Sourdough starter is grayish, smells bad, and is hardly active

Right before feedings I notice that my starter consistently is tinted a light gray and smells more acidic than usual. It's 3 weeks old and I've been feeding it every 24 hours by dumping half and replacing it with 1 part distilled water and 1 part unbleached white flour.

It doesn't seem super active, even after 3 weeks of regular feedings. After 24 hours it's sufficiently bubbly, but it's not doubling in size (it's only slightly rising) and the glutinous strands I see when I mix it around quickly dissolve into the rest of the starter-- it's almost a thick pancake batter consistency.

I keep it at room temperature loosely covered with plastic wrap. I change out the container every few days.

Something else to note: it's *really* hard to maintain a steady temperature or humidity rate in my apartment. It's over 100 years old and has single pained windows, and this winter it's been cold and humid consistently. We've also had a mold creeping up our walls, but that issue was taken care of by management a few months ago. The point is, I have a weird environment going on here.

Could that be affecting the starter's growth? Is the gray swirl mold?


Kate Chambers


Kate C. March 28, 2016
It didn't rise! In the few days before I baked it started showing lots more activity, so I was feeling optimistic. It passed the float test right before I mixed the levain, and the levain passed it after about 14 hours resting. I did an extended autolyse overnight, just because that fit my schedule best. The bulk fermentation was four hours long and yielded very little rise. I was super careful not push too many gases out when I did my stretch and folds-- I thought I was doing so well! At four hours it felt slightly enlarged but still more-or-less lifeless. It looked good through the shaping and didn't rise at all during the final rise. I baked it knowing it wouldn't do much, and it didn't. Tasted good, though!

I immediately switched the flour out of that starter from white unbleached to unbleached bread and whole wheat mix, and it has been incredibly active ever since. I also started feeding the left over levain with rye flour and it's been really active too. I'll bake again tomorrow and see what happens.

I guess my next issue is this: how do you know when you've under or over fermented the dough during the bulk rise?
Kate C. March 23, 2016
Thanks everybody! I did the float test today and it floated. I'll bake on Saturday. I'll hopefully be able to get a better judge of its health by how much it rises and the taste. If it turns out nasty or if it continues to smell off, I'll freeze it like Jim Lahey recommended.
AntoniaJames March 28, 2016
Kate, how did the bread turn out? Do tell! (Please.) ;o) P.S. I can't help mentioning that I've made fantastic bread with leaven that did not pass the float test. Please don't ask me why!
Bunnee B. March 23, 2016
Check out today's New York times ( There's a discussion of sourdough starter with LOTS of comments from people about how they make and maintain their starters. I've had mine several years and I feed it once a week and keep it in the refrigerator. No problems so far.
Lindsay-Jean H. March 23, 2016
Jim Lahey wrote in with the following advice:
"Place in freezer then thaw then reincorporate , take 5 g and seed next batch
Leave outside closed to be exposed to sunlight and reincorporate and reseed anew."
Kate C. March 23, 2016
Woah, I'm honored! I've been dreaming of seeing his bakery since I first started to find joy in bread baking.

So let me get this straight-- I place it in the freezer just until it's totally frozen, then I thaw it out, then I mix it back together and take 5 grams from it to begin a new starter, and I keep it in the sunlight at first. Correct? (Sorry, his language is a little too advanced for a novice such as I :P)
Lindsay-Jean H. March 23, 2016
That's how I read it too!
AntoniaJames March 23, 2016
That's so interesting! The conventional wisdom is that freezing yeast kills it. I'm curious as to the reasoning / "science" behind this. ;o)
Windischgirl March 23, 2016
Kate, I agree with Onion that the gray swirl is fine; I too have a liquid starter and it does separate upon standing...the gray liquid is "hooch" and can be whisked back into the starter.
I am concerned that you are having a tough time with mold if you change the feeding schedule. I apologize if these are obvious questions, but I'm wondering if: you have tried another brand of flour; and if you have sterilized the containers. The environmental mold may be affecting your starter, sneaking in under the plastic wrap. I use Pyrex bowls with close-fitting plastic lids and have not had any breakage problems--if the starter is very active there's enough give that the lid pops off.
I am also in a 100-plus year old drafty house, so I rely on my proofer to keep the starter warm and active. Do you store your starter on a radiator or another warm spot? Options are a preheated oven (100f) turned off when the starter goes in; a microwave preheated with water; a blanket, electric or not; a crockpot on warm; a yogurt maker; a heating pad, etc. Swaddle it like a pet or a baby!
I do keep mine in the fridge between bakes and only keep it out when l've just fed it in preparation for baking. My starter is about 7 years old, and it has taken some time to mature to a consistent level.
Good luck!
Kate C. March 23, 2016
I have typically been using bleached white flour mixed with KA whole wheat. This time I'm using Gold Medal white unbleached. I've had better luck with the mold this time around, but that could be due to a few things, not just the new flour.

