Sick Starter?


Hi All

I am desperately in need of some advice and help re my starter.  I am a total newbie to sourdough, although I bake yeasted bread most weeks for myself.  A fellow poster on this site, generously gifted me 100g of his established starter.  Unfortunately, he then proceeded on hols till February.  The only instructions I was given was to frig it, keep at 50-70% hydration and feed 100g/65g flour/water respectively.  Fridged it and one week later removed from frig in the evening and fed as instructed.  Left out overnight. Temps here in Adelaide have ranged from 39-45C, thus the need for evening feeding.  It doubled overnight and back it went into the frig.  I was a happy woman! A couple of days short of the next scheduled weekly feed, (temps again) removed and fed as above.  Left out overnight, but only rose by about 1/4, but there were bubbles in the body of the mix but not overly many on top.  Back into the frig.  It is very thick and gooey (I think I could bond bowling balls together with it!) although it has quite a few lge and lots of tiny bubbles in it but virtually none on top. It smells pleasant. I haven't discarded any yet but will need to before long.

Now .. does the starter sound healthy and/or can I improve/revive it?  If I discard some, how much should I keep and what ratios should I feed it flour/water). Should it be fed the same ratios of flour/water each feed? I am using organic plain flour and spring water and sterilised containers.  I have just come to grips with bakers %s, but not hydration yet - that's coming next!  In autumn I will attempt a starter from scratch when the temperatures are more conducive.

Sorry to be so long winded and dumb, but this starter, so generously given and appreciated, is too precious to lose because of a fear of asking dumb questions.  Any help would be very greatly appreciated.



300 users have voted.


cozzyozzy's picture
cozzyozzy 2013 January 9

If you think your starter is sick you should have seen and smelled mine, my hubby asked me where I had the still hidden and if i where making Whiskey and Rye!! I'll keep trying till i get it right.

Good Luck with yours!


P.S. and that was only after 24 hours since I started that batch.

farinam's picture
farinam 2013 January 9

Hi shoshanna,

It sounds to me as if your starter is probably fine and don't be too spooked by the temperature thing.  It just means that things will happen quite a bit faster (just the same as commercial yeast).

I keep a couple of hundred grams of stock in the fridge and when I am going to bake I take it out and extract 90g.  I work at 100% hydration by the way and it is like a thick batter - flows but leaves a 8mm coating on the spoon.  To that aliquot, I add 45g flour and 45g water (total 180g) to make my loaf starter.  Then I add 45g flour (20%rye/80%wheat) and 45g water to my stock and it goes straight back into the fridge.

When the loaf starter is beavering away nicely (two or three hours in summer out to overnight in winter) I mix the dough and proceed with the bread making.  The total time from first mix to ready for the oven is similarly variable and your best bet is to use your senses but a rough guide can be the time that it takes your loaf starter to peak in volume.  It doesn't have to double necessarily because that can depend on the shape and size of the vessel that you have it in as well as the hydration.  With my 100% loaf starter I use a 500ml Pyrex jug.

So, your starter doesn't smell bad, it is making gas.  Bite the bullet and make some bread.  It is really no different to baking with commercial yeast.  It just takes a bit longer and the results can be a bit more variable but that is part of the beauty of it.  And you have nothing to lose but a bit of flour and I don't know of anybody who has made something that was completely inedible.

Good luck with your projects and let us know how you go.



shoshanna 2013 January 9

Hey Farinam

Thx for your response to my cry for help.  I realised that I was most probably being a little hysterical and having a few senior moments!  Your encouragement emboldened me, so this AM I removed starter from the frig and fed it the usual 100/65g flour/water (ahead of schedule) and will leave out of the frig seeing the temp is only 25C today and not overly hot for the next week.   Will wait for some action and then frig again. I also have started a new starter using the recipe from this site.  Only had dark rye, so used that.  Will keep you posted.  As an old boss of mine many moons ago said to me 'faint heart never won fat tart', and no, I wasn't fat!  Guess this could apply here.

Am going to follow your suggested regime prior to baking, using Emmanuel Hadjiandreou's wholegrain sourdough recipe (nothing simple for me).  He doesn't specify hydration of starter, but his starter recipe seems, to my untrained eye, to be 100% hydration.  Will I need to adjust water up in recipe to compensate for my 65% hydration?  I will be altering the seed mix in the recipe for some of my own likes, and will pre-soak overnight. He also calls for 160g wholewheat sourdough not white.  I presume I can substitute.

Would I be better to up the hydration of my starter from 65-100% on a permanent basis?  Is this is more called for in recipes, and if so, how would I convert mine?

