How to Know if Your Sourdough Starter is Dead

You need a sourdough starter to make homemade sourdough bread. But there is one keyword in every recipe: active sourdough starter. It’s true that sourdough starters can become inactive or “dead,” and knowing when your sourdough starter is past its prime is critical. 

You can tell your sourdough is bread if it does not respond to feeding, i.e., there is no bubbling when you add flour and lukewarm water to the mix. It may also give off a pungent, unpleasant odor or become discolored with mold. 

A sourdough starter that has been in temps above 140F is irreversibly dead.

Hello, everyone! My name is Michelle, and my mom is a big fan of sourdough bread. She uses it for everything, from grilled cheese sandwiches to her handy morning breakfast toast. Her love of sourdough pushed me to start surprising her with homemade loaves, and I’ve learned a lot along the way.

Let’s discuss how to know whether or not your sourdough starter is dead (and what to do about it).

4 Ways to Know if Your Sourdough Starter is Dead

Using a “dead” sourdough starter is going to render disappointing results. That said, it’s imperative to know when your sourdough starter is past its prime. The good news is that there are four primary indicators of inactive sourdough, so you don’t have to fear a saddening loaf of bread.

1. Unresponsive to Feedings

Sourdough starters need to be fed regularly in order to stay alive (typically every 12 hours). When fed, the starter will cause fermentation activity, which appears like bubbling and rising. 

Go ahead and feed your sourdough starter as usual. If nothing happens, it might be dead. 

But don’t panic just yet! You can possibly fix your sourdough starter. Try feeding your starter and placing it in a warmer environment. Continue to feed it regularly for the next few days. If it starts to react, it was simply placed in too cold of an environment.

If you still notice zero activity, your sourdough starter is officially “dead.” Time to start from scratch!

2. Unpleasant Odor

Want an easier way to check if your sourdough starter is active or not? Give it a whiff. A healthy sourdough starter should have a strong yet pleasant smell. There will likely be hints of alcohol and vinegar in the mix. 

If you take the smell of your sourdough starter and need to gasp for air, it’s gone bad. A dying sourdough starter will give off a highly unpleasant aroma. Some say it resembles that of old cheese or vomit.

However, don’t let the smell fool you completely. This sourdough starter can still be saved. In this case, you may have placed it in too hot of an environment, causing the growth of unwanted bacteria.

To fix, feed your sourdough starter as usual. But change the location, preferably a spot with temperatures around 85F. Give it a few days and check the smell once more. Still impossibly stinky? Start from scratch!

3. Mold 

Another significant indicator of a dead sourdough starter is the presence of mold. It may or may not be the typical “fuzzy” mold you’d find on bread, but it will definitely be colorful – and not in a good way!

If you find any interesting colors in your sourdough starter – for example, pink, green, or black – it’s time to toss it. While you can try to bring it back to life by scraping off the moldy portions and adding fresh flour and water, I wouldn’t risk it. 

4. Too Hot

Yeast dies in temperatures above 140F. If your sourdough starter has ever reached this temperature (or higher), you will not be able to fix it. Toss the batch and start anew, but be careful to avoid these incredibly high temps!

FAQs

Now you know how to check whether or not your sourdough starter is dead and how to fix it. If you want to keep learning more about this fun topic, keep reading. I’ve picked out a few questions you might want to know the answers to!

Can you revive a dead sourdough starter?

In some cases, yes, you can revive a dead sourdough starter. Continue to feed it as usual, but make sure it’s in the correct environment. Sourdough starter will perform best in temperatures around 85F. Too hot or too cold temps will wreak havoc on fermentation!

How long until the sourdough starter dies?

It depends on how often you feed it. It could be as little as a few days or a hundred years. In fact, the World Record is 122 years old.

Should I Feed My sourdough starter once or twice a day?

If you plan to use your sourdough starter regularly, you can feed it twice a day. If you’re not using it regularly, you can stash it in the fridge and feed it three or four times a week. That said, it mostly depends on how often you’re using it, but a good feeding schedule is every 12 hours.

Why is my sourdough starter GREY?

Your sourdough starter is likely gray due to the presence of hooch or liquid on the top of your sourdough starter. This excess liquid does not mean your sourdough starter is inactive. It simply means you need to feed it more fresh flour. 

If the sourdough starter itself has a gray tint (rather than gray liquid), it may be a sign of mold formation, in which case I would toss it.

Final Words

Sourdough starter can die, but it can be fixed unless it’s moldy or in temperatures above 140F. Most of the time, the sourdough starter becomes inactive or “dead” from the wrong temperatures. 

Find a spot around 85F and feed your starter regularly to try to bring it back to life, or start with a brand new batch for success.

Have you ever brought your sourdough starter back to life? How did you do it? Share with us in the comments so we can try your technique, too!

About Michelle
I have been a lover of sweets since day one. This led me on a self-taught baking journey starting at the age of 13. It's been over 10 years since the start of my baking adventures, and I’ve learned a lot along the way. Now, people rave about my delectable treats, whether it’s a chocolate cake or a strawberry crepe.

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