From neglected starter, a wonderful loaf of bread: Forget and forgive

Remember last September, when you and I got hooked on sourdough and made sourdough bread, and sourdough waffles, and sourdough chocolate cake?

Have you become a regular sourdough baker since then? Or, like me, did you stash your starter in the back of the fridge and just… forget about it?

I didn’t totally neglect my starter. I did, in fact, feed it—once, in the past 6 months. So when I decided to make sourdough bread again recently, I feared what might greet me when I pried the lid off my sourdough crock and looked inside.

In fact, my imagination was worse than the reality. While covered with a fairly deep layer of dark liquid, the aroma that met my hesitant nose was clean, fresh, and sharp: a head-clearing whiff of alcohol and vinegar, not at all musty or “off.”

I breathed a sigh of relief and, feeling like a neglectful mother, drained off most of the liquid, and fed my starter. It took awhile, but it bounced back just fine. Witness the loaves of bread pictured above.

Would this extra-old sourdough make extra-sour bread? No, not on its own. But for those of you who crave a REALLY sour sourdough bread, read on. We’ve got a secret ingredient that’ll make your lips pucker and your ears ache.

Read our recipe for Extra-Tangy Sourdough Bread as you follow along with these pictures.

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Many of you write that you’re unable to make your sourdough bread sour enough. Sourdough purists will scoff at this, but… for those of you who like a more sour sourdough loaf, adding 1/4 teaspoon or so of this “sour salt”—citric acid—to your dough will definitely up the pucker quotient.

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So, I hadn’t used my sourdough starter for awhile… A good long while, I guess. I retrieved it from the back of the fridge, and this is what it looked like when I took off the lid. Not a pretty picture. But ickiness (as well as beauty) is only skin deep. I knew this sourdough was just fine. The key? It smelled fresh and clean: sharp, acidic, vinegar-y, but not moldy or “off.”

If this liquid had been pink, or had a pink tinge, I would have ditched the whole thing. A pink tint, and a bad smell, signal that sourdough should be discarded.

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I poured off much of the liquid (alcohol and acetic acid). I could have stirred it in, but wanted to end up with a less-liquid starter.

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Next, I stirred it the remaining liquid. Then I removed and discarded 1 cup of the resulting thick starter.

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Next, the remaining starter gets a meal of 1 cup flour and 1/2 cup warm water.

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Stir everything together.

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Make sure to scrape down the sides of the container as you stir.

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Seven hours later, my neglected starter is beginning to come to life again. So I measure out 1 cup…

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…and put it into a bowl with 1 1/2 cups of water and 3 cups of flour, stirring to make a wet dough.

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Four hours later, the dough is just starting to bubble. Now it’s time to put it in the refrigerator. Why? Because at cool temperatures, yeast produces acetic acid rather than lactic acid. Acetic is more sour than lactic; so a rest in the fridge will increase the sourness of your sourdough bread.

Eleven hours later, I took the batter-like dough out of the fridge, added 2 cups of flour, a touch of sugar and salt, and some citric acid, just to see what difference it would make in the flavor.

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Here’s the nicely kneaded dough.

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And here it is 5 hours later. It’s not a voluptuous riser; remember, there’s no added yeast in this bread, just what’s in the starter. But the dough will definitely spread out.

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Look how nicely the gluten has developed—see those webby strands? That’s gluten.

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Divide the dough in half, shaping each half into an oval log on a piece of parchment. The dough is pretty sticky; I didn’t spend a lot of time trying to get  perfectly shaped loaf, as you can see!

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Cover the rising loaves. Be imaginative; here I’m using a big roasting pan.

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Notice I’ve already put the parchment with its bread on a peel; this’ll make the risen loaves easier to move from the counter to my hot pizza stone.

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Here’s the bread, nicely risen. Actually, more like spread than risen…  but don’t be discouraged. These loaves will pick right up when you stick them in the oven.

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First, spray with water. This will help them rise their highest, and yield a pretty crust.

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Next, trim off any excess parchment. This simply makes it easier to position the loaves, side by side, on the stone.

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Cut several slashes atop each loaf. I like to use a serrated knife as I can never seem to find a really sharp chef’s knife in the test kitchen. But if you have a really sharp knife (or a baker’s lame), use that.

Be decisive, firm, and quick when you slash the bread. Like, slash slash slash! Hold your knife at a 45° angle to the bread; don’t fool around trying to inch your way through it.

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Oh, no! The bread is starting to deflate. Quick, get it into the oven!

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Within a minute of hitting that hot oven stone, you’ll see your sagging bread perk right up. If you’re not using a stone, never fear; it’ll still pick up.

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HA! Now that’s a nicely risen loaf of bread.

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When their interior temperature registers 190°F, take them out of the oven. It was getting pretty late in the day when I finished these, as you can see by the slanting sun. I started at 7 a.m. on a Thursday, and finished about 5 p.m. on Friday.

