The 10 Most Common Sourdough Starter Questions, Answered

Contributing writer By Emilie Raffa
Contributing writer
Emilie Raffa is the creator, cook, and photographer of The Clever Carrot. She is also the author of The Clever Cookbook and Artisan Sourdough Made Simple. She was classically trained at the International Culinary Center and worked as a private chef.
Freshly baked sourdough bread
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Ever wonder how to bake sourdough but don't know where to begin? I'm going to tell you a secret: You don't have to be a professional baker or have a concrete knowledge base to get started. Sourdough can be accessible to anyone. All you need are a few basic ingredients and tools, and I'll guide you the rest of the way:

1. My starter is taking a long time to rise. Why?

This can happen at any time—when creating a starter or after it has been established. First, find a warm spot where your starter can thrive. Wrap a warm towel around the jar, put it under a desk lamp, or even place it near a heater to speed things up. You can also try using warm water in your feeds. Another issue could be your flour. For best results, always use unbleached flour. 

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2. Can I use commercial yeast to make my starter rise faster? 

Commercial yeast will make your starter and bread dough rise faster. However, this is not true sourdough. It's technically a hybrid. 

3. Can I make an all-spelt or all-rye flour starter? 

Spelt and rye starters are typically successful because of their high mineral content. However, these flours are more expensive than other flours. Because you will remove a portion of your starter before feeding, this might not be a practical option. 

4. Why do I have to remove and discard a portion of the starter? 

This is the most common question I receive about the feeding process. First, the exact amount you remove is not set in stone. Some days it might be more or less, depending on the condition of your starter, what it looks like, and what it smells like. I recommend removing at least half, which is fairly easy to judge by eye. Doing so will rebalance the acidity levels within the culture, which produces a mild sour flavor.

Second, if you didn't remove some of your starter, guess how much you'd end up with? Removing some reduces the total amount to smaller, more practical proportions, making it easier to manage. The good news is that, in most cases, you can save leftover starter to use in recipes other than bread.

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5. Once my starter doubles in size, or peaks, what is the window of time for using it for a recipe? 

It all depends on the nature of your starter. Some days, it will rise and fall so quickly it will leave you baffled. Other days, it will stay peaked for several hours. If you feed your starter following the 1:1:1 ratio and get to know its temperament, then your window of time will be easier to judge. I recommend using peaked starter as soon as possible, preferably within the hour, before it falls. 

6. How do I know if I have enough starter for my recipes? 

Typical recipes call for anywhere from 50 grams (¼ cup) to 250 grams (1¼ cups). You can easily adjust the amount following the instructions in the next question. 

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7. How can I increase the total amount of my starter? 

First, transfer your starter into a bigger jar, if necessary. Give it a feed, and wait for it to become bubbly and active. Before it falls, give it another feed without removing half of it first. Repeat this technique until you have reached your desired amount. 

8. I'm going away on vacation. Is my starter going to die? 

Don't worry. You don't need a babysitter. Feed your starter and pop it directly in the fridge. It will continue to rise, and you might even see bubbles. But eventually, it will go dormant. After you return, don't be surprised if it takes a few days to revive. Feed your starter at room temperature as needed to wake it back up.

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9. How can I revive a neglected starter? 

It's possible that your starter might get pushed to the back of the fridge, only to be lost behind the Chinese takeout containers for months on end. It might look gray and discolored and smell very potent. But don't give up hope! Discard most of your starter and transfer what you keep into a new, clean jar. Feed it for several days at room temperature in a warm spot. Be patient and consistent, as it might take one to two weeks to revive. If you're unsuccessful, create a new starter. And if you ever see mold, throw all of it out and start again. 

10. What is a leaven or levain? 

Oftentimes, you'll hear the terms "leaven" and "sourdough starter" used interchangeably. Simply put: Your starter is the mothership and your leaven is an offshoot. Leavens are typically fed with different types of flour to build specific flavor profiles without changing the integrity of the original starter. For example, if you pour some of your starter into a bowl and feed it with rye flour, you've just created a leaven.

Your original jar of sourdough starter, fed exclusively with all-purpose flour, remains untouched. There are many benefits to this technique in terms of building flavor. However, it takes more time—typically overnight. "Levain" is the French term for leaven.

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