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Sourdough

Is My Sourdough Starter Bad? How to Revive Old Inactive Starter


Is your starter looking “sus”? Are you wondering if it’s still viable and active, or if your sourdough starter has gone bad? If you answered yes to either of these questions, or otherwise have a funky, crusty, neglected old sourdough starter on your hands, then you’ve come to the right place! Read along to learn how to tell if your sourdough starter is still good or not, how to feed and revive an old inactive starter, prevent mold, and other useful tips. I’ll share photos that will help you tell the difference too.

The good news is: sourdough starter is far more resilient and forgiving than you may think!



Sourdough starter care and feeding frequency


“Feeding” a sourdough starter is the act of adding fresh flour and water, which keeps the beneficial bacteria and yeast alive. A portion of the existing starter is usually removed before it’s fed, either to use in a recipe or discarded. To keep sourdough starter healthy, active, and alive, it needs to be fed on a regular basis.

Sourdough starters that are kept out at room temperature may need to be fed as often as daily, or several times per week. If you store your sourdough starter in the refrigerator (like we do) it should be fed once every few weeks. Storing sourdough starter in the fridge is the best way to prevent it from going bad, especially with long periods between feeding. Or, you can dehydrate sourdough starter to keep it alive for extended periods of time (up to a year or longer) without needing to feed it at all. Learn how to reactivate a dry sourdough starter here.

However, life gets busy! I get it. Despite knowing the “best practices”, we often go many months between feeding our starter…. and she’s still plenty alive! We simply follow a modified feeding process (explained below) to revive the starter after months of neglect. Note that our sourdough starter is old and established though. Younger starters may not be so forgiving. So, I don’t necessarily recommend waiting several months to feed your starter. 


Learn more about feeding and maintaining a sourdough starter here.


A flip top jar with a white starter on the bottom which is covered with a clear dark brown liquid on the top.
Our sourdough starter after sitting in the refrigerator for 3 to 4 months. Oops! She may look like hell, but is still alive and well.


How do you know if sourdough starter has spoiled or gone bad?


The main indicator if a sourdough starter is still good or not is if it will still rise and fall after feeding it fresh flour and water. If it does, it’s still alive! Yet old neglected sourdough starters are sluggish and need additional time and help to become fully active again, which we’ll explore more in the “reviving an old sourdough starter” section below.  

If your sourdough starter is obviously moldy, then unfortunately the starter has gone bad and should no longer be used. Mold on sourdough starter will look raised and fuzzy, and can range in color from white, yellow, green, blue or pink spots. It will often grow on the sides of the storage container as well as on top of the starter itself. 

That good news is, mold isn’t all that common on sourdough starter! (Especially on an established one). The beneficial bacteria and yeast in the starter create acidic conditions that help to naturally preserve it and ward off mold. That’s not to say an old neglected sourdough starter doesn’t look and smell pretty funky though! But more often than not, it’s still alive and okay to use. If you’re experiencing mold issues, check out the tips about preventing mold on sourdough starter at the end of this article.


The inside of a jar is shown with dark clear liquid on the surface of its contents.
As funky as it looks, this starter is still alive and okay to use. It just has a nice dark layer of hooch on top. The white stuff inside the container is just old flour starter that was there before we put the starter away. To prevent mold, it’s best to store the starter in a clean container (without goop on the sides) – especially if you know you won’t be using it for awhile!


Normal characteristics of an unfed, neglected sourdough starter


When a sourdough starter hasn’t been maintained or fed in a while, it will develop a layer of dark liquid called hooch. Hooch is an acidic alcohol-like byproduct of fermentation. It may be brownish, blackish, or evenly slightly pinkish purple. While it’s totally harmless, it’s a sure sign that your starter is hungry!

Sometimes there are white spots or lumps on the surface of the starter itself but below the layer of hooch, likely where air bubbles once were (not to be confused with mold – see photo below). Old starters will also smell very strong and acidic – like vinegar, acetone, or even nail polish remover. After many months of neglect, the storage container usually looks pretty crusty and sketchy too. All of this is normal, and the starter is still okay to use and revive. 

On the other hand, if it smells rotten, gross, putrid or otherwise unusual (not acidic) the sourdough starter is likely spoiled and should be discarded.

