Sourdough baking tips: solving your most common challenges

Sourdough baking can be exciting, challenging, mysterious, frustrating, delicious, and rewarding – all of the above, and often all at once.

If you’ve ever gone down the sourdough path – making your own starter, lovingly tending it, testing ways to make it more vigorous, wondering if it’s healthy – you understand the many paths (and pitfalls) you encounter on the way to great sourdough bread (or cake, or pretzels, or biscuits).

There’s nothing like sourdough baking for raising questions. The following sourdough baking tips address some of the most common questions we hear from you, our readers. And once you’re done here, head on over to our complete guide to baking with sourdough, for a bit of history, baking science, and some of our favorite sourdough recipes.

Sourdough baking tips via @kingarthurflour

1. I haven’t fed my starter in awhile. Did I kill it?

It’s actually fairly difficult to kill your starter. Unlike a hothouse orchid, sourdough starter is pretty hardy.

If it’s been awhile since you’ve fed your starter, you may find it covered in dark liquid, with mosaic-like, lumpy dough underneath. The dark liquid is alcohol; just stir it back into the firmer dough underneath.

Feed your starter the way you usually would. If it doesn’t respond well, feed it again; and again, feeding it every 12 hours until it becomes bubbly and happy.

Very occasionally, starter will attract some “bad” bacteria. It may acquire an unpleasant odor (not its usual sharp acidity, but something “off”), and may have a pinkish liquid on top. If this happens, discard your starter and begin over: our sourdough starter recipe will get you going again. Or jump-start the process with an order of our fresh sourdough starter, carefully grown and tended here in Vermont.

Sourdough baking tips via @kingarthurflour

2. What should I do with the liquid on top?

Even starter that’s fed regularly will often exude a clear or amber-colored liquid. Again, this is alcohol; simply stir it back in, then proceed with your regular feeding process.

Sourdough baking tips via @kingarthurflour

3. How do I increase the size of my starter?

“I want to bake four loaves of bread; can I make more starter?”

Sure. If your starter generally yields enough for one loaf of bread after feeding, and you want to make two loaves, simply feed it with double the amounts of flour and water.

For instance, if you usually feed your starter with 4 ounces each water and flour, feed instead with 8 ounces each water and flour to increase its volume.

Sourdough baking tips via @kingarthurflour

To grow it even more, simply feed with greater amounts of flour and water. It may take your starter longer to become vigorous, since there’s less living starter to “inoculate” the newly added flour and water. But give it time; eventually it should become bubbly. Once it doubles in volume within 8 hours, it’s ready to use.

Sourdough baking tips via @kingarthurflour

4. When I feed my starter, I hate to just throw some of it away. What can I make with it?

Oh, boy, lots of good stuff. Like this Sourdough Carrot Cake.

Or pizza, English muffins, pretzels, crackers, biscuits… see the 20+ recipes on our site using the starter you’d otherwise discard during the feeding process. And don’t miss our blog post, Excess Sourdough: Five Tasty Ways to Use It Up.

Oh, and if you’re a gardener/composter – your “discard” sourdough starter is a great compost accelerant! Go ahead and stir it into your outdoor bucket or bin.

Sourdough baking tips via @kingarthurflour

5. What should sourdough bread dough look like?

Properly prepared sourdough bread dough should look much the same as any other successful bread dough: smooth, satiny, elastic. It should cling a bit to the sides of the mixing bowl, but shouldn’t be unmanageably sticky.

You may notice the surface of your sourdough dough isn’t quite as smooth as standard dough; it may look a bit rough or “shredded,” which simply reflects the fact that the acidity of the dough makes the gluten slightly more fragile, and a tiny bit less elastic. This is fine; carry on.

Sourdough baking tips via @kingarthurflour

6. Is all sourdough bread crusty?

Not at all! In fact, the most popular sourdough recipe on our recipe site is one for these Buttery Sourdough Buns, which are soft and tender: typical dinner roll texture. You can make chewy/soft sourdough pizza crust and pretzels and bread sticks… the degree of your bread’s crustiness has more to do with its other ingredients than its starter.

Generally speaking, the more fat in your recipe, the softer your bread will be. The crustiest sourdough breads are simply starter, flour, water, and salt; including milk and butter (or oil) and a bit of sugar will make softer breads.

Sourdough baking tips via @kingarthurflour

7. How can I make my bread more sour?

Ah, the $64,000 question! The more sour your starter the tangier your bread, right?

