Sourdough Troubleshooting FAQ

 

I misplaced my instructions. Where can I find another copy?

Click here to download a copy of our sourdough starter instructions.

Which flour should I use to activate my sourdough starter? 

To initially activate your sourdough starter, we recommend using the type of flour to which the starter is accustomed. For white-flour sourdough starters (the packet will list "white wheat flour" as an ingredient), use regular white flour. Unbleached flour is fine. For whole wheat starters, rye starters, kamut starters, spelt starters, and brown rice starters, use the specific type of flour the starter has been grown in. Once your sourdough starter is fully activated (bubbling and rising reliably), if you wish to switch to a new type of flour you may do so. Click here to view the instructions for switching your sourdough starter to a new type of flour.

What type of water should I use to care for my sourdough starter? Is tap water okay?

While we recommend using water that is free of contaminants and additives (such as chlorine), sourdough is fairly resilient and can generally handle tap water provided it is of a quality which you consider safe to drink.

Am I supposed to weigh the starter, flour, and water to determine the amounts to feed the starter or can I just use measuring cups? What if I don't have a scale?

The best way to determine feeding amounts is to weigh the ingredients and use equal amounts of starter, flour, and water (by weight). Weighing flour in particular is superior to using a measuring cup because the density of flour varies significantly between both types of flour as well as how settled the flour is in the container. If you will be working with sourdough often, it is worth purchasing a small kitchen scale (the digital type is easiest to work with) as you'll generally have better results. However, if weighing ingredients isn't an option, you feed the sourdough starter using one part starter, one part water, and a little less than two parts flour. For example, if you have 1/2 cup of starter, you would feed it with 1/2 cup of water and a little less than 1 cup of flour.

Do I need to keep my sourdough away from my yogurt, kefir, kombucha, etc.?

Yes, it is important to keep at least several feet (and preferably more) between all cultured or fermented foods when they are actively fermenting (on the counter, lids off). If your cultures are capped and being stored in the refrigerator, space between them isn't necessary. Also, keep in mind that commercial yeast can contaminate a sourdough starter so keep rising bread dough made with commercial yeast at least a few feet (and preferably more) from your sourdough starter.

I activated my packet of sourdough starter two days ago and have been feeding it regularly. How long before it gets bubbly?

At room temperature (68°F), a newly activated packet of sourdough starter will usually take 3 to 5 days to become bubbly. Generally speaking, cooler temperatures will slow the process down and warmer temperatures will speed the process up. It also speeds the process a bit to have a more frequent feeding schedule such as every 8 hours versus every 12 hours. Occasionally it can take up to 7 days for the sourdough starter to fully activate (assuming a room temperature of at least 65°F and regular 12-hour feedings). Please be patient during this process. Click here to view a video on activating a sourdough starter.

I just started working with the packet of sourdough starter. How many times will I need to feed it before I can put it in the refrigerator?

It is important to continue feeding the starter until it's reliably bubbly a few hours after feeding. Getting to that point generally takes 3 to 7 days of feeding the starter every 8 to 12 hours (every 2 to 4 hours for brown rice sourdough starter). Once the culture bubbles and rises reliably within a few hours of feeding, it can be used for baking or transferred to the refrigerator for storage.

Does room temperature matter when working with sourdough starter?

Sourdough starter will generally proof at temperatures between 65° and 85°F, but will proof best when kept between 70° and 85°F.

How often should I feed my sourdough starter?

If your sourdough starter is kept in the refrigerator, you will need to feed it weekly or whenever you take it out to work with it (whichever is more frequent). An exception is the brown rice sourdough starter which must be fed every few days. If necessary, sourdough starters can generally be kept in the refrigerator without feeding for up to a few weeks if required (this does not apply to brown rice flour sourdough starter which must be fed frequently) but we do not recommend skipping weekly feedings unless absolutely necessary.

When your sourdough starter is out of the refrigerator, it must be fed every 4 to 12 hours depending on the specific starter and the conditions in your home (room temperature, etc.).

My sourdough starter has been in the refrigerator. How many times should I feed it before baking with it?

We generally recommend a minimum of three feedings 8 to 12 hours apart (2 to 4 hours apart for brown rice sourdough) prior to baking with the starter to ensure the yeasts come out of hibernation and are fully active.

My sourdough starter has dark liquid on top. Is that normal?