Thanks for your response and encouragement. I have realised that if my starter leaves this world, I (hopefully) will not!!  Experience is a valuable tool .. embrace it!


farinam's picture
farinam 2013 January 9

Hello shoshanna,

There are some views about on the hydration of the culture with respect to sourness/acid generation in particular.  It seems to me (but I haven't counted) that the majority work at 100% (equal mass of flour and water).

If you wanted to change to 100% I wouldn't see any problems.  One way to achieve this is just to start feeding at the new ratio and as you remove material for your loaf starter, the hydration will eventually settle at 100%.  Otherwise you would have to determine/estimate the mass of what you have and do the calculations for how much extra water you would need to add to bring the ratio to what you want.  As an aside, I have posted in some earlier blogs two excel spreadsheets that do some recipe and hydration adjustment calculations.

If you do use the lower hydration starter then, theoretically,  you should make an allowance but it is better to err on the side of having too little liquid than too much.  It is much easier to raise the hydration reliably by adding water than the other way around.  This is because flour takes time to absorb liquid and hence the generally recommended 'autolyse' stage in dough preparation.  Because of this it is easy to over add flour.  Plus you run the risk of having undeveloped flour in the dough and a weaker structure as a result.

The other thing is if you are changing the seed blend and pre-soaking, different seeds absorb different amounts of water and this could also have an effect on final hydration albeit fairly small.  Where it could be more significant is if you are modifying a plain recipe to a seeded one then the free water from the soaker should be taken into account.

Wholemeal flour absorbs more water than white flour and will give a stiffer dough at the same hydration so it is possible that if you use the full amount of water specified for a dough containing wholemeal with only white flour your dough could end up quite soft and hard to handle.  Once again I would suggest holding back some of the water and making it up if necessary during your dough development stage (certainly after the autolyse).

Hope I haven't terrified you even more.  Keep on bakin'.


shoshanna 2013 January 11


Thx for your patience and interest.  As you may have gathered, math really  terrifies me!  Didn't know I would need a degree in maths to make sourdough!  This is one of the reasons for the interest in 100% hydration .. easy calculation.  I have read quite a few articles re high vs low hydration starters .. there is just so much contradictory advice and opinions out there .. it does your head in. I do not like really sour bread either, but don't know yet what mine will end up like.  BTW my new starter at day 3 is bubbling away nicely .. so I can see the difference between the hydrations of my 2 babies even at this stage. 

However, I will not bake for a few more days .. in my panic as to whether my established starter was still alive, I fed it quite a few days short of its next scheduled feed, so I thought I would let it munch away for a little while.  It now has a few bubbles on top, so it is not dead and still smells very good.

When I bake, I will follow your formula and remove 90g starter and feed 45/45g flour/water as my loaf starter (too hard to calculate at 65%). As the extracted starter is 65% hydraton will this still be OK for baking?  Does this need 1 or 2 feeds prior to baking?  I have also already thought about the different absorption rates of different seeds, and had decided to hold back on some of the water in the dough anyway until I can determine how it is going.   The other thing which will be different is the longer proving times.  If time runs short I may need to retard overnight so as not to be baking at midnight!

I press on!




farinam's picture
farinam 2013 January 11

Hello shoshanna,

It's not really any different to making bread with yeast.

If you wanted to adjust your loaf starter to 100% hydration you would need to add say 60gwater/40g flour to end up with ca 180 of starter. But it's not going to be that critical.

I would take your stock out of the fridge when you want to make your loaf starter, take out the 90g, add and mix in the replacement water and flour and put it back in the fridge.  When your loaf starter gets going then you make your dough.  No multiple feeds or other pfaffing around.

In terms of the taste, my experience is that it is actually slightly sweet when really fresh with a development of sour overtones as the loaf ages.  It will be interesting to see how yours turn out.

Just as an aside, I would think of making a fairly simple recipe (starter, flour, water and salt) a number of times until you get the hang of it and move onto more complex concoctions after that.  SourDom's Pane francesa from his beginners blog pages is a good standby and really can be the basis for anything that you can imagine.

Keep on bakin'


shoshanna 2013 January 15

Hi Farinam

I jumped in with both feet and decided to bake.  Starter, extracted from fridged 65% hydration starter and fed twice to bring it up to 100% hydration twice at 12 hrs.  Seemed very active so decided to bake.  Decided to make Emmanuel H's wholegrain sourdough.  Followed directions, but perhaps should have read instructions right to the end re looong prove. Recovered, but only proved for Bout 4 hours, but it had increased to about 1.5x+. Poke test seemed OK.  Baked 30  mins on stone with steam.  Result, no oven spring and although looked and sounded cooked, is rather doughy.  Perhaps underproved and underbaked?  Tastes OK, can taste slight sour (good for me) but far far too doughy.  I have learned a few valuable lessons for my next bake .. easy white next time.  I will press on.