If your sourdough starter has gone bad, you can either get a new starter from a friend, learn to make one from scratch here, or buy an organic sourdough starter from our shop – which is basically foolproof!


The inside of a jar is shown, the old starter is covered in a layer of grey, clear liquid. Reviving a sourdough starter at this stage is paramount to having an active sourdough starter.
See the weird white lumps? Those are just old air bubble marks on the surface of the starter, below the layer of hooch – NOT mold.


How to Revive an Old Inactive Sourdough Starter


Reviving an old neglected sourdough starter is similar to feeding a starter under normal circumstances, with a couple of exceptions. The trick is to be patient and not feed it too frequently at first. The starter needs more time to slowly rebuild the population of starved microbes inside. It may also take additional feedings to get as fully active as it once was.

The biggest mistake people make when trying to revive an old inactive sourdough starter is to repetitively feed it (e.g. several times per day) in an attempt to wake it up. Doing this can be counterproductive and inadvertently remove more and more of your microbe colony before they’ve had a chance to feed and multiply, resulting in a weaker starter. 


Instructions


  1. Warm up. Assuming your starter has been stored in the refrigerator, take it out and let it warm to room temperature for several hours (or overnight) before proceeding.

  2. Dump off the hooch. When a starter develops a little hooch a week or two after feeding, you can either stir it back in or dump it off. Keeping the hooch is actually one way to make your sourdough bread taste more sour, if that’s what you’re after! Yet it’s best to remove the hooch when reviving an old sourdough starter that hasn’t been fed in a month or longer. 

  3. Use a clean container. Give your starter a fresh, clean home! We transfer some of our old starter into a second flip-top container before feeding it. If you don’t have a spare container, then temporarily transfer your starter into a clean bowl while you wash the other.

  4. Discard. You only need ½ cup of starter for the next step. So, you can either discard some or put the extra into a different storage container to keep if you wish.  *If the sides of your storage container look like it may have mold on it, but not the starter itself, try to carefully scoop out the starter without touching the sides of the container.


A flip top jar with white material on the bottom of it is covered with a layer of dark grey liquid.
This starter hasn’t been fed in over a month. First I let her warm up for a bit, dumped off the hooch…
Two flip top jars are shown, the one in the background contained the old starter, its glass is covered in the substance so you cannot see through it. The flip top jar in the foreground has a scant amount in the bottom of the clear glass jar.
…then transferred about 1/2 cup of the starter into a fresh clean container.


  1. Feed. In a fresh clean container, combine ½ cup sourdough starter, ½ cup lukewarm filtered water, and a scant (light) cup of flour. If you prefer to feed your starter by weight, use equal weights of starter, flour and water (e.g. 100 grams of each). Stir well. Note the starting level on the container so you can track its growth.

  2. Place the starter in a warm location. Sourdough starter is most happy and active around 70-75°F. This can be a challenge during winter in most homes, but do your best to find a cozy spot. For example, we find the under-cabinet lights in our kitchen make the shelf directly above them nice and warm.  


A stainless steel measuring cup partially full of flour, a liquid glass measuring cup, and a flip top jar with a small amount of starter in the bottom of it are lined up one after the next.
Adding 1 scant cup of flour and 1/2 cup of lukewarm water to the starter container
A flip top jar containing a sourdough starter that has just been fed. The jar has been marked with a red line to show where it started (about 1/5th of the way up the jar). There is some specks of flour dusted around the jar and a stainless steel measuring cup in the background. Reviving sourdough starter can take time and patience.
All mixed up. I marked the starting point with a glass writer pen, but a rubber band around the container works too!


  1. WAIT. Now is the time to put on your patient pants! A well-maintained, regularly-fed starter will start to rise within just a couple hours of feeding it. However, an old neglected sourdough starter can take 24 hours or longer to show signs of life. So, wait at least 24 hours to feed it again. (That is, unless it rises and falls all the way back down to the starting point sooner – then go ahead and feed it again.)


A flip top jar containing sourdough starter that is about 1/3rd of the way up the jar, there is a red mark on the outside to illustrate where the starter first started. The starter is just over the original line by about an inch.
25 hours after feeding, the starter had only risen about an inch above the starting line.
The inside of a jar containing starter, many small bubbles are forming on the surface.
But it was bubbling, so I knew it was still alive! It also still smelled very very acidic at this stage.


