How Do I Know If It’s Dead? And Other Sourdough Starter Questions, Answered (2024)

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Sourdough for Beginners

Meghan Splawn

Meghan Splawn

Meghan was the Food Editor for Kitchn's Skills content. She's a master of everyday baking, family cooking, and harnessing good light. Meghan approaches food with an eye towards budgeting — both time and money — and having fun. Meghan has a baking and pastry degree, and spent the first 10 years of her career as part of Alton Brown's culinary team. She co-hosts a weekly podcast about food and family called Didn't I Just Feed You.


updated Dec 8, 2022





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If I had a dollar for every text, DM, or phone call I’ve answered about sourdough starters just this month, I’d have enough funds to start a small bakery. Make no mistake — I welcome the opportunity to demystify the process of creating, feeding, and baking with a sourdough starter at home.

Caring for a starter shouldn’t be scary, and it only takes a few minutes of time each day (and even less once your starter is established).

Below, I’m answering five of the most common questions about feeding and maintaining a sourdough starter, gathered from Kitchn readers, my friends, and our own Apartment Therapy sourdough Slack channel.

But, First: What Is a Sourdough Starter?

A sourdough starter is a simple mixture of flour and water that has collected natural yeast and bacteria, which give natural leavening (aka rise) and flavor to baked goods. A starter can be substituted for commercial yeast or work in tandem with yeast to raise breads, biscuits, and more.

1. Did I kill my starter? And how do I know if it’s still alive?

A healthy, lively starter that has been properly fed has a clean, slightly yeasty scent and a bubbly surface. Remember — a brand new baby starter isn’t going to have much aroma or bubbles for the first few days, so if your starter is new, it’s likely not dead, it’s just not active yet.

The most common mistake people make when starting a sourdough starter from scratch is storing it in too cold of a location. Make sure your starter is at room temperature while you’re building it.

It’s also very common for starters to have a lot of activity in the first few days and then slow down. The first few super bubbly days are often a result of other bacteria coming to play in the starter, but when they die off, the bubbles will slow or even stop. Keep feeding your starter, and you’ll see normal activity (bubbles) return in a few days.

If your starter has a bit of dark liquid on top, it’s not dead! It simply means it’s hungry and that it’s time to feed it. Unless your starter has a pink or orange hue or is beginning to mold, you probably haven’t killed it yet.

As long as you do your best to create a consistent feeding routine for your starter and store it in the same spot everyday, it should be fine. Pretty soon, you’ll develop an eye for what makes your starter happy.

2. I want to try this, but I only have whole wheat flour at home right now. Will that work?

Yes, absolutely! Whole wheat and rye starters are pretty common in professional bakeries, and can also be fed and maintained with all-purpose flour later on down the line. Keep in mind that whole wheat and rye starters might need more than one feeding a day (most get fed every 12 hours) as they have more available “food” for the hungry bacteria and yeast in your starter.

3. When is my starter strong enough for baking?

A new starter will be ready for bread baking within 7 to 10 days. The best way to tell if your starter is ready is to feed it and measure its growth in a four hour period. A healthy, robust starter should double in volume within four hours of feeding. If it does double, begin the next step of the process (the levain) immediately.

You can also perform a “float test” which is a little less reliable, but can be used if you feel pretty confident in your starter and want to skip the feeding test. Just fill a cup with room temperature water and add 1 teaspoon of your starter. If it floats, it’s ready to go!

4. When you say discard half the starter, what do you mean? Throw it out?

You’ll discard half the starter to keep the ratio of starter to flour and water consistent, and so that you don’t end up with a gallon of starter when you only need a cup or two for most baking projects.

If you’re following Kitchn’s starter guide, you’ll begin “discarding” after day 4 of establishing your starter. You can throw discard away, but you can also use this discard to make another starter to share with a friend or save it for cooking and baking. Personally, I keep an airtight container of discard in my fridge for baking biscuits and making crackers and pancakes.

5. Can I take a break from my starter?

Yes, after your starter is established (about 10 days after you created it), you can move it from room temperature storage, where you feed it everyday, to the fridge. A starter stored in the fridge can be fed once a week. If you plan to use it often, you can store it for up to two months without feeding. When you want to use the starter again, remove it from the fridge for a few hours, then feed it every 12 hours for 36 hours before you make bread with it.

Need a really long break? You can even freeze your starter!

Sourdough for Beginners: Meet Your Crew

More Sourdough Resources

  • How To Make Sourdough Starter from Scratch
  • How to Make Sourdough Bread
  • Beginner Sourdough Sandwich Loaf
  • Essential Sourdough Equipment: Here’s Everything You Need to Make Sourdough Bread at Home

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How Do I Know If It’s Dead? And Other Sourdough Starter Questions, Answered (2024)


How Do I Know If It’s Dead? And Other Sourdough Starter Questions, Answered? ›

Keep feeding your starter, and you'll see normal activity (bubbles) return in a few days. If your starter has a bit of dark liquid on top, it's not dead! It simply means it's hungry and that it's time to feed it.

