In this post, we’ll address some of the common questions of sourdough starters, namely how thick should sourdough starter be? Along with some other concerns to help you feeling confident in your sourdough journey.

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Sourdough Troubleshooting:

When just starting out with sourdough, it can be overwhelming. A lot of sourdough recipes out there are very confusing and often too precise if you ask me! The point of this post is not only about how thick should your sourdough starter be, but all general troubleshooting questions surrounding a sourdough starter.

I like to keep things very simple when it comes to sourdough. Honestly, I hardly ever measure my sourdough starter at all. Maintaining a mature starter is quite easy, once you get into a good flow with it. It’ll be as natural as feeding your cat, or any other pet you might have. Extra bonus points if you already have an existing Jun or Kombucha Scoby you are maintaining. Soon your whole counter will be filled with all your science projects, and you’ll walk into your kitchen like you would a petting zoo with anxious animals all waiting to be fed.

Just do it!

Don’t let all the information overwhelm you at first, to start anything and get good at it, you first just have to start. A lot of the fun is in the learning process, and you will learn very quickly from trial and error over time. Fermentation is my favorite way of cooking because it is so forgiving. Things don’t have to be exact in the recipes and you can just lean intuitively on the process.

But of course no one wants to spend all that time and money into trying to bake a crappy loaf of bread. That’s where I come in. Hopefully in this post, and my art of sourdough post, you’ll be able to get a better grasp on the whole process of sourdough. Don’t worry, someone on the internet will always tell you how thick your sourdough starter should be, among billions of other answers to all your sourdough questions.

What Is Sourdough Starter?

Sourdough starter is a natural leavening agent that is used in baking to create sourdough bread. It is a mixture of flour and water that has been left to ferment and develop naturally occurring yeasts and bacteria. These microorganisms, known as lactobacilli and wild yeasts, feed on the carbohydrates in the flour and produce carbon dioxide gas, which causes the bread to rise.

Sourdough starters can be made from scratch by mixing flour and water together and allowing it to sit at room temperature for several days, feeding it regularly with more flour and water. Alternatively, some bakers prefer to use a small amount of an existing sourdough starter to jumpstart the fermentation process.

A healthy sourdough starter should be bubbly and have a slightly sour smell. It can be maintained by regularly feeding it with fresh flour and water, discarding a portion of the starter each time to prevent it from overgrowing. Sourdough starters can be used to make a wide variety of breads, including rustic artisan loaves, bagels, and pancakes.

thick active sourdough starter in a jar

Tools you need for sourdough:

When you just start out on your sourdough journey, there’s some things that are really really helpful to have on hand. Some of these tools make a big difference to your overall experience with sourdough bread making.

So lets get into it…

Finding A Sourdough Starter:

The first thing you need to do it find a sourdough starter or make one. When you get a sourdough starter that is already established, or mature, it will be ready to go with regular feedings. If you choose to start your own sourdough starter from wild yeasts, it will take a bit more time of feeding and nursing before it is ready to be used in a recipe. We offer a wonderful mature organic sourdough starter that has been passed down for a long time. You can find it in our shop. This is the easiest way to get going on your sourdough journey. A new starter is a topic for another whole conversation. We’ll get there eventually. But for now, let’s assume you are getting one that is already mature.

Alternatively, you could find a friend nearby or ask around at the farmers markets, you’ll be sure to find someone with a healthy starter they will be willing to share.

Storing Your Sourdough Starter:

Once you get a good sourdough starter, or make your own starter from wild yeast, you’re going to need to put it somewhere. I keep mine in a wider short style half gallon jar. I like the wideness because then I can reach all the way to the bottom and stir it up.

Get a clean jar, and dump in your sourdough starter. Now you are ready to feed it.

If you know that you aren’t going to bake with your starter for a couple of days, you can store it in the refrigerator. Make sure that when you pull it out to bake with it again you feed it 4-10 hours before you start baking so that it has time to get active.

Often when you store it in the refrigerator for a long time, you will see a dark liquid on the surface of the starter. That is okay, that is called hooch. It just means that you need to feed your sourdough starter. You can stir it back up into your starter before you feed it, or pour it off.

Always keep your sourdough starter out of direct sunlight.

