In this sourdough starter troubleshooting master post, I go over some common problems that you might run into, and some frequently asked questions!
Catching a wild yeast is such an exciting and rewarding experience. But it can also be super frustrating when you run into problems with your sourdough starter.
Today I’m going over the best way to keep your starter happy.
I’ll also be answering some frequently asked questions so you can confidently start your sourdough journey.
If you’re looking for a step-by-step tutorial, check out my How to Make a Sourdough Starter From Scratch post.
Let’s answer a couple of common questions first so we’re on the same page!
How Long Should Sourdough Starter Ferment?
This is totally dependent on how active your starter is. Instead of going off of a rigid time, pay attention to the cues that indicate that a starter is ready to be used.
If it doubles, is active and bubbly, and passes the float test, it’s ready.
This could take anywhere from 2 to 10 hours, depending how cold your house is.
This is referred to as a mature starter, or one that has matured enough to use.
What Should Sourdough Starter Look Like?
A healthy starter should look nice and bubbly after it’s been fed. It will have the consistency of thick pancake batter.
It should be able to be poured out of your container, but it won’t just fall out readily. You’re looking for a slow pour.
What Should Sourdough Starter Smell Like?
Your starter should smell pleasantly sour with a hint of yeastiness. If you have to pull back your nose in disgust when you smell your starter, you’ll need to refer to the troubleshooting tips below.
My Sourdough Starter Smells Like Alcohol/Beer/Vinegar/Nail Polish Remover
If your sourdough starter stinks like alcohol, vinegar, or nail polish remover, it means that it’s really hungry and has produced lots of acetic acid. The good bacteria have eaten up all the nutrients in the flour and are desperate to be fed.
If your starter is constantly smelling really sour, try increasing how often you feed it. So if you usually feed it once a day, try bumping it up to twice a day.
You can also try switching to feeding it all purpose flour if you use whole grain flour. Whole grain flour makes a starter more active, so it will eat through what you feed it more quickly.
So if you use all purpose flour, you won’t have to feed your starter as often.
My Sourdough Starter is Too Sour!
All of the above principles apply here too. Make sure to feed your starter when it’s hungry and use all purpose flour.
Also, make sure that you don’t let your starter ferment too long before you use it. Use it soon after it reaches peak fermentation (it doubles and passes the float test). This can take a much shorter amount of time in a warm environment.
This helps there to be a better balance between the acetic acid and lactic acid from the bacteria.
My Sourdough Starter is Not Sour Enough
On the other hand, you might have a starter that isn’t sour enough. This usually happens if your starter isn’t as active or if you use it when it isn’t mature enough.
Refer to the tips under the My Sourdough Starter Isn’t Very Active section, and make sure you wait until your starter has doubled before using it.
Why is My Sourdough Starter Runny?
If you’re not using too much water when you feed your starter, then the reason your starter is runny is it’s too mature. When you let your starter sit too long after feeding it, it becomes runny. This most likely occurs because the gluten gets more broken down the longer sourdough ferments.
To fix a wet sourdough starter, make sure to use it just after it reaches peak fermentation, or after it doubles and passes the float test.
This could take as little as 2 hours in a really warm house with a very active starter, or up to 8-10 hours in a really chilly house.
My Sourdough Starter Collapsed!
If your starter collapsed, that means it’s past its peak fermentation. For the best results, feed your starter again and wait just until it doubles and passes the float test to use it.
My Sourdough Starter Grew Mold!
Usually a sourdough starter will grow mold if you neglect it too long, if you don’t clean your container often enough, or if you use dirty hands or utensils when feeding your starter.
If there’s only a little bit of mold on top or on the sides of the jar, you may be able to save your starter. Carefully scrape off the mold and, with a clean spoon, scoop out a tiny bit of starter that doesn’t have any mold on it. Put it in a new jar and feed it several times before baking with it.
Can a Sourdough Starter Go Bad?
Usually if your starter is just hungry and smelling really sour, it hasn’t gone bad. You just need to give it some extra care to revive it.
However, sometimes a starter will truly go bad and it can’t be used anymore.