I'll try to warm it up. If I do that, should I feed it every 12 hours instead of every 24?
Since the gray swirl is okay (I'm definitely used to a different kind of hooch), then I'm more worried about it's activity. I'm getting lots of bubbles but hardly any rise, and it's been *3 weeks*. Right before today's feeding I'm going to do the float test from Tartine to gauge where I'm at. We'll see!
Windischgirl March 22, 2016
Try feeding less often. The bubbles are a good sign, but the sour smell suggests that the lactobacillus is overtaking the yeast. Give the yeasties Time to catch up. Try feeding every other day and see what happens. When you discard, you may be tossing out most of the young yeast! Save the discards to make pancakes, or to replenish your starter. Enjoy!
Kate C. March 22, 2016
I've actually tried that, but I end up with fuzzy mold on top and clinging to any bits on the sides of my jar. Maybe that wouldn't happen if I kept it in the fridge?
AntoniaJames March 23, 2016
The fuzzy mold is perplexing. Have you searched on The Fresh Loaf to see if there is any wisdom on this over there? ;o)
OnionThief March 22, 2016
It sounds like your grey starter is just fine. because you are keeping it out in the room and not in a cool place like a refrigerator, the yeast is chomping through the food you are giving it pretty quickly. It suspect that it is then settling down to a separated grey mass that is dense and sticky like clay, with a grey or milky liquid layer on top? This is exactly what my starter looks like when it has been resting a while (days or weeks) shoved in the back of the fridge. it should smell strong and sour. bad is a tricky word to use. If is smells rotted or meaty or dusty then toss it. otherwise just let it be. cover it tightly and put it in the fridge until the day before you need it. I've been using the same starter for 12 years now, and they survive really well if you keep them cool and leave them be.
Kate C. March 22, 2016
So you keep your starter in the fridge full time? How often do you feed it?
AntoniaJames March 23, 2016
I keep mine in the fridge all the time, except when it's very cool, like now, or when I'm feeding twice a day, after it's been sitting in the back of the fridge for a while, to rev it up before a bake.

OnionThief describes my practices and experience exactly - except that my starter is not that old. Mine is from "Tartine Bread." I was using one made from the instructions in William Alexander's "52 Loaves," but I like the wheat/AP mix more. Every so often I give it a good dose of rye. ;o)
AntoniaJames March 22, 2016
I don't think the temperature and humidity inconsistency is causing the problem. My house is almost 100 years old, too, and we have a lot of variability, year round.

My starter rarely doubles in size. But the bad smell? I'm not so sure. I use a half whole wheat, half A-P flour mix in my starter and it always smells great - slightly sweet after feeding consistently for a few days. Also, mine has a thin consistency - like pancake batter -- starting about 12 hours after feeding, yet it produces incredible artisanal breads, so I would not worry about that, or the glutinous strands (mine does that, too).

Have you baked bread with it? I'd go ahead and make a loaf and see what happens!

Whose instructions / "recipe" are you using? ;o)
Kate C. March 22, 2016
I'm using the recipe from The Bread Bible. In the past I've used Tartine Bread's instructions, but I was having horrible luck. Every starter would end up with fuzzy mold all over it within the 24 hours between feedings, and upping it to every 12 hours never yielded any signs of life at all. I've scrapped 4 or 5 starters over the past year because of that.

I'll try baking with it, and we'll see what happens. And when I say it smells, it's just acidic. I know what it should smell like because I've baked so many times before. It's just... off. I can't pinpoint what it is that's causing it or how to even describe it well, and that's why I'm interested in this gray swirl I find on it every day.
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