  1. Discard and feed again. Next, stir the starter and remove all but about half a cup. We honestly don’t measure so we likely keep a tad more than that, but leave behind about an inch in the bottom of our container. Now repeat Step 5: add ½ cup lukewarm water and a scant cup of flour, mix well, and put the starter back in a warm place. You don’t need to necessarily wait 24 hours to feed it again this time. The starter will tell you when it’s ready – once it rises and falls again.

  2. Repeat a third feeding if needed, especially before baking bread. Once the old starter has been thoroughly reactivated, it will reach peak activity (rise to at least double in size) faster and more vigorously than when it first came out of the fridge. 


A flip top jar about 2/3rds full of sourdough starter. There are many small bubbles inside the starter, a red mark has been made on the outside of the jar about 1/5th up from the bottom. The starter has already raised over twice the height of the original mark. Reviving sourdough starter is easy with the right amount of flour, water, and ambient temperature.
After I fed the starter a second time (around 4 pm), it rose to the top of the container overnight and had already started to fall back down by the next morning. So, I discarded and fed it once again.
A flip top jar sitting on a white plate is overflowing with sourdough starter. It is running down the side of the jar and is pooling on one side of the plate. A red mark is on the jar to show where the starter was first marked, which is only about 1/5th up from the bottom of the jar.
5 hours after feeding for the 3rd time it was overflowing – and then we made a killer loaf of sourdough bread! In total, this was about 48 hours after we first took it out of the fridge (when it had hooch).


Troubleshooting Tips


Sourdough starter still not rising? These tips may help:

  • To revive your old sourdough starter (or make starter more active), try feeding it with half regular flour (bread flour or all-purpose) and half wheat or rye flour. Rye seems to make sourdough starter especially bubbly!

  • Your starter may be cold. Use a thermometer to monitor the temperature where the starter is stored. If it’s below 65°F, get creative to find a warmer location or provide additional heat (70-75°F). One option is to use a small seedling heat mat or other heating pad nearby (but not directly on the starter – you don’t want to make it too hot). Another option is to turn the oven light on, place the starter inside near the light, but keep the oven OFF. It creates a nice warm little box.

  • A runny or thin sourdough starter will bubble but not rise as well. Or, it will rise slightly but fall back down very quickly. Aim for a consistency similar to very thick pancake batter. If your starter container is tipped sideways, the starter should slowly move and ooze – but not immediately pour right out of the container. So, if your starter seems too runny, thicken or “stiffen” it up by adding more flour. Add a couple tablespoons at a time, stirring and adjusting as needed. 


A flip top jar that is full of bubbly sourdough starter. A silicone mixing spoon is stirring mixture which resembles very thick pancake batter with many bubbles, the starter can almost stretch, showing bubbles and the gluten strands. Reviving sourdough starter is quite easy to do.


Why did my sourdough starter get moldy?


Mold on sourdough starter is most common with young or brand new starters. The new colony of bacteria and yeast aren’t yet established enough to keep the mold at bay. Then when faced with unfavorable conditions (such as a cold kitchen, infrequent feeding, or a less-than-clean storage container) mold is more likely to take over. Therefore, do your best to follow recommended best practices to feed and maintain your starter to keep it happy – especially at first. 

Mold is even more common when attempting to make a new sourdough starter from scratch. It’s definitely possible, but is notoriously more tricky (and moldy) than starting with an established culture. That’s actually what motivated us to sell sourdough starter on this site! We began our sourdough journey with a homemade starter, and then taught others how to make one from scratch in this tutorial. While the process works for some folks, others would reach out in frustration as their starter grew mold time after time. So, we decided to offer organic dehydrated sourdough starter (a little piece of our own) to help give folks an easy jump start!

It’s also possible for an established sourdough starter to mold. For instance, if the storage container or utensil it was stirred with was somehow contaminated with mold spores. One way to avoid mold contamination is to protect and store your starter in a thoroughly cleaned and sealed container, such as a glass flip-top container like this. (Don’t worry, the seal isn’t SO tight that the gasses can’t escape). Finally, an established starter may grow mold if it goes unfed for so long that the beneficial microbes starve and die off completely. 


