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. Susan Champney

    What should the consistency of the sourdough starter be? I just started it from the KAF starter on Wednesday, 7/10, and fed it today, Sunday, 7/14, for the first time. The starter seems thick, and I am not sure this is correct.

    *** Barb *** MM 7/15

    Reply
    1. Barbara Alpern, post author

      Hi Susan, when you purchase a starter from us it’s important to try to feed it when you receive it, or place it in the refrigerator and try to feed it within 24 hours. I’m hoping your starter was stored in the refrigerator before its first feeding, but if not, it still might be okay. Give us a call on the Baker’s Hotline at 855-371-2253 if you’re seeing little or no bubbling after your first feeding, and our friendly bakers can troubleshoot with you and send you a new starter, if necessary. As far as the thick consistency goes, it’s possible you added too much flour, which is easy to do when measuring by cups, particularly if you tend to scoop the flour into the cup. For ease and accuracy we do highly recommend weighing your ingredients, but if you don’t have a scale keep in mind that a “scant” cup of flour is one that isn’t quite full, and that we recommend sprinkling or spooning the flour into the cup rather than scooping.
      Barb

  2. Carla

    i took my starter with me on the road and i did not discard it cause i did not have a place to cook anything. 7 days passed had to get another jar and so i am still feeding it on 2 weeks and 3 days. i got a smaller jar feeding it then put it in the fridge. now i have a quart jar half full and one in the fridge. i have not discarded none of it cause i am not home. what will happen if i don’t discard it?. It does not have any mold and looks healthy.Thanks

    Reply
    1. Barbara Alpern, post author

      Hi Carla, when you don’t discard, your starter can become dominated by sourdough waste, and won’t perform as well. As soon as you’re able to discard I would remove all but 1/2 cup (4 ounces) starter and feed it 1/2 cup (4 ounces) water and 1 scant cup (4 ounces) flour. You can save the rest of your starter in the refrigerator as discard for up to a week and use it in recipes calling for discard, but I think it will be helpful to get your main starter back on its regular feeding schedule as soon as you can. You may want to give it a day or two of twice a day feedings at room temperature once you get home, just to get it back in balance.
      Barb

  3. Ryan

    Having the strangest problem…I’m beginning a starter from scratch. First 1-2 days, get a nice foamy rise and fall. Then I feed it and it never rises after several days and ultimately yields mold. This has happened 5 times in a row! What is happening? Any ideas appreciated.

    Reply
    1. Barbara Alpern, post author

      Hi Ryan, the initial rise you see is likely caused by a type of bacteria that gives off carbon dioxide. This isn’t a type of bacteria that you want to perpetuate in your starter, but usually it works its way out. It can, however, contribute to a lull in rising activity around day 4 that can continue for several days, until the pH of the starter reaches a level that allows for more yeast activity. Debra Wink, a microbiologist and sourdough baker/teacher has developed a starter creation regimen that helps avoid this particular scenario. It’s called the Pineapple Juice Solution and you can read about it here. I tried this method a year ago and my starter is still going strong!
      Barb

  4. Janice L Weaver

    My sourdough starter has become very “elastic”. It looks more like a very soft dough than the starter it used to be. What have I done wrong?

    Reply
    1. Barbara Alpern, post author

      Hi Janice, it sounds like you may have inadvertently added extra flour to you starter, causing it to become more dough-like in consistency. This could also happen if you switched to feeding your starter with a higher protein flour, which will absorb more liquid. The easiest way to maintain the proper consistency in your starter is to weight your ingredients and use equal parts starter, flour and water. I would also encourage you to feed your starter with unbleached all-purpose flour because it has more starch content than a higher protein flour, and starch is what provides nourishment to your starter. Don’t worry though, you haven’t done any permanent harm, and adding a little more water to the starter when feeding should restore the proper consistency. Look for the starter to be pasty, but easily stirrable right after feeding, and to gradually become airier and thinner in texture as it rises and ferments.
      Barb

  5. nancy rattle

    Is the ‘hooch’ always poured off before using the discard? I have been incorporating it back into my starter before I measure out the amount need for the recipe. Please advise. Thanks
    nancy

    Reply
    1. Barbara Alpern, post author

      Hi Nancy, I poured off the hooch is this situation because it was so dark and unappetizing looking, and I knew it wasn’t going to contribute anything positive to the revival of my starter. It’s fine to stir together your starter discard and incorporate the hooch if that’s what you prefer to do. Hooch is largely made up of sourdough waste products, including ethanol, and so you may want to incorporate it into you discard if you enjoy the alcohol flavor.
      Barb

  6. Anne

    While I don’t recommend it, last week I rejuvenated my starter which had been hibernating in the refrigerator for more than 3 months (I broke my leg and couldn’t bear weight on it for more than 2 months, so couldn’t stand and bake). I removed it Friday morning and it looked pretty sad. A good layer of brown-gray hooch, and the starter was so solid I couldn’t stir it. It sat on the counter for about 12 hours, at which point it had bubbles, and was stirrable (is that a word). I poured off about half, added flour and water, and let it sit til morning. Repeat pour-add-sit. Saturday evening very bubbly, rising, aroma close but not there yet. Repeat pour-add-sit. Sunday noon I brought out the bread machine, added water, flour, starter, set it for starter and let it go for about 6 hrs, then completed the recipe, shaped, and put the pans in the refrigerator to slow rise until morning. Forgot to feed the starter. By morning the starter had risen over the top of its quart mason jar and spilled onto the counter. Guess it’s active again! Bread was its usual tasty self. This particular starter I bought from King Arthur in 1997 or 1998, after a starter I’d developed in Iowa from local wild yeast (took 5 tries before I found one that tasted right) went bad. You don’t want to know. The good news is I have a happy, healthy starter and hope to not break a leg or do anything else stupid that will prevent me from caring for it.

    Reply
    1. Barbara Alpern, post author

      Thanks for offering this tale of sourdough resurrection, Anne! As long as your starter isn’t moldy, or exhibiting a pink or orange tinge or streak, it’s always worth a shot! A fully mature sourdough starter is very resilient and resistant to invaders, so a few days of twice a day feedings at room temperature will usually serve to rev it up after an extended stay in the refrigerator.
      Barb

Post a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *