Skip to Content

How to Tell if Your Sourdough Starter is Bad

How to Tell if Your Sourdough Starter is Bad

Share this post:

This post may contain affiliate links. If you click one of these links and make a purchase, I may earn a commission at no additional cost to you. In addition, as an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

“Is my sourdough starter going bad?” is a common concern for newbie bakers attempting sourdough bread for the first time. Interestingly, even seasoned cooks may struggle to maintain their starters.

Well, the good news is that sourdough starters are far more resilient than most people give them credit for. And you can always kickstart an inactive starter back to life.

Nevertheless, despite their resilience, sourdough starters do indeed go bad, and there are telltale signs to watch out for. Let me show you how to identify a dying sourdough starter and remake one from scratch if needed.

What Is Sourdough Starter?

If you’re new to baking, a sourdough starter is a living culture of yeast and lactic acid bacteria. You use it as a leavener to make your bread dough rise.

The difference is that it uses “wild” yeast instead of commercial ones. I know it sounds a bit weird but wild yeast is virtually all around us—in a bag of flour, in your hands, in the air, and more.

While most people use it to make sourdough bread, you can still use a sourdough starter to bake all sorts of pastry, from pizza to cinnamon rolls and cookies.

How Can You Tell Your Sourdough Starter Is Bad?

Jar Of Sourdough Starter

Fermenting sourdough starters takes at least one week to complete. Within that time, you’ll need to monitor and feed the yeast.

After putting this much time into creating your sourdough starter? It’s only natural to want to know how to tell if it’s going the way it’s supposed to.

You don’t want to wait until you’re ready to bake to realize there’s no starter in sight!

Putrid Smell

One of the first signs of a dying sourdough starter is the smell. A healthy starter will smell musty and a little tangy, like smelling cheese or yogurt. 

That’s usually the case for starters that use rye flour. It has a unique aroma but doesn’t make you feel queasy or disgusted unless you’re extra sensitive to smell.

However, a dead or dying sourdough starter will smell way worse. It’s like having spoiled or rotten food near your nose. Sometimes, the scent is like acetone or ammonia.

Put simply, if your reaction to smelling the starter is to recoil in disgust, it’s likely going bad.

Mold and Discoloration

Besides the smell, watch out for any signs of mold inside your jar. Mold is a surefire indication that your starter is going bad or spoiled.

You’ll usually see discolorations when mold invades the container. Typical signs include pink, orange, green, or white fuzzy growth, which exudes a terrible odor.

If you notice these discolorations in your starter, I recommend throwing it out and making another fresh batch.

Rising and Falling Rate

The activity inside the starter jar also signals whether the yeast is alive or dying. That’s because fermentation exudes gas which makes the yeast rise. 

So, if you notice the sourdough starter rising, it’s a good indication of its health.

However, note that activity in starters can vary based on the flour you’re feeding the starter. You’ll find that a starter rises more when you feed it with protein-rich white flour than whole wheat or rye.

How to Keep Your Sourdough Starter Alive

Fermenting Sourdough Starter

It’s difficult to kill a sourdough starter. I’ve known some people who left their starter unattended for a week and turned out alive and kicking.

But it’s not impossible. So, here are some practical considerations when fermenting your first sourdough starter:

Maintain Optimal Temperature

It’s crucial to maintain a cozy environment to keep your starter kicking. Yeast can be sensitive to high temperatures, so aim for a room that hovers around 70 degrees Fahrenheit.

Some people use the oven as a makeshift warm spot. But if you’re trying this hack, don’t forget to take the starter out before turning the oven on!

Feed It Regularly

Be consistent. Feed your starter at the same time every day.

If you spy a layer of liquid on top, known as “hooch,” don’t panic. It’s just the yeast saying it’s hungry and needs that well-deserved flour food.

When you begin your starter, don’t be alarmed if you don’t see any activity, like bubbles, for a few days. You may even see some bubbles one day and not the next.

Continue feeding your starter and they should return in a few days.

Watch Out For Mold

Tend to your sourdough starter every day to ward off unwanted guests. Remember, mold and pesky bacteria can infest at any time.

If you notice discolorations and pungency, bid your beloved yeast goodbye and start anew!

How to Make Sourdough Starter From Scratch

Sourdough Starter In Closed Jar On Counter

You can make your sourdough starter very simply with flour and water. Here’s an easy breakdown of the process:

Day One

In a clean 1-quart glass container combine one cup of whole wheat flour or unbleached all-purpose flour with 1/2 cup of cool water.

Stir this mixture completely to ensure no dry flour remains.

Cover the container with plastic wrap or a clean kitchen towel. Then, let the starter sit in a warm area, around 70 degrees, for the next 24 hours.

Day Two

The next day you won’t see much of a change. However, you’ll need to remove and discard half of your starter which is about a half-cup. 

Add a cup of unbleached all-purpose flour to the leftover starter with 1/2 cup of cool water.

Repeat the same steps above – mix completely, cover the bowl, and let it sit for another 24 hours at room temperature.

Day Three

The starter should show some signs of activity. The starter will have expanded. It should also have a certain aroma and will be bubbling.

From this point, you will feed the starter twice every day, with each feeding evenly spaced out. Take a 1/2 cup of starter out of the bowl and remove what’s left.

Once done, put the 1/2 cup back into the bowl and add one cup of unbleached all-purpose flour and 1/2 cup water. Cover and let it sit out for another 12 hours before you repeat this step.

Day Four to Seven

Repeat the steps above for the next three days. You’ll soon see the starter has doubled and is extremely bubbly, proudly exuding its first whiffs of aroma.

You will continue feeding your sourdough starter until it is ready for your recipe. 

Once it reaches this stage, give it one final feeding and then remove what you need to bake your starter to create your delicious sourdough bread.

Final Thoughts

There you go. That covers everything you need to learn about sourdough starters. With this guide, you can savor the delightful tang and earthy aroma of freshly baked sourdough bread!

If baking bread in bulk, check out these ideas for using your leftover bread.

Share this post:

Priya Pallath

Thursday 2nd of July 2020

hi!, I have a doubt. I have started making sourdough starter 9 days back. It rose well till 7th day but on 7th an 8th day , it did not rise as much, so i did not feed it. on 8th day onwards i started feeding it again. 100 ml water, 100 ml starter, 100 ml wheat flour. It started rising within 15 mins to half an hour of putting it in a fresh bottle(i always use fresh bottle after feeding). It rises almost to 3 inches and after a few hours falls 1/2 inch. I feed it twice a day at 12 hours interval. My ques : 1. Is it ok that my starter rises almost immediately? Is my starter alive? 2. When will i know that my starter is ready for making bread?