18 Sourdough Starter Problems: Troubleshooting Common Challenges

by leavenly
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If you need help with your sourdough starter, you’ve come to the right place. It is very common for sourdough bakers to run into challenges with their sourdough starters.

I’ve compiled a list of the most common questions I get from sourdough bakers via email, the Sourdough Mamas Facebook group, messages on Instagram, and via comments on my website. This is a growing list that should help you solve any sourdough starter problem you’re having!

Leavenly was launched to help busy moms become Sourdough Mamas. We are all capable of making bakery-quality bread in our own homes for our families, and Leavenly is here to support you in that journey. This post and other resources on Leavenly.com were designed to provide help and support for you to become the best sourdough baker that you can be!


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First of all, what is sourdough starter?

A starter is made of two ingredients: flour and water. If this seems too good to be true, it’s not! What we don’t see are the hidden ingredients that bring the starter to life: millions of wild yeasts and bacteria that digest the flour and turn it into carbon dioxide and lactic acid. You can’t see it, but it’s happening as soon as you add the water to the flour.

There’s a certain beauty in making your very own starter. It’s truly amazing to watch as this glob of flour and water suddenly starts bubbling away, growing and expanding and full of life. When I made my own, I was totally geeking out the entire time!

It’s a fun way to involve your kids in the process, too: have them hand mix your starter a few times, and it will be inoculated with their hand microbes. How cool is that? Plus, if you have a science-minded kiddo, they will love learning about the invisible microbes and watching a starter come to life from nothing.

Troubleshooting

But what happens if you need help with your sourdough starter? What if the activity seems to stall out? What is that liquid on top of your starter? Why does it smell like beer? How do you know if your starter has died?

There are many questions that sourdough bakers ask themselves when troubleshooting common problems, and sometimes bakers even throw their starter away thinking it is dead, when it might have just needed a few more feedings to get going.

Check out the list of common sourdough starter problems below, and let me know if I’ve missed any that you’ve personally dealt with. I’d also love to help you troubleshoot your starter if you’re having problems right now! Just send me an email to heather@leavenly.com and I’d love to help.

If you’re dealing with sourdough bread problems, head on over to Sourdough Bread Problems: Troubleshooting Common Challenges.

Let’s start solving your most common challenges and getting you help with your sourdough starter!


18 Sourdough Starter Problems: Troubleshooting Common Challenges

Table of Contents

  1. Liquid on top
  2. Dead starter vs live starter
  3. Finding a starter
  4. Increasing starter size
  5. What and how to feed
  6. Leaven vs starter
  7. Choosing a jar size for leaven
  8. How to cover starter after feeding
  9. Which water to use for feeding
  10. Float test
  11. Rising has stopped
  12. Missed feeds
  13. Using heated water for feeding
  14. Using room temperature water for feeding
  15. Collecting discard
  16. Starter smells: good vs. bad
  17. Types of flour
  18. Preserving starter long-term
  19. Feeding starter

Liquid on Top:
I made my own starter from scratch. Why does it suddenly have liquid on top 12 hours after feeding?

The liquid that forms on top of the starter is known as hooch, and it generally forms when the starter needs to be fed. This could happen for a number of reasons:

  1. You may not be feeding often enough. At minimum, feed your starter every 24 hours. Some people swear by feeding every 12 hours; see if this works for you. Signs that your starter needs to be fed include a thin, watery appearance, many tiny bubbles on the surface, and the presence of hooch.
  2. If you’re feeding only with all-purpose or bread flour, the nutrients simply run out faster, because most have been processed out. Try doing a 50/50 mix of all-purpose/whole wheat flour, or adding in some rye. These flours have much more nutrition for the microbes to eat.
  3. Your kitchen may be too warm. Higher ambient temperatures speed up fermentation, and your starter will basically run through the food source too fast. Sourdough starters are like us – they like a temperate climate! Try keeping your starter somewhere around 65-75°F if possible, and see if this makes a difference.

If you have liquid on the top of your starter, try to pour most of it out before feeding. That said, some bakers like to stir it back in for added sour flavor, while others find the taste overpowering. Just like most things in sourdough baking, choose what works for your preference!



Dead Starter vs. Live Starter:
I fed my starter, and then it rose to double and then completely deflated – is it dead?

You don’t need help with sourdough starter – that actually sounds like a perfectly healthy sourdough starter! What you’re describing is the rise and fall cycle of an active sourdough starter.

This is precisely how sourdough starters behave after feeding, and each starter will act a little bit differently. It’s important to know your starter and become familiar with its habits. 

Start taking notes on your observations, and soon you’ll notice a trend. Maybe yours doubles in size within six hours and then collapses in another six hours, or maybe four, or maybe eight. Regardless, if your starter doubles in size at any point, it’s healthy and active.

