Sourdough starter troubleshooting, part 2: Can this starter be saved?

In our first sourdough starter troubleshooting post we tackled sourdough starter viability, and what will and won’t cause your starter’s demise. We also found out what a spoiled starter looks like, and how to know when it’s time to throw it out and start over.

Today we’ll take on the thorny question of whether it’s worthwhile to try to revive an old but struggling starter — or if it’s best to start over.

Sourdough starter: a miracle in the making

Creating your own starter from scratch is exciting and even a little magical; for details, see our step-by-step guide to creating a sourdough starter.

Simply mixing flour and water allows friendly bacteria and wild yeast to join forces and establish a balanced ecosystem that is able to impart great flavor and rise to your sourdough baking.

Sourdough Starter Troubleshooting, part 2 via @kingarthurflour

During the 6 to 10 days that it takes to get your starter up and running, it’s a little more vulnerable to bacterial intruders and mold because it hasn’t yet developed the defenses of a mature starter. But once fully developed, a well-maintained starter will readily fend off unwanted invaders and is very unlikely to spoil.

Reviving a neglected starter vs starting a new one

What if you inherited an old starter from your grandma and it’s looking a little like it might be at death’s door?

Sourdough Starter Troubleshooting, part 2 via @kingarthurflour

Sourdough authorities argue that there’s nothing sacred about an old starter; a freshly developed “mature” starter will impart just as much flavor and rise to your bread.

Starting over with a new starter will get you back to baking great sourdough bread in a little over a week. So why take on the unpredictable task of trying to resurrect a sickly starter?

Common sourdough wisdom says that it will take just as long to revive a severely neglected starter as it will to create a new one. But is this always true? Click To Tweet

And is it even possible to thoroughly revive a starter that’s sorely neglected?

Let’s find out.

Sourdough Starter Troubleshooting, part 2 via @kingarthurflour

Sourdough Starter Troubleshooting, part 2 via @kingarthurflour

Starter showing any mold (or exhibiting an orange or pink streak) should be thrown away. But dark-colored “hooch” (the liquid sitting atop a neglected starter) isn’t a sign of danger.

I start with two very neglected starters. Both starters (one all-purpose, one whole wheat) had been well-maintained until they were left at room temperature for a full month without being fed.

Why test both a white and a whole wheat starter? Starters can be maintained with all different types of flour, so I wanted to see if a whole wheat starter responded in the same way as a starter fed with all-purpose flour.

Sourdough Starter Troubleshooting, part 2 via @kingarthurflour

Starter made with all-purpose flour

Sourdough Starter Troubleshooting, part 2 via @kingarthurflour

Starter made with whole wheat flour

I pour the dark hooch off the neglected starters, and feed them following the feeding schedule called for in our sourdough starter recipe.

The revived starters smell a little “off” at first, but not awful; think vinegary sour, with a slightly unpleasant edge. Within four days they’re rising well and have a nice, mildly tangy aroma. My theory is that both the acidity and the maturity of the neglected starters helps them fight off unwanted bacteria at the beginning of the process, which might allow for a faster return to a healthy and balanced starter.

Sourdough Starter Troubleshooting, part 2 via @kingarthurflour

Newly created starter

By way of comparison, I also begin a starter from scratch. My brand-new starter is able to keep up in terms of rise. However, after four days it still smells a little funky and doesn’t seem quite ready for baking bread.

Putting the starters to the test: Test bake #1

On Day 4 (after only four feedings) I bake Naturally Leavened Sourdough Bread using my revived starters (which I mix together for the test), and my regularly well-maintained starters.

Sourdough Starter Troubleshooting, part 2 via @kingarthurflourSourdough Starter Troubleshooting, part 2 via @kingarthurflourThe results are a little shocking: two beautiful and delicious loaves. Both loaves taste mildly sour, although taste testers agree that the revived-starter loaf is slightly tangier.

Test bake #2

On Day 5, after a total of six feedings, I try another test bake—this time including the brand-new starter; the revived starters, and my well-maintained regular starter.Sourdough Starter Troubleshooting, part 2 via @kingarthurflourAgain, the results are surprising: three nice loaves, each with a similar rise and crumb structure. The only real difference is in the flavor of the breads. Each has mildly sour flavor, but the brand-new starter yields a slightly blander loaf.

