I’m getting a lot of the same questions about the Sourdough Starter, and the Sourdough Bread made from the starter,so I thought I’d provide a troubleshooting guide to help folks with the difficulties they may be having. I update these FAQs as I learn or think of more information.
This post was substantially updated (along with the Sourdough Starter post) on 8/8/14.
The main thing to remember is that sourdough is a living thing—it is a combination of wild yeast and bacteria. Since yeast and bacteria are living and not chemical (like baking powder), they react in ways that we can often guess at but that we cannot be absolutely sure of.
KEEP IN MIND: that creating a sourdough starter is a process. It takes time.
FIRST AND FOREMOST: If you did NOT do everything exactly as described in the starter recipe, go back and re-do it according to the recipe. Seriously. This means using organic cabbage, filtered water, and feeding and watering the starter on a schedule, with regular stirring.
Q: My starter doesn’t seem to be “starting”—no bubbles are happening. I followed all the directions exactly. What’s wrong?
A: There could be many things happening, not all of which are bad. Here are some questions to ask yourself:
1) Is it less than 5 days into the process? If so, continue to feed the starter every twelve hours and give the yeast a bit more time to develop.
2) Did you use non-organic cabbage? If so, and it is beyond the 5 days in #1, then I would recommend throwing out the whole thing and starting again with organic cabbage. Depending on how many chemicals have been used on the non-organic cabbage, you may have gotten a head that has no yeasts and bacteria.
3) Did you use organic cabbage but scrubbed it clean? If so, you might have scrubbed off the white yeast that is the thing that starts the process. Start again and this time, use leaves that are rinsed but not scrubbed.
4) Did you use regular tap water? If so, start again and use filtered water. Depending on what’s in your tap water (e.g., chlorine, chloramine), the yeasts and bacteria may have been killed off. Depending on how your area chlorinates its water, you can also try setting out a cup of water uncovered on the counter for 24 hours to allow the chlorine to evaporate out of the water. If your system uses something other than chlorine in its water, this sitting out process might not work (thank you to Tim McCormack for info on this). Then you can use this water for your starter. But you will have to repeat the evaporation process for all the water you add to your starter.
If this doesn’t work, I recommend buying filtered water to use with your starter.
5) Is your kitchen really cold? If so, the yeast may be having a hard time getting started. Remember—they go dormant in the cold. You will need to wait a bit longer. Yeast grow best at 70-75 degrees F/21 to 24 degrees C.
6) Are you sure it’s not bubbling? I realize that some people think it will actively bubble—which it might not do. Mine doesn’t actively bubble like a pot of boiling water. It’s more that there are bubbles in the starter. It looks like bubbles of air inside of the starter if you look through the side of the container (see photo at top). And if you look at it from the top, it will start to look “hilly” under the water versus like “sand” under the water. That said, some of my readers have said that their starter is actively bubbling. So, check carefully before you assume your starter isn’t working.
Q: When do I take the cabbage leaves out?
A: As soon as you start to see bubbling action. For me, this is after about 48 hours. See the directions in the Sourdough Starter post.
Q: My starter is really sour. Is that OK?
A: Well, a really sour taste mean that the yeast is weak and the starter is getting too acidic. This usually means 1 or both of 2 things: 1) your starter is too big. It’s too big if it’s bigger than about 2 cups/475 mls unless you’re going to bake with it right away; 2) and/or you haven’t been feeding it enough food and water/often enough. Go back and follow the directions in the Sourdough Starter post.
Q: My starter liquid has turned pink and has stayed pink. Is it OK?
A: Probably. The smell is really what will tell you if your starter has gone bad. Even though the color pink is usually associated with a bad starter, I have found that the smell is your best indicator. If it smells yucky (you will know if it’s yucky–see the next question–trust your instincts), assume that it’s bad and throw it away. FYI: my starters always have a tiny tinge of pink in the first fews days or so from the cabbage, but that goes away eventually. Also, if you’ve been faithfully following the directions and pouring out, feeding, watering and stirring on schedule, and have a kitchen that is not too hot, then it should work. Allow yourself to relax and follow the process and the pink should go away. If it doesn’t go away in about 4 days, I would throw it out and start again.
Q: How will I know if my starter has gone bad?
In order to answer this question, I let my well-developed starter go bad. I let it sit out at hot room temperature for a few days without feeding or stirring. Pee–yew! Wow. It smelled so gross that it made me nauseous. Even thinking about the smell makes me nauseous. You will know when it goes bad, believe me. There is no mistaking it. Gah. Also, it was not really a “pink” color. Instead, it was kind of a sickly, brownish, sewer-y, yucky color on top in the hooch. Seriously, there was no mistaking it being bad. Also, if it begins to grow mold on top (or on the sides of the container) it’s gone bad. There are ways to solve this problem, but for our purposes, just through out the starter and begin again.