It’s actually very difficult to kill a sourdough starter. Many times when we think it’s dead or dying, all it needs is several back-to-back feedings to get it back on course. Don’t give up on your starter just yet! It just needs a little TLC to get it back to rights.


Finding a Starter:
Where can I get a sourdough starter if I don’t already have one?

I would start by asking your neighbors on Nextdoor. This is a foolproof method that I’ve seen work time and time again. I’ve given out two myself to neighbors who are asking! Many neighbors are willing to help you by giving away their sourdough starter.

If you’re not on NextDoor, try posting on Facebook or reaching out to family and friends who make sourdough.

Another tactic is to buy one. You can try calling a few local bakeries to see if they sell their sourdough starter. King Arthur Flour has a sourdough starter for sale on their website that’s descended from a century-old starter. Etsy has a whole category of starters for sale on their website, and Breadtopia also has one for sale.

Of course, you can always make your own starter. Check out the guide here to make it in six easy steps.


Increasing Starter Size:
I have a very small amount of starter remaining after making my leaven. How do I get the quantity back up?

It’s not necessary to maintain a huge starter. In fact, your starter doesn’t need to be any more than 150g in weight. Some bakers maintain even less starter, to produce less waste. The key is to have enough to make leaven (50g) and some left over (at least 25g).

I like to make my starter 150g because then I can collect discard to make different recipes!

If your starter is seriously tiny, one feed should be enough to bulk it back up. Place 30g of your starter in a new jar, and feed it with 60g water, 30g whole wheat flour and 30g all-purpose flour. This will result in a 150g starter, and that’s a perfect size to maintain.


What and How to Feed:
I just got a starter from a friend. How often should I be feeding it, and what quantity and type of flour should I use?

First, ask your friend what kind of feeding schedule it was on. If they were keeping up with a regular feeding schedule, you can either continue with the daily feedings or put it in your refrigerator if you don’t plan on baking anytime soon. Feed it once a week if you put it in the fridge. 

However, if your friend pulled the starter from the back of the fridge and it hadn’t been tended in a while, it will need some refreshing. Go ahead and feed it daily for about a week, or until you see a predictable rise and fall pattern emerge.

For flour, the type you choose does matter. If you’re feeding only with all-purpose or bread flour, the nutrients simply run out faster, because most have been processed out. Try doing a 50/50 mix of all-purpose/whole wheat flour, or adding in some rye. These flours have much more nutrition for the microbes to eat.

The quantity matters too, because this will affect your starter’s hydration. I maintain my starter at 100% hydration; that is, it’s equal parts water and flour. I feed 30 g of my starter with 60 g water and 60 g flours (a 50/50 mix of all-purpose and whole wheat).

For more help with sourdough starter, check out How to Make Sourdough Bread: Ultimate Beginner’s Guide (2020).


Leaven vs. Starter:
Do I use portions of my starter to make the leaven, or do I have to make a starter from scratch for each loaf?

You will be using portions of your starter to make the leaven. Your starter will be with you for the rest of your life, if you’ll allow it! Once you have a starter, it’s the last starter you’ll ever need. You’ll just take little bits from it to make your leaven, which you use to make your bread. Always make sure that you have some starter left over after making your leaven. 

I recommend maintaining a starter that’s 150g, so when you remove 50g to make leaven, you have lots of starter left over.

Some folks don’t make a leaven before making bread, and instead just feed their starter a lot more than normal. If this is your preference, go for it! Personally, I am so used to having my starter and leaven in different jars, that I’m afraid I would discard the remainder of my starter, thinking it was just the leftover leaven. But if you feel like feeding your starter a larger amount and using that starter to make your dough would be easier for you, go to town! You can skip making a dedicated leaven if that’s your preference. Either way is great.


Choosing a Jar Size for Leaven:
For making the leaven, do you recommend a 16 oz or 32 oz Mason jar?

I personally use a 32 oz mason jar for my leaven because it’s a large quantity that a 16oz jar couldn’t hold. My leaven expands to fill ⅔ of the larger jar!

If you don’t have a 32 oz Mason jar, you can always use a bowl, a large glass, a Pyrex measuring cup, or a Tupperware container. Cover it lightly after feeding.

For more ideas on the best sourdough kitchen tools that will help with sourdough starter, including the best jars for leaven and starter, check out my guide: 12 Sourdough Tools You Need (To Bake Better Bread) in 2020!



How to Cover Starter After Feeding:
Why shouldn’t I screw the lid on my jar after I feed my starter?

I love this question because if you know, you know… and if you don’t know, you soon will!