How to Feed Your Sourdough Starter:

flour, water, and sourdough starter in bowls

Feed your starter equal parts of flour and filtered water to starter. Or do your best to at least try for equal amounts. When I feed my starter, I look at it. I eyeball the level of where it is in the jar, then I add about that much water and that much flour. I mix it all up until it is the right consistency. If it’s not quite right, I will add in a little more water or a little more flour. The only thing you can’t add more of is starter, because usually all you’ve got is what is in your jar. So be cautious not to dump a whole bunch of flour and water in there because you don’t want to smother your starter.

Once you’ve fed your sourdough starter and you are waiting for it to become active (bubbly and doubled in size) you can place the jar lid on it loosely or place plastic wrap over top to keep out any fruit flies etc.

It is important to note that I do not use a metal spoon for mixing my starter. I read somewhere long ago, that metal inhibits and can even kill wild and active yeast. So over all my fermentation journeys, I have always opted for wooden spoons.

After awhile, your sourdough starter will start to gunk up the sides of the jar. You can break that off and stir it into the starter to incorporate. If your jar gets really gunked up, you can pour off the starter into a fresh jar and soak your old jar thoroughly before washing.

What types of flour is best for feeding your sourdough starter?

Again, this is not exact or precise. Back in the old days, your sourdough was fed with whatever scraps you had from a baking project. Now, I think we are a lot more “cautious” and sanitary in our kitchens. We’ve let intuition fall to the way side, and we feel that we need a full instruction book for everything. We don’t. Just feed it whatever type of flour you’ve got on hand. Overtime you will see the way that different flours feel to your starter. I avoid white flour that has been bleached. Organic whole wheat flour, rye flour, all purpose flour or bread flour and fresh flour that I mill seem to work best for me.

The first time you feed your sourdough starter, choose one flour and stick to it before changing it up. Definitely use organic flours. I’ve also noticed that whole grain flour tend to speed up the activity in the starter. This means that it eats up the amount of flour quicker.

How Long Should You Let Your Sourdough Starter Ferment?

bubbly thick sourdough starter in jar overhead view

This totally depends. I know, I know you want a straight answer…but the coolest thing about sourdough, and other ferments for that matter, is that it really is so variable. The best way to tell that it is ready is to look at the top of your starter for activity. This means that when you’re starter ferments it is bubbly and passes the “float test”.

Another popular way that people measure the activity of their sourdough starter is by using a rubber band.

The rate at which is ferments is totally dependent on the environment. It could take anywhere from 3 hours to 10 hours at room temperature depending on how warm your house is. In the winter months, I suggest moving your starter to a warm spot in your house. After feeding it, move it to the back of the stove or near a fireplace or heater. You don’t want it blasting in direct heat, but you do want the radiant warmth to help give it a little boost.

A general key is that the rate of fermentation increases in hotter temperatures or warmer temperatures, and slows in lower temperatures.

The Float Test:

As I mentioned above, to test your sourdough starter for activity…you’ll want to do a “float test”. What this means is you simply take a little bit of the supposedly “active” starter and drop it into a cup or bowl of water. If the starter floats then it is considered active. If it sinks, it is not. You should be able to tell by the bubbles, but if you’re ever unsure the float test is the best way to confidently know that your starter is active.

The Rubber Band:

With this method, you take a rubber band. Once you feed your sourdough starter, place the rubber band on the jar at the line where it is sitting when your jar is flat on a surface. As your starter rises, you will see your sourdough pass the rubber band. Ideally you want to wait until your sourdough doubles in size. The rubber band is a great way to visually identify that it is active and ready to use.

How thick should sourdough starter be?

thick sourdough on a spoon coming out of a jar

Your sourdough starter should be the consistency of thick pancake batter. That really is the sweet spot. A healthy starter should look nice and bubbly after it’s been fed. It should not have any foul smell, only sour, but not putrid.

The thickness, or consistency of the starter can vary depending on personal preference and the type of recipe you are using. Generally, a sourdough starter should have a thick, paste-like consistency that is similar to pancake batter or yogurt. This allows for proper fermentation and development of the natural yeasts and bacteria.

If your starter is too thick, it may not allow enough air to circulate, which can slow down the fermentation process. Too thick is a good indicator that you fed it too much flour or didn’t let it ferment long enough.

