Sourdough starter problems can arise at any time when establishing a sourdough starter. Being able to troubleshoot sourdough starter issues is important to ensure you maintain the healthiest starter possible.
Here you'll find a list of the most 21 most frequently asked questions when creating a sourdough starter. I hope it helps you to develop a strong, active and bubbly sourdough starter that will bake you the most amazing bread.
Here are 21 of the most common sourdough starter problems with easy solutions. These questions have come from my Facebook Group of over 65,000 sourdough bakers, as well questions that have been emailed to me over the past few years.
If you're in a rush, you might like to check out some of these quick sourdough FAQ posts that will help you with your sourdough starter:
- How to keep sourdough starter warm?
- Why is my sourdough starter so runny?
- Have I killed my sourdough starter?
- Why is there liquid on top of my starter?
- Is there mold growing on my sourdough starter?
- Do I have to wash my sourdough starter jar?
Sourdough Starter FAQ
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.
In a new starter, your hooch will more than likely be a cloudy type liquid - it may look like the water has separated from your flour, however this is not the case.
You'll find out how to prevent hooch in your starter here.
You can also read about what to do if your sourdough starter is too runny here.
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 increasing your feeding ratio to 1:2:2 to give your starter more food or using some iced water to slow it down a bit.
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.
My sourdough starter smells like old gym socks - why?
In the first few weeks, as the bacteria and yeast colonies are establishing themselves, your starter may smell really, really bad. And I'm not just talking a little whiffy.
You might find it smells anything from old gym socks, to vomit to pretty much anything in between.
This is completely normal in the first few weeks and it will settle down as the good bacteria take hold. Once established, your starter should smell good - a fruity, yeasty smell should prevail.
If your starter is well established and has developed a bad smell, you can feed it a few times to refresh it.
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. Your starter is definitely not dead, it's just new and still becoming established.
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. You'll find more tips for boosting your sourdough starter here.
Also, make sure you're using a quality water source as some types of water can inhibit sourdough starter growth.
Do I have to weigh the ingredients for my sourdough starter?
YES! Weighing is super important - and much more accurate than using cups and spoons. You'll find that your sourdough starter develops much faster if you weigh out your ingredients and feedings in grams. It will help you to avoid some of the most common sourdough starter problems later on.
Do I have to discard every time I feed - I don't want to waste flour?
The short answer is YES, you must discard before each feeding. If you don't, your starter will grow exponentially and won't be getting enough food. It will then start developing hooch.
Did you know that discarding is actually less wasteful than not discarding - you can read more about why here.
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.
You'll find 20 ways to keep your sourdough starter warm here.
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 moldy?
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 mold happens a few times, consider using a different flour as sometimes the mold 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 mold on the surface or on the rim, the spores will be all the way through your starter.
Just ditch it and start again. This is non negotiable!
For a full guide to dealing with mold - how to prevent it and what it can look like - check out my guide to moldy sourdough starters.
Why Is There White Stuff Growing On My Starter?
Sometimes you will find a white film or white clusters that appear to be mold growing on your starter.
As long as they aren't fluffy (mold) they are more than likely to be Kahm Yeast.
Kahm Yeast is not desirable - but it's not dangerous either. It might make your starter taste a bit funky too.
To remedy the problem, take some starter from the middle of the jar (well underneath the Kahm layer) and transfer to a clean jar. Feed this as per normal.
Wash everything thoroughly to get rid of the Kahm yeast.
You'll find more information on Kahm Yeast here.
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 starter into a new jar when you feed it.
So you'd put 50g of starter starter into a clean jar and feed as normal (1:1:1).
But I believe that the old build up around your sourdough starter jar help to boost your sourdough starter microbiome. It gets stronger as it gets older. You'll find an old sourdough starter jar won't go moldy because the crusty build up keeps it safe. Try it!
To keep the jar clean, use a clean silicone spatula to scrape down the edges after a feed. For more tips on cleaner sourdough baking, head here.
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 your starter 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. Don't throw it away. Just keep feeding.
I missed a feed - now what?
While it is important to feed your starter every 12 hours when you're trying to get it going, it's ok if you miss a feed. Life gets in the way sometimes, right?
Don't stress - and definitely don't start again. Just discard like normal - and then feed as you normally would. Your starter will be just fine!
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 bread or 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.
Can I cook with my discard straight way?
The short answer is no - you need to wait until your starter is at least 7 days old. It will smell pretty bad in that first week anyway, so you more than likely won't want to use it!
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).
My starter got baked in the oven - is it dead?
Many people keep their starter in the oven to keep it warm and make it develop faster. This is a great idea - until someone else turns the oven on to preheat it without checking what's inside first.
Baked sourdough starter is probably a more common sourdough starter problem than you think.
If your starter is baked - depending on the severity - you can probably bring it back to life. As long as it wasn't completely baked through, try to resurrect it before you ditch it.
You'll find a guide to resurrecting your oven baked starter here.
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?
An super active, ready to bake with starter will have some, if not all, of the following qualities:
- Is at least 14 days old.
- 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.
One of the best ways to ensure your starter is successful is time. You just have to have a little patience.
You can read a more in depth article about starter readiness here.
My Sourdough Starter Doesn't Float - Now What?
The float test is not the best way to test for sourdough starter bake readiness (you should use the points above).
The test can create false positives and negatives if not done correctly.
You can read all about the float test here.
How Do I Scale My Starter Up or Down?
Many people ask how you can increase (or decrease) the amount of starter in you jar. It's actually really easy to increase or decrease your starter once it's ready to bake with. You can go from just 50g of starter to 250g of starter with a simple calculation.
You can find instructions for scaling your sourdough starter and increasing the amount of starter in your jar here.
There Are Fruit Flies In My Sourdough Starter - HELP!
Having a sourdough starter in your kitchen can attract fruit flies. They may even get into your starter and be flying around in the jar.
Don't stress, it's not all bad and you can resurrect your starter. You'll find all the info on dealing with fruit flies here.
I hope this list of the most common sourdough starter problems helps you to navigate life with your sourdough starter.
If you enjoyed this on sourdough starter problems, you might be interested in these:
- Looking for ways to strengthen your sourdough starter? You'll find all the best tips here.