Despite best efforts, sometimes a sourdough starter just won’t rise. This sad truth has frustrated many sourdough beginners to give up sourdough baking altogether. But, believe me I’ve had this problem, you are not alone! And there’s a fix!
If you can’t understand why your starter doesn’t rise and have those big bubbles that Instagram bakers seem to get. After reading this you will know what to do! We are going to resolve most of the common sourdough starter troubleshooting issues. Making yours look and be as powerful as the pros.
Why is a sourdough starter sluggish?
Most bakers run into issues when making a new sourdough or reviving an old one that’s been left in the fridge for a while. To understand why there is little levain activity, let’s break things down and cover what makes a sourdough levain rise in the first place.
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What makes sourdough active?
The ingredients in sourdough are flour, water and temperature. For the mixture to make bread rise it needs to develop lactic acids and wild yeasts. They are either absorbed from the environment or produced by the hydrated flour in the fermentation process.
For the starter to become fully active we need high levels of these three elements and to give it enough time. With these four things anyone can produce an active levain for their bread. When one of these is low or missing we start to run into problems. This means the levain will not be as active as we need it to be.
When should I start a new sourdough starter?
If you are having problems with your starter and think you need to start again I advise that you stick with the old one and follow these tips to get it active. Starting again with the same process usually leads to another failure. You might as well adjust your technique on the existing one to get it firing.
There will be some maturation at least in a less active starter which is going to be beneficial.
Only if you have a really rancid smell coming from your sourdough is it time to start again, especially when you have a 100% rye sourdough.
The most common fix that I’ve used is to give a big feed. This forces the yeasts and enzymes to work harder which builds an active starter.
How to fix a starter that doesn’t rise:
To troubleshoot a sourdough starter which is not rising work through these stages. They focus on generating the best temperature, feeding levels, bacteria and time. Just start at number one and work through these sourdough starter troubleshooting tweaks to fix yours!
1) Increase the feeds to boost the sourdough starter
The starter could be hungry so increase the size of the feeds and the frequency of them. This will provide plenty of bacteria for the starter to ferment.
I prefer to fix a struggling starter by giving it a big feed. This method usually shows an improvement in half a day. Just keep repeating until your starter is powerful enough to use.
Take 20 grams of your sluggish starter into a large bowl, add 150 grams of water and give it a mix. To this, add 120 grams of white bread flour and 30 grams of rye flour. Stir really well to remove any lumps. Leave for around 8-10 hours and you should have a much more violent starter. Repeat twice a day until the starter is active.
There is an argument against this tactic though! Some experts claim that the good bacteria in the starter will dilute too much. I understand their views, yet in 20 grams there will be plenty of “good stuff” to populate. If the worst was to happen where the old yeasts and bacteria were stretched too thin. The starter would develop new strains from the flour and environment in a few days.
The point to this method is to leave the starter with plenty of healthy food to consume and restore its ecosystem.
I also utilise the second point in this troubleshooting guide and keep the strater warm. Once it’s potent enough you can go back to using equal quantities of flour, water and starter in further refreshments… Or whatever ratio that works best for you! If this method doesn’t work or you think that it could be more vibrant there are few more tricks to consider:
2) Increase the starters temperature
Sourdough works best in warmer temperatures. A fermentation temperature between 25-35C (77-95F) works best. To find out how temperature will affect the flavour of your starter view the best temperature for a sourdough starter post.
If the temperature falls outside of this range, the rate of fermentation activity will reduce. If you live in a cooler climate it’s a good idea to warm it up.
A weak starter is not resilient to temperature changes so keeping it somewhere warm overnight can fix many starter issues. The best starters are kept at a constant temperature. This is where a home proofer comes in handy!
Daily feeds at room temperature are usually ok for sourdough fermentation but for some extra umph, keep it warm! I offer some top tips on warming a sourdough starter on another post.
For a starter recipe and feeding schedule that you can fit around a busy lifestyle, see my how to make a sourdough starter recipe.
3) Give it more time
Have you given it enough time? Sometimes it just takes longer to develop so repeat daily feeds for at least 14 days before admitting failure and moving on to the next step. This is more likely to be an issue when it’s cool.
How long does it take for a new sourdough starter?
If you are making a new starter and you don’t see bubbles after a few days it doesn’t mean to say that nothing is going to happen. A starter can be ready in as soon as 5 days! But bakers often have better results after three weeks to a month or regular feedings.
4) Change the flour
Good quality bread flour with a hint of rye is my preferred choice of flour for making sourdough. Flour with plenty of natural bacteria and minerals is going to provide the wild yeast and enzymes in the starter with food. These properties come from the flours with plenty of protein and ones that contain bran.
Here’s a few top tips for selecting the right flour to make a sourdough starter:
It’s best to use bread flour for a starter
High gluten flour contains more proteins, ash and thus more minerals. These minerals provide more bacteria to slow down the rate of fermentation. This makes the starter more vibrant and actually increases its leavening properties.