Not necessarily. The degree of sourness in sourdough bread has more to do with how the dough is prepared than how sour the starter is.

To increase your bread’s sour flavor, try shaping the loaf, then refrigerating it overnight. The yeast in dough fermented in a cold environment will create acetic acid (think vinegar), rather than lactic acid (think sour cream); so its sour flavor will be more pronounced.

The loaf will rise slowly in the fridge. Next day, let it come to room temperature, then bake as normal. For stronger sour flavor, try keeping the dough in the fridge longer before baking – for several days, or maybe a week. At some point you’ll come to a point of diminishing returns – the yeast will start to die, and your bread won’t rise well – but it’s worth experimenting with chilling duration to find your own personal “sweet sour spot.”

Sourdough baking tips via @kingarthurflour

8. Can I use my sourdough starter in recipes that don’t call for it?

Yes, within reason. Would you want to use sourdough starter in angel food cake? Of course not. But in popovers (above)? Sure, give it a try.

Here’s the rule of thumb: sourdough starter is equal parts (by weight) flour and liquid. Say you want to use 1 cup (8 ounces) sourdough starter in your favorite sandwich bread recipe. If your recipe calls for 3 cups flour (approx. 12 ounces) and 1 cup water (8 ounces), reduce the flour in the recipe to 2 cups (8 ounces), and the water to 1/2 cup (4 ounces).

This works pretty seamlessly for any recipe including both flour, and water or milk. Don’t substitute sourdough starter for eggs or oil or butter or honey or other liquids; it will change your recipe’s character.

Does the starter need to be fed before using it? Not necessarily. If you’re using it in a yeast bread recipe, it’s good to feed it first (to help with the loaf’s rise). Bonus for using it in yeast breads: sourdough is a mold inhibitor.

But for anything leavened with baking soda or baking powder, use either fed or unfed starter; or starter you’d otherwise discard as part of the feeding process.

How much sourdough starter can you substitute? Keep in mind the more you use, the tangier your baked good will be. Start by substituting starter for no more than 1/3 of the flour in the recipe. If you like the result, then up the percentage the next time.

Sourdough baking tips via @kingarthurflour

This no-knead dough was stored in the fridge for 7 days before I turned it into these tangy sandwich rolls.

9. Do you have a recipe for no-knead sourdough bread?

Yes, we certainly do.

Make up a batch of our Crusty No-Knead Bread dough. Leave the dough in the fridge for a week to 10 days before baking. The loaf or rolls you make will be richly flavored, with mild sourdough tang.

Or try this: Make our Crusty No-Knead Bread dough, substituting 16 ounces of sourdough starter (fed or unfed) for 8 ounces of the water and 8 ounces of the flour. This time, let the dough rest in the fridge for only 2 to 3 days before baking. If you leave it longer than that, the sourdough will start to break down the dough’s gluten, negatively affecting the dough’s rise.

One important fact to remember: there are many paths to great sourdough baking. And many valid answers to your questions. When you find something that works for you, do it; don’t worry about “breaking the rules,” or following a recipe to the letter.

Sourdough baking, like most baking, is as much art as science; don’t be afraid to color outside the lines!

Do you have sourdough questions we haven’t answered here – or other baking questions? Contact our Baker’s Hotline; we’re ready and eager to help.

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. The Baker's Hotline

      That depends on the size of your starter and how often you bake! If you’re baking with your starter on a daily basis, you don’t need to discard any starter at all, because you’ll use up the excess as soon as you make it. On days that you’re not baking or preparing to bake, though, you’ll want to discard enough of your starter to keep it at a steady weight. If you’re using our Sourdough Baking Guide for your measurements, this means you’ll want to keep 113 grams of starter and discard the rest. If you’re using our measurements for maintaining a smaller sourdough starter, you’ll keep just 60 grams. The reason for discarding is primarily to avoid a sourdough starter that keeps building and building until you run out of room in your crock, as well as to ensure that your yeast doesn’t have too much competition for a limited amount of food. Of course, there’s no reason you have to toss your discards in the compost. They make wonderful pizza dough, pancakes, pretzels, and more. Happy baking! Kat@KAF

  1. Brian White

    In #8 you write:

    >> Keep in mind the more you use, the tangier your baked good will be.<>The more sour your starter the tangier your bread, right?
    Not necessarily. The degree of sourness in sourdough bread has more to do with how the dough is prepared than how sour the starter is.
    <<

    How do you reconcile these seemingly contradictory comments?

