6 Tips to Prevent “Sour” Sourdough

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The most common complaint with sourdough foods is that the more choosy of our family members don’t care for a sour flavor. Did you know that sourdough does not have to be sour?

Sourdough Cinnamon Rolls

These six tips will help you ensure that your sourdough baked goods are pleasantly tangy, rather than overly sour — or perhaps not sour at all!

1. Regular Feedings

A sourdough starter (the active mother culture) contains both wild yeasts and beneficial bacteria (called lactobacilli). Regular flour feedings keep the organisms fed and in balance. But missing a feeding gives the bacteria a leg up. You see, the yeasts run out of food when the simple sugars in flour are all consumed, and they start dying off. But the bacteria still have food to eat. They eat the expired yeasts, along with the yeasts’ wastes, and continue to produce lactic acid, the main sour flavor. And so the starter gets more sour.

This video shows you how a sourdough starter works from the microscopic level!

In the Sourdough eCourse, we recommend twice daily feedings — about once every 12 hours. However, if the temperatures are very warm, the organisms go through their food more quickly. So you might consider adding a third feeding to your routine! This will help the yeasts keep the upper hand at all times. :) Just make sure you feed after the starter shows signs that it has consumed the sugars from the prior feeding; this includes the production of hooch (the liquid that rises to the surface), lots of bubbles, and/or collapse of the peak.

2. Lose the Hooch

Pour off the hooch — the acidic liquid the organisms produce after consuming the simple sugars in flours. This is where the sourness from the lactobacilli mainly resides. If fed regularly, your starter may not produce much hooch.

3. Shorter Rising Times

Let your sourdough foods rise for shorter times, rather than longer. Sourness develops over time. As the wild organisms consume the simple sugars in flour, they produce acids. The acids give the characteristic sour flavor. Less time = less sour.

4. Cooler Rising Location

Let your sourdough foods rise in a cooler location. The wild organisms that work on grains to optimize nutrition and digestion really go to town at warmer temperatures. When they feast, they produce those sour acids. So, slow them down by keeping them cooler.

5. Use More Starter (What?)

Use more starter in a recipe, not less. This sounds strange, but here’s why it works. More starter will work more quickly to rise and prepare the dough for digestion, resulting in less time for the dough to become sour. If adjust a recipe to add more starter, you should lessen the amount of water or liquid.

6. Use Baking Soda

Ever heard the phrase “soda sweetens”? It’s true! Many sourdough recipes call for baking soda. Not only does the baking soda react with the starter to give a good rise, but it sweetens the dough or batter by neutralizing some of the acidic taste.

Pocket Bread

So, now that you know sourdough does not have to be sour… why not get started? The following recipes are great for beginners or experienced bakers alike: fluffy pancakes, waffles, english muffins, crepes, chocolate cake, spice cake, or pizza crust.

Want video tutorials, more recipes, or more hand-holding? That’s why I host the Sourdough eCourse and offer the Sourdough A to Z eBook. Please let me know how I can help you!

Do you think sourdough is too sour? Do you have hope that any of these tips will help? Do you have any tips to add? Share in the comments!

I shared this post with Real Food Wednesday and Simple Lives Thursday.

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Comments

  1. says

    Great tips, Wardee! I can’t wait to finish up my book so I can read your sourdough ebook and get started with a new starter. There is just something about making bread for your family that makes it seem like you’re truly taking care of them. Is that weird?

    • says

      Shannon, you took the words right out of my mouth. :D If we’re weird, then so be it — but I don’t think we are. I was worn out at the end of last week and I took two days off from my online work and I spent those two days baking up a storm …. for the family. It was marvelous and refreshing! Thanks for stopping by! :)

  2. says

    I was searching through your sourdough bread recipes to find out how to make it more sour. My husband loves the sourness of it. Although, I think I finally have it at a good place, sour enough for him but not so sour that I don’t like it…

    • says

      Lynn, funny! Well, the answer is simple. Do the opposite of many of the tips above. :) Longer souring time, warmer temperatures, don’t poor off the hooch, don’t use baking soda, and use less starter.

      I still advise regular feedings, though — for the health of the yeasts. They decline in strength if not fed regularly and they’re important for a good rise.

  3. says

    Thanks for the great tips Wardee.