Sourdough starter troubleshooting: the takeaway

It’s definitely worth trying to revive a neglected starter (so long as it shows no signs of contamination). Pour off any discolored hooch, and start feeding it twice a day at room temperature. If it rises well and has a good aroma after three to four days, you’re back in business!

We’d love to hear your own sourdough starter stories and questions below. Did you revive your starter from the brink of death? How long did it take? Is it thriving now?

Barbara Alpern
About

Long time professional artisan bread baker, caramel maker and member of our Baker Specialist team, Barb grew up in Ann Arbor, Michigan and has four grown sons. She has baked in Michigan, Maine, Vermont, and Texas (if you count baking cookies for her son's wedding!).

comments

  1. Sarah

    My starter (from KAF) is on day 7. It’s gone through different stages, very active, a lull, back to active. I hope I haven’t given it a death by overfeeding sentence this evening!! I wanted to increase the amount of started I would have for baking, thinking I should add 8 oz water and 8 oz. flour which I did. Then realized that I hadn’t saved but 4 oz of my starter, so 1:2:2 ratio. Help, please! What can I do to save it?

    Reply
    1. Barbara Alpern, post author

      Don’t worry, Sarah, you haven’t done your starter any harm! The larger feeding will just slow down fermentation because your starter is trying to process a larger meal. When you purchase a starter from us, it’s already a mature starter and shouldn’t need the lengthy development process that is involved in creating a starter from scratch, so I think your starter is probably ready and raring to go!
      Barb

  2. Patricia Rose

    I started my sour-dough starter on Saturday and fed it once a day with 4 oz. flour and 4 oz. water. It was nice and bubbly for the first 4 days and then yesterday there were no bubbles and about 1/2 inch or so of hooch on top. I stirred in the hooch and fed it again and left it in a warm place as usual but there is no change today. There are no bubbles and there is hooch on top. What should I try next?

    Reply
    1. Barbara Alpern, post author

      Hi Patricia, I’m not sure what temperature you’re storing your starter at, but there’s no need for it to be stored in temperatures higher than 80 degrees, and higher temperatures may cause it to ferment too quickly. It sounds like your starter might benefit from a little change in its feeding routine. I would try switching to feeding with whole wheat flour or whole rye flour and saving 4 ounces of starter and feeding it 2 ounces of flour and 2 ounces of water. Feed once daily with the 4:2:2 recipe. I’m guessing within a few days you’ll see the starter begin to rise and fall fairly predictably. Once you see this rising and falling, you can switch back to feeding with the 4:4:4 recipe and unbleached all-purpose flour, and begin feeding twice daily. Once you’re starter is rising and falling with the all-purpose flour feedings and has a mildly tangy aroma, then you should be ready for baking!
      Barb

  3. Dave Zimmerman

    I have a few questions regarding the role of the starter. Does the starter play any role in the rise of the bread? Is the role of the starter much more than simply developing the sour taste of the loaf?

    Thank you.

    Dave

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Good question, Dave! The starter plays different roles depending on what recipe you’re using. If you’re using a recipe that doesn’t have any commercial yeast added to it, it’s known as being “naturally leavened.” In these recipes, like our Extra-Tangy Sourdough Bread, the starter the sole source of rising action in the dough. (In these recipes it’s critical that your starter is healthy, active, and recently fed.) In recipes like our Rustic Sourdough, there’s commercial yeast that’s added along with starter. In these recipes, the starter primarily adds flavor but also contributes to the final bread texture a bit too. We hope this helps clarify. Kindly, Kye@KAF

  4. Barbara Silas

    I’ve got my fingers crossed for my starter! It’s been neglected probably since spring in the refrigerator. The hooch was dark, but I shook it in, and it smelled okay, just more vinegary than normal. I just put half of the starter in the bread I’m making now for flavor. I’m not depending on it to rise the bread, though, and used regular dry yeast in the sponge. We’ll see what happens! The other half is fed in it’s newly scrubbed jar and covered with a dishcloth on the counter. I have high hopes it revives. I caught some pretty good wild yeasts with this one. Thanks for giving me that hope! 🙂

    Reply
    1. Barbara Alpern, post author

      Hi Barbara, we’re crossing our fingers too! I would suggest covering your starter with plastic wrap rather than a dishcloth, however. It’s important that the surface of your starter isn’t allowed to dry out, and plastic wrap will provide better protection. When we suggest covering your starter “loosely” this isn’t because your starter needs exposure to the air, but because fermentation gases can build up in a tightly lidded container and cause the lid to pop off. Plastic wrap will flex, so it’s fine to cover securely.
      Barb

  5. Susan Wobbe

    I had always heard or read that you were suppose to stir the “hootch” in, not pour it off. This was the first time reading that. Isn’t the “hootch” part of what gives it the flavor?