Here’s a sample schedule for you working folks to follow, to make bread on a weekend:

Friday
7 a.m. Feed starter.
6 p.m. Combine starter with 1 1/2 cups water and 3 cups flour.
10 p.m. Refrigerate.

Saturday
9 a.m. Add 2 cups flour, sugar, and salt.
2 p.m. Shape loaves.
6 p.m. Bake
6:30 p.m. Enjoy!

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Now is that some good looking bread, or what? Tasty, too. I can report that the citric acid does indeed increase the sourness of the bread.

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I know there are those out there who’ll make this bread and ask me, “How can I make this even more sour?” So I decided to push the limits of citric acid to see how much I could add before the bread started to fall apart. A too-acidic dough affects both the bread’s structure (the gluten is weakened), and its color (it won’t brown well). The loaf on the left, above, has a total of 1/2 teaspoon citric acid in the full recipe; the one on the right, 1 teaspoon. Notice how the loaf on the right shows signs of shredding as it rises.

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And here they are baked. The one on the left, pretty good; not as brown as the version without any citric acid, or with just 1/4 teaspoon; but acceptable. The one on the right? Uh-oh…

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Looks kinda like the surface of the moon: pale and craggy. Not acceptable.

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The crust of both was shattery-crunchy; not shattery in shards like baguettes, but more like thin ice: shattery with some serious body. Notice the interior texture: still good.

So go ahead and add up to maybe 3/4 teaspoon citric acid to this recipe; but understand your bread will be VERY sour, and will lose some of its good looks.

Read, rate, and review (please!) our recipe for Extra-Tangy Sourdough Bread.

New to sourdough? Find the help you need for all of your sourdough baking at our Sourdough Essentials page.

PJ Hamel
About

PJ Hamel grew up in New England, graduated from Brown University, and was a Maine journalist before joining King Arthur Flour in 1990. PJ bakes and writes from her home on Cape Cod, where she enjoys beach-walking, her husband, two dogs, and really good food!

comments

  1. Frauke Facchini

    PJ, First of all, thank you so much for your very interesting and helpful baking “experiments”! This blog is great in that it pictures the stages of the sourdough starter, a picture is worth a thousand words! Having baked lots of sourdough bread, some wonderful, some not so successful (think “brick-like” rye and whole grain), I consistently have a problem with slashing the dough before baking, either with a lame or razor blade. It seems to pull and pucker the dough at the slash. What am I doing wrong? Please help! Frauke

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Scoring isn’t easy, Frauke, so we’re happy to offer some tips! Our blog Scoring Bread Dough will be a good one to check out, but a few quick tips will get you started. If using a razor, be sure to just use one corner, otherwise, it will drag. Dusting the top of your loaf with flour before scoring makes it easier. If using a knife, make sure it’s super duper sharp. Check out that blog for helpful visuals and additional tips. Annabelle@KAF

  2. Brenda

    I pulled my neglected starter out of the fridge and stirred in the hooch before reading your instructions. I have just fed a small amount of it. Having done this, is it beyond hope? Thanks for your help.

    Reply
  3. Oma

    Got my starter from my son in law in AK. Forgot totally about it and found it in the back of the fridge(!) today and would like to save it. Found your post and am going to give it a try today but what did this mean “Next, I stirred it the remaining liquid. Then I removed and discarded 1 cup of the resulting thick starter.” what remaining liquid from what? THANKS in advance !

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Hi Oma! Your starter may not have that liquid, but many form “hooch,” a layer of alcoholic liquid on the top of their starter after it’s been hungry for a while. If you don’t have that liquid on top you can just stir it and then remove and discard a cup. Annabelle@KAF

    2. Oma

      OK! I dumped out the hooch and added 1 scant c. flour and 1/2 c warm water. It’s almost 3/4 of a qt. now in my oven with the light on- only 7 hours later! SO I take out a cup and add the 1.5 c water and 3 c. flour, let sit 4 H then refrigerate. ( IS THE LEFTOVER my starter now? and I feed it weekly? Tomorrow morning I’m going to add 2 more c flour and what’s a “touch of sugar and salt”??? back into the fridge for 5 hours and then make love- let rise and spray with water etc.? what temp is the oven and you heat the stone with the oven preheat?

    3. Oma

      Ok so I hadn’t heard from you so winging it. The ? now is when I added 3C flour and 1.5 c water to the cup of starter it looked like bread loaves already- not the sloppy wet things you had??? how could it be so wet with 3 c. flour in it? ANYWAY- now I’m at the add 2 c flour and I shook on salt and added? sugar and am letting them rise an will try spraying/slashing and baking at supper time. I”m putting the “starter” I’m assuming back in the fridge and keeping my fingers crossed for about a week.