If you tighten the lid on your starter (or your leaven, for that matter) you’ll have a little pressurized bomb on your hands. The CO₂ created by the microbes in your starter needs to escape somehow, and if it has no way of escaping, it will pressurize the jar until it dents the lid or cracks the glass. 

If you don’t believe that flour and water could possibly do that, try screwing the lid on tight after feeding your starter and putting it in the sink, and see what happens in a few hours! (Not advisable, but a fun experiment nonetheless.)

If you’re using a mason jar, just use the inner lid and place it on top. Do not screw it down. If you’re using another kind of container, simply drape plastic over the top, or if your container has a lid, just place it on lightly without sealing it. This allows gases to escape as fermentation occurs, but keeps the surface of the starter from drying out.


Which Water to Use for Feeding:
I heard that chlorinated water can kill sourdough starter. Is this true?

It depends who you ask, but I say no. I use tap water to feed my starter, and I always have. I’ve built two starters from scratch using municipal water.

As an aside, this is one issue I have with making sourdough: some experienced sourdough bakers overcomplicate things and give advice that intimidates beginner bakers. They advise buying bottled water (some even recommend alkaline water), and it’s just unnecessary. This doesn’t help with sourdough starter problems, it just stresses new bakers out. Unless your tap water is hyperchlorinated for some reason, you shouldn’t have any issue with it. 

And if you do suspect chlorine is an issue, simply fill a bottle or jug with tap water and leave it out overnight to allow the chlorine to dissipate, then go ahead and use that water. Let’s keep this as simple as possible!


Float Test:
I have good doubling, but my starter does not pass the float test. Any advice?

Your starter shouldn’t need to pass the float test, but your leaven will. You can build your leaven with 50 g starter, 100 g water, and 100 g flours (50/50 all-purpose/whole wheat flour) the night before you plan on mixing your dough. This sits on the counter overnight, and when you wake up, you’ll do the float test on the leaven to make sure it’s ready to bake with.

To do a float test, take a cup of lukewarm water and dip a small spoon in the water. Then take a small amount of leaven (about the size of a Hershey’s kiss) and place it on top of the water. If your leaven floats on top of the water, or even semi-floats, it’s ready to bake with. If it sinks completely to the bottom, it has failed the float test.

My leaven has failed the float test before, many times. Sometimes I am too late or my leaven fermented too quickly, and so I can tell that it had already doubled and collapsed, and it fails the float test. When this happens, I give it a couple teaspoons of water and a couple teaspoons of whole wheat flour, stir it all up, and then put it in the oven with the oven light on – this creates some ambient heat that rushes the process. Usually within 30-90 minutes it passes the float test and is ready to bake with!

When your leaven passes the float test, head on over to my Simple Sourdough Recipe to start your own homemade sourdough bread!


Rising has Stopped:
I’m making my own starter from scratch and after 4 days, it’s not rising as well and is runny 8 hours after feeding. Is it dead or should I keep going?

Definitely keep going! Sometimes what happens is the starter becomes inoculated with microbes we don’t actually want. They’re not bad, but they’re not the lactobacillus strains that we really want. These alien microbes will eventually die off, which makes it seem like the starter has died. 

The lactobacilli sometimes take a while to become established, so I always advise to keep on feeding. You can even try feeding twice a day, and you could also try mixing your starter during feeds by hand, which introduces even more microbes. 

It’s extremely rare for a starter to have truly “died”, and you might just be surprised at what happens in a few days if you keep consistently feeding. When in doubt, if you’re in need of help with your sourdough starter, just keep feeding!



Missed Feeds:
What happens if I can’t feed my starter for a day? I’m away this weekend which means I won’t be home.

It’s really okay to miss a day or two of feeds, but I wouldn’t push it past two days – especially if you’re just beginning to grow your starter. Once you’re back and feeding your starter again, you should expect that it might take an extra day or two to get your starter activity back to what it was before you left. 

Of course, if you’re planning on being away any longer than two days, I would just pop it in the fridge while you’re gone – this way you won’t need to worry about it starving! Your starter can go a week in the fridge without feeding.


Using Heated Water for Feeding:
I’m about to feed my starter. Is it okay to heat up the water in the microwave or on the stove to get it warmer?

I wouldn’t advise that, because you risk making the water too warm and that could kill your starter. Generally room temperature to lukewarm water from the tap is perfectly fine. I do adjust my water temperature up and down in the winter and summer, respectively, because my kitchen temperature changes. This helps the sourdough starter maintain a steady level of activty. That said, it’s never hot water, and certainly never heated up in any way other than from the tap.

That said, if you’re using bottled water or filtered water from the fridge, you may need to heat it first. Room temperature water works for many starters, so give that a try first. If needed, you can heat on the stove or in the microwave, but keep it between 75-85°F, and try not to go above 90°F.


