Wednesday, September 19, 2012

How to divide a Sourdough Starter, plus troubleshooting Sourdough troubles

A sourdough starter is a living thing and needs care to stay alive.  A starter can survive for hundreds of years if properly cared for.  I've even heard rumours that there are starters around that are over one thousand years old!  The longest I've kept a starter was 4 and a half years, although a friend of mine who I gave some too, still has it, so it's about 12 years old now.

That reminds me Sourdough starters are great gifts to give to friends (and a possible idea for Christmas presents... hmmm.)

How to Divide Your Sourdough Starter

To divide your sourdough starter, separate half of the starter in to a new bowl.  Feed as usual (1/2 cup flour, 1/2 cup water, stir really well and leave out overnight or if during the day for about four hours).  Don't forget to feed your half too.

Usually I separate just before I give the starter away that way the starter can eat on it's journey to it's new home and be ready to put in the fridge when it gets there.

Troubleshooting Sourdough Troubles

Being a living thing, a sourdough starter can sometimes get a bit, um, temperamental.

Here are a list of problems I've come across from time to time and their possible solutions.  If you have any questions, please leave a comment and I'll do my best to answer them.  As more questions happen, I'll update this list.

I made a starter and it didn't get bubbly.

This means that the yeast didn't grow in your starter.  This could be for several reasons.  You might be using treated water, like city tap water, that has added chemicals in it that prevent the growth of bacteria and yeast.  Or possibly you don't have enough natural yeast in the air.  Or, it could be too cold where you had it.  Or, some bad bacteria might have gotten into the starter and overpowered the yeast. Or, it could just be a matter of luck.  Sourdough yeast is a living thing and sometimes it just doesn't feel like growing.

Toss out your first try and start again.  Make sure the starer is in a warmish place (average temp between 67 to 75 degrees F.) with plenty of airflow (but no draft).  Buy some fresh, organic fruit and keep it in the same room as the would-be starter.  This helps add yeast to the air as natural yeast likes to grow on fruit.  Make sure the cover on the sourdough is not airtight.

My new starter got really bubbly but then suddenly stopped 

This can mean that your starter is hungry.  If the weather has been consistently warm, the yeast may be super-active and ate up all its food. Feed it with about 1/4 to 1/2 cup of flour and an equal amount of water, then leave it stand for 12 hours.  If it bubbles up again, then you know it was just hungry.

This can also happen if the temperature has gone from warm to cool.  The cooler it is, the less active the starter.  Try to keep the new starter at a consistantly warm temp for the first few days while it gets established.  To save this starter, try feeding it (as above) and keeping it above 65 degrees F.

There is a strange liquid in my starter and it smells like alcohol

Congratulations, you have now made hooch.  NOT that I would recommend drinking it.  This happens when the yeast in the sourdough starter starts converting the sugars in the flour to alcohol.  It's not a good thing.  It's usually occurs if the starter has been left too long between feeding or at too warm a temp.

It is sometimes possible to save the starter, and well worth a try.  Drain off the hooch and feed the starter as per normal.  If it bubbles up after the usual feeding time, you know it can be saved.  Feed it again!  And after the required waiting time, feed it a third time.   (you guys know that when I say feed, I mean, feed it flour, water and wait a while for it to start working, right?).  If you don't want that much starter then you can divide it between each feeding.

This has saved my sourdough more than once, but if it's been left too long, then I'm very sorry to inform you, but your sourdough starter has passed away. Joined the choir invisible, pushing up the daisies. You need a new one.

My Sponge didn't bubble up overnight

Possibly too cold.  Did you do like me and leave it under an open window?  Put it out of the draft and somewhere a little bit warmer.  If it starts to bubble up then you know for next time not to leave it there.

Did you leave it too long?  More than 12 hours and the sponge will use up all its food and go dormant.  Feed it again and wait at least 4 hours until it goes all bubbly.

Bread didn't rise

Oh dear, you do like to ask the tough questions, don't you?

Did it not rise at all or did it not rise enough?

If it didn't rise at all, it might be that there is something wrong with your starter.  Try feeding it, and if it responds positively (with bubbles) over the usual period of time, then it is alive.  It might need a few feeding to get it active again.  This is assuming you did make a sponge the night before you tried to make bread.

If it didn't rise enough... well, there are many possible causes.  If someone hasn't written a very long book on the topic, please let me know.  I'm thinking at least 400 pages could easily be dedicated to why didn't my bread rise properly.

But, here are some of the more common solutions.

  • starter wasn't active enough
  • temperature wasn't warm enough/was too warm/was inconsistent.
  • Didn't wait long enough (sourdough takes longer than commercial yeast)
  • Didn't knead the dough enough/kneaded too much.
  • Not enough glutin in the flour for it to rise.  Even changing from bread flour to whole wheat will give you a noticeable difference.  Using something like rye, spelt, or a gultin free flour will give a heavy bread no matter what yeast you use.

If you have any questions, please leave a comment.  I hope to expand this page as the need requires.


