Kitchen Adventures: Making Sourdough, Part III: A Small Setback

This is the second post in a series on making your own sourdough bread. In previous posts, Jillian explained  why make your own sourdough and also how to grow your starter.


Sourdough Update: I killed my starter.


So the last time I wrote to you all, I was super excited to have created a living sourdough starter, remember? I had gotten into the routine of feeding and watching it every day, and I couldn’t wait to start baking bread with it – I was so eager to see how the bread would turn out and what it would taste like! So much excitement and anticipation, right? Well…I ran into a slight hiccup in my plan…I killed my starter. I killed it…as in it died. I know. I couldn’t believe it either.


Like I said, I had been getting used to checking on it and feeding it every morning, and had grown accustomed to seeing it all puffy and bubbly most of the time. It was almost always full of bubbles, and would expand so much that it would climb almost to the top of my jar. But one morning…there were no bubbles. None. The mixture that was usually puffy and inflated (and exciting), was none of those things., much to my dismay,  It just looked like pasty goo. I was worried…although I was still optimistic. Maybe it was just a little off its usual schedule. I decided to give it a little more time before I really started getting concerned about its well-being (I’m stubbornly optimistic, you must remember). So I fed it as usual and placed it back in its spot atop the fridge…and remained hopeful!


Well…it didn’t puff up the next day either. My hope was dwindling.


The unfortunate ending to my story is that my starter didn’t get bubbly again, ever. I really killed it. This is why I can’t keep a plant alive, apparently. And also why I’ve never had a pet of my own. I had failed at keeping a colony of wild yeast in flour and water alive. What did this mean about me? It was so disappointing, and so sad!


The logical question here then, of course, was why? And how? It was time to do some research. I had been under the impression that once you had a starter going, it was more or less resilient, and was actually difficult to kill (awesome). I had to figure out what I could possibly have done so wrong as to kill my culture…and make sure I didn’t make the same mistake again! Hence this post—to a) let you know that adventures in the kitchen don’t always go as planned (that’s a big lesson!), and b) help you (and me) learn from my mistakes. Here’s what I found out.


Sourdough starters are, as it turns out, very tough. There are only a few reasons they will die once you have them going. One of the most common is that the starter is somehow subjected to a temperature so high that the yeasts are killed, which isn’t likely—I mean, you’d really have to be trying to kill it, since many sources say the temperature would have to be somewhere above about 140 degrees F.  Another common reason a starter will die is because it is not fed for a very long time (many days) and it starves. There are other ways you might kill your starter as well, however, such as using water that isn’t pure or contains a large amount of chlorine, or by somehow contaminating it with unfamiliar bacteria.


The more I’ve read about sourdough starters, the more I’ve learned that it seems to be very difficult to actually kill them. I really think I succeeded though. I’m sure at this point, you’re wondering how I managed to kill my starter. Well, I’m not completely sure, of course, but my theory is that I accidentally used a spoon that had either a) been used for something else and was therefore somehow contaminated, or b) still had a bit of soap residue left from the dishwasher (a surefire bacteria-killer). I will thus be more diligent when it comes to my spoon choice. Lesson learned: always make sure everything you use is very, very clean (but not so “clean” that it’s still soapy!).


The only other tip to remember is that if you think your starter has died, it’s actually best to keep feeding it as usual for…quite awhile. Like days and days before you really give up. Most of the time, because starters are so hardy, they will bounce back if you just keep feeding them – stick with it! Despite my claims to be hopelessly optimistic, I gave up pretty quickly (maybe too quickly) after I decided my starter was probably dead.


Anyway, I’ve begun a new starter and it’s going well so far, so even though I had a bit of a setback, hopefully there will be news about bread very soon. Fingers crossed!




Jillian Tholen learned to love food at a very young age growing up on her family's farm in Southwest Minnesota. She moved to Minneapolis after finishing undergrad to study Nutrition, and since finishing her Master's has been continuing to work with food and the community of the Twin Cities. Despite being a "country girl," she adores living in the Twin Cities, loves her summer job at the Mill City Farmer's Market, and is always up for feeding people and having a bonfire. Jillian also sells running shoes at Run N Fun and serves farm-to-table food at the lovely Birchwood Cafe. Her most recent non-sourdough article for us was Wellness Wednesdays at the Linden Hills Co-op.