Sourdough is super trendy right now and I’m loving it.
Who would have thought, that in 2020, the whole world would suddenly have an interest in ancient methods for capturing wild yeast?!
Anyway, I’ve been making sourdough for quite a while (yes, back before it was cool…) and considering y’all are begging for more info on all things sourdough, I recently wrote about making a sourdough starter and how to make a simple sourdough bread.
However, that has flooded my inbox with questions, which is AMAZING, since it means you are getting in the kitchen and making things happen.
In order to help you out, I’ve put together this GIANT list of the most common questions I’ve been getting about all-things-sourdough and I answered them all as thoroughly as possible. If you look through this list of Q&As don’t find your question, just add them to the comments of this article, and I’ll answer them.
I’ve put this list of sourdough troubleshooting questions into two categories: sourdough starter and sourdough breadmaking.
Common Sourdough Starter Questions
Successful sourdough baking is 100% dependent on the health of your starter (Click here to learn how to make a sourdough starter). A sourdough starter is simply made by combining flour and water and letting it sit for several days to either “capture” wild yeast in the air or to get the wild yeast already in the flour to become activated (you can learn more details in my sourdough starter article!).
Of course if you’d rather start off with a fantastic, mature starter, from the start (see what I did there?) this is a great way to do it.
Sourdough starters are simple, but considering there are a number of factor involved, here are some solutions if your starter is throwing you a curve ball:
How do I know when my sourdough starter is ready to use in bread?
Here are the more dependable ways to tell that a sourdough starter is ready:
- It is doubling in size within 3-4 hours of a feeding
- There are bubbles in it
- The texture is fluffy and foamy
- There is a pleasant tangy, sour aroma
- If you place a teaspoon of recently fed starter in a cup of cool water, it floats to the top
Why isn’t my sourdough starter active and bubbly yet?
It’s natural to feel panicky if you’re on day 4 or 5 and you’re not seeing bubbles in your sourdough starter yet. My first tip would be to be patient. Wait at least 7-10 days before you decide if your sourdough starter isn’t active. Sometimes it just takes time.
You can also look at the following things to help your sourdough starter:
- Warmth. Check if your kitchen is drafty or cool. If it is, try moving your sourdough starter to a warmer location. You don’t want to put it in direct sunlight or on the stove where it can scorch, but try to move it closer to a heater or warm source in your house.
- Flour. If you’re not seeing bubbles after a week, try using a different variety or brand of flour.
- Water. Try a different variety of water, just in case your current source has some sort of contaminant (like chlorine) that could be hampering the growth of the starter.
If you’re still not sure if your starter is active enough to successfully be used in baking, place 1 teaspoon of the starter in a cup of water. If it floats, you’re good to go! If it sinks, it’s still not active enough and needs more time.
Help! I’m on day five of my starter and it’s not bubbling or growing.
I’ve noticed that there’s often a little bit of a lull on days four through six sometimes. Keep feeding it and don’t give up on it at least until you’ve hit day 14 without good bubbles or growth. If you’re really concerned and not seeing any activity, try switching out the flours and make sure your water is not chlorinated.
What if my kitchen is too cold for my sourdough starter?
Sourdough definitely prefers a warm environment. If your house is chilly, you might need to get a bit creative to figure out how to keep it happy. If you have a wood stove like me, you can put your starter close to the stove (in the vicinity of the stove, not too close so the starter gets too hot).
You could try on top of your refrigerator, which is often a warm place in the kitchen. You can also keep your starter next to your oven in the kitchen, as the radiant heat will help keep your starter happy. You could also leave it in your oven with the oven light on, however, that one scares me a little bit because you might accidentally turn on your oven and kill your starter (so be careful with that one).
Some folks have good luck using cooler with a warm heating pad or a seedling heating mat to keep their starter warm and happy. With a little creativity, you can find a way to keep your sourdough starter warm.
Is it better to measure or weigh the sourdough ingredients?
Weighing the ingredients is better. Personally, I’ve kinda learned what my measuring cups look like when there’s four ounces of flour and four ounces of water in them, so I usually just eyeball it.
However, if you are unsure about things, absolutely start with weighing your flour and weighing your water and making sure that matches the weight of the sourdough starter you have. It doesn’t have to be down to decimal point accuracy, but it needs to be close for best results.
My sourdough starter is too watery or too thick. What do I do?
If your starter is too watery, add more flour when you do your next feeding. If it’s too thick, add some more water with your next feeding. Keep trying and experimenting until you get that perfect sourdough starter texture and thickness (which, for me, is the consistency of pancake batter).
Why is my sourdough starter separating? Why does it have black liquid on top and/or clear liquid on bottom?
The most common separation you’ll in a sourdough starter is when you get black or gray liquid on top. This is completely normal. The black liquid on top of your starter is called hooch.
Hooch is the waste product of the sourdough starter. When your starter has eaten up all of its food and wants more, it will begin starts to separate and the hooch will appear.
When this happens, you have a few options here: first, you can discard the hooch (ie black liquid on top); OR you can stir it back in. If you want your sourdough to be more sour, simply stir the hooch back into the sourdough starter.
The other separation issue some folks experience when you have clear liquid underneath the flour layer. This is also very common, especially in new sourdough starters. The clear liquid on the bottom means you need to change your sourdough starter feeding habits. Try feeding it more often, or use a different water, or try a different flour. It’s not a major reason for concern, but it doesn’t hurt to switch up your feeding habits to see if that helps.
Why does my sourdough starter have a pink and/or orange color?
While sourdough starters can vary in color, it your starter becomes pink or orange, it is not a happy starter. Pink and orange coloration means you are on the verge of losing your starter and that it is likely starving to death.
If it has just a slight pink tinge, you can possibly bring it back (this has happened to me…). However, if it’s super pink or orange, it’s probably best to toss it and start over.
Grey or brownish hues in a starter are generally normal and not a cause for concern.
Why does my sourdough starter smell like alcohol or nail polish remover?
Like a pink or orange starter, an alcohol/nail polish remover aroma can indicate your starter is starving to death. Try feeding it more frequently and keep it on the counter with more feedings until it smells and looks better.
Is it normal to see a skin on your starter prior to feeding?
Sometimes. Usually when my house is a little bit hot, I notice that the top layer of liquid evaporates more quickly and the starter will dry out. I usually just
stir the skin back in. If that keeps happening and it’s bothering you, simply cover your sourdough with a lid (instead of a cloth or paper towel) to lock in more moisture.
Why is my sourdough starter moldy?
This has never happened to me personally, but mold in a starter is generally caused from contamination either in the flour or in the jar.
Therefore, make sure you’re always starting with a super-clean jar and if that doesn’t help, try switching out your flour. It’s possible that you are buying flour from a store where it is not properly stored or something is wrong with that particular brand of flour.
Do I have to feed my sourdough starter twice a day?
There are a million different ways and opinions to care for a sourdough starter, and some sourdough connoisseurs will recommend two or even three feedings a day. If you notice that your starter prefers more frequent feedings, that’s perfectly fine.
I usually only feed mine once a day, usually right away in the morning because that works best for my daily routine. You can feed it when it works best for your own routine; there is flexibility with sourdough starters. Figure out the rhythm that works best for you and what makes your own starter the happiest.
*Note* If your sourdough starter is a bit sluggish, try feeding it twice a day until it becomes more active.
Can I use a different flour for a sourdough starter?
You can use whole wheat, all-purpose flour, rye, einkorn, and many others for a sourdough starter. If this is your first time making sourdough, I suggest using whole wheat flour and all-purpose flour in the way I wrote in my recipe. This ratio tends to behave very well for me compared to other techniques I have tried in the past.
How do I make a gluten-free sourdough starter?
I get this question a lot, however, since I don’t cook with a lot of gluten-free flour, I don’t have personal experience with this. However, it is possible. This gluten-free recipe from King Arthur flour looks promising. You can also purchase a gluten-free sourdough starter to get you going.
Can I use freshly ground flour in my starter?