A sourdough starter with five bits of blue mold forming on the surface. They each have a red circle around them to illustrate where they are.
Mold spots on a sourdough starter. This is bad, and the starter should no longer be used. (source)


My sourdough starter is active! Now what?


Congratulations! Now, you can either use your active starter to bake something delicious, or you can simply put it back in the refrigerator for storage. Going forward, try to feed your starter once every few weeks instead of waiting many months. It shouldn’t be that hard to do if you plan to bake on occasion! We only bake a couple times per month, so our starter gets fed then – when we are activating it to use in a recipe.

Most sourdough bread recipes call for starter at “peak” activity: when it’s been fed and fully rises, but just before it starts to fall back down again. For instance, we call for active starter in our no-knead sourdough bread, simple focaccia, cornbread, or pizza dough recipes. On the other hand, you can use either active starter OR discard (unfed) starter in many recipes too – including our sourdough crackers, pancakes, and ginger molasses cookies. Enjoy!


A fresh loaf of sourdough bread, it has scores on the crust that resemble growing wheat, and deep score in the middle of the loaf created and sharp edge or ear that stands up taller than the rest of the bread.


And that is how to revive an old inactive sourdough starter.


I hope you can see that sourdough starter can be pretty darn forgiving and flexible! That’s not to say we should intentionally neglect the poor things, but again, it happens. I also hope this article gave you the insight to tell if your sourdough starter is still good or not, and confidence to proceed even if it looks a bit sketchy. So go ahead and feed that old hungry starter, so you can feed yourself some delicious homemade bread! Please let us know if you have any questions in the comments below. Thank you for tuning in!


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5 from 4 votes

How to Revive Old Inactive Sourdough Starter

Just because your sourdough starter hasn't been fed in a long time, that doesn't mean it's dead or has gone bad! Follow these instructions to feed and revive and old, neglected, inactive sourdough starter to make it rise and bubbly once again.
Keyword: Feed sourdough starter, inactive sourdough starter, revive old sourdough starter, Sourdough Starter

Ingredients

Feeding Starter by Weight (1:1:1)

  • 100 grams sourdough starter
  • 100 grams water (room temperature to lukewarm, and non-chlorinated filtered water recommended)
  • 100 grams flour *Note that using whole wheat or rye flour (instead of white) can help increase starter activity.

Feeding Starter by Volume (1:1:2)

  • 1/2 cup sourdough starter
  • 1/2 cup water (room temperature to lukewarm, and non-chlorinated filtered water recommended)
  • 1 cup (scant, just under a cup) flour
  • *Scale up as needed to maintain a larger starter. Simply keep similar ratios

Instructions

  • Warm up. If your starter has been stored in the refrigerator, take it out and let it warm to room temperature for several hours (or overnight) before proceeding.
  • Dump off the hooch. 
  • Use a clean container. We transfer some of our old starter into a second clean flip-top container before feeding it. If you don’t have a spare container, then temporarily transfer your starter into a clean bowl while you wash the other.
  • Discard a portion. You only need ½ cup of starter for the next step. So, you can either discard some or put the extra into a different storage container to keep if you wish.  
  • Feed. In a clean container, combine ½ cup sourdough starter, ½ cup lukewarm filtered water, and a scant (light) cup of flour. If you prefer to feed your starter by weight, use equal weights of starter, flour and water (e.g. 100 grams of each). Stir well. Note the starting level on the container so you can track its growth.
  • Place the starter in a warm location. Sourdough starter is most happy and active around 70-75°F.
  • WAIT. Be patient. A well-maintained, regularly-fed starter will start to rise within just a couple hours of feeding it. However, an old neglected sourdough starter can take 24 hours or longer to show signs of life. Feeding it too frequently too soon (before it has a chance to wake up and grow) can actually weaken it. So, wait at least 24 hours to feed it again. (That is, unless it rises and falls all the way back down to the starting point sooner – then go ahead and feed it again.)
  • Discard and feed again. Next, stir the starter and remove all but about half a cup. Repeat Step 5: add ½ cup lukewarm water and a scant cup of flour, mix well, and put the starter back in a warm place. You don’t need to necessarily wait 24 hours to feed it again this time. The starter will tell you when it’s ready – once it rises and falls again.
  • Repeat a third feeding if needed, especially before baking bread. Once the old starter has been thoroughly reactivated, it will reach peak activity (rise to at least double in size) faster and more vigorously than when it first came out of the fridge. 
  • Once your starter reaches peak activity, it's ready to bake with! Enjoy.