I'm on my way and hopefully can improve.


Merrid 2013 January 16

30 minutes doesn't sound long enough to bake a loaf - my loaves usually take at least 40 minutes. Though if you did the tap test and it sounded hollow, it was probably cooked - but for sourdough you need to let it cool completely before you cut it or the centre will be gummy. And you should really use steam only for the first part of the cooking - say, the first 10 minutes or so. Otherwise the crust won't brown properly.

shoshanna 2013 January 17

Hi Merrid

Thanx for your input.  This was my very first sourdough bake with my starter, so I was flying a little blind.  A couple of issues .. I did not take into account the longer prove times and time caught up with me for prove length, and also I really did not like the recipe I used .. far too many seeds. At least I know my starter is active as the bread rose during proving.  No oven spring tho.  So, think it was underproved, underbaked and crappy recipe choice.  But I will press on with a simpler recipe next time.  Am battling 41C temps today and am trying to keep a new starter cool today.  My established starter is white 100% and the new developing one is part white/part rye 100%, which I am just experimenting with.  It is at day 9 and is the one detailed ln this site.



farinam's picture
farinam 2013 January 17

Hi Sondra,

I think it is a good move to stick with a simple recipe until you gain some confidence in what goes on.  The Pane francesa recipe that SourDom gives in his blog is about as basic as it gets and I would recommend that you make it a number of times possibly adjusting only your  dough development/proving times to suit your conditions.

Particularly concentrate on your senses to note the changes that occur in smell, texture, volume and resilience of the dough as you go through the process.

Hang in there and let us know how you go.


shoshanna 2013 January 17


Was going to start with your suggested loaf initially, but have been unable to find it on this site.  Would like to try this next time.  I am not deterred however and will press on.  My new starter, which is at day 9 now (from this site) has as of this afternoon developed a not too pleasant smell, which I cannot identify.  It has been hot here .. 43C today, but I have kept it in a chiller bag with a bottle of cold water with a thermometer, which reads about 28C, so don't know what the problem is.  This starter recipe is rather wasteful of flour also I think.  It is bubbly,sort of frothy and has increased well since its discharge and feed this am.  Don't quite know at what stage it could be refrigerated .. the recipe says 2 weeks or more.  My established starter is tucked up happily in the frig.



farinam's picture
farinam 2013 January 17

Hi Sondra,

This will take you to the page with the recipes.

The culture starting procedure does seem a bit wasteful but the idea is to create a favourable environment for the good guys to thrive and to weed out the bad guys.  Once you have a good stable culture going, the conditions are pretty much self-regulating.

It is not unusual to go through a phase of an off-ish smell (sometimes a bit like nail-polish remover) but this will usually pass.  It is only if it gets really foul that you might have a problem.  I would persist for a few more days and then you can probably move to the baking/fridge routine.

The change should just about have reached you by this.  It was between Nullarbor and Ceduna the last time I looked.


shoshanna 2013 January 17

Thanx for the link.  Will make that my next project.  Just had another whiff of my starter, and it is not as bad as I thought it was, so prob OK.  Change not expected here till about 10 tonite. but my baby is in a cool spot.  May bake with my established starter this weekend as it will be cooler.  This time will work out a plan of action and time schedule.  Will retard in frig overnight if I run out of time. Stay cool.



Miss Chiilidozer 2013 January 16

I have been won over by sourdough in just regularly buying a 'bread roll and a coffee' for my brekky on the run from  the bakery in Fyshwick Markets (ACT Aus) after night shift on weekends!  The bread became addictive, not the cafeine fix. 

So now here I am reading the blogs after commencing my own starter from scratch as directed on this site. The more I read, the more this sounds like a 'chemistry experiment with soul ' , ie the baking of sourdough! 

The artisan baker at Braidwood, (on the way to work for day shift) is another gem of a man.  My interest was piqued when he advised me he  'fed' his starter!  Learning this took me on an information seeking mission.  I have found your site now, so thank you!  

Step one - the stater on the way.



farinam's picture
farinam 2013 January 16

Welcome Miss Chiilidozer,

There is a mine of information here but a good place to start is SourDom's beginners blogs.

And speaking of blogs, don't be afraid to start your own.  It doesn't have to be asking questions, it can be just a ramble about your adventures in the brave new world of sourdough.

Good luck with your projects.


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