  1. Hello!

    This is my first time beginning a sourdough starter. I followed a recipe which calls for, after beginning the starter (3 T. of warm water + 1/2 cup flour), letting it rest for 48 hrs., then removing the dark part that has formed on the top, before adding again the same amounts of flour and warm water. I did remove the dark, somewhat crusty layer on top, revealing the nice, creamy starter underneath.
    I noticed that on top of the dark layer, there were a few spots with a white substance that was almost spiderweb-like.
    So, might you know what that substance is? My starter is being stored in a small glass bowl, covered with a cloth, then fitted with a plate on top in a dark cabinet. I wondered if it may be because the container is not technically sealed, but I have heard of many people just putting a cloth or coffee filter over their starter container.

    Thank you for any advice you may have!

  2. It's difficult to say what it is, but it doesn't sound like something that is harmful. If it makes you feel uncomfortable, toss it and start again, but if it were me, then I would scrape it off and keep going to see how the starter develops.

    When you begin a sourdough starter, what you are really doing is catching wild yeast that lives in the air. To do this, the mix needs to be exposed to the air. It would attract more yeast if it were open to the air, but also bugs might get in, so a towel or some sort of cover is useful to keep the critters out.

    It's possible the white substance could be a kind of surface yeast, like the white bloom that grows on the surface of a grape or apple.

    I could also be a harmless mold, especially if it is too warm. Remember, wild yeast is use to living at room temperature (your room temperature in your area). Unlike modern commercial yeast, it dose not thrive at warm temperatures. Sure it will rise faster if kept warmer (sometimes) but being too warm upsets the balance of bacteria and yeast. Don't forget not all mold is bad - cheese and miso are just some foods that use mold to make deliciousness. But if it is black mold, definitely toss it.

    Or, it could also be spider webs. Maybe some tiny spiders snuck under your cloth?

    Personally, I would scrape off the white specks and keep going to see how it turns out. However, it is your starter, and you need to feel comfortable with it. If you start again, check to make certain that your flour isn't bleached or have too many ingredients other than grain (many preservatives are designed to kill yeast and bacteria) and maybe use boiled and cooled water in case the tap water also has purification chemicals in it (chemicals that are designed to kill yeast, bacteria, among other things). Lastly, I know this isn't common doctrine in baking books, but try not keeping the starter in a warm place, instead keep it at counter level, on your counter, preferably next to your fresh fruit bowl (fruit has a lot of wild yeast living on it).

    Any more problems/questions, let me know.

  3. Wow, I did not expect such a prompt response. Thank you!

    Haha! I am certain that no spiders got inside the bowl.

    You have given me great advice here! I definitely see many things that I could have done differently in beginning a starter: more airflow was needed; it was probably suffocating inside the pantry being under a cloth AND a fitted plate. Keeping it at counter level next to fruit makes sense as well.
    There is no bleached flour at my house! My starter was made with organic high-extraction einkorn flour—with no added ingredients. I use well water that has also been filtered through a water pitcher, so there are no chemicals in the water.

    I am wondering, the recipe I was using called for warm water for feeding the starter. Is this necessary?

    I do hope that I removed the mold thoroughly enough, and that I did not accidentally fold it back in instead.

    So, the mold appeared after the first 48 hrs. of beginning the starter. ---Can mold really develop that quickly?--- I continued feeding the starter every 24 hrs. after that. Then on day 5 of the starter, I refreshed a Tbs of starter for future baking, and used the rest in a cracker recipe. The crackers tasted delicious-- my whole family liked them! I am not too concerned about the mold. Since the day that I removed the mold, the starter seems fine to me, but does it seem that there is any chance of contamination throughout the starter? If so, would it be obvious? Perhaps I did not allow enough time to observe the starter before putting it in the fridge…

    My starter has been in the fridge for a few days now; I have not yet made a decision about whether to stick with that one, or began again. Also, I put the starter in the fridge on day 5. Would you say that this was too soon for refrigeration?

    Thank you very much for your time!

    1. Please respond as soon as you are able to! ^_^

    2. Apologies for the delay. I have some rather intense family things going on right now.

      How is it going with your starter? It sounds like you are off to a good start.

      I haven't worked with einkorn flour (yet). It sounds intriguing and something I'm looking forward to learning about. I wonder if I can buy seeds... I don't see why it wouldn't work, but then again, maybe the wild yeast might not be use to this grain (our cultural obsession with wheat may have unknowingly effected the wild invisible beasties to prefer wheat - sort of an semi-natural selection) so it may have trouble getting started in the einkorn, however once it does, then it should do just fine.

      Warm water - I don't usually bother with it as it's not necessary and has given no noticeable benefit. I know I'm in the minority with this opinion, but thinking about it, wild yeast is accustomed to the local temperature and doesn't need to be pampered like commercial yeast. I most often use room temperature water, but if I'm in a hurry, I've been known to use warm, cold, iced, or whatevers on hand.

