If you’re new to sourdough baking, the process of making a starter can seem daunting. A starter is a mix of flour and water that’s been colonized by wild yeast and bacteria, which is then used to leaven bread.
While sourdough starters are generally very resilient, they can sometimes go bad – usually due to neglect or poor storage conditions.
If you think your starter might be dead or dying, there are some tell-tale signs to look out for.
How to tell if my sourdough starter has gone bad?
The most common cause of a sourdough starter going bad is neglect or lack of attention. If a sourdough starter is not fed regularly or kept clean and free from contamination, it can become inactive or even die.
If a sourdough starter goes bad, it will no longer be able to produce leavening action when added to a bread dough recipe.
It may also develop mold or discoloration, which is an indication that the starter should be thrown out immediately.
1. Check for mold
Look for any signs of pink, brown, or orange mold in your starter. If you see any mold growth throughout the starter, it is time to start over.
2. Smell the starter
Give the starter a sniff to check if it smells foul (not just super-sour). If it has an odd odor other than sourness, then it may have become contaminated with bacteria and should be discarded.
3. Analyze the consistency and look for debris
Look for any signs of mold or debris in the starter liquid or in your container. If there is any visible mold, discard the starter immediately as it could be dangerous to consume it.
Observe how quickly or slowly the remaining liquid pours out of your container when you tip it over at an angle – you are looking for a slow pour rather than a fast pour!
Can Bad Sourdough Starter Make You Sick?
Yes, a bad sourdough starter can make you sick. Mold is a dangerous fungus that can cause respiratory illnesses, and allergic reactions and even lead to death in some cases.
Consuming moldy or bad sourdough starter can lead to serious health issues, so it is important to make sure your starter does not contain any mold before using it.
If you are baking it is important to know that all of your ingredients are fresh. Did you know that butter can expire? Check out my post to find that has the answer to, can you eat expired butter?
Tips on keeping your starter healthy and happy
Feed your starter on a regular basis
Decide how you are going to keep your starter: in the fridge or on the countertop.
Based on where you are keeping it, decide how often you need to feed it. Feed your starter once per day if kept on the countertop and once per week if kept in the fridge.
Consistently follow your chosen feeding schedule so that your starter remains healthy and active over time!
Use quality flour and ingredients
To keep your starter healthy, use unbleached flour to feed it. If you can, try to get organic flour because pesticides can also harm the starter culture.
Occasionally adding whole wheat or rye flour will help give your starter more energy and a nutritional boost if added every once in a while.
It is important that you have fresh flour when maintaining your starter, learn how to tell if flour is bad to know what to look for.
If you are in the process of baking up a delicious country loaf or sandwich loaf, check out my post on how to freeze bread so that you can store it and keep it last fresh longer!
Keep your starter at room temperature
Keep the starter at a warm temperature, around 75°F if you are going to use it often.
Otherwise, you can keep it in the fridge, and then you will only have to feed it once a week, sometimes twice.
Overly high temperatures can also kill off the beneficial bacteria, rendering it unusable.
Use a proper storage container
A proper storage container for a starter is one that is clean, non-reactive, has a lid, and is large enough to double the amount of starter you keep on hand.
This type of container will help keep your starter healthy and happy by preventing mold growth and protecting it from debris or other contaminants.
Using an airtight container is not recommended as it can lead to pressure buildup due to gas emissions from the fermenting flour-water mixture.
Additionally, metal or aluminum containers should be avoided as they may react with the ingredients in your starter resulting in an unhealthy environment for it to grow in.
Having two suitable containers on hand allows you to transfer your sourdough starter safely between them when needed without risking any contamination or loss of nutrients during transport.
Check out my recipe on how to make sourdough starter recipe in case yours had gone bad and you need to start over.
What is hooch and how does it relate to a sourdough starter?
Hooch is a type of liquid that forms on top of a sourdough starter when the yeast starts to ferment due to a lack of feeding and stirring.
Hooch generally appears as a clear or transparent liquid at first, but as it continues to remain un-fed, it becomes darker in color. If it turns orange or pink, it means that the sourdough starter has gone bad and should be disposed of.
There are a few different ways to store a sourdough starter. The best way is to keep it in the fridge, where it will last for several weeks.
If you plan on using your starter regularly, it’s best to keep it in a jar with a loose-fitting lid on the counter but out of direct sunlight.
Determine the amount of ripe starter you have: To calculate how much water and flour you need for feeding, take the amount of ripe starter that is currently in your sourdough starter container and multiply it by the desired ratio (usually 1:1:1).
For example: If you have 30g of starter you would add 30g of flour and 30g of water. Stir together well until you don’t have clumps.
You should feed your sourdough starter once a day if you plan to use it regularly, or once or twice a week if you are not using it regularly.
You should re-feed your starter if it starts to degrade after peak fermentation (it should double in size after feeding).