Higher levels of gluten in the flour will take longer to break down during hydrolysis. When added to a dough it will also help to mature the flour.
Add rye flour when refreshing a starter for a more powerful levain!
Trading 5-20% or white flour for rye flour, rocket-powers a sourdough starter! The addition of more complex starches found in rye or whole grains controls the rate of fermentation. This happens as the starches are harder to break down. Similar to using high gluten flour, the additional flora found in wholewheat and rye grains adds more bacteria to the starter.
Adding rye flour adds a boast of controlled energy – A game-changer for many sourdough bakers!!
In terms of flavour and rise there seem to be improvements with the inclusion of rye flour. It has always helped my starters!
Switch to organic flour for the best starter
Flour is filled with proteins, starches, fibre and bacteria. Organic flour contains the same amount as non-organic flour. The benefit of using organic flour is that during the milling, weaker cleaning agents are used.
During a fantastic presentation at Bakerpedia. Dr Lyn states that as less violent cleaning materials are used in organic flour production, more bacteria remains in the flour. The extra flora increases the activity of fermentation to form a levain that’s more active.
The organic ecosystem
A sourdough starter builds up an amazing ecosystem that breaks down the same complex sugars and bacteria after every feed. It is fantastic how a starter will populate the right amount of enzymes and organic acids to maintain consistent levels of activity.
Offer a starter the same flour, water, temperature and time between feeds, and it will train itself to have the same characteristics forever.
The impact of changing the flour – IMPORTANT!!
Changing the type of flour rocks the boat a little. This can include a new brand, or even a new packet of the previous type! This should only be done if you want to change the sourdoughs profile permanently.
Adding a different flour changes the sugars and bacteria which upsets the balance in the starter. You should use the same flour every feed to encourage your starter to develop the same bacteria and enzymes.
If after reading this you decided to switch the flour in your starter, expect it to take 3-4 days to improve. It’ll take a few feeds for the necessary enzymes to develop so they can break down and ferment the new flour efficiently. They will often get worse initially, but as the starter learns to cope the ecosystem will become balanced and good things will happen!
If you run out of flour, by all means, use what you have. It’s better to feed it something than let it starve.
5) Change the water
The last thing to change is to swap tap water for bottled water, to see if it makes a difference. Many bakers ask “does changing the water will help a sourdough starter rise?”
Using bottled water “looks artisan” but it’s impact is usually for looks only. There is rarely a need to change water to make decent bread. Though there are a few cases where you might want to test bottled water:
Sometimes the amount of chlorine in your tap water is very high which affects the sourdoughs ability to develop. I can’t say it has ever happened to me, but it can. To fix this, leave the water on the counter for 30 minutes so the chlorine can evaporate. A water filter can also work!
Soft water has fewer minerals which will increase the rate of fermentation which weakens the starter. If you do think the quality of your tap water is the cause of your sourdough starter not rising, try bottled water and see if it makes a difference.
6) Keep things clean!!
Sourdough is created through fermenting bacteria. Introducing and multiplying the wrong bacteria is not good for a healthy starter.
Adding additional bacteria from poor hygiene controls is not good for bread production. Yes, you may have heard otherwise, but seriously, this is not the bacteria you want!
On its own, flour is capable of creating plenty of the bacteria for the production of sourdough. Dirty hands or equipment adds unnecessary bacteria which unsettles the balance of the sourdough doing it’s “thing”.
Have these tips fixed your starter?
Let me know if these sourdough starter troubleshooting tips have worked for you by dropping a comment below! Need more help? Just ask away down there too!
Popular sourdough starter troubleshooting questions
There has not been too much scientific testing into the production of sourdough. This is why there are many varying ways to make sourdough bread. Bakery scientists simply don’t know all the answers! But there are a few myths that I can discredit that are told by many bakers across the world.
Should I use ionized water to make sourdough?
Using ionized water is not recommended for sourdough production. The process removes minerals to make the water more alkaline. Sourdough is acidic and will score around 4-5 on the ph scale. Adding more alkaline and removing minerals is the complete opposite of what a sourdough starter wants to thrive.
Is distilled water better for sourdough starters?
Distilled water should not be used in sourdough production. As it is more acidic than tap water it is considered a better choice for feeding sourdough starters. Distilled water is only 0.5 pH more acidic than tap water. A sourdough starter will drop to around 4.5ph when active. Using slightly more acidic water has very little benefit.
In the creation of distilled water, minerals alongside the impurities are removed. Minerals are essential for sourdough bacteria to multiply. Without minerals the starter is going to be weak and slow to rise.
My starter won’t pass the float test!!?
The float test is not accurate or necessary which is why I don’t recommend that you use it. The best way to tell if a sourdough starter is strong enough to raise bread is to watch it after feeding. If it doubles (at least) in 6-10 hours, it is capable of raising the bread.
Further reading: why does my starter sink?
Can I refrigerate my starter if I want to bake weekly?