How do I know if my sourdough starter is active enough? ›

A “ripe” starter is one that's fermented for some number of hours and is ready to use in a recipe, whether to make a levain or mix directly into a dough for sourdough bread-making. Generally, when a starter is ripe, it has risen, is bubbly on top, has a sour aroma, and has a looser consistency.

Why is my starter bubbling but not rising? ›

If your starter gets completely covered on top with bubbles but does not rise, it is healthy but may just be a wet mix. Try reducing the water in your next feeding and see if you have different results. Also, the type of flour you are using can impede the rise of your starter.

What does successful sourdough starter look like? ›

To determine when your starter is ready to be fed (or used for baking), look for a combination of signs: some rise, bubbles on top and at the sides, a sour aroma, and a loose consistency (it should loosen the longer it ferments).

What if my sourdough starter fails the float test? ›

Many sourdough recipes rely on the float test to determine whether a starter is ready to bake. If your starter doesn't pass this test, you may need to wait a few hours (or several days) before you can try again.

How do you know if sourdough is fermented enough? ›

Under fermented bread will not spring up in the oven. It's dense, gummy and often pale (depending on the degree of under fermentation). Dough that has not been bulk fermented long enough will also be difficult to shape, sticky and will often spread once tipped out the banneton. Good sourdough takes time!

What does underfed sourdough starter look like? ›

If your sourdough starter exhibits any of these signs: - Smells like acetone or vinegar - Has a runny consistency - Is full of tiny bubbles or foaming - Doubles in size and then falls back down - Develops a clear, gray, or black liquid on top - Gets a white, powdery substance on the surface It's time to feed it!

Should I stir my sourdough starter between feedings? ›

stir your starter in between feedings - try stirring it twice in between feedings and really give it a chance to get oxygen into the mix. This will help to activate your starter without too much effort.

Why is my sourdough starter runny and not rising? ›

If your starter is too runny, it maybe that you need to increase the ratio. A ratio of 1:2:2 can work - so you'd double the flour and water. Alternatively, if your starter is very runny, a 1:2:1 ratio could be used. This would mean that for 50g of starter, you'd feed it 100g of flour and 50g of water.

Why is my sourdough starter not rising but producing hooch? ›

My sourdough starter has hooch but not rising? If your sourdough starter has hooch, this indicates that it is hungry so it will not rise. A sourdough starter rises as it consumes food and the yeast produce CO2 gas, causing the mixture to rise in the jar. You'll be able to see bubbles forming on the surface of the jar.

Should sourdough starter have big or small bubbles? ›

As long as your starter is doubling (or even tripling) in a timely manner after being fed, the size of the bubbles don't really matter too much. What you're looking for is activity and fermentation. Bubbles of any kind are an indication that this is happening inside your jar.

Do you have to discard sourdough starter every time you feed it? ›

With each sourdough starter feeding, you'll be discarding some to avoid it from becoming overly acidic. Most will compost or trash this discard, but you can save it and use it in other recipes!

Should my sourdough starter be thick at first? ›

Does it matter if my starter is thick or thin, you ask? Nope! Thick and thin starters are both full of wild yeasts and bacteria which is what your bread is begging for. The viscosity of your starter is really just a personal preference because thick and thin starters will both make bread.

How to tell if sourdough starter is bad? ›

Typical signs of food spoilage and mold include pink, orange, or green colors, white fuzzy spots, or sometimes areas that are darker with white areas on top. If you see any of these signs, I would recommend throwing your starter away and creating a new one.

What does a weak sourdough starter look like? ›

The starter looks lifeless

Other than failed bread and weak dough, you can tell just by looking at a starter that it is weak. It won't have any bubbles and it won't rise very much after feeding. It will look lifeless. An active, bubbly starter, on the other hand, looks alive.

What happens if sourdough starter doesn't double in size? ›

If your starter has never predictably grown to double its original size after feeding it, then it's not an active starter.

How do I know when my sourdough starter needs feeding? ›

At some point, you'll experience a dark, grayish liquid on the surface of your sourdough starter. Don't stress. Hooch is just a sign that your starter needs to be fed. Simply pour it off, removing any discolored starter underneath and give it a fresh feeding.

How do I know if my sourdough starter is alive? ›

Keep feeding your starter, and you'll see normal activity (bubbles) return in a few days. If your starter has a bit of dark liquid on top, it's not dead! It simply means it's hungry and that it's time to feed it. Unless your starter has a pink or orange hue or is beginning to mold, you probably haven't killed it yet.

What does inactive sourdough starter look like? ›

Sometimes, you might find your sourdough starter exhibiting signs of neglect - perhaps a sourdough black liquid on top or a smell that's a bit off. This doesn't necessarily mean you have a bad sourdough starter or that your starter has gone bad.

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