Q: Can I add sugar or honey to the starter?
A: No, don’t add any sweeteners to the starter itself. The time to add sweeteners is in the recipe for the bread. Sugar or honey is “junk” food for the yeast—it will cause the yeast to speed up and over work themselves. Kind of like kids (heh).
Q: I want to try using a nut flour, or coconut flour or another flour that you don’t mention. Can I do this?
A: I don’t know. I haven’t used flours that I haven’t mentioned, so I can’t tell you how successful it will be. That said, coconut flour has a reputation for absorbing a lot of water compared to other flours–so I think you will probably need to add more water during the feedings/waterings.
Q: I’ve heard that I can use a gluten starter and then feed it with gluten-free flours and it will turn into a gluten-free starter. Is this true?
A: No. I have heard folks talk about doing this, but I’ve never seen someone actually do this successfully at home. Maybe it has been done in a lab somewhere but I can’t imagine it being a safe thing to do at home. I haven’t done this, but I wouldn’t recommend it. That type of gluten to gluten-free process would probably take a long time, even if it was possible. Don’t do it.
Q: Can I refrigerate my starter and leave it without feeding it for awhile?
A: Yes. See instructions in the Sourdough Starter post.
Q: I have heard about a method of creating a sourdough starter with water kefir crystals (or some other method of creating a sourdough starter). How do I do this?
A: I don’t know. I would go to a site that uses the method you’re interested in and see what instructions they have.
Q: I want to use a different starter creation method than yours. Do you think your bread recipe would work with a starter created from them?
A: I’m not sure. I imagine that a working starter is a good starter. But, I haven’t used any other starters than the one I explain on my site, so I can’t be sure. My advice is to try it and see!
Q: I’ve seen advice telling you not to use metal utensils for stirring my starter. Is metal an issue?
No. The issue with metals is with reactive metals like copper or iron. Stainless steel is just fine for sourdough (although I would recommend a glass or plastic container for the starter to live in). I use a stainless steel metal whisk to stir my starter every day and it’s fine.
Q: I did everything right and read the entire FAQs and my starter still didn’t work (or it went bad). What happened?
A: This is one of those situations where there is no real answer. Given that starter is a living thing, sometimes it doesn’t do what we want it to, no matter how well we treat it. I kind of think of it like plants in my garden. Sometimes I buy a new plant for my garden. I give it everything it needs and plant it in an optimal space and it still dies. Who knows why? I just have to start again with a new plant and hope it works the next time.
SOURDOUGH BREAD FAQ
Q: I don’t have a Dutch oven and I don’t want to get one. What should I do to make this bread?
A: This recipe is for a bread made in a 4 quart Dutch oven. If you don’t want to use a Dutch oven, then you need to do some experimenting to see how it works in other containers. Try a 9 in by 5 in loaf pan and see how it works. Or use another pan and see how it works. I don’t have time to troubleshoot with you on how to do this recipe in a different pan other than a 4 quart Dutch oven with a lid.
Also, please DO NOT ask me why this bread didn’t work if you didn’t use a Dutch oven with a lid.
Q: The bread seems dense–is that OK?
A: Yes, this recipe does make a dense bread. This isn’t a light and airy bread. Take a look at the photo on the boule post. Also, the more sour the starter the bread is made from, the weaker the yeast and the more dense the bread.
Q: No, this is really dense. Like a brick. No holes.
A: Ah. Did you use an active starter? It’s important that the yeast is not dormant when you make the bread. So, if your starter has been in the fridge for awhile and hasn’t been fed before you make the bread, then it probably won’t work that well. You need to wake up the yeast by feeding and watering them and getting them to start bubbling again before you make the bread.
Q: The bread didn’t bake all the way through. What went wrong?
1) Did you use the exact ingredients called for? If not, do it again and follow the directions exactly. If you make substitutions, then the substitutions might be what caused the bread to fail.
2) Was your starter bubbling? If not, go back and make sure your starter is viable.
3) Do you have an oven thermometer in your oven to make sure it’s heating to the temperature you think it’s heating to? If not, get one, put it in your oven and test your oven temperature.
4) Did you use an instant read thermometer to make sure your bread was 200 degrees F or more inside before you removed it from the oven? If not, get one (there are cheap ones) and use it to test your bread’s insides before removing from oven.
5) Did you follow the directions exactly and use a a 4 quart Dutch oven to bake the bread? If not, you need to get a 4 quart Dutch oven and try again. I don’t know how this bread behaves in a loaf pan.
(as of 8/8/14)