Yes, the dark liquid is a form of naturally occurring alcohol known as hooch. It is harmless but does need to be poured off and discarded prior to stirring and feeding your starter. Hooch is generally a sign that your sourdough starter has run out of food to eat and needs to be fed immediately. If hooch is forming on your starter regularly, start feeding the starter more often as it's not healthy for the sourdough starter to run out of food on a regular basis.

I've been feeding my starter but now I have a gallon of sourdough starter. What can I do with it? How do I feed my starter without making too much?

Because feeding sourdough requires equal parts (by weight) of starter, flour, and water, it's easy to end up with a lot of sourdough very quickly. There are a couple of options:

  • Discard some of the sourdough starter before feeding. You can actually maintain a sourdough starter using as little as a tablespoon of starter and equal amounts (by weight) of flour and water. Most people however will simply discard all but 1/4 to 1/2 cup of sourdough starter and then feed that amount to avoid ending up with too much sourdough starter. (This method allows you to keep the starter in a quart-size jar.) Once you start working with your sourdough starter regularly, you can plan out how much starter you need to bake with and then work backwards to determine how much starter you'll need for the first feeding, second feeding, and so forth.
  • Use the extra starter to make sourdough pancakes. Click here for an easy recipe to use extra sourdough starter to make pancakes.

Are there any tips for getting sourdough bread to rise well?

There are generally three factors that contribute to a good sourdough proofing session: active yeast, adequate kneading, and time.

  • Be sure your starter is fully active before baking. If your sourdough starter has been stored in the fridge, it has been living in a dormant state. Plan to feed the culture three times 8 to 12 hours apart (2 to 4 hours for brown rice starter) prior to baking. 
  • Knead your dough well to activate the gluten. It is very important to allow the gluten to fully develop so thorough kneading is a critical step. If you are kneading by hand, plan for a minimum of 20 minutes. (You can take breaks though, such as kneading for 5 to 10 minutes at a time.) If you are using a mixer to knead, check the dough often to ensure it's not overheating (which can damage the yeast) and stop the process once the gluten is well developed. While there isn't any danger of over-kneading when kneading by hand, mixers can abuse the dough if not watched. Regardless of your kneading method, to determine if the gluten is adequately developed, perform the "window pane test." Take a piece of dough and stretch it between your fingers. If the gluten is well developed, the dough should stretch thin, so you can see light through it, without the dough breaking. If it breaks before it can be stretched thin, keep kneading.
  • Plan for a long proofing (rise) period. Because it contains a natural yeast, sourdough tends to take significantly longer to rise than bread made with commercial yeast. Each starter is a bit different (and to a certain extent it will depend on conditions in your home such as room temperature) so until you have determined the best rise period for your particular starter, plan for a 4 to 12 hour rise period. (If you are hoping for more sour bread, plan for 12 to 24 hours.)

Can I use a bread machine to make sourdough bread?

It’s fairly uncommon to use a bread making machine to make traditional sourdough bread because most bread machines have too short a rise cycle. The machines are meant to accommodate commercial yeast which rises much faster than sourdough. Commercial yeast bread will normally rise in 1 to 2 hours whereas sourdough generally takes 3 to 12 hours to rise depending on the specific culture. If your machine allows you to adjust the rise cycle timing though, it can work. 

How can I make my sourdough bread more sour?

To a certain extent, making very sour sourdough bread is a bit of an art form and requires some practice but there are a few things you can do to help the process along. First, either keep your sourdough starter on the counter, instead of the refrigerator, or allow for more feeding cycles between removing the starter from the fridge and baking with it. Second, allow for a long proofing period. A rise of 12 to 24 hours will generally allow the dough to ferment further and yield a more sour sourdough.

How can I make my sourdough starter less sour?

Sourdough doesn't have to be sour! A few tips for keeping your sourdough baked goods from tasting sour:

  • Don't skip feedings. Sourdough that isn't fed regularly will become too acidic and often taste more sour, but not in a good way!
  • Use a shorter proofing period. Allow the dough to rise only as long as it needs to (generally 4 to 12 hours). Longer rise (proofing) periods, such as 12 to 24 hours, encourage the dough to ferment which will yield a more sour flavor.

Can I use my sourdough starter to bake anything besides bread?

Absolutely! Sourdough starter is incredibly versatile and can be used to bake cookies, cakes, muffins, flat breads, English-style muffins and much more.   

I would like to start feeding my sourdough starter with a new type of flour. How to I switch it over to the new type of flour?