Signs of a Bad Sourdough Starter
If your starter has mold growing throughout it (not just a little on top), or if it smells really foul (not just super sour), or if it turns an odd color (not just gray, which is normal, but pink or green), it may be time to start over.
My Sourdough Starter Isn’t Very Active
If your starter isn’t rising or bubbling and is sluggish, that means it isn’t active enough to raise bread properly.
There are several factors that contribute to how active your starter is. However, these are the most common:
Frequency of Feedings:
Think about it: if you don’t eat often enough, you start to get sluggish. In the same way, your starter will be more active if you feed it more often. Don’t leave it for hours and hours after it has reached its peak rise. Regular feedings = a stronger starter.
Type of Flour:
Sourdough really likes all the nutrients in whole grains. So if your starter doesn’t want to double very often, try switching to a different flour (such as 100% whole wheat flour) for a few feedings. You could also try feeding it rye flour since the yeast and bacteria in sourdough seem to particularly like rye flour.
Also, make sure that you use unbleached flour since the bleach can be too harsh on your starter.
And if you can, use organic flour since the pesticides can also harm your starter.
You could also make sure that you’re using fresh flour. The best way to ensure this is to use home-milled flour. Or you can store your whole wheat flour in the freezer as soon as you purchase it.
Type of Water:
If your tap water is treated with chlorine, DO NOT use it to feed your starter. Think about it: the purpose of chlorine is to kill off pathogens. But that means that it will also kill off the beneficial bacteria in your starter.
If your kitchen temperature dips too low, your starter won’t be very active. Your starter relies on warmth to keep it active. Warmer temperatures = happy starter. See the next section for some suggestions on how to keep your starter warm.
Can I Grow a Sourdough Starter in a Cold Climate?
Yes, it totally can be done! I grew a starter from scratch in Minnesota in the winter, so I think it’s totally doable.
However, it can take a bit longer to get it going. It took me 10 days to get mine established, and it could take you up to 14 days.
Here are some tips for how to keep your starter warm:
- If your house is really chilly, you can try putting your starter in a warm spot in your kitchen. Next to your stove or on top of your refrigerator are usually good spots.
- You could also try putting a heating pad under your sourdough starter as long as it has a low enough setting. If your starter gets too hot it could kill it off. You want it warm, not hot.
Why is My Sourdough Starter Separating?
That liquid or grey hooch on top of your starter is simply an indication that your starter is way past ready to be fed.
You can pour off the liquid or hooch if you like, or just stir it in. Your starter will be less sour if you pour it off.
I Have Too Much Sourdough Starter!
If you find that you’re drowning in sourdough starter, perhaps it’s time to switch to the No Waste Sourdough Method.
With this method, you’re basically only feeding your starter what you need for your recipe, plus a little extra for next time.
For example, if your recipe calls for 240 grams of sourdough starter, and you’re starting with 80 grams of starter, feed your starter 120 grams of flour and 120 grams of water. This will give you 320 grams of starter total. Then when you use 240 grams in your recipe, this will leave you with 80 grams of starter for next time.
The formula is: Take the amount of starter your recipe calls for, and add the amount of starter you want left over. Feed your starter so that you end up with the amount of starter you need for your recipe plus a little left over.
Keep in mind that the ideal feeding ratio is 1:1:1 most of the time. So you would want to feed 100 grams of starter 100 grams of flour and 100 grams of water. However, it’s okay to “over feed” your starter a bit, as in the 80 grams of starter and 120 grams each of flour and water. Just make sure that you don’t “under feed” your starter!
You can also store your starter in the refrigerator to cut back on how often you have to feed it and use it.
Should Sourdough Starter Be Thick or Thin?
That’s a trick question: it should be neither! If you keep a 100% hydration starter like I do, your sourdough starter should be the consistency of thick pancake batter.
If it’s super runny, you either fed it too much water or let it ferment too long.
If it’s too thick, you either fed it too much flour or didn’t let it ferment long enough.
Cleaning Your Sourdough Starter Jar
You can keep using your sourdough starter container for quite some time before you need to clean it. But once the jar becomes really crusty, it’s a good idea to clean it.
