Frequently Asked Sourdough Starter Questions

First some news about The Perfect Loaf:

I can hardly believe it but my website has been nominated as a finalist in the 7th annual Saveur Blog Awards! I’m a finalist in the “The Food Obsessive” category (yea, I think it fits!) — sites dedicated to a single, focused topic. Thank you so much to everyone who nominated this website, it truly means a lot to me and to be among some of the top blogs out there is an honor.

Update: The Perfect Loaf won both the Readers’ Choice and Editors’ choice award for The Food Obsessive!


Your sourdough starter —  a mixture of yeast and bacteria (the good kind) that co-exist to naturally leaven bread, add complex flavors, aid in digestion and unlock health benefits — it’s no wonder it quickly becomes part of your family1. I’ve been maintaining mine for many years now, but really it’s nothing mystical or magical, it’s a culture I give nourishment (flour + water)  and in return it happily does work for me without even realizing it.

I’ve been compiling this list of frequently asked sourdough starter questions for almost as long as this website has been around. Each time I receive an email or comment asking a question about what I do in a particular situation, I’ve saved it away and have added the most commonly asked questions below. This page is an on-going compilation of the most asked questions and as such it will be updated frequently with new entries as they come in.

If you’ve arrived here before you have a starter of your own, have a read through to internalize some of these answers before you arrive upon the questions when you’re creating your starter. Then head to my guide to creating a sourdough starter to get going.

frequently asked sourdough starter questions

The Beginning (Creating Your Starter)

How do I create a sourdough starter?

I’ve written a detailed post with pictures and clear instructions on how to create a sourdough starter in 7 easy steps.

In your starter guide you say use whole grain rye flour, can I use something else?

I call for whole grain rye flour when creating a starter because the additional nutrients in rye flour really help speed up the process. You can certainly use whole wheat flour or even white (sifted) flour if you’d like, but I find rye flour to be the most effective flour at the beginning. If you don’t have rye flour then whole wheat is better than white (sifted) wheat.

My starter died! It had lots of activity early on but now it seems dead, what happened?

This is normal. Sometimes in the the first few days you’ll see lots of bubbles and activity that will suddenly stop and make it look like something has gone wrong. This initial spurt of activity is usually a different type of bacteria in your culture that will eventually be replaced by the type we are looking for (lactic acid bacteria). Keep feeding (and discarding) your culture as I outline in my creation guide, your culture will slowly become more and more acidic, killing off other bacteria that might be present and allow the beneficial yeast and bacteria we are looking for to take hold.

I’ve been following your starter creation guide but nothing is happening, what’s wrong?

The number one problem I see people face is temperature: it’s easier to create your starter if it’s kept at a warmer temperature. Cold temperatures (around 65ºF or so) will slow fermentation down significantly, whereas warmer temperatures (around 76-82ºF) will speed the whole process up. For more information on starter and dough temperature, see my post on The Importance of Dough Temperature.

Try to find a warm spot in your kitchen to keep your starter or use warmer water to feed it with. Shoot for 76ºF – 80ºF for increased fermentation activity. For more information see the Building Starter Strength section below.

When creating a starter your guide says to “cover the mixture,” should that be airtight?

It doesn’t have to be, no. I loosely place a glass lid on top (as you can see in the pictures on this page) but it’s not sealed shut. You want to cover it mostly to prevent anything from inadvertently falling inside the jar.

When is my starter strong enough and ready to bake with?

Once you see a predictable rise and fall in your starter at about the same time each day, it should be strong enough to bake with. When creating a starter from scratch you might see a spur of activity at the beginning of the process, but you want a consistent rise and fall day after day before it’s strong enough to use for leavening. Typically, when creating a new starter, this is after 5-8 days.


general sourdough starter questions

General Starter Questions

What is the difference between a “starter” and a “levain (leaven)”?

Confusingly, these terms are sometimes used interchangeably by bakers but I’ll define them how I learned them, and how I use them here at my website.

A starter goes by a few names (mother, chef, etc.) but essentially it’s an ongoing culture that’s always fed and never completely used in any given bake. This culture is fed with flour and water at some period (preferably daily) to maintain strength so it’s ready to build a levain, which is totally consumed in a single bake.

By contrast, a levain2 is a small offshoot of your mother starter, an intermediate mixture that eventually “dies” when baked in the oven. Your levain is “built” using a small portion of your starter that is fed with flour and water and left to ferment for a number of hours. Once this levain is ready (has undergone sufficient fermentation) the amount called for in a single recipe is used to mix with the rest of the flour, water and salt for a specific bake.

Do I really have to build a levain or can I use part of my starter?