    I’ve just got my starter going again. Made some sourdough bread the other day and the family loved it! I am looking forward to baking more with my sourdough, and I know your tips will come in handy.

  4. Courtney says

    Thanks so much for the tips! They are really helpful! My starter is REALLY sour right now. I am still using it, but the past three things I have been have been so sour. Should I start a brand new starter? Or is there any way I can salvage the sour one I have?

    • says

      Courtney — There’s no need to toss it. Maintain regular feedings and pour off the hooch and give it time to rebalance toward less sour (if it got off). Then you can implement the other tips in your baking and hopefully produce less sour foods. :)

  5. Brandi says

    What has helped with my starter is doing 3 feedings a day (when I keep it out, most of the time it’s in the fridge). In my warm Oklahoma weather, my starter reaches peak in 3-5 hours. Also, I always feed at least a 1:1 ratio of starter to flour. So if I have 1 cup starter, I feed at least 1 cup flour (usually a bit more), plus of course the water. When I first started, I was trying to be frugal and feeding it less flour. It wasn’t enough. It stayed too sour for my tastes.

    Thanks for this info Wardee :)

  6. Janet says

    Thanks Wardee! I have been going to ask you how to make my starter less sour as it had gotten way too sour! So your answer to Courtney (Thanks Courtney for asking) was just what I needed. In fact I had already started to feed it more in the hopes it would help. I really enjoy everything you do and all the information you pass on. Thanks Again!

  7. Elizabeth says

    Thank you Wardee. My husband is very sensitive to the sour which so I tend to stick to the no wait recipes the most because with 2 kids 3 and 1 I do not have time to babysit it. two questions: will increasing the sourdough in a recipe help deal with the phytates faster? And your biscuit recipe says you can put in the frig overnight, what is the rule about frig. souring? will phytates still be dealt with at that cool a temp? Thanks. My dauhter now calls you Aunt Wardee.

    • says

      Elizabeth —

      1) Yes, I believe increasing the amount of starter can help reduce phytates more quickly. This is simply because there are more organisms present to do the work. However, realize also that there are other factors involved, such as temperature. The organisms work more quickly in warm temperatures. Also realize that if you increase the amount of starter too much, you might not have enough “food” (simple sugars from flours) to feed them all.

      2) Yes, the organisms can reduce phytates at cooler temperatures. However, they work more slowly. Just like if you put a kefir grain in a small amount of milk in the fridge, after a week or so, there will be kefir in the jar instead of milk. The culture worked on the milk, just at a slower rate.

      I hope this helps!

  8. Chantal says

    I recently purchased the e-book, which, I must say is terrific and I really do recommand. I do have a question, though, as I am French, living in France, and do not feel confident in converting the surdough cups (measures) into gramms which I am used to as far as the kitchen is concerned.
    Would you help with this matter, please ?

    • says

      Chantal — Sure! Here is the US to metric chart I share with others who need to convert:

      http://www.jsward.com/cooking/conversion.shtml

      For flour, use the “Other non-liquid ingredients” chart.

      The nice thing about our recipes is that we go by feel. This is because everyone’s starter is different — different flour, different level of moisture. So if you follow the recipes which describe the various doughs/batters, you’ll be able to adjust the amount of flour without really relying on measurements.

      For baking soda, vanilla, and other ingredients, use the “Liquids (and Herbs and Spices)” chart.

    • says

      You’re welcome, Marillyn! I am LOVING your sourdough journal posts on your blog. Your pictures are lovely and it is great to read about sourdough through your eyes. :)

  9. says

    My hubby does not complain of any sourness, but he does turn up his nose at the “heaviness” of the sourdough. I’m heading to check out your other sourdough materials and ebook. Thanks!

    • says

      M.E. — Oh, I really think our recipes and materials will help you with this. Today for our lunch in town, I packed wild salmon salad sandwiches on my homemade sourdough bread. It was so NOT heavy — one of my better batches of bread. I was happy. :)

  10. says

    I once had sourdough starter. Had it for well over a year, but when I had my fourth child, I just couldn’t keep up. And I killed it. My question is this: what if you’re going out of town for the weekend? Or on vacation for a week or more? How can the sourdough be preserved with no feedings during times like these?

