Please help me reactivate a VERY old starter!


I recently aquired a white wheat sourdough from 1857. It sits on the counter and I feed it daily with equal volumes of flour and water (following instructions from the lovely sourdough owner) but it doesn't bubble and it doesn't rise. It just separates with a layer of liquid on the top. Yesterday I tried adding a bit more flour in case the mixture was too wet, and it hasn't separated, but it still doesn't seem active (save for maybe 1 or 2 bubbles). It also has a distinctly sour smell, more like lemon juice, which seems different to my other starters.

I know the sourdough was happy and active with the previous owner. I noticed she kept it in a plastic tupperware which I know is a lot more porus than my glass jar, and I wondered if the plastic helped/housed much of the yeast. I also used disinfectants in my kitchen (I have now vowed to stop) which could also account for it becoming inactive with me. 

At the moment my only plan is to  continue what I'm doing and hopefully build up the yeast community over time. I am reluctant to change anything drastically, because I don't want to change the starter too much and essentially loose whatever it is that makes it the 1857 starter! Does anyone have any suggestions? Would feeding it some sugar/honey/rye/wholewheat change the yeasts? 

136 users have voted.


Montreal 2013 May 4
It is kind of cheating by changing the original conmposition of your starter but feed it Rye for the next 3 days at 115% hydration. So keep doing what your doing with your original starter but take 50 gr of starter, add 75 gr of flour and 87 gr of water and start another starter with that. Refresh this every 12 hours. You should see it coming back to life. If it works you then continue feeding wheat or whatever you want your starter to be. Just make sure that you feed more flour than the actual amount of starter otherwise you are starving your starter and it's going back dormant. Keep me posted Dan
shasta's picture
shasta 2013 May 4

By separating I'm assuming you're seeing liquid on top of it. If so, it's called hooch and is usually a sign that you need to feed it more often.
If you have a kitchen scale, I suggest that you take say 100g of starter and add to it 100g of flour and 100g of water. That will give you a total of 300g @ 100% hydration. repeat every 12 hours. You should see lots of action and it should rise in the container to more than double as it goes through the cycle. You can use less starter if you like, say 50g but you would then feed 50g of flour and 50g of water.
Good luck

farinam's picture
farinam 2013 May 4

Hello Tigeroo,

To my way of thinking, a sesguicentenarian starter is a bit like Captain Cook's axe, five new heads and ten new handles, but still the same axe.  Every new feed introduces new yeasts and bacteria to the mix, and which survive and which thrive depends on a number of factors, all of which suggests that any similarity to the original starter from 150 years ago is likely to be minimal to say the least.  What might be admired is the fact that somebody (or a series of somebody's) has been so persistent as to have continued to maintain and vouch for the provenance of such a beast.

Good luck with your projects.


Tigeroo 2013 May 4

Thank you all for your replies. The starter is the lovely Jane Mason's 1857.

What I dont understand is that the starter is producing hooch, but it does not bubble or rise beforehand. It just seems to separate slightly. I can try feeding it more often though and see if that makes a difference. 

I get your point Farinam, I just wanted to keep the starter as authentic as possible. Although I understand that the existing cultures may well be very different to those of 1857, or indeed last month. But then again, they might also be very old too :)

Like Montreal suggested, I took a small amount out of the main starter and have tried feeding it rye. It seems a bit more active, so I'll continue to feed that bit rye for a while and see what happens. Both the original and rye starters still smell very similair and distinct - so maybe changing the flour wont necesserily change the cultures in the starter too drastically?

Thanks again to everyone who has replied. Any other suggestions would be greatly appreciated!


shasta's picture
shasta 2013 May 5

If the hydration ratio is high say 166% of the flour amount it my not appear too bubbly and won't rise and tends to produce more hooch. Less hydration say 100% will rise and if fed regularly will not produce much hooch.

Good luck.

farinam's picture
farinam 2013 May 5

...if the hydration is too high, the flour and water will just pyhsically separate into layers.

You mention that you feed equal volumes of flour and water.  Depending on where you are a cup of water will contain (say) 250g of water.  Depending on how you fill it and the type of flour, the same cup will contain between 125g and 175g of flour.  So, as Shasta suggested, I would consider starting to weigh your ingredients and move to about 100% hydration or at least cut back the relative amount of water that you add to about two thirds of the volume of flour..

Good luck with your projects.


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