I personally like to just move my starter to a new, clean jar and then clean the old one. But if you have a special jar that you like to use, you can carefully transfer your starter to a clean bowl or jar while you wash it.
Soak the container in warm water for about 15 minutes. The starter can get glued on, so you’ll almost certainly have to soak it to get it off.
Then you can use a mild soap to do the final washing. Make sure to rinse all of the soap off very well since you don’t want any of that in your starter.
After the jar is cleaned and rinsed, you can safely transfer your starter back to the jar.
Do I Cover My Starter?
Yes! You’ll want to cover your starter to keep any bugs out.
You don’t need to seal your starter, but you do want to keep it covered.
Should I Cover My Sourdough Starter with a Cheesecloth?
You can, but I don’t find it necessary. I like to just screw a plastic lid on loosely, or use a Weck jar with the glass lid placed on top.
You could also use a clean napkin to cover the container.
My Sourdough Starter is Attracting Fruit Flies!
However, if you have a fruit fly problem, I wouldn’t suggest using a cheesecloth or napkin. Switch to an actual lid, which will do a better job of keeping them out.
You’ll also attract less fruit flies if you don’t let your starter ferment for too long before feeding it.
You might want to store your starter in the fridge for a few days while you get the fruit fly situation under control. Use up all the fruit on your counters and set fruit fly traps.
Does Sourdough Starter Need to Be Refrigerated?
No, and yes. If you plan on feeding and using your starter daily, you can safely store it at room temperature. But if you don’t want to feed it every day, you’ll need to store it in the fridge.
However, you can’t store a new sourdough starter in the fridge. You don’t want to begin storing it in the refrigerator until it is well established, about 2 weeks old.
Does Sourdough Starter Improve with Age?
Yes, and no. If you treat your starter properly, it will gain strength and be more resilient. I personally find that a starter doesn’t really improve with age after about a month or two. After that it’s kind of like the law of diminishing returns.
But if you neglect your starter, it definitely will not improve with age. It will only get weaker and weaker.
How Often Can I Use My Sourdough Starter?
As often as you like! All you need to do is feed it and wait for it to double. So about every 4-12 hours.
Of course you’ll want to feed it so you have a little left over after pouring off what you need in your recipe as described in the I Have Too Much Starter section.
What Container Should I Use?
I use a regular quart mason jar to store my sourdough starter. If you need more sourdough starter on hand, you might consider using a half gallon jar or one of the Anchor glass storage containers. I also really like Weck jars since they come with glass lids.
Does Metal and Sourdough Go Together?
As a general rule, it’s a good idea to avoid metal when working with sourdough. It doesn’t matter if it only comes in contact with it briefly. So you can safely use a metal spoon to stir your sourdough starter.
However, since your starter is acidic, it can corrode metal. I don’t recommend using a metal lid to store your starter. Opt for plastic or glass instead.
I have let my sourdough bread ferment in my stainless steel stand mixer bowl, but just know that it comes with a risk.
Can I Use My Sourdough Starter Straight from the Fridge?
It is possible to use your starter straight from the fridge. However, if it’s been sitting longer than a week or if it has developed hooch/liquid on top, it’s a good idea to feed it before using it.
So those are my best tips for troubleshooting your sourdough starter. If you have any other questions, please leave me a comment! I’d love to help!
And make sure to check out my How to Make a Sourdough Starter From Scratch post!
And you can watch the video that goes along with this post if you learn better that way.
In the meantime, here are some ways you can use your new starter:
Sourdough Discard Recipes:
- Overnight Sourdough Waffles
- THE BEST Sourdough Pancakes
- Sourdough Dinner Rolls
- Sourdough Cinnamon Rolls
- Sourdough Hamburger Buns
- Soft Sourdough French Bread
- Sourdough Tortillas
- Sourdough English Muffins
- Sourdough Sandwich Bread
- Sourdough Brioche
- Sourdough Donuts
- Sourdough Hot Cross Buns
- Sourdough Pie Crust
- Sourdough Shortcakes
- Sourdough Banana Muffins