of days it will still be active enough to make bread without refreshments.
Can I go on vacation without killing my starter?
Give the starter a good feed and put it in the fridge. A 1:8:10 of starter, water and flour ratio is the recipe I tend to follow. The sourdough will be fine after a couple of weeks and often longer.
It’ll just need a few days of regular refreshments when you return.
I forgot to feed my starter!
If you forget to feed it once or twice, it’s not a problem, just feed it again. If you have any problems in getting it active again, follow the steps in the “My starter is not rising” article.
If I see mould on my starter can I salvage it?
Most probably yes. Take a look at this article for the best practices in saving your sourdough starter if it turns mouldy.
My sourdough starter is not rising
No sweat it’s a really common problem that is usually fixed with a couple of simple steps. Take a look at my post on rescuing a starter.
Can I use different flours to feed/refresh my starter?
Yes you can but there is a but:
Sourdough prefers the same ingredients to allow the same bacteria inside it to multiply. Using different flours each day will upset the ph balance which weakens the mother dough.
A sourdough starter is best to feed with the same flour each day but if you have no other flour it will be worth feeding it as opposed to allowing it to starve. If changing flour that you use in your starter it will usually become weaker as new bacteria and enzymes are introduced and existing ones are lost.
The starter will recover from the initial weakness providing regular feedings are made with the same flour to allow it to build up its strength.
Can I change my starter to a different flour permanently?
Yes, if you want to change the flour of your sourdough starter just change the flour and after a couple of days of regular feedings the bacteria will adjust and develop back into a strong sourdough again.
Alternatively, you may prefer to remove a piece the mother dough and build a separate starter using another flour. This will give you two starters to choose from.
Can I use wholemeal or rye flour for a sourdough starter?
You can use any type of flour in a sourdough starter, each variety will bring different flavours to the bread made from it. Wholemeal and rye flour are often used in conjunction with white flour or a 100% standalone starter can be created.
Darker grains are more complex which has the effect of making the sourdough stronger and more flavourful. Wholemeal and rye flours control the rate of activity and form bigger bubbles in the starter.
Sourdoughs containing whole grains are less inclined to lose activity if the dough doesn’t get refreshed for long periods, perfect for the zero waste sourdough starter feeding method.
Do I have to discard my starter every time I refresh it?
The reason a portion of the sourdough starter is discarded before refreshment is to reduce the amount of flour and water needed to feed it. Not discarding a portion of the starter would result in the creation of too much sourdough and use more resources.
Discard or no discard, the method is used to allow the starter recipe (ratio) to be followed, it has no bearing on the flavour or quality of the sourdough. If you build up the size of your starter discarding is not necessary.
I don’t have enough starter for my recipe!
If you have 50% or more of what you need for the recipe you can still make the bread with it, just be prepared that it will take a little longer to ferment. You replace the missing sourdough with flour and water to rebalance the hydration levels and to create enough dough needed for the recipe.
If you are way off the amount of sourdough you'll need to build up your starter.
Building up a sourdough starter
Building up a starter is pretty easy. Triple the amount of flour and water that you add to normally, without discarding the starter. Repeat for future feeds until you reach your desired quantity.
I have Too Much Starter!
This happens sometimes! It’s best to do something with it like bake it or give some to a friend. If you need to bake it all you can make a big batch of dough and divide into individual bread portions to be left in the fridge to bake across the week.
Do no bubbles and no rising mean my starter is inactive?
Not necessarily, sourdough is very hard to turn inactive, it will go mouldy first. Seeing no bubbles or rising in the starter will mean it is not active enough to proof bread so will need a bit of work before baking with. If you experience a lack of bubbles it may just need more feeding or bigger feeds.
Take a look at the My sourdough starter doesn’t rise article to find out how to get it going again.
What is the liquid floating on top of my starter?
That’s the hooch, it’s a sign that the starter is hungry. The sourdough creates hooch on the surface as it runs out of starch. It can be a variety of different colours. Hooch on top of the starter is not a big problem, you should to increase the size of your feeds to prevent it starving in the future.
What should I do if there is hooch on top of my starter?
Increase the amount you feed the sourdough during refreshments. The base ratio of equal parts of flour, water and starter which is followed by main bakers is not suited to all flour types.
Try a 3:3:2 balance of flour, water and starter for a few feedings and see if the hooch disappears. If it doesn’t work, increase the amount of flour and water a little more.
My starter smells weird, do I need to do something?
If the starter starts to smell overly alcoholic or like paint stripper, it should be fed more regularly for up to a week. Afterwards, it should start to smell more pleasant.
How do I get rid of fruit flies?
It’s extremely frustrating when fruit flies get into sourdough starters! Whilst there isn't an easy way to remove them, there are a few steps you should take:
- Remove any fruit or food source nearby
- Use a clean bowl or jar to refresh your sourdough, taking a small amount of fly-free starter to build from
- Keep the sourdough in another area of your home to prevent the flies from finding it!
How tight do I have the lid on my starter jar?
Yeast production is anaerobic therefore does not require oxygen to function. There are usually plenty of airborne yeasts and bacteria around that the sourdough can use to ferment. For this reason, the lid of your jar can be tightly sealed.
If you are at high altitude if you run into difficulty with little activity in your sourdough you can try and loosen the lid if you like.