Yes! Once you’ve got a healthy starter it can sit in the fridge for a week or two without needing to feed your starter. To increase its vibrancy I prefer to feed it for a couple of days before using it for bread. See my how to keep a starter post for more!
What is a sourdough starter feeding ratio?
A feeding ratio is the amount of each ingredient that’s used in the starter. It’s best to stick to the same ratio when feeding a starter. It prefers a familiar environment to prosper, and if it changes between runny and thick the hydration of the bread will alter.
The standard feeding ratio for sourdough is 1:1:1. This means for 50 grams of flour, 50 grams of water and 50 grams of old starter should be added to the feeds.
I prefer a thicker consistency so using less water and much less starter. It also means that I don’t have to feed it as often!
I follow a 5:4:1 ratio of 100 grams of flour, 80 grams of water and 20 grams of starter.
Do I have to use my starter at peak activity?
Once a starter reaches its peak it will sit there for a little while. During this time the lactic bacteria will increase further turning the starter into a more powerful levain. It’s not essential that the starter is used at this point, but it makes it more effective.
Why is my sourdough bread dense?
This can be because of a weak starter, under proofing, not enough gluten development or the wrong amount of water used. These prevent enough gas being retained which makes the sourdough bread dense.
Why is my starter showing no sign of activity after several days?
This could be many things, go to step one of this guide and repeat. When you start seeing bubbles on the surface, you know you’re on the right track!
Did I kill my sourdough starter?
It’s very hard to kill a sourdough starter, so probably not unless you’ve baked it. Keep feeding it and expect to see signs of activity after a few days!
Further reading: Is my starter dead?
My starter doubles in size at first but then showed no sign of life. Is it dead?
Initially the starter is sucking up wild yeasts from its environment. These will be the reason for your starter’s initial rise. After 2-3 days it will start developing organic acids which can at first inhibit the yeast’s ability to rise. After a week the ecosystem balances and you should see your starter rising and falling even better than before.
You can speed this up by making regular feeds and warming up the starter.
I see bubbles but it is barely rising between feedings. What should I do?
Bubbles are always a good sign! Keep feeding and keep it in a warm place and it will soon come good in a few days.
My kitchen is very cold. What can I do?
Find a warmer spot than your kitchen’s room temperature to keep it. This could be an oven with a light on, near a radiator or in a proofing box.
Do I have to discard my starter?
Discard is the process of removing a portion of the old starter and throwing it away. If you don’t do this, the starter will get bigger and bigger if you stick to your feeding ratio. It will actually save your waste, but you can use it in sourdough discard recipes.
What is the dark liquid at the top of my starter?
This is the hooch! It’s just where the starter produces too much alcohol. You can just stir it in! To prevent hooch in the future, it needs to be fed more flour. Increase the amount of the flour used in your feeding routine, or feed more often.
How to get rid of fruit flies in a sourdough starter?
If it’s just one or two you can remove them, refresh your starter and put it in a better place. If it’s infested then you will have to throw it away! Consider sealing the container more tightly next time.
Can I use yeast in my starter?
Sourdough gets the majority of its levaining power from Lactic Acid Bacteria (LAB), not yeast. These acids take longer to develop than wild yeasts. You can add some yeast to the starter to give it a boost, but you will not have the full benefits of sourdough without the development of acids.
What is a 100% hydration starter?
100% refers to the amount of an ingredient used against the weight of the flour. So a 100% hydration starter contains the same weights of flour and water. Note: this is calculated on weight, not cups and spoons!
How do I scale my starter up or down?
It’s best to feed a starter with the same ratio of ingredients for consistency. To double the amount of starter, double the amount of old starter, water and flour when feeding. To make other amounts just work to the same ratio you normally do, just increase or decrease the sizes.
How can I keep my sourdough starter if I go on vacation?
In the refrigerator, a healthy starter can keep for 2-3 weeks. They can often last much longer than this! It is likely that you will need to feed it with fresh flour a few times before using it to make bread. If you plan to leave your starter for longer, you can dry it out!
Use one of these methods for drying a starter.
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, it doesn’t need much airflow. However it will produce gas which can turn the environment into a vacuum, or worst still, explode your container! Keep the lid of your jar loosely sealed.
Sourdough starter smells like vomit
It is normal for vomit smells to appear in a new sourdough starter. After 14 days of regular refreshments, these smells will disappear and you’ll have a nice smelling active starter that can raise bread.
Sourdough starter smells like sour milk
Sourdough is created from yeast and organic acid bacteria. They undergo lacto fermentation to create lactic acid. This is the same process that sours milk and makes cheese and yoghurt.
The smell of sour milk is perfectly normal for a young starter. After regular feedings, the unwanted acid bacteria will be lost and an authentic sourdough smell appears.
What do I do if my sourdough starter smells like cheese?
This is due to the lacto fermentation that is part of the sourdough fermentation process . It occurs as the organic bacteria creates lactic acid. Cheese undergoes a similar process and the smell is just a sign that the sourdough is young and needs to be fed for longer.