Updated: May 5, 2020
The chemistry of starters will eventually change as you continue to use it so it's good to know what signs to look for in a healthy starter and how to steer it back if it starts to weaken.
Not enough food or oxygen = No happy burps = Hard, dense bread.
Yeast is alive and needs food, water, warmth and oxygen just like you! A healthy starter will be bubbly and double (or more) in size when left at it’s favorite temperature (80-90 degrees). It will also have a strong vinegar or beer smell.
From now on, I want you to think about your starter in the following way:
Yeast = your new pet. It’s alive!
Flour = flour
Water & Temperature = home or environment.
Bubbles = Happy burps.
Imagine your little pet is using the food and oxygen you provide to eat and then expels carbon dioxide, “happy burps”, causing bubbles. These bubbles are what create the little air pockets in your dough, causing it to rise.
Smells like alcohol.
Ethanol is a byproduct of fermentation. If starter is neglected or not fed enough, it builds up too much alcohol. Thus the smell. Increase feeding to every 12 hours until it returns to normal.
Liquid forming on top
This is called hooch and it’s a sign that your starter is “hungry”. Feed every 12 hours instead of 24 until it bounces back or give a little extra flour (food) at the next feeding. You can pour the hooch off or stir it right back in.
Do I have to discard? Seems like a waste.
It’s about supply and demand. The more starter you keep, the more flour you have to feed it. Without discarding, it will take over your house! If you can’t stand to throw it out, use it to make pancakes or give to a friend so they can begin a starter of their own.
It’s not doubling in size.
It could be the temperature is too cold or it needs more food. (flour) First try leaving it at room temperature for 4-5 hours before using to bake. Still nothing. Then discard a portion. Weigh what is left and add the same amount water and flour. Leave at room temperature for 12 hours. If still not doubling, discard some and feed again and let sit at room temperature another 12 hours. You should be able to proceed as normal after this.
It froze in the back of my fridge. Did I kill it?
An established starter is very resilient. Freezing will suspend the eating and growth of the yeast but it will resume as soon as it returns to its warm environment. It may need an extra feeding to get back on its feet. I don’t recommend freezing as a way to long term store starter. Dehydrating starter is best.
I had it by my oven vent and it got hot. Did I kill it?
Unfortunately, yes. Heat is one thing that a starter can’t bounce back from. You will have to start over.
It has a really funky smell. Did it go bad?
No. Remember, the flour/water mixture is fermenting. It will have a smell to it. Something like a vinegar or beer smell. If it smells strongly of alcohol and looks separated, it is being neglected and needs an extra feeding.
It has spots on top. Is it mold?
Red or orange streaks/spots are mold and you will have to throw it out. Slight black, brown or grayish tinged liquid on top is not mold and is just fine.
I added too much flour and it’s like a dough.
Mis-feeding is not a big deal. Your starter may be too wet or dry but it will be ok. Add more water if too dry or flour if too wet until it is the pasty consistency a starter should be. Continue with the regular 1:1:1 ratio at the next feeding.
I skipped a feeding.
Starters are resilient! Severe neglect, like not touching it for 2 weeks, can kill it off. However, missing a day or two, can be corrected. Right away, discard and feed as usual. Leave it on the counter and feed again in 12 hours. It may need one more day of this but it should be right as rain after that.
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