      If the water is too hot, it will kill the yeast. However, most sourdough yeast can survive freezing just fine, so I do like to err on the side of too cold over too hot.

      As for mold - One of the miracles of sourdough starter is that once the bacteria gets strong enough, the environment is too sour for mold to grow. We can do a few things to encourage the bacteria to grow more in the starter.

      First, is keep it on the cooler end of room temperature. This slows down the rate that the yeast eats the sugars and allows the bacteria to flourish.

      Second, the bacteria in a starter is anaerobic for the most part. It doesn't like air much.

      What I do when I want to encourage bacteria to grow in the starter, is to leave it longer between feedings in a cooler spot. I'll feed it then wait for the yeast to bubble up then die down, then wait a bit longer, so that it can be upto 48 hours between feeding.

      If it was my starter, and the mold was not smelly or black, I would keep it and see how it goes. But it's your starter, so you need to be comfortable with the decision.

      As for when to put it in the fridge, again it depends on your local yeast. I've had starters active in less than 24 hours and in the fridge by 30 hours, and others that took two weeks to get going strong enough for me to store in the fridge. 5 days seems a good average, especially if it is already making delicious biscuits. The more you use it, and feed it, the better it will be.

      Now that you have an active starter, one thing you can do is to separate it into two or more batches, store one in the fridge and per the recipe, and experiment with the others - different temperatures, feeding schedules, &c. See what works best for your local yeast. Let me know how it turns out.

    3. I forgot to mention, you can also make the starter thicker which encourages the bacteria growth - making the starter more sour - but greatly reducing the mold growth possibility.

      I love to keep my starter very thick, almost solid, which makes for a very sour starter. I accommodate for the excess sourness by making an exceptionally runny sponge before baking which balances out the flavour.

      Having a thick starter not only keeps the starter from growing moldy, but it also has an influence on my finished bread keeping time. After I've baked the bread and allowed it to cool for 24 hours, I put it in a plastic bag and leave it on the counter. It usually lasts 2 weeks or more before mold grows, sometimes up to a month.

  4. That is quite alright! I hope all is well.

    I have not fed my starter for two weeks now; I am still thinking and gathering information. I seem to be leaning toward beginning again, so that I can be confident that I have a healthy starter. And even if I choose to toss that first starter, it was not a starter made in vain, because I finally overcame the fear of actually beginning a starter.

    I cannot tell you how glad I am that I found your blog, and how much I appreciate all of the help and advice you have given me so far! I had been interested in sourdough for many months, and spent much time reading and researching about it. Some things were helpful, but not very practical---frustratingly 'precise', and frankly, unnatural. As I have seen you say to others regarding sourdough, people in the "old" days did not fuss over measuring spoons, they just tossed in some flour and water!
    I am in my early twenties, and have been teaching myself to cook and bake--two things that I became interested in over time. Sadly, none of the cooks in my family ever had a sourdough starter (except my great aunt, but it does not count--she used commercial yeast), so I have had to do it on my own.
    You have helped my uninformed brain understand what sourdough baking actually is, and in such a way that I can relate. It is clear that your advice comes from years of learning and experience, and I hope that it will eventually become natural for me as well! How sad that we modern people must re-learn all of the things that just came naturally to our ancestors.

    Ok, back to the starter!
    I really like the sound of a thick starter. How would that be achieved?
    Could you explain to me about the runny sponge as well?

    Fantastic--- 2 weeks on the counter! That would be great.

    If you have any other words of advice for me about beginning another starter, I’m eager to hear it! I know that when I begin again, I will keep the starter on the counter next to the fruit bowl, covered with a cloth...Hmm, what other things should I know?

  5. Wow! What a great resource. My mother introduced me to no knead bread a few months ago. Said it would help get me a girlfriend! Haha! Of the two attempts I made, basically neither was successful. Of course since sourdough is my favorite bread, I skipped that learning curve and went to the most difficult thing to do, starting with making sourdough starter. Last night I came home after two days to my new starter with that greenish dark color on the surface. So I stirred it in with a cup of flour because ther seemed to me more water then flour in the mixture. This morning I woke up and it looked normal but still too runny. So I added about 1/4 cup water and 1 cup flour. Seems ok. Question is: is it ok with that green crusty crap mixed in and is it ok to use a runny starter as long as it's bubbled on the top?

  6. Wow! What a great resource. My mother introduced me to no knead bread a few months ago. Said it would help get me a girlfriend! Haha! Of the two attempts I made, basically neither was successful. Of course since sourdough is my favorite bread, I skipped that learning curve and went to the most difficult thing to do, starting with making sourdough starter. Last night I came home after two days to my new starter with that greenish dark color on the surface. So I stirred it in with a cup of flour because ther seemed to me more water then flour in the mixture. This morning I woke up and it looked normal but still too runny. So I added about 1/4 cup water and 1 cup flour. Seems ok. Question is: is it ok with that green crusty crap mixed in and is it ok to use a runny starter as long as it's bubbled on the top?