    • says

      Lori — For those times, you can store it in the refrigerator and give it a break. A baby starter (less than 3 weeks old) shouldn’t be put up this way, but an established starter can be. Put it in the fridge awhile after a feeding, and you can keep it there a week at a time without feedings. Actually, you can leave it longer, but a week is the general rule before you should get it out and feed/use it again. You only need keep a small amount in the fridge — like 1/2 cup.

  11. Neveen says

    Hi Wardee,

    We’ve been in the middle of moving and I haven’t baked bread in a while, so my starter has been sitting in the fridge. I feed it about once a week to keep it alive but have noticed that it’s producing a lot more hooch. I baked bread last weekend and it was a huge fail, which is a bummer since it was the first time I baked anything in the new house. The bread came out overly sour. My question is, if i keep my starter in the fridge all week, since I bake about once a week, how often should I feed it?

    • says

      Neveen — It producing more hooch signifies that it is going through its food faster or not being fed enough (see Brandi’s comment above). This can also mean the bacteria are dominant over the yeasts. Simply adding more frequent feedings can help with this — and give it time to rebalance before baking again.

      I realize you keep it in the fridge and that is fine (as you know I do that quite often). So what I suggest is the day or two before baking, get it out. Feed it twice or three times daily. Get it rebalanced and strong. Then bake bread. Then store some of your starter in the fridge until next time. If you rebalanced it, you may not have to baby it the next time.

  12. Janet says

    Wardee, Thanks again for all the help! Yes, my starter is quite a lot less sour. I haven’t made much with it except some pancakes because I am treating it like a new starter but the family really enjoyed the pancakes. Will try some bread next week.

  13. says

    A friend of mine gave me some of her sourdough starter and I made some sourdough pancakes for supper tonight…I’m totally hooked! I’ve always wanted to be successful with sourdough, but didn’t know much about it. I’ll have to take your ecourse and learn all about it! I can at least make very nutritious pancakes for my family now…I love the idea of basically having pancake batter always ready, too. I don’t think I’ll ever go back to “regular” pancakes again! I also can’t wait to make that baked soaked oatmeal, soaked with the sourdough starter, for breakfast soon! I love your site, and really appreciate all the hard work you do to put so much wonderful information out there for us!

  14. April Jennings says

    My sour dough is not making hooch. Should it? I just got a starter from a friend and am trying to educate myself about taking care of it and baking with it. My friend said I can refrigerate it after I feed it and leave it out for 4 hours, but it seems really stiff. Is that normal? Can I use a metal spoon to stir it? Thanks for your help.

    • says

      April — It may not produce hooch if the temperatures are cool enough that the organisms are not so active. Or if the starter is not so strong. Or if not enough time has passed — with cool temps, 4 hours is not always enough time to produce hooch.

      People keep their starters with different levels of moisture. Sounds like your friend feeds more flour than water. I tend to feed just a little more flour than water, to make a thick pancake batter consistency.

      Metal is supposedly a no-no, BUT I use stainless steel (which is minimally reactive) for stirring without negative effects.

  15. says

    I’m afraid of my starter. It’s almost 4 weeks old now. I finally attempted bread today and it was so sour that I can’t even eat it….it tastes like Warhead candy. YUCKO!
    I am really bummed. I consider myself a good bread baker and my breads always turn out, so this one has me stumped .
    I followed the directions EXACTLY in the Sourdough A-Z book for the Honey Whole Wheat bread – sponge overnight – first raise took 6 hours to get doubled – second raise went 3 hours and just barely got to the top of the pan. It didn’t raise AT ALL in the oven.
    My starter did well the first three weeks but the last week I get very little activity….with no change in what I am doing. It was doubling – now I’m lucky to get a few bubbles.
    Help!!!! I don’t want to quit.

    • says

      Stacy — It sounds like your starter isn’t strong enough for this bread. Bread is the toughest challenge for a starter, so if it doesn’t get quite bubbly and active after a feeding, it doesn’t surprise me that your bread didn’t rise. The sourness can still come from the lactobacilli in the starter — they’ll keep eating and producing sour acids.

      You could try to revive your starter through babying it through feedings. Remove a bunch of it and just maintain a small amount with regular feedings, plenty of air, and a warm location. If it doesn’t come back, you’ll have to start again, I’m afraid. But don’t despair — this happens to the best of us!