    Thanks

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      We’re sorry the wording was a little confusing, Brian! More starter (rather than tangier starter) provides more natural yeast to make those glorious tasting bacteria during the rising time. In a shorter rise, they’ll make less. In a longer rise, they’ll have the chance to make more. But while a lot of starter can’t make up for a lack of rise time, they can certainly add more flavor to a long one. We hope that helps clarify things a bit. Happy baking! Kat@KAF

  2. Kay

    Just a comment about sourdough bread in general and King Arthur unbleached flour in particular.

    I don’t follow all the rules, but I’m usually pretty successful in making tasty loaves. I got a run of bad luck a couple of months ago and couldn’t figure out what was wrong. Come to find out, I had substituted another brand of unbleached flour for the King Arthur. When I started using KAF again, my bread went back to beautiful and delicious.

    All flours are NOT the same.

    Reply
  3. Nola Beckum

    I think I saw a sourdough recipe for bread or biscuits (?) that listed cold starter, rather than starter at room temperature. Am I thinking all wrong??? LOL Thank you!

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Sounds like you’re looking to use “unfed” or discard starter in your baking, Nola. If that’s the case, consider making this recipe for Sourdough Sandwich Biscuits. For bread, try Clay’s Multigrain Sourdough Sandwich Bread. The recipe calls for using either fed or unfed starter; if you’re looking to use up discard you certainly can. Just be sure to allow the dough to rise for long enough before moving on to the next step in the recipe. Happy baking! Kye@KAF

  4. Marylou

    If my sourdough is extremely slow to rise (more than 16 hours and not doubled) will using a higher percentage of the starter help to speed things up a little?

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Hi Marylou! We wouldn’t recommend that since it would essentially starve the starter as there wouldn’t be quite enough flour or water to go around. To speed up the growth, we’d recommend using whole grains, such as rye or whole wheat, and using warm water, between 100°F and 110°. That should help things move along a little faster for you. Annabelle@KAF

    1. The Baker's Hotline

      We can help you there, Mary! If you’re looking to make basic bread, we have a few recipes for you to consider: Walter Sand’s Basic White Bread is a fantastic loaf of sandwich bread, or you could make our No-Knead Crusty White Bread for more of a rustic-style loaf, or opt for our recipe called The Easiest Loaf of Bread You’ll Ever Bake. If you’re looking to bake easy sourdough recipes, consider making our Basic Sourdough Bread (sandwich loaf-style) or our Rustic Sourdough Bread. Now the hard part is just choosing which recipe to start with. Happy baking! Kye@KAF

  5. BethLM

    Hi
    Ty Barb for tips before
    I found my sweet spot after 2 months!
    I found adding salt after first ( forget the name) rise has improve the dough. Also in fridge no 12-16 hrs better at 16-18 hrs. Now perfect loaves!

    Next sourdough Challah!

    Reply
  6. Cindy Mc.

    Hello PJ,

    I could have a comment about my sourdough woes but I can’t find it. I had a stroke less than a year ago and sometimes I wonder if I left a good part of brain with it!! So, if you happen to come across it, please let me know.

    I started a starter last Dec. and all the bread I have made is very bland. It is just doesn’t have any flavor to it. My starters are all happily bubbling away and at least doubling when I feed them. So, I can’t figure out what is wrong with my bread!! 😩

    I’m not a baker or chemist but I was wondering if the strain of yeast that is in my area could be milder than most? I love making sourdough bread but if I can’t figure out what’s wrong I’ll have to hang up my “bakers hat”!

    If you have any ideas that might help, I would be very appreciative!!

    Thanks for taking the time to answer my questions!

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      We’d love to help you bump up your sourdough flavor, Cindy! Our Sourdough FAQ page share some valuable insight on increasing the flavor and depth of your loaves. You’ll see that the main ingredient is time. “Simply put, the longer your bread rises (up to a point), the richer its flavor will be.” As for the yeast in your area, it will be different everywhere, so your sourdough has its own special strand of yeast that gives it a unique flavor. There’s definitely no need to hang up the sourdough hat! We hope this FAQ page as well as our friendly Baker’s Hotline staff at 855-371-BAKE (2253) can be of help. Happy baking! Annabelle@KAF

  7. David Brown

    I am finding that 3tbsp of olive oil added to a 500g batch of sourdough makes the finished loaf much softer – and it improves the keeping qualities, too.

    Reply

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