If it’s too thin, it may not be able to hold enough gas, resulting in a weaker rise in your bread. Too thin is a good indicator that you fed it too much water or let it ferment too long.

A good rule of thumb is to aim for a starter that is roughly equal parts flour and water by weight, which will give you a consistency that is thick but still pourable. However, some bakers prefer a thicker or thinner consistency depending on their personal preferences.

Ultimately, the consistency of your sourdough starter will depend on trial and error and adjusting as needed based on the results of your bread baking. (I know all you seriously strict recipe followers are probably sick of hearing this by now!) Hopefully this will answer your question of how thick should sourdough starter be.

So how thick should sourdough starter be? Just think thick pancake batter in your head while you’re mixing it up and add what you need to accomplish that consistency.

What if my sourdough starter smells really bad?

If your sourdough starter smells really really bad, anywhere from alcohol to nail polish remover… you’ve let your starter get too hungry. What you’re smelling is acetic acid and you need to increase your feedings. If you’ve been feeding exclusively whole grain flours, try switching to all purpose flours or bread flours for a while to slow down the rate at which your starter is eating.

If you are leaving your starter out at room temperature for too long without feeding, feed it back to health and then stick it in the refrigerator until you’re ready to start using it again.

It is surprisingly hard to kill a sourdough starter. Most of them can be revived through proper care and feedings. If you think that you’ve let yours go too long, try feeding twice a day with all purpose flour until you refresh the whole batch. If there is mold throughout and not just on the surface, or if it is pink or green it might be time to start over. Luckily I have never had to do that, so I don’t have any good pictures for you to refer to. But I think you’ll know. I trust your intuition!

What kind of water should I feed my sourdough starter?

Feed your sourdough starter with filtered water. if you are using tap water, get it tested. NEVER EVER feed your sourdough starter with water that has been treated with chlorine or contains chlorine. You can do a simple water test, or smell your water to tell if it has chlorine in it.

Adding chlorine in our drinking water is in my opinion, one of the worst things that has ever happened in modern society. Chlorine is a HARSH chemical that is used to literally KILL all bacteria, not just bad bacteria. It sterilizes, leaving nothing left. Imagine if no one was drinking chlorinated water, our poor gut bacteria might have a fighting chance.

Now, you can see why this is so important in sourdough and other fermented foods. They literally LIVE off of the good bacteria. They are the good bacteria : Lactic Acid that we are trying to put into our bodies to repair our guts. When that good bacteria is killed off, the ferment will die.

DO NOT USE CHLORINATED WATER! This is obviously a hot topic for me, but if someone were to actually look at the way that humans function, that our bodies depend on all that good bacteria, we can easily see that killing it off is a really really BAD idea. [End Rant]

What happens if I have too much starter?

As you feed your starter, you’ll notice you have way more starter than you can even fit in your jar. This is where the sourdough discard process comes in.

Sourdough Discard:

Large glass jar and small glass jar of sourdough starter with the lid off looking down

Every time you feed your sourdough starter to make active starter, you will want to pour out some that is not active. Because you are always feeding it equal parts water-flour-starter, eventually if you do not discard, you will have to keep up with wayyyy too much starter. As it expands you’ll end up with a giant mess all over your counter top. When I feed my sourdough, I pull out the same amount I am putting in. If for some reason I need a bunch of sourdough starter because I am bulk baking, then I will not pull out as much discard, but the next time I will.

At first this was a difficult concept for me, it seemed like such a waste. But THANK GOD for sourdough discard recipes, like this awesome sourdough pie crust, or simple sourdough discard crackers. You can usually find a use for the discard. And if you really just don’t feel inspired to bake with the discard, you can feed it to your chickens. Just pour it over their crumble and they will be in little chicken heaven. Better yet, let it soak with their feed crumble and a little water and you’ve just made an excellent fermented feed for your chickens.

In Conclusion,

After all of this, I hope you feel confident about how thick should sourdough starter be …along with answers to many other questions you might have not even known you had!

Sourdough is really a super fun way to bake that relies a lot on your intuitive senses. Once we get back in touch with those senses, the kitchen will feel more and more like a sanctuary. I like to think of it as a little garden in my home that I get to tend every day.

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Blessings and Peace to you!

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