Using Room Temperature Water for Feeding:
Is it okay to use room temperature water when making my starter from scratch?

The short answer is yes, it’s perfectly fine to use room temperature water.

The long answer is maybe. It depends on the ambient temperature of your room, above all else. If it’s summer and your kitchen is very warm and/or humid, it’s definitely okay to use room temperature water. If it’s winter, or you have air conditioning in your home, it’s likely cooler and room temperature water may slow the microbial growth in your starter. 

So, my rule of thumb is this: warmer water in the winter, cooler water in the summer. By warmer, I mean around 85-90°F. By cooler, I mean around 65-70°F.


Collecting Discard:
If I plan to save discard, is it okay to add it to discard I already have in the fridge?

Absolutely! I recommend saving your discard for a week in the fridge, and if you’re not able to use it by then, throwing it away and starting over. Saving discard for over a week results in a very sour flavor that is too overpowering for many discard recipes.

I simply scrape my discard into a collection jar in the fridge after I feed my starter, and keep a sticky note on the jar stating when I started collecting it. This helps me remember how long it’s been collecting, and I can easily see how much discard I have to bake with!


Starter Smells: Good vs. Bad
I made a starter from scratch, and all of a sudden I’m noticing a smell that I’m not sure is good or bad. What should I be smelling for?

This is a great question and many sourdough bakers need help with this sourdough starter challenge when making their first starter from scratch. As important as it is to use your sense of sight to watch for the rise and fall of your starter and to look for bubbles, it’s equally important to smell your starter before and after feeding to teach your nose the subtle differences.

When you first make your starter, the smell will be pleasant, like a yeasty bakery smell. Then after a day or two, the smell will resemble something like beer or a nutty smell. A few days after that, it should turn distinctly sour. 

It should never smell rotten or offensive, although sometimes a very strong sour smell can be borderline offensive!

Your starter will always smell more sour before a feed, and sweeter after a feed.



Types of Flour:
I only have all-purpose flour; is that a deal breaker for my starter?

It’s definitely not a deal breaker, but it will take more time to establish a good strong starter than it would if you used a blend or white and wheat flours.

This is because, unlike wheat or rye flours, white flours (all-purpose and bread flours) have been stripped of much of their nutrition so there’s just not much for the microbes to eat! It will take a bit longer for your starter to get nice and strong as a result.

You can go ahead and start with all-purpose flour, but I would recommend trying to find some whole wheat flour or rye flour in the meantime!


Preserving Starter Long-Term:
I’m planning a two-month vacation. Is there another way to store my starter so it doesn’t die while I’m gone?

This is a common sourdough starter problem, as many people do leave for longer periods of time! Some people give it to a friend to babysit, but if you’re going away somewhere longer than a week or two, I recommend drying your starter before you go. This is a very easy way to store your starter for a very very long time, and it’s very simple!

Essentially, you spread your starter as thin as possible on a silicone baking sheet or parchment paper, and let it dry out. Once it’s dried, you crumble it into little pieces and store it in a ziploc bag or a mason jar in a cool dry place, like your pantry. It doesn’t need to be refrigerated, and don’t ever freeze your starter!

When you’re back home and ready to revive it, you simply add water to rehydrate it, then resume feeding it.

The full details on drying and reviving sourdough starter can be found here!


Feeding Starter:
I just got some starter from a friend. What do I do now? What is the process for feeding a starter?

Congrats on finding a starter! Now comes the maintenance part: feeding your starter.

You’ll want to feed it every day if it’s on the counter. Try to do it at the same time each day. Your starter doesn’t care what time of day it is, as long as it’s relatively consistent. For example, I feed mine before bed each night.

To feed your starter, take 30 g of the starter and put it in a new jar. Add 60 g lukewarm water and swirl until the starter is diluted in the water. Then spoon in 30 g all-purpose flour and 30 g whole wheat flour, stirring well to combine.

You can use a small spatula to scrape down the sides of your jar to be able to see the rise more clearly, if you like.

Then place an elastic around the jar at the height of the starter. This will help you visualize how much height it gains during its rise! Place the inner lid of the mason jar lightly on top, and place on the counter.

Whatever is left over after you take the 30 g of starter out to feed is called discard. You can do as the name implies and discard it (garbage or compost), or collect it in a jar in the fridge to make sourdough discard recipes with!

If you won’t be baking much or you don’t want to feed each day, you can store it in the refrigerator. Your starter will still need to be fed about once a week, following the instructions above. After you feed, leave it on the counter for 2-12 hours before putting back in the fridge – this will give the microbes a chance to digest all the flour you gave them.

When you put your starter in the fridge, place a lid lightly on top. DO NOT SEAL. The starter will be releasing gases for some time and they need a way to escape the jar. Otherwise it may explode in your fridge!


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