      • says

        So, a starter can just suddenly kick the bucket? I sorta feel like I’m wasting all this time a flour on something that might just decide not to work one day….if I need to start counting on it to make most of my breads, how can I do that if it just decides it doesn’t want to work that day?
        I guess I’m confused because I thought that once it was “alive” that it would stay that way as long as I fed it twice a day.
        I’m getting bubbles, but it sure doesn’t double in size or dome.
        I sound whiny don’t I? :-) I just hate wasting flour……..

          • says

            Stacy — Yes a starter can kick the bucket. It could get overtaken by other organisms, it could not be taken care of well and its own organisms die back and not be able to recover. This doesn’t happen that often and I’m not saying it is what happened with yours.

            It is just that you said it was doing well and then had little activity — and it didn’t make good bread. So either it needed TLC or it isn’t usable any more.

            Sourdough starters do usually stay alive if fed twice a day once established. That is, unless they get contaminated or the temperatures are too cool or too warm.

            Once I had a strong starter and then my daughters started new starters. Mine got affected by the new starters and took a break for a few weeks. It didn’t die — but it did have trouble. The organism balance changed from the new yeasts in the air. What I did was just keep it small and feed it for a few weeks. It recovered and got active again. I was really worried because I loved that starter! ;)

            You will know if it is strong enough for bread if it gets bubbly and active after a feeding. It will take on a dome shape, enlarge its size, get gloppy and gel-like and smell sour but fresh. If it doesn’t do much, then it isn’t ready for bread. What I am trying to say is that it shouldn’t ever surprise you that the bread doesn’t turn out, because if the starter is acting strong it will make good bread (all other factors aside).

            You don’t sound whiny — and I’m sorry I took so long to answer!

          • says

            Thank you Wardee! :-) I had to get rid of the other starter. I think I figured out that I killed it…..in the oven. I put it in there with the light on because it was cool in the house – but I measured the temp and it’s over 100 degrees in there! WHEW! No wonder….I fried the little puppies. Oops.
            I started another and it’s almost a week old – and doing GREAT! Thanks so much for your help. :-) You’re an inspiration to me on our path to healthy eating!

  16. April says

    Ok…now I have another problem!! My starter seems dead as it is not rising/bubbling/smelling sour anymore. Can I save it?

    • says

      April — How long has it been now that you’ve had it since your friend gave it to you? Did it ever rise, bubble, produce hooch or smell fresh/sour? Is it in a warm enough location — or too warm a location?

      You can save a starter, if the organisms are still alive. Usually this happens just by optimum conditions and regular feedings — being sure to incorporate lots of air for the wild yeasts.

  17. April says

    Thank you for your response. Yes, the first week it bubbled and was sour, but now it’s not. I think I was so confused that I confused my starter. But the past couple days I’ve been leaving it out on the counter and we’ve had weather in the 70′s. I’ve been feeding it once or twice a day (not consistantly), but I’ve been thinking I should feed it every 12 hours or so, but I’m afraid to waist flour.

    • says

      April — It is much less wasteful to maintain a small amount of starter than it is to maintain a larger amount that you have to feed more. It grows exponentially and needs more food each time. You could use ~1/2 cup of flour each day if you discard starter before each feeding. That’s much less wasteful than feeding cups upon cups each day.

      That’s why I recommend to keep the starter small while you’re giving it TLC or creating it or not using it. It doesn’t take much flour. And what you discard goes to the compost anyway. Have you watched the sourdough science video?

      http://gnowfglins.com/2011/04/20/free-video-make-a-sourdough-starter-the-science-of-it/

      It may help!

  18. Barbara says

    I will never claim to be a sourdough expert . . . and far from it! I continue to have trouble with heaviness and sourness. I thought cooler temperatures meant longer rise time. However in your recommendations you said “shorter rising times” and “cooler rising location.” How can those go together? Thanks, as always! Barbara

    • says

      Barbara — How it works is that the longer the time and the warmer the temperature (though not so hot that the organisms die) the more acids are produced. So if you shorten the time and/or cool the temperature, you get less acids = less sour.

      You can do any combination of that.

      You can rise shorter in a cooler location which will have the maximum impact on sourness.

      If you rise the same amount of time in a cooler location, you’ll have medium impact.

