Troubleshooting Your Sourdough Starter

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Troubleshooting your sourdough starter – Here you’ll find a list of the most frequently asked questions when creating your sourdough starter. I hope it helps you to develop a strong, active and bubbly sourdough starter that will bake you the most amazing bread.

My sourdough starter seems really dry when I first feed it – do I need to add more water?

No you don’t! A stiffer starter is actually really good! As your mixture ferments, it will thin out and increase in volume, making it appear lighter & airier almost like a sponge!

If you’re concerned, try feeding it and letting it sit for about 30 minutes, then stir it up again really well. This helps to incorporate all the flour. Let your little SCOBY (symbiotic culture of bacteria & yeast) do the rest!

This is particularly pertinent if you’re using whole wheat or rye rather than all purpose or bread flour for your starter. Whole wheat flours absorb a lot more water, however you still need to use equal parts water and flour.

Why is there liquid on the top of my starter?

Sometimes you may get some dark liquid forming on top of or in the middle of your starter. It’s called hooch and is perfectly normal. Just pour it off if you can – or mix it back in – and feed as per normal. You’ll find that your starter develops hooch when it is hungry.

Hooch will smell slightly alcoholic and is the result of the fermentation process. Mixing your hooch back in on a regular basis will create a more sour tasting starter.

Why does my starter smell like nail polish remover?

Sometimes your starter will develop an acetone or nail polish remover smell. It’s perfectly normal, it’s just hungry, so feed, feed, feed. You may find that your starter smells like this more in warmer environments. If your starter is wanting to be fed more than twice a day, consider moving it somewhere cooler or perhaps storing it in the fridge if you aren’t baking with it everyday.

It’s normal for your starter to go through a period of smelling like this, but after a few feeds it should start smelling more yeast like.

Why isn’t my starter bubbling like the first few days?

Occasionally starters start out strong and then taper off a little between days 3-7. It’s ok and may just be that the good bacteria is taking a little longer to win. Just keep feeding it consistently and you should see some action. Don’t give up after a few days – have some patience and you will be rewarded.

If you are worried, try stirring your starter in between feedings to encourage the oxygen levels in your starter. This will help the good bacteria and yeast to develop and flourish more quickly.

How do I keep my starter warm?

It’s not totally essential to keep it warm, it will still work – it will just take a lot longer in a colder environment. Some ideas to keep your starter warm are inside the oven with the light on, next to the kettle, inside an Eziyo yoghurt maker, inside the microwave with the door ajar to keep the light on or in a cupboard next to your oven.

Why is my sourdough starter forming a skin?

You’ll find that your sourdough starter sometimes develops a crust or skin. It’s totally ok and just means that it’s getting a bit too dry on top. Try using a jar lid (not screwed on) or even a piece of cling film. Just scrape the skin off and feed as per normal. If it happens regularly, you may need to change where you’re storing your starter.

What do I do if my starter goes mouldy?

If your starter develops anything pink or orange or furry, it’s definitely time to ditch it and start again. Make sure that your jar is super clean. If the mould happens a few times, consider using a different flour as sometimes the mould spores come from the flour and not the environment.

Some people believe that you can scrape some of the starter from underneath in order to “save” it, however, if there is mould on the surface or on the rim, the spores will be all the way through your starter. Just ditch it and start again.

troubleshooting sourdough starter - mould is never ok and should always be tossed!
This starter has orange mould on the surface and black furry mould on the rim.

Should I transfer my starter to a clean jar every day?

No – it’s better not to use a clean jar every single day. If your jar is particularly built up around the rim then pop your jar into a new jar when you feed it. So you’d put half the starter into a clean jar and feed as normal.

To keep the jar clean, use a clean silicone spatula to scrape down the edges after a feed.

Can I feed my starter with different flour?

If you run out of the type of flour you started with, it’s ok to feed it with a different flour. If you just feed it once and then go back to the type you started with you shouldn’t have any issues. If you are swapping the type of flour for all subsequent feeds then your starter may go through an adjustment stage as the levels of bacteria and yeast get used to their new food. It will be fine, it just needs time to get used to it’s new food.

Will whole wheat or rye flour make my starter bubble faster?

Yes – but you don’t necessarily have to use them. You can create a strong starter from baker’s or plain (all purpose) flour (unbleached). It may just take longer. Generally whole wheat and rye flour will bubble within a few hours because they have a lot of natural yeast in them. If you think your starter is a little sluggish, you can feed them with whole wheat or rye to get them going, but you can also just wait a few more days for yours to bubble.

A starter made with whole wheat can look very different to one made with white or more processed flour.

Can I cook with my discard straight way?

The short answer is yes you can, however it probably won’t be much good for the first 3-5 days. You’ll find that it’s better once your starter is actually active. You’ll find lots of ideas to use your sourdough discard here.

If I store my discard in the fridge, do I need to feed it?

Short answer, no you don’t (because then it would be an active starter, right?). If you’re storing your discard in the fridge, just remember that it’s unfed so eventually it will go bad if you don’t use it. If you keep it for a while before you use it, you may find that it develops hooch (see above).

Can I add commercial yeast to my starter to make it start bubbling faster?

Short answer – yes. However if you do this, you will not have a true sourdough starter, it’s called a “poolish starter”. It is far more rewarding to be patient and wait for those wild yeast strains to populate your starter. I promise it’s worth it!

If you’re feeling particularly impatient, you could make this sourdough discard bread which uses both starter and commercial yeast.

When will my starter be ready to bake bread with?

There are a few ways you can tell if your starter is ready to bake with. The most popular one is the float test. To perform the float test, feed your starter as per normal. When your starter has doubled or peaked, drop a teaspoon of your starter in a glass of water. If it floats, it’s ready to bake with.

An super active, ready to bake with starter will have some, if not all, of the following qualities:

  • Bubbles breaking on the surface
  • Visible bubbles on the side of the jar that peak 3-4 hrs after feeding.
  • Doubled within a few hours after feeding.
  • Honeycomb bubble network when you tip the jar and let the starter pour out.
  • A slight dome shape on top signalling lots of rise.
How do I know when my starter is ready to bake sourdough with? Troubleshooting sourdough starter.
honeycomb bubble network forming on the side of the jar

One of the best ways to ensure your starter is successful is time. You just have to have a little patience.

In the meantime, come and join our Facebook Group for Sourdough Bakers! It’s loads of fun and you’ll be able to ask loads of questions.

Looking for ways to strengthen your sourdough starter? You’ll find all the best tips here.

Ready to bake your first loaf of sourdough? You’ll find the ultimate beginner’s guide to baking sourdough bread here.

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