    Reply
    1. Barbara Alpern, post author

      Susan, it’s perfectly fine to stir in the hooch if you prefer to do so. It’s mostly made up of the alcohol that is a byproduct of yeast fermentation, so is essentially a sourdough waste product, but it won’t hurt anything to stir it in and it may contribute some flavor elements and acidity. The only reason I poured it off in this example is that it looked pretty nasty and I figured if there was any contamination present in my very neglected starter then it would likely be in this top layer.
      Barb

  6. Hannah

    I’m afraid I may have killed my starter by feeding it whole wheat flour. I made it using an apple, bread flour and water. It was extremely active the first 2 days. Not doing enough research I did not feed it at its most active on day 2. On day 3 I did a little experiment and introduced whole wheat flour in my feeding in 1:1:1 ratio I combined 50% whole wheat and bread flour. After that it lost all its activity, and developed hooch, which I poured. Then I fed it again but was afraid to change anything. Now it seems more dormant than before. Is this normal? Have I killed my starter and do I need to start over?

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Hannah, it’s normal for a starter to go through a slight lull around day 4; don’t worry! You may want to go back to feeding it with all-purpose flour in a 1:1:1 ratio by weight. Keep the starter at room temperature and feed it twice daily, about 2x a day, 12 hours apart to keep the starter healthy. If you don’t see much activity after a few more days of repeating this process, give our Baker’s Hotline a call at 855-371-BAKE (2253) to talk through more tips and possible techniques to try. Good luck! Kye@KAF

    2. Debra Wink

      Hi folks, I just wanted to weigh in here. Hannah, sorry this comes a month late, and probably too late to be of much help to you this time around. If you stuck with it, you likely have a thriving starter by now, as Mother Nature usually wins out with enough time — I like to say, sometimes in spite of what we do rather than because of it 🙂

      Kye is right, that the lull is perfectly normal, but how long it lasts is influenced by what you do in response. The natural impulse is to feed more, but in this case, it is better to feed less. Stick with the whole grain flour, and drop back to feeding no more than once per day until it starts expanding again. 1:1:1 is fine, but 2:1:1 (starter:water:flour) would be even better. You want to conserve the acidity and let it accumulate in order to create conditions that get wild yeast to activate.

      Twice daily feedings, and higher feed rates flushes out and dilutes the acidity slowing down the process, and white flour doesn’t have as many microorganisms — particularly yeast — to seed all the stages. (They are mostly stripped away with bran in the milling of refined flours.) It is a succession, and the lull is just the second stage of at least four. It isn’t dead. Or starving. The microorganisms that characterize this stage simply are not gas producers, but they’re very much alive, and helping to pave the way for other sourdough bacteria and yeast 🙂

      The activity you saw on day 2 was a prolific gas-producing bacterium that may have smelled something like spackling paste or dirty socks in a whole-grain paste, to sour milk or rotten cheese in a white flour paste. But don’t be alarmed — as horrible as that may sound, it’s harmless (and important in vegetable and cheese fermentations). You’ll know yeast are up and running when it starts expanding again, and it will probably smell more yeasty, bread- or beer-like. Then you’ll want to move to twice-a-day feedings at least 1:1:1 as Kye suggests.

      In a nutshell: before yeast, don’t feed too much; after yeast don’t feed too little.

      My best,
      Debra Wink

    3. Barbara Alpern, post author

      Thanks so much for chiming in here, Debra! I have taken to telling folks to return to feeding with whole wheat flour once a day when they confront the lull, but somehow missed this comment, and didn’t realize that a 2:1:1 ratio would work better! This is great information! Hopefully Hannah has an active and healthy starter by now, but I’m sure your recommendations will be helpful to many others.
      Barb

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