      If you rise a longer amount of time in a cooler location, your results might be the same or slightly less sour.

      I hope this makes sense! :)

    • says

      And also — I didn’t mention the organisms’ role in breaking down phytic acid and gluten. Obviously, if you slow them down, this work is slowed as well. So with sourdough we have to balance how much we want to improve the nutrition with how sour we can stand the results. :)

      Also, if you sour too long at warm temperatures, the texture of the dough can be severely effected. With pizza or tortillas that must be rolled out, too much souring means the gluten is so far broken down that the dough is very difficult to roll out — it breaks instead of stretching.

  19. Barbara says

    But . . . please excuse my questeions! You have to let rise until . . . so if the temperature is cooler, won’t it take longer to rise?

  20. Barbara says

    OK, bear with me here, Wardee. Back to my original question: “I thought cooler temperatures meant longer rise time. However in your recommendations you said “shorter rising times” and “cooler rising location.”

    So, again, how can you do shorter rising time AND cooler rising location. I don’t understand because I don’t reallyl have control over how long it rises because it has to rise until it has risen enough. Am I making any sense?

    I am sure I am missing someting in terms of understanding, but I just can’t get it in my head. Thanks for being patient.

    • says

      Barbara — I’m sorry for being confusing. I forgot about your original question when answering your follow-up questions.

      All of these tips have trade-offs. If you choose a cooler location and a shorter rise time, the food may not rise as much in that time. But it may be sufficient for what you’re baking, and it will still rise some and it won’t be so sour. Many times, when you bake the oven puffs up the sourdough food to get it a little higher. Or if it is a food where we use baking soda, that reaction (baking soda + acids) add a final puff to the food.

      It is not hard, once you get familiar, to play with all the factors to achieve very good results.

  21. Barbara says

    My question is only related to bread. Do you have any more input knowing that I am only talking about sourdough bread? Every loaf I have made is both too sour and too dense. Thanks, again. Barbara

    • says

      Barbara — Can you tell me more about your bread recipe? How many rises, how long is each, and what is your room temperature? Also how much starter are you using for how much flour?

      Thank you for being patient with ME. :)

  22. Barbara says

    I have tried several, including the ones in your sourdough class. Right now, I am preparing to go out of town for about a week. If I have a chance I will give you more info tomorrow. Otherwise, expect something in about a week. Thanks! Barbara

  23. Anna C. says

    Hi,

    Thank you for such a great site. I’m new to sourdough, and I had a few unanswered questions. My family perfers the sour dough to have a mild tangy bite to the bread, but not one that says oh that is sour. So I was wondering which would be better. Sitting the starter on the counter and feeding it ever 12 hours, or keeping it in the fridge with once a week feedings. Lately I have been making mostly pancakes and biscuits which really don’t have a raise time. And also for less sour “sourdough” Should I use a smaller ratio for SFW? lately i have been taking 1 cup starter and to that adding 1/2 cup water and 1 cujp flour. Help please!

  24. Miki Ingram says

    I love your site and the ebook is AMAZING!!! My breads are coming out just to sour for my family. If I start doing some of these things you mention will it tone down the sourness of my starter or do I need to start all over and make another starter? Thank you for you help and sharing your knowledge.

    • Miki Ingram says

      So I found the answer to my question above. I must have missed it the first time through the comments. I will try more reg feedings and see what happens. Thanks I again for sharing with us all! One question, since baking soda neutralizes the sourness some can you add that even if the recipe doesn’t call for it?

  25. Christeena says

    If I want to use a natural yeast starter for baking all my bread recipes, how do I convert the traditional dry yeast amounts listed in the recipe to the natural yeast???? Thanks – I am new to all of this and my learning curve is high!!

    • says

      Christeena — In a few weeks, Erin (fellow Sourdough eCourse teacher) is going to do a guest post sharing how to convert recipes. I hope you’ll come back for that!

  26. meg says

    Hello! :) I have candida and am GF as I have IBS. I made my own GF starter, but it is SO SO sour! And not rising much :( Any tips for the rise that I can incorporate? I have some bread dough resting upstairs, after adding the baking soda as shown above :) I really want to make breads for Thanksgiving since I cannot have any sweet stuff, but the last bread was lip puckering sour and did not rise much, did have lots of bubbles.

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