'My starter looks dead' — and other sourdough stresses solved here

A troubleshooting guide for your bread-baking woes.

A troubleshooting guide for your bread-baking woes

(Credit: iStock/Getty Images)

If you've been doing a lot of quarantine baking lately, you may have found yourself the proud parent of a sourdough starter. Whether you got it from a friend or raised it yourself, the excitement of baking your own naturally-leavened bread can quickly wear off when you run into problems. From an inactive starter to squat and flat loaves, there's no shortage of issues you may face, and that can seem like a set back. 

To help you avoid frustration and achieve your perfect loaf, we've taken the common issues sourdough bakers run into… and letting you know how to fix them! 

Before we get to the specifics, remember that your starter is alive and teaming with wild yeasts and good bacteria that require food, oxygen, and somewhat of a routine. (Not unlike us, right?) Even changes in temperature can affect it. Maybe even your mood. I'm kidding. Although I swear my starter can tell when I'm mad.

A starter's environmental sensitivity means that what works for me may not exactly work for you in your kitchen. Plus, what I consider a perfect loaf might not be in line with your vision. Because of this you must be fearless enough to tinker until you achieve the bread you want. If experimenting gets overwhelming, keep a journal, recording things like temperature and timing, so you can refer back and adjust. 

Sourdough best practices

Before we dive into the issues, let's quickly go over what good starter care looks like. A starter likes a regular feeding schedule, whether every day or once a week (depending on how often you bake). The more predictable you are, the more predictable your starter will be too.

While you can feed your starter many kinds of flour, all-purpose works just fine — just be sure it's unbleached. Some recipes advise using bottled or filtered water because chlorine can kill yeast, but I've never had a problem with chlorinated Toronto tap water. We'll go over when you may need to switch up your starter's food below. 

Keep your starter on the kitchen counter if you're baking every few days, or in the fridge if you bake once a week or less, which slows the fermenting process down so you don't have to feed it as often. To keep the quantity of your starter manageable and avoid having to feed it too much at one time, you may need to discard a portion of it. But don't throw that discard out! Use it up in these delicious and easy crackers

Remember to keep your discarding schedule regular too. 

After that, trust your instincts and pay attention to how your starter and bread dough feels, looks, and smells at every stage. What you'll probably start to notice is that your doughy friend is usually quite clear about its needs. 

For when you're unsure, here are some answers to common starter and bread baking queries and challenges.

How do I know when my starter is ready for baking?

The float test is an accurate way to tell if a starter is ready to leaven bread. To do the test, drop a teaspoon of starter into a warm glass of water; if it floats, it's ready. Do this test when you can see that the starter has doubled in volume (or maybe even tripled) since its last feeding.

My starter looks dead

If you're making a starter from scratch you may be shocked when your starter stops bubbling as actively around the fourth day. That's normal! The vigorous activity of a new starter does eventually slow down. Just keep it on a regular feeding schedule and it'll mature into a reliable bread leavener. 

A mature starter should double in size a few hours after you feed it. If there's still no activity after 12 hours, try mixing whole wheat or whole grain rye flour into the flour that you're feeding it, and store it in a warmer place until it wakes up. Starters are actually really hard to kill, but if you see blue, pink or truly black colours in yours, then yes, you'll have to start over. 

Help! My starter has a layer of liquid on top

That's the hooch, and its appearance is a sign that your starter is hungry. Simply stir the liquid in and feed your starter, or pour it off if you're going for bread with a less sour flavour, which is what the hooch adds.

My sourdough starter smells like nail polish

This can be another sign that it needs to be fed, and it can happen more often in the summer or in warmer kitchens when the temperatures are higher and fermenting happens quicker. To get it back to the normal, more over-ripe fruit smell, give it a feed — and a good stir (wild yeasts and good bacteria need oxygen) — and try finding a cooler place to store it. 

A recipe calls for a starter with a different hydration ratio than mine

The hydration level of your starter refers to the ratio of water to flour that you're feeding it. The flour is always 100 per cent, so if you're feeding it the same weight in water, then you've got a 100 perfect hydration starter. Sometimes a recipe calls for a 60 per cent hydration starter. If this is the case, simply add more flour to lower the hydration. Yes, this does require math, but a quick internet search usually gets you the answer too.

I'm going away, what do I do with my starter?

Wait, you're not taking it with you on vacation? Not to worry, just give your starter a good feed and put it in your fridge. It'll be fine in there for at least a couple weeks; it just may take more feeds to wake up again. If you're going away for more than two weeks, you may consider drying it out or freezing it. Look up guides or tutorials that outline how to do that successfully. 

I feel like my sourdough controls my life 

The key to a no-stress sourdough starter and baking experience is to find a system that works for your schedule. I like to spread out my baking over a couple of days, letting the final proof happen in the fridge overnight, so I don't have to rush or cram it all into a single day. Remember that recipes and their timelines are only guides, especially when it comes to a project with as many variables as sourdough. The better understanding you have about the process' visual cues, the more equipped you will be to make a recipe work for your schedule.

My bread is flat

It's very discouraging to have your bread come out of the oven squat and flat. The hydration of your dough, how you're shaping it, the proofing time, the baking vessel, the oven temperature and the amount of steam in your oven, even the scoring of the loaf, are just some of the things that can affect your bread's rise. Here are a few things to try out. 

  • Lower the hydration level of your starter and dough. Stiffer doughs hold their shape better, while looser doughs relax more and spread out. 

  • Build enough tension during shaping to form a thin elastic layer on the surface which will help the bread hold its shape. This can be done a few ways and a little internet research will help you master a technique that works for you. I get good results by dragging the dough across a flour-free work surface — leading with my pinkies — and using the friction of the counter to pull the dough taut. 

  • If you're using a Dutch oven, which is great at trapping beneficial steam, the bread is going to spread out more, since it's got the space to do so. Consider downsizing if you've got another option. 

  • Over-proofing can cause your dough to collapse. Perform a test by making an indent with your finger or knuckle; if the indent disappears very slowly rather than springing back, your dough is proofed and ready.

  • Scoring the bread before baking not only looks good, but it helps direct the fermentation gases up rather than out. Get schooled on a few scoring techniques (online), and you'll crank out taller, prettier loaves. 

My bread is not sour enough

Acetic acid in your starter is responsible for the sour taste, and this builds up over time, so be patient if your starter is young. If you're using an older starter and are unhappy with the flavour of your bread, you can tinker with the balance of lactic and acetic acids in your starter to achieve the results you want. 

To promote acetic growth, store the mixture in a cooler spot, like the fridge, and lower the hydration level to maybe 60 per cent and see how that tastes. Try also extending the resting times so the sour flavour has more time to develop. 

For a less sour bread, do the opposite and move your starter to a warmer spot to speed up the rise time, and keep it at a 100 per cent hydration (any more and the dough will be really wet), to boost the milder, lactic acid levels.

Now that you know a little bit more about how to troubleshoot your sourdough issues, here are a couple recipes to help you put your starter to great use — plus some for your discard and stale bread. 

Kelly Vanderbeek's Sourdough Bread

Maple Sourdough Bread Pudding with Pear Caramel

Spinach and Gruyere Sourdough Strata

Easy 5-Ingredient Sourdough Discard Crackers 

Jessica Brooks is a digital producer and pro-trained cook and baker. Follow her food stories on Instagram @brooks_cooks.

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