I’m getting a lot of the same questions about the sourdough starter, so I thought I’d provide a troubleshooting guide to help folks with the difficulties they may be having.
The main thing to keep in mind is that sourdough is a living thing—it is a combination of 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.
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, the yeasts and bacteria may have been killed off.
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.
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: My starter is really sour. Is that OK?
A: This is one of those super-subjective questions that is hard to answer. The best answer is that it is up to you whether or not the starter is “too” sour. I like a super-sour bread. Other people I know like just a touch of sourness. I have noticed that the high protein flours, especially bean flours, produce more sourness. So, if yours is more sour than you’d like it to be, then stop using bean flours if you’ve been using them. Also, it’s really a personal taste issue. Unless the following issue (pink starter) occurred:
Q: My starter liquid has turned pink and has stayed pink and it smells kind of off. Is it OK?
A: No. If the starter becomes pink after the first few days of pinkness from the red cabbage, then it has gone bad. And if it smells yucky (you will know if it’s yucky–trust your instincts), assume that it’s bad and throw it away. Pink is the classic color of starter gone bad. My starters always have a tiny tinge of pink in the first few days from the cabbage, but that goes away quickly.
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: Sure! My philosophy is always to try it to see if it works. That said, I haven’t used flours that I haven’t mentioned, so I can’t tell you how successful it will be. But try it and see what happens!
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: 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. I would recommend against doing this.
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.
(as of 3/18/13)
(as of 3/27/12)