This post is all about how I took my starter from little activity and zero growth to the very active.
This post is all about how I troubleshoot my sourdough starter. These three tips took my starter from little activity and zero growth to the very active.
Do you have a sourdough starter?
Are you having trouble getting your sourdough starter to rise?
Are you asking yourself, my sourdough starter its active and bubbly but won’t rise?
Mine didn’t either. For a long time, but with a lot of patience and a ton of research I was able to turn that all around. Here is my story:
I started my journey with a sourdough starter back in June of 2019. We had just gone through a life altering situation and a friend brought me a freshly baked loaf and I instantly knew I needed this in my life. I have always been a lover of bread, and really all things carbs, but the idea of baking bread goods without the yeast packet was way over my head. Anything DIY is up my alley, so I was determined to start my own. I scoured the internet, and countless tips from my friend Lacey (sorry Lacey for all the million frantic texts), and watched multiple tutorials on how to make a starter and finally decided to give it a shot (Start your own starter with my tutorials here).
The first couple of days it was looking really good, bubbles and everything, until I left it on the counter to feed and to my surprise my dog ATE the entire thing! Like licked the bowl and all. I was on about day 3 so the smell was horrible and probably tasted that way as well. I felt defeated but still determined to start again. So that night I restarted the whole process over and this time found a nice safe space up high so that didn’t happen again.
I made it the entire first week and thought “oh I am so ready for bread”! I followed a recipe step by step and when I lifted the lid of my dutch oven I was so disappointed as I had made a flour and water hockey puck! Not a beautiful loaf of bread like my friend had spoiled me with. It was so hard I could have knocked someone out with it. I felt defeated, so I just threw my starter away and figured this wasn’t for me.
My intention was to give up completely but you know once something is introduced to you it just seems to pop up everywhere and you can’t stop thinking about it. Well thats what happened to me. I kept seeing all kinds of social media posts, blogs and friends talking about their weekly bread making! It felt as if I was missing out on something so special. I then decided to dive into the sourdough world and give it my all because like I said, my love for bread is just that strong. I read blogs, watched countless youtube videos and just about any other source I could find.
Third Times the Charm
My third attempt at a starter, I followed a combination of different ways and was very pleased with how it looked after just a few days. The smell was fragrant but not too strong and it was crazy active and bubbly. So again after about a week and a half I tried bread again. This time it was at least somewhat edible but still disappointing and nothing like you see on instagram.
I decided to just focus on making pancakes, english muffins and a couple other treats and everything turned out so amazing but I could not figure out what my deal was with the bread!! It was so frustrated and didn’t know what to do. I would see photos of starters rising and spilling all over the counter or completely shattering jars. Mine did nothing. Again I spent an embarrassing amount of time researching how to troubleshoot my starter and I found three key things that really turned it around and now I can successfully make the most gorgeous, delicious loaves of bread and my starter has become a strong work horse in my kitchen.
What was wrong with my starter?
It didn’t rise.
Like at all. I would add my flour and water, mix together, mark the bowl and even 6 hours later there was no rise. Twelve hours later still no rise. So I figured this is where I had to start. I needed to figure out what makes the starter rise because that would then make my dough rise.
It never floated
The float test is what you do to test and see if your starter is strong enough to rise bread and mine sunk straight to the bottom every time. To do the float test you take a glass of water and drop in a teaspoon full of starter. If it floats, thats the green light to make bread.
Here is how i Troubleshooted my Sourdough Starter:
Temperature of your home. My house stays relatively cold. we keep our thermostat at about 65-68 degrees in the winter and I discovered the location of my kitchen being by both back doors and the garage it stays around 65 degrees. What I did to troubleshoot this was to put my starter in the oven with just the oven light turned on. This seemed to help and I could finally see some growth after a few hours but still not even close to double in size. It made it more active and was bubbling like crazy but the growth was very minimal. But please be careful with this method. So many times I would go to warm up my oven, forgetting that it was in there. Luckily, I haven’t completely baked my starter yet, but I have heard of that happening.
Another thing I will do from time to time is shut the door on my craft room/office and let it get above 70 degrees in there (i can control the temp) and that seems to help as well. Test out the rooms in your house to see if there is a warmer spot. I have an instant read thermometer that I use to get a general idea.
