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. Ellen

    I hadn’t fed my sourdough for over a year — and it was an old pioneer sourdough that I had gotten from my father. So I asked him for some more starter. We both forgot and I went home without it.

    About a week later, my father called to tell me that my stepmother had (by mistake) put all the starter into the latest batch of bread and had baked it. He was wondering if I could give him some starter! I told him that I only had the sad starter that had been neglected for over a year. I didn’t think it would revive, but decided to give it a try (I’m a microbiologist and am used to treating microbes gently).

    At first I only took a couple of spoonfuls of the starter and placed it in a bowl in the oven with the light on. After two days, nothing had happened. Then I decided to go ahead and go for it — All or nothing!! Well, it rose and it has been acting better than ever. What is funny is that after all that work, my father was able to get some starter from a friend of his to whom he gave the starter a few years earlier.

    By the way, I know about what those experts say about strains of sourdough not being unique, but as a microbial ecologist, I would say that there is only one scientific study out there that actually tests that hypothesis (a scientific guess). The authors (italian) did conclude that local flour provided most of the microbes in the sourdough, but most isn’t all and potentially some of the strains of yeast and bacteria (yes, there are bacteria in sourdough) may be “core” microorganisms that have replicated and held on in those older sourdough strains. And possibly they do contribute to the taste of the finished product. While I would love to see more work done on this subject, I suspect the funding isn’t behind it. However, until more studies are done, the “experts”, not being microbial ecologists, are probably just guessing and their guesses aren’t any better than those that you or I would make.

    Reply
    1. Ellen

      I stated that the strains weren’t unique, but actually meant not retaining the unique strains of the microbes that had originally been in the sourdough. And I meant that I think that while all the starters do change with environmental changes, that despite this, some of the original types (species and strains) of microbes do hang in there, contributing to taste.

    2. Barbara Alpern, post author

      Thanks, again, Ellen! We hope you’ll continue to join our sourdough conversations and offer your expertise.
      Barb

    3. Barbara Alpern, post author

      Ellen, thanks so much for contributing your scientific knowledge and sourdough experience to this post! I know many sourdough bakers who wish they had your background in microbiology to help guide them in their sourdough adventures! We greatly appreciate your willingness to share your observations with all of us.
      Barb

  2. Vicki Vaughn

    Help! My sourdough seems to have lost its tangy flavor. I keep it in the fridge, and feed it every 7 to 10 days. Sometimes longer if I am out of town, or busy and forget. I mix the hooch back into the starter. What can I do? Should I start over with a fresh batch?

    Reply
    1. Barbara Alpern, post author

      Hi Vicki, there’s no need to start over, but it does sound like your starter would benefit from a few days of twice a day feedings at room temperature. I would recommend feeding it this way until you notice that you’re starter is doubling in size after 6-8 hours and has a mildly tangy aroma. Once you’re starter is very active and healthy, you can concentrate on flavor development during the dough phase. Try substituting a small portion of rye flour or whole wheat flour for some of the white flour in your sourdough recipe. Whole grain flours, particularly whole rye flour, can contribute to developing more sour flavor in your bread. Another method for enhancing the tanginess of your sourdough bread is to refrigerate the dough during part of the fermentation process. Some of our sourdough bread recipes that utilize one or both of these techniques are our Extra Tangy Sourdough, Artisan Sourdough Bread, Pain au Levain, and our Naturally Leavened Sourdough Bread.
      Barb

  3. Sheri Sidwell

    Hi Barb!

    I must tell you, last week you saved two grateful starters’ lives (and me from a minor heart attack). Let me explain — two weeks ago, the husband and I were going out of town for several days, maybe a week, so good starter mom that I am, I fetched the kids out of the fridge for an early weekly feeding, made up some crackers for the drive, put a pizza dough in the freezer, set my replenished jars on top the fridge to oomph up a bit, went back to packing, . . . and LEFT. Yep. Really didn’t give it a thought until I was back home eight days later, unpacking the cooler, and then (I’m told) let go a string of expletives that had the husband running into the house, thinking we’d been robbed. I had actually been thinking, “Well, as soon as I get all this put away, I’ll feed my starters. . .where ARE my starters??” and for the tiniest second I could just see those horrid sourdough thieves. That is, until I looked up. I almost cried, they looked so bad. I got them down for inspection and there was a good half or three-quarter inch of darkish fluid on top of them both, with the whole wheat the worst. Little AP looked purty bad, too, but she didn’t smell nearly as strong as WW. And nary a tiny bubble between the two. I really did have the jars in my hands, ready to dump, when it occurred to me that I’d scanned this blog a while back, and before I did anything drastic, best to take a breath and fire up the laptop. I’m so glad I did. For whatever reason, I was thinking of refrigerated starters being forgotten and then revived — not just plain forgotten (and forgotten again, in broad DAYLIGHT, no less, and at much warmer than room temperature. Remember, I’d been baking that day). Thank you so much, Barb. I knew I’d seen those pics of the starters with the black fluid; I just had to find you again. My husband actually heard my sigh of relief; he stuck his head in the door and asked, “Yay or Nay?” When I said yay, the man just smiled and asked me for carrot cake. I threw a pen at his head. Happy ending. It took a few (4) days, and more than a little flour, but the two- year-olds are thriving again. Today was feeding day, so I made Clay’s Multigrain with the WW, and it turned out great. Tomorrow, with the AP, I’m baking a carrot cake to take to Mom’s for Easter (don’t tell the hubs; he thinks it’s all for him since, of course, I made him wait almost a week).

    Again, Thank You So Much,
    And Happy Easter!

    Sheri Sidwell

    P.S. (and no matter what he says I did NOT say the *F* word five times. Once, maybe).

    Reply
    1. Barbara Alpern, post author

      Hi Sheri, what a great story! You had us all laughing and cheering here at King Arthur Flour. We’re so glad that this post came at just the right time to throw a helpful lifeline to your two-year-olds. It made our day to hear that we were able to provide support and encouragement for your sourdough adventures (and misadventures)! Congratulations on reviving your starters and capturing the highs and lows of sourdough baking in such a wonderful way! And I hope your husband appreciates the sourdough carrot cake, and the effort it took to create it! Happy Easter to you and yours!
      Barb

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