Absolutely! If you have a grain mill (link to my favorite grain mill used on an almost-daily basis), this is a fantastic option. Many people report that their sourdough starters really like freshly ground flour, while other people say that the freshly ground flour has to age about about 5 days before using it for best results. I’d try both and see which your starter prefers.
How do you switch from one flour to another for your starter?
First step? Make sure your sourdough starter is very active and happy (i.e. feed it well and feed it often). After a few days of feeding it well, divide it into two starters. Put one of them in a jar in the refrigerator as a backup– just in case… Having a backup has saved me heartache several times.
Leave the other half of the starter on the counter and switch out the flour the next time you feed it. You do not have to slowly transition, just switch out the flours. Wait a few days (with continual daily feedings) before you try to make bread with it, however, starters are pretty resilient and switching flours shouldn’t cause any problems.
If I live in the city, can I use tap water in my starter?
You may use pretty much any ‘ol water for your starter, but it shouldn’t be chlorinated. Make sure you only feed your starter with unchlorinated water. If your water is chlorinated, you can still use it for your sourdough starter, but you must evaporate the chlorine first. Fortunately, this is very easy. Simply put the water in a container on your counter overnight uncovered. The next morning, the chlorine in that water will have evaporated, and you can use it in your starter.
Does it matter what size container I use for holding my sourdough starter?
Yes, size matters. Once your starter is active and happy, it will rise up a BUNCH after you feed it. Overflow is a huge mess and hard to clean up (been there, done that). Use a tall container for your starter. (I personally use a half gallon sized mason jar.)
Do you keep your sourdough starter enclosed?
I keep my starter loosely covered in order to keep out bugs, dust, and other random junk from the air. You can use a paper towel or a dishcloth with a rubber band, or anything else that will loosely cover and protect it. I use the canning lid (since my starter is in a mason jar) and I just lightly set it on top of the jar and I don’t screw the lid on too tightly. In order to allow your starter to breathe, you can also try flipping your canning lid upside down (so the rubber seal is facing up) so it has a lid on, but it’s not sealed from getting airflow. Starters like to breathe.
How often do you clean out your jar?
I try to clean out my sourdough starter jar once a month, but sometimes I forget. The build up on the sides happens pretty quick and since flour and water acts like school paste (remember that stuff?), it can be hard to get the jar clean. Try to change jars about once a month, but you can do it more often if you like.
Do I have to discard part of the sourdough starter?
By step three of the sourdough process, you want to start discarding half of the starter. I know, I know– it seems super wasteful at first, but hear me out… If you keep feeding it without discarding some of it, the starter will eventually become enormous and start taking over your kitchen.
Plus, if you don’t discard some of it, you end up having to add more and more flour to make the ratio correct. Since we don’t want to waste flour, it’s actually less wasteful to discard part of the early sourdough starter.
What do I do with my mature sourdough starter discard?
Once your sourdough starter is active and bubbly, you’re gonna end up with plenty sourdough discard. Besides making bread, I’ve got a bunch of sourdough discard recipes in my Prairie Homestead Cookbook. I also talk a bunch in my podcast about my favorite ways to use sourdough discard.
How long after you start a sourdough starter can you use the discard for recipes?
If I’m using a brand new starter, by day two, the discard isn’t really sour yet. It’s just flour and water at this point. I usually feed that to the chickens. By day 3 or 4 and beyond, however, you can start using the discard in various recipes. It’s not active enough to use in bread, and it won’t be tangy yet, but it’s great for discard recipes like crackers and pancakes (basically anything that has an additional leavening agent (baking powder or baking soda) is a great option).
Should I use buy a sourdough starter or use part of my friend’s sourdough starter?
If you have a friend with a starter, you can absolutely grab a little bit of culture from them and use that instead of starting from-scratch.
Can I refrigerate a starter? How long can it be in there?
There are two ways you can keep a sourdough starter:
1) you can keep it on the counter and feed it every day
2) OR you can store it in your refrigerator for the majority of the time and just pull it out when you want to bake
If you’ll only be using your sourdough once or twice a week (or less), I recommend keeping it in the refrigerator. This will prevent you from having to feed it daily (and ultimately using a lot of flour!).