11 Comments

  • Maureen

    My starter is at least 10 years old. I have 2 batches. I use it more as a flavoring than to actually ferment my dough (sad but WAY faster). It is constantly neglected for months on end especially in the summer. It is very sour (intentionally) from stirring in the hooch every time I use it, making for a nice sour flavor in my “quick sourdough bread” in which I do use yeast and 1 2/3C starter to 4C flour.
    Question – I have decided to refresh one of the batches. After about 12 hours it has doubled, lots of bubbles so still pretty active. Do you think I will lose the sour flavor by by discarding and feeding it 3Xs. I am keeping the other batch in reserve so I can keep making my quick “sourdough” bread. (BTW, it is really good bread – chewy, crusty and great flavor. What you sacrifice is the nice open (hole-y) crumb.)
    Thank you for all of the information here. The Lord bless you.

    • Aaron (Mr. DeannaCat)

      Hi Maureen, in our experience, the starter does become slightly less sour after a discard and feed. However, it won’t take long for your starter to become more sour again. Hope that helps and have fun baking!

      • Maureen

        Thank you for the quick response. On my second feed.
        Been trying to prefect baguettes (getting better each try 😊) so sourdough is on the back burner for a bit.
        I may have to stop eating bread for a while!

  • JEANNIE SULLIVAN

    I was following your How to Rehydrate your Dry Sourdough starter and have somme issues. It started out just howyou described it. On Day 4 I wasn’t sure if it rose and fell (I thought it might have or my jar was just messy). On day 5, I mixed in the 1/2 c water and scant 1 c flour. It was bubby, but not rising like you showed and explained. I panicked and the next day, added another 1scant cup flour and 1/2 c water. It has bubbles, but hasn’t risen. Where do I go from here???

    • Aaron (Mr. DeannaCat)

      Hi Jeannie, are you trying to revive an old sourdough starter or are you rehydrating dried sourdough starter? Smell the starter, if it smells sour, it should still be active. If it is indeed active, discard some of the starter so there is a smaller amount left in the jar. If you are using a quart or liter sized jar, we usually leave just over an inch of starter in the jar after the discard. Once you discard, feed the starter again using the 1/2 cup water and a scant cup flour and hopefully you will see some activity after a number of hours. Hope that helps and feel free to ask any other questions or if you can provide some more information on your specific situation.

  • Dena

    5 stars
    Do you have any tips for reviving a dried starter? I was gifted one and am terrified I will kill it when I attempt to bring it back.

  • sherice potter

    5 stars
    well dang it! It seems I threw away a perfectly good start! AND I did exactly what you said. I over feed it thinking that would help it and when it didn’t rise I threw it out!! OH WELLLL. Atleast I know where to get another starter 🙂

  • Ellen

    Just used this article to revive starter that hasn’t been fed for over a year. I was in graduate school and working full time, not much time for hobby baking! But now I’m getting back to it and pulled the starter out of the back of the fridge. It was amazing how on point the experience of the smell, look, and steps were. I had to leave it for 3 days before it got active but it did! Got my first loaf in process now with my first round of stretch and fold! Thanks so much for so much helpful info!!!

    • Aaron (Mr. DeannaCat)

      That’s amazing to hear Ellen! Glad you are finally starting your sourdough journey and have fun baking!

      • Elizabeth

        5 stars
        I neglected my sourdough for 8+ months in the fridge. It took me 10 days to revive it, and this article gave me the confidence to keep going. At first, I fed only every 24-36 hours. No bubbles the first couple times. Then a few bubbles after 24 hours. By day 9, it was starting to rise and I could see peak activity after 12 hours.

        I fed my starter a combo of rye and einkhorn because she’s spoiled. Along the way I discovered lots of good uses for discard, like flatbreads, pancakes, waffles, and even subbing into non-sourdough recipes like muffins. I just took my homemade loaf out of the oven, and it feels good to be back.

        Thanks, Deanna and Aaron.

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