For small batches of bread at home you can definitely use a small portion of your starter to make bread instead of making a specific levain. However, you will need to use a portion of your starter at the correct time just like when making a levain.

What kind of container should I use for my starter?

You can use just about anything, really. I like to use clear glass containers so I can observe the sides and bottom and these Weck jars are my favorite. They have a glass lid that just rests on top just in case too much pressure builds up inside the jar from fermentation. Canning glass jars are also a really good choice.

How often do you change or clean your starter container?

Use the same jar each day and try to keep it as clean as possible. During a feeding, discard part of your starter per usual and then scrape down as much of the residual starter as you can, reincorporating it back into the mixture. Then wipe the top and sides of the jar with a towel to remove any remaining liquid. If you can get the top half reasonably clean that’s good enough, the bottom half of the jar will most likely be covered when your starter rises during the day anyways.

What kind of water should I use for feedings?

Regular drinking tap water works well. Fill up a large container (I have a 40oz stainless steel water bottle I always keep filled for baking) and let it sit on the counter overnight before using to let any chlorine in your tap water dissipate.

What kind of flour should I use for feedings?

When creating a starter from scratch I like to use whole grain rye flour to get the starter established — the extra nutrients in whole rye flour help speed up the process. After your starter is rising and falling predictably you can change over to any flour combination you’d like over the course of a few feedings.

That said you can certainly use any combination of flour you’d like: whole wheat, white wheat, white whole wheat, rye, spelt, etc. Just note that I find rye to be almost a failsafe flour to get started, that is why I recommend it so wholeheartedly.

I hate throwing away excess starter after feeding, what can I do with the discard?

Cook or bake with it! There are many things you can sneak leftover starter into: banana bread, waffles, pancakes, tea cakes, muffins, pizza, cookies, and so on. My post on my 3 favorite leftover sourdough starter foods is a great place to start!

Aside from using the discard in other foods, I will almost always compost any leftover, only using the trash as a last resort.

Can I refrigerate my starter?

I have successfully refrigerated my starter many times, typically when I’m going to be out of town on vacation for a few weeks or won’t be baking for a while (rare!). To prepare for the fridge I will wait until the starter needs a feeding, discard all but 20g of mature starter and then feed with 100g flour and 80g water (I like the culture to be a bit on the stiff/dry side). After feeding let it sit out on the counter for 1 hour or so then toss it into the fridge. I will usually use the same Weck jars for this and the cover will be loosely placed on top so nothing can fall in, but excess gasses can escape.

When I want to bake again I will remove my starter from the fridge, let it ferment on the counter for a few hours, and then feed it as I would normally. I will do this a few days before I plan to bake to get the culture back up to strength.


sourdough starter strength

Building Starter Strength

My starter doesn’t seem as strong as yours (less bubbles, slow rise, etc.), what’s wrong?

If you’ve only just created your starter give it some time. With consistent, predictable feedings you will “train” your starter into a strong and predicable one that rises and falls at the same time each day. The key is to try and feed your starter with enough food (flour + water) to get to the next feeding without falling and sitting too long at its lowest point where the mixture will become too acidic.

My starter takes a really long time to rise to its peak, what’s happening?

Several factors play into the rise and fall rate of your starter and the most important one is temperature. Try to find a warm spot in your kitchen to keep your starter or use warmer water to feed it with. Shoot for 76ºF – 80ºF ambient temperature for increased fermentation activity.

Flour selection plays into the fermentation activity as well, the more whole grains you use to feed the higher the fermentation rates in your culture. You will see a lot more activity with 100% whole wheat than 100% white sifted flour (like all purpose). Use more whole grains also has other effects like increasing the overall acidity produced by your culture

And of course the amount of mature starter you carryover from feeding-to-feeding plays a big role. The larger the percentage the faster your newly refreshed culture will reach its peak.

All of these variables can be tweaked to speed up, or slow down, the time it takes for your starter to reach its peak height and need a refreshment. If it’s summer time I will usually carryover less mature starter (15% or so) at each feed to slow things down so I can maintain my 2x a day feeding schedule. If it’s winter and temperatures are lower, I’ll carryover more mature starter (25% or so) into my next feeding.


Sourdough starter maintenance

Starter Feeding Schedule

How many feedings per day (2 seems like a lot!)?

This question is very temperature and flour dependent. If the ambient temperature in your kitchen is on the warmer side (75ºF – 80ºF) then you’ll find your starter ferments much faster than if it were cooler (< 75ºF). Likewise, if you’re using a large percentage of whole grains in your feeding you’ll see higher fermentation rates.