Once your starter is established (the packet has been activated and the starter is bubbling reliably within a few hours of being fed), you can switch to feeding the starter with a different type of flour (e.g.,  start feeding a white flour starter with whole wheat flour, etc.). Click here for instructions on how to switch the type of flour used for feeding the sourdough starter.

My sourdough starter smells like alcohol. Is there a way to fix it?

When sourdough starter isn't fed often enough or feedings are skipped, it is common for an alcohol odor to develop. When a sourdough starter runs out of food, it will begin consuming discarded yeast as well as its own waste, leading to the odor. The best way to prevent this from happening is to feed the sourdough starter more often. How often a sourdough starter is fed is a function of the nature of the particular variety of starter, how active the starter is and room temperature, so it may take some adjustment and experimentation to find the best feeding schedule for your situation. Most sourdough starters do best being fed every 8 to 12 hours when not stored in the refrigerator. Some varieties such as brown rice sourdough starter may need to be fed more often (closer to every 4 hours).

To correct an existing alcohol odor problem, you can sweeten your starter by taking 8 ounces (1 cup) of your sourdough starter and mix it with 4 ounces (1/2 cup) of flour and 4 ounces (1/2 cup) of water. Stir thoroughly, then let the starter sit at room temperature until it's nice and bubbly before returning it to the refrigerator. This method is also useful for correcting an overly sour starter. If this method is not successful, contact us for further instructions.

My sourdough starter has grown mold on top or on the sides of the jar. What should I do?

While mold is fairly uncommon when working with a sourdough starter, it does occasionally happen and is generally caused by either contamination (soap or food residue are the most common) or weakened yeast (skipped feedings, improper ratios, etc.).

Once your sourdough (or the jar) has developed mold, you have a couple of options. You can either try to save the starter or discard the starter and start over. If you decide to save the starter, please use caution and good judgment as mold may just be infecting the surface of the starter or it may have penetrated the starter. 

To try and save the starter, remove the molded portion. With a different (clean) utensil, remove a portion of the sourdough that wasn't near the molded portion. You only need about a tablespoon of starter. Put the small amount of clean starter in a new container (be sure there's no soap or food residue), add equal parts flour and water by weight, or one part starter, one part water, and a little less than two parts flour if using measuring cups, mix, cover with a towel or loose lid and allow to proof. Once proofed (bubbly, rising) or within 12 hours, feed the starter again using the same ratios. Continue feeding the starter over several days watching carefully for any signs of mold. If no mold appears and if the starter looks, smells, and tastes okay, proceed to using it for baking or place it in the refrigerator.

I love working with my sourdough starter but I'm worried one of these days I'm going to mess up and kill it. Is there a way for me to save some as a back-up in case this happens?

Sometimes bad things happen and keeping a backup culture is a good idea. To make a backup sourdough starter, simply spread a small amount of starter on a piece of unbleached parchment paper and allow it to dry in a safe warm spot (up to 85°F) for 3 to 7 days until no moisture remains. Once it's completely dry, place the starter in a zipper-style bag and store in a cool dry spot or the refrigerator. Dried starter will generally keep for at least a few months and often much longer. To reactivate the dried starter, follow the instructions that came with your packet or click here to view our sourdough starter instructions.

I'd like to take a break from making sourdough. How can I put my sourdough starter on hold without damaging it?

Most sourdough starters will survive up to several weeks in the refrigerator without feeding. (See below for special instructions for brown rice sourdough starter.) We do recommend avoiding this option unless it's absolutely necessary. To store your starter in the refrigerator  for more than a week, be sure the starter is freshly fed and place it (with a lid) in the back of the fridge where it tends to be colder. 

If you wish to put your sourdough on hold for longer than 30 days, we recommend drying the culture. Simply spread a portion of sourdough on a piece of unbleached parchment paper and allow to dry in a warm room (up to 85°F) for 3 to 7 days until no moisture remains. Once the sourdough is dry, place the culture in a zipper-style bag and store in a cool dry place or the refrigerator. Dried sourdough starter will generally keep for at least a few months and often much longer. To rehydrate your culture, just follow the instructions that came with your packet or click here to view our sourdough starter instructions.

Please note: Brown rice sourdough starter must be fed every few days and the starter will not survive long term in the refrigerator without feeding. If it becomes necessary to put the starter on hold for more than a few days, use the instructions for drying the sourdough starter.

 

     
       
Basic Sourdough Bread


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