Sourdough for Beginners

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

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.

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Brett Regot

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.

Credit: Modernist Cuisine

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!

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