I prefer to feed my starter 2 times per day to keep it strong and ready to bake with at any moment. But then again, I bake very, very frequently. If temperatures are not overly high a single feeding per day is what I recommend. If you find your starter rises to a peak, and then falls all the way to the bottom of the jar before you can get to your next feeding try using a smaller percentage of mature starter at each feeding. You can also find a cooler spot in your kitchen or use cooler water to feed with.

For example, in the summer (typically 75ºF – 77ºF in my kitchen) I will feed my starter twice a day but even then I have to reduce my mature starter carryover percentage. Instead of my usual 20%-25% in the winter I drop it down to 15% and find a shaded, cool spot in my kitchen to slow things down.

The key is you want to avoid letting your starter rise to a peak, and then fall all the way to the bottom of the jar, sitting at that bottom level for too long. Acidity will build up significantly at this point and you’ll notice your starter will smell very alcoholic and turn to a soup-like consistency.

For more information on this, including pictures, see my post on maintaining your sourdough starter.

How can I adjust the feeding schedule around my work schedule?

For a very in depth discussion on how to maintain your starter in the fridge during the week and use it to bake on the weekend, head over to my Weekend Baking Schedule guide! Additionally, see the previous question for what “tools” you can utilize to speed up, or slow down, the fermentation rate of your starter.

An example week might look like the following:

Day of Week Action
Monday Starter is in the fridge, dormant
Tuesday Starter is in the fridge, dormant
Wednesday Starter is in the fridge, dormant
Thursday Take starter out of fridge, let ferment for a few hours and feed at night
Friday Feed starter in morning before work. Feed again at night before bed
Saturday Build levain early in morning. Feed starter and let ferment for 1 hour, then place in fridge. Mix final dough in afternoon, bulk in evening. Shape dough and place proofing baskets in fridge overnight
Sunday Bake loaves in morning. Starter is in the fridge, dormant

Another example with baking during the work week:

Day of Week Action
Monday Starter is in the fridge, dormant
Tuesday Take starter out of fridge in evening, let ferment for a few hours and feed at night
Wednesday Feed starter in morning before work. Feed again at night before bed
Thursday Build a 12-hour levain in the morning before work. Feed starter and go to work. When you get home mix dough, bulk, shape and place into fridge for the night. Feed starter and let ferment for 1 hour, then place into fridge.
Friday Bake loaves in morning before work, or leave in fridge to bake when you get home. Starter is in the fridge, dormant
Saturday Starter is in the fridge, dormant
Sunday Starter is in the fridge, dormant

These are just a few examples out of the infinite schedules that can be adapted to working around your work week. Using the tools presented here, and in my post on maintaining your sourdough starter, you can speed up and slow down fermentation to suit any timetable.


liquid sourdough starter

Liquid Starter (~100% hydration)

Can I go above (or below) 100% hydration?

Of course. When it’s extremely dry here, and the flour seems to need a bit more water, I’ll sometimes increase my hydration to 105% or so. You can adjust the amount of water you use at each feeding so the mixture displays the appropriate viscosity you’re looking for, or are used to. As the humidity level in your environment changes, and as the ability for each bag of flour to readily absorb water changes, feel free to adjust the hydration up and down 5% or so to compensate.

After a while I get a clear, thin liquid that smells like alcohol on top, should I throw this out?

You can discard this liquid (or “hooch” as it’s commonly called) or stir it back down into the culture, either way. I typically just stir it all in together.

 stiff sourdough starter

Stiff Starter (~65% hydration)

The “float test” never works with my stiff levain, what gives?

This question relates more to a levain rather than a starter, but I still feel it should be included here.

When the hydration of your starter and levain are sufficiently low, the “float test”3 becomes less accurate, and in most cases just doesn’t ever pass. This is because your mixture is incredibly flour-dense and heavy, and additionally, your mixture has trouble holding on to trapped gasses as effectively as a more liquid mixture.

Instead of using the float test, observe the actual culture and how it’s progressing. You want to see a slightly domed top to the levain with lots and lots of bubbles at the sides (see the picture before this section). If you peel back the top you’ll see, and smell, significant fermentative activity. These are signs that your levain is mature enough to use in your final dough  mix.


 

Is there anything I’ve missed? As always I’d love to hear if you have any questions to add to frequently asked sourdough starter questions list! Feel free to comment down below or shoot me over an email.

Happy baking!




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  1. Mine is aptly named Brutus after the trouble it gave me creating it in the beginning

  2. Levain is the French word for leaven

  3. The float test helps gauge when a levain is ready to use in your final mix. A small amount of levain is scooped out and dropped into a glass of room temperature water and if it floats, it’s ready.