    4. The Baker's Hotline

      Hi there, Oma! I think there has been a bit of confusion here. You always want to make sure you’ve set aside a 1/2 cup of sourdough starter before starting your recipe so that you have some remaining starter to feed and continue maintaining. Our Sourdough Baking Guide is a great resource, it has recipes for bread as well as steps for our recommended feeding process. We hope this provides some clarification. If you’d like to chat further our friendly Baker’s Hotline folks are happy to help, you can reach them at 855-371-BAKE (2253). Happy baking! Morgan@KAF

  4. Katy Balagopal

    I’m curious about spraying the loaves v steaming by pouring boiling water into a pre-heated cast iron skillet as in some of your other recipes. Is one method better than the other?

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Hi Katy! We tend to go with the cast iron skillet method because it allows the steam to continue billowing throughout the oven for several minutes. A layer of sprayed water on bread will evaporate almost instantly and won’t leave as much steam in the oven. Its effect won’t be as dramatic as it is with the cast iron skillet method. Annabelle@KAF

  5. Lucas C Shaffer

    I got a question on what water should I use? I always have issues with my dough not rising or being overly sticky. I will follow step by step guides and do everything perfect, but without the result. My last bread turned out great, but man it was a pain.

    So do I use tap, distilled, hot, cold, medium?

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Hi Lucas, if your dough isn’t rising at all, it’s likely that there are other factors contributing to the problem that just the water alone. We use tap water when baking yeast dough in the test kitchen, but if you’re worried about your water source, you’re welcome to try using distilled bottled water. As for the temperature, we tend to use water that’s room temperature (about 78*F) unless the recipe specifically calls for using warmer or cooler water. The cooler the water, the slower the dough will rise. Sometimes this is advantageous if you’re looking for a long rise (sometimes even overnight) with a small amount of yeast. Some bakers prefer this approach because of the complex flavor it produces. On the other hand, if you’re looking to kick your dough into action, using warmer (around 110*F) water will speed things up a bit. Happy baking! Kye@KAF

    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Hi Nora, the baking time and temperature should be listed in the specific sourdough bread recipe you’re using. If it only calls for a baking stone, you can still use the same baking temperature and know that you may need to extend the baking time just slightly since the loaves sans stone won’t bake as fast. Our recipe for Extra-Tangy Sourdough Bread calls for baking at 425°F for 25 to 30 minutes without a stone. Most loaves of sourdough need to be baked until they reach about 195°F to 200°F. Happy baking! Kye@KAF

    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Hi there, Pooi-Leng, this recipe uses 8 1/2 ounces (1 cup) of fed and active starter, but only a portion of that is leftover from the original, neglected starter. The exact amount of seed started that ends up in the cup added to the recipe will depend on how many successive feedings are needed to bring it back to life. Mollie@KAF

  6. Diane

    I left my starter of wild yeast on the counter for five days while on vacation. I can back and it looks brown and smells a little funny. I’ve fed it since twice but I’m not sure if it’s ok to still use it or if it’s gone bad. I can’t tell if it’s gone bad or if it is forgiving and can be salvageable.

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Hi Diane, next time we’d recommend keeping your starter in the fridge while you’re away for more than a day or two. It will help keep your starter viable. The health of your starter isn’t clear; you’ll want to discard all but 1/2 cup (4 ounces) and then feed it regularly at 12 hour intervals for a few days. If you don’t see it rise and fall and regain activity within a day or two, you may want to start over. You’ll also want to look out for any spots of discoloration; in that case, you’d want to toss it all and start fresh. Kye@KAF

  7. Lori

    HELP! Sourdough hates me! I have a great starter, it activates well. I followed the recipe exactly but my dough was wet so I added flour until I thought it looked the same as yours. In the final rise it spread out all over the place! I had to scrape it off the parchment into bread pans for another rise. I’m hoping this will still rise.
    So I started another while I wait for it to rise ( I had a lot of starter). Now it looks too dry at the 3 c flour stage. Wish me luck this time. I know I am at higher altitude so it should take less flour and raise a bit quicker. It does raise quicker but appears I need the same amount of flour. Well I’ll keep trying. Any suggestions?

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Hi Lori, it sounds like you might be using a flour with a lower protein content than the one used to design this recipe, which often happens if you use another brand that’s not King Arthur Flour. If you’re not already doing so, try using King Arthur All-Purpose Flour to see that helps. A few other things that might help is making sure your starter is 100% hydration, meaning it’s made up of equal parts flour and water. If it contains more water than this, you might need to hold back some of the water and add even more flour. Lastly, check out our High-Altitude Baking Guide. For your elevation, you’ll likely need to add at least 1/4 cup of additional flour, and watch the dough closely as it rises as it may be ready to shape quicker than expected. Good luck! Kye@KAF

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