To transfer a starter to the fridge, first feed it as you normally would. Let it sit out for one hour, then pop it in the fridge (covered). It’s best to continue to feed it every couple of weeks in the fridge, if you aren’t using it much. However, I will confess, there have been times I’ve sorely neglected my starter for many weeks and even months and I was still able to revive it.
To Wake Up a Cold Sourdough Starter:
To prepare a dormant sourdough starter for baking, bring it out of the refrigerator at 24-36 hours before you need to use it. Discard half of the starter, and feed it the 1:1:1 ratio explained above — 1 part starter to 1 part water to 1 part flour (in weight).
Repeat this every 12 hours or until the sourdough starter becomes active and bubbles within 4-6 hours of feeding (this likely will take 2-3 rounds). If you need a larger quantity of starter for baking, or you’re planning on doing a big baking day, you can bulk it up by skipping the discard step in each feeding.
How long can you keep your starter on the counter while using it and feeding it?
If you feed it every day, it can feasibly go on forever. I know many people have 100-year old sourdough starters(!!). This is something you can pass on to your children and grandchildren, as long as you keep your starter happy and healthy.
Common Sourdough Bread Questions
So you have an active starter, but what about the bread? Here’s my recipe for a simple sourdough bread. (I included both the written instructions and a video of me making sourdough bread in that article to help you out.)
I’ve put together the most common sourdough questions and my answers related to baking bread. (And feel free to ask me more questions in the comments section below!)
How much starter do I use per loaf of sourdough bread?
On average, it seems that most sourdough bread recipes use about 1/2 cup of starter (my sourdough bread recipe uses 1/2 cup of active starter). However, this can greatly vary, and there are recipes that use anywhere from 1/4 cup to 1 cup of active starter.
Help! I’m getting sourdough bricks instead of bread!
I’ve been there. I always had this problem when I was impatient and didn’t let my starter become active and bubbly enough before I tried to make my bread.
If you are indeed using active starter, it’s possible that your dough may need a little more liquid next time OR a bit more time to rise.
Also keep in mind– sourdough tends to be a bit “heavier” than my other breads. By its nature, sourdough is a hearty bread, but I like it that way. If I’m in the mood for a super light, fluffy loaf, I’ll make this easy sandwich bread recipe with baker’s yeast and a shorter rise time.
What kind of flour can I use for my sourdough bread?
You can make sourdough bread with many different types of flour, however, if you’re brand new to sourdough, I recommend using all-purpose flour. It far less finicky to use than Einkorn or whole wheat, and it will rise more consistently for your first attempts. You can venture into the fancier flours once you get the hang of a simple loaf.
How can I better handle my super sticky dough?
If you’re struggling with your dough sticking to everything, try dipping your hands in a bowl of cool water before you work it. It’s tempting to keep adding more flour to the dough, but fight the urge. A wetter, stickier dough, while more difficult to handle, produces less dry or crumbly loaves.
However, I’ve been receiving comments and messages from folks saying that their dough is turning out just too sticky to even handle, in which case you might just need to add more flour to your dough.
Why is homemade sourdough bread called ‘sourdough’ when it’s not sour?
It depends on your starter. Some homemade sourdoughs can get pretty darn sour, but they don’t have to be– that’s the beauty of it. “Sourdough” bread from the typical grocery store is usually not technically sourdough. Many store-bought loaves contain normal yeast plus flavoring agents to give the loaf the sour flavor. Keep in mind, this is not the same sour taste that’ll you achieve from true sourdough, as true sourdough is made with wild yeast. If you want a more tangy homemade sourdough, you just have to play around with your starter (read next question below for those tips).
How can I make my sourdough loaves MORE sour?
Here are a few ways to adjust your technique for a more sour sourdough loaf:
- When you feed your sourdough starter, use a higher ratio of flour to water.
- Use whole-grain flours to feed your starter, since the sour-producing bacterias seems to love them.
- If your sourdough starter produces a brown/black/gray liquid layer (aka the hooch) on the top, mix it back into the starter instead of pouring it off.
- Use cool water and allow your dough to rise in a cooler location. This will extend the souring/rise time and produce a more sour loaf.