Flour and Water: The next thing I looked into was the type of flour. I was using quality King Arthur bread flour but hadn’t really considered that to be what was causing my starter to not grow. Bread flour gives bread a denser chewier texture where all purpose makes it lighter so I thought maybe it wasn’t rising because bread flour made it too "heavy”. So I decided one day it wouldn’t hurt to change it up and made the switch to unbleached all purpose King Arthur Flour. I was also really diligent about using filtered water and not the convenient tap water.
With those two things I saw even more growth. With my bread recipe, I'm currently using a combination of both flours that I am very pleased with but the feedings are strictly unbleached AP. I have friends that use bread flour and have lots of success but for mine it just didn’t work.
And what I found to be the most successful: Feed your starter equal amounts of water and flour: So many of the tutorials I watched or read were instructing to just dump and look for a certain consistency. Some even had batter bowls full of starter at their disposal so I followed that thinking. While this might be great and work for others I found this was the biggest piece missing from my starter care.
So I scaled way back. I learned that when your starter is too large it has a harder time breaking down the sugars and performing how it should. I started weighing everything with a 1:1:1 ratio. For example if I had 100 grams of starter I would add 100 grams of flour and 100 grams of water. I did this for a few days and went back to using half in pancakes or English muffins and keeping the other half to feed at that ratio.
One day I fed it and came back about 8 hours later and to my surprise it didn’t just double in size, it was spilling over the edge of my bowl and onto the counter. I immediately did a float test and was blown away that it just sat on the top of the water! It was finally ready for bread!!!
My friend Megan over at Our Simply Rooted Farmhouse recently made her first starter and had a great tip to get it active. Go check out her post if you would like some additional inspiration.
Making that first loaf:
Nervously, I made my dough that evening. However, the next day to my surprise I made the first loaf of sourdough bread I could be proud of. It still didn’t have quite the height I wanted but was still a wonderful compliment to my dinner. This was October 2019 so about four months since I began my sourdough journey. I spent the next two months following my care routine for my starter. To my surprise my loaves were getting bigger and better with each attempt. We also fell in love with the English muffins. I am now asked by my family to make those quite often. Along with muffins, we make bagels, pancakes, crackers, cinnamon rolls, brioche bread and the list just keeps growing. In fact we have not purchased bread in months. I make all our own bread goods from my starter.
Then it finally happened. The day before Christmas Eve I knew I wanted to make a loaf to share with my family. I was so nervous. However, when I took it out of the oven I was full of so much excitement. I think I might have actually cried. My husband always gets a kick out of how much I love baking bread. The joy I got from making something out of two very simple ingredients was incredible. After that I made an amazing appetizer which my family inhaled. I was officially addicted.
These three things is what turned my starter around. This is the feeding routine but now I'm not as strict with the 1:1:1 with most things. I just make sure that the water and flour measurements are exact. If I want to make a loaf then I make sure it is exactly a 1:1:1. It works and I don’t want to mess with it.
Other ways to Troubleshoot Your Sourdough Starter:
As I am hearing from others who are making a starter I will add what they have found successful:
- Place your jar or bowl on a heating pad on level 1. I had a friend do this and she went from seeing very little growth to major growth.
If you are having difficulty getting your starter to perform properly, do not give up! I was so close to throwing out my 3rd attempt and I'm so glad I didn’t. Try different flours & water, find a slightly warmer environment and most importantly pay attention to how you are feeding it. Please share your experiences with me and if you took your starter from a dud to a stud. Lastly don’t forget to name your starter. Once mine made some successful loaves I figured she needed a name and Monica was an obvious choice. The show Friends has and will always be my favorite show so Monica was the perfect fit. She’s bubbly energetic and makes all the good food. My starter is definitely a Monica.
Here are my other sourdough related posts:
- Sourdough Starter Discard Crackers
- Sourdough Starter Discard Recipes - From Sweet to Savory
- What is Sourdough Discard And How To Store and Use It
- The Best Dutch Oven for Baking Bread
- Sourdough Discard Banana Bread
- Sourdough Discard Naan
- Sourdough Discard Lemon Poppy Seed Muffins
- Sourdough Starter Breakfast Bites
- Easy Overnight Sourdough Bread
- How to Maintain a Sourdough Starter and FAQ