How do I make my sourdough bread LESS sour?
You will want to do the opposite of what’s mentioned in the question above. Basically, you are going to want to feed your starter more often, at least twice (and maybe three) times a day. You will also want to help the loaves rise faster by putting them in an extra warm location or by using a bit of extra starter in the bread recipe to get it to rise faster.
How do you get a loaf with that pretty open crumb or those big holes?
If you want the loaves with the big open crumb and the bubbles that look like French bakery bread, you need to have a dough with more hydration (i.e. a wetter dough). The downfall to this, is if you’re new to sourdough, wetter doughs are trickier to handle and take a little more finesse.
The first time I tried to make a really high hydration dough, it was a sticky MESS. Therefore if you are a beginner, I highly recommend starting with a more standard dough-texture like my simple sourdough bread recipe. Once you get more comfortable with sourdough bread making, start increasing the water in the dough and play around with different techniques for folding the dough.
How do you replace packaged yeast in a bread recipe with sourdough?
I wish I had a really simple and easy formula for you here, but this is quite cumbersome and complex. My best recommendation is to just find an equivalent recipe online that’s designed for sourdough.
However, if you are desperate and feel like experimenting, you can try doing about a cup of sourdough starter to one package of yeast (the tiny packets that contain 2 1/4 teaspoons of active yeast).
The tricky part is that you’ve just added bulk to your recipe, so you’re going to need to adjust the remaining ingredients in that recipe as well. You’ll have to reduce the flour and reduce the water to get the right consistency. It’s tricky and you will also have to make sure to let it rise at least twice as long as the recipe states. It can be done, but definitely takes a bit of practice.
Can you make a sourdough bread in a bread machine?
I think you would be fine, but since I haven’t used a bread machine in many years, I’m not exactly an expert in this realm. My biggest concern would be if the bread machine is pre-programmed with a certain rise time, because sourdough breads often need a much longer rise time than standard breads. However, as long as you could adjust that, you should be fine.
Do I REALLY have to cool the bread before eating it?
I know, I know. It’s cruel, isn’t it?
Even though your kitchen now smells divine, try to resist cutting into your new homemade sourdough bread until it completely cools to room temperature.
The reason your bread must cool completely is because it is still baking and developing the texture as it cools. This is when the crumb is setting. If you cut open your bread when it is still hot, you will squish it and the crumb will be crushed, not to mention it’ll dry out faster in storage.
How can I store my homemade sourdough bread?
This homestead sourdough loaf is best eaten within 48 hours (which is NOT a problem for my ravenous kids). I store it at room temperature in a basic Ziploc bag, but you can get special bread bags or bread boxes, too.
If you don’t think you can eat the sourdough loaf within 48 hours, you can freeze the leftovers. Simply wrap it in plastic wrap and it will keep in the freezer for up to 2 months.
Why didn’t my sourdough bread rise?
Don’t worry– it happens to the best of us. When sourdough bread dough doesn’t rise, it’s usually because the starter you used wasn’t active enough. To remedy this problem, make sure you’re using recently fed, active starter with lots of bubbles. Also, next time try using warm (not hot) water when you mix up the dough and rising it in a warmer location.
Why did my loaf spread out?
Doughs that contain a lot of moisture tend to spread more than dryer doughs, so that could be the culprit. Try a few more rounds of stretching and folding next time to help develop the tension in the dough a bit more.
Can I make gluten-free sourdough bread?
You can, however, it’s not a skill that is in my wheelhouse. I would recommend checking out this recipe from King Arthur flour.
Help! I am so overwhelmed with the different methods mentioned online for starting sourdough!
I would suggest that you pick a method and you just go with it. Whether that’s my sourdough starting method or someone else’s, you will drive yourself crazy trying to take something from all of them. So just pick one and odds are you’ll be just fine. They all kind of work out the same.
Wanna See Me Address Several of the Most Common Sourdough Issues?
I’ll walk you through some simple changes you can make and how to measure by WEIGHT, not volume in this quick video!
Have a question you didn’t see answered here?? Post it below!