Natural Yeast: 3 Critical Keys to Success

Keeping a natural yeast starter can be tricky. There is so much to learn that success or even progress can  seem out of reach. While starter needs vary from kitchen to kitchen and starter to starter, I have found that there are a few elements that never change. These 3 critical keys to success are the answer to probably 80% of the troubleshooting questions I get on a daily basis, and make a huge difference in starter activity when followed on a regular basis.

*Note: Here on The Bread Geek I keep a refrigerator starter that requires less maintenance than your average countertop sourdough starters. These keys to success are most applicable to refrigerator starters, but #2 and #3 can work for countertop starters as well. 

For countertop starters, here are two links that could be good resources for you:

Breadtopia: Maintaining Your Sourdough Starter

Sourdough Home: Fast Track to Sourdough; Maintaining Your Starter

Now on to our keys to success!

natural yeast 3 critical keys to success cover|via

3 Critical Keys to Success

1. Visibility:  Keep your starter in the door of the fridge.  Make a habit of checking your starter every time you open the door.

This habit is important for two reasons:

  • The door is the warmest spot in your fridge, and will keep it from getting too cold.
  • The door keeps your starter visible, and prevents it getting shoved to the back where it will probably die a cold & lonely death.

When I first started this habit, I would put a post-it note on the door that said “STARTER” written on it until I checked my starter every time without needing the note.  This habit ensures your starter will not become neglected, because let’s face it, we all open the fridge a few more times a day than we like to admit.

2 .Consistency: Thicker is better than Thinner

I did a great post on this called Using Your Starter as a Parachute. When your starter is thicker, you know you have enough food in your jar to feed all the microorganisms living there, and it gives you the opportunity to actually see the bubbles your starter is making. If you are going to err in any direction err on the side of too thick rather than too thin.

natural yeast 3 critical keys to success thicker

3.  Feed your starter whenever there is liquid.

When you have liquid that lightly covers the top of the starter, FEED IT.  The longer the liquid stays on top of your starter, the greater chance it will begin to “sour” the starter, and the yeasts don’t like the increased acidity (this affects the fluffiness of your bread). Sometimes you may get little pockets of liquid here and there, those aren’t a problem. But liquid accumulating top, bottom, or middle of your starter should be considered a sign that it is feeding time. Do your best to pour off the liquid, but don’t worry too much if you can’t get it all. This liquid won’t hurt you one bit!

natural yeast 3 critical keys to success liquid| via

natural yeast 3 critical keys to success liquid bottom| via

Starters are living things, and the variables will always be there, but as we practice good starter habits, those variables will decrease in severity and duration. If you’re having trouble with your starter, especially if you find you are getting liquid on your starter more quickly than you should, it can help to revisit these 3 critical keys to success and make sure you aren’t forgetting something.

Want 2 bonus Keys to Success? Of course you do! Check out my book Beyond Basics With Natural Yeast from the library or on Amazon to get even more tips for keeping your starter healthy and happy!



    • says

      Annette I know you came to the class so you don’t need this anwered any more, but for the sake of others who see it, The very very best way to improve starter activity and flavor is to follow these suggestions and to watch the tutorial videos to make sure your starter consistency is what it should be.

  1. says

    Melissa, I came to your class on Saturday at the Stone Gate Center, and got a start from you (thank you so much!). I have been feeding it (two times so far) with my own concoction of ‘Wonder Flour’ (from Chef Brad Fusion Cooking – it is equal parts of whole wheat, barley, and brown rice). It is getting a little bubbly with a few drops of liquid. I was wondering if I should stick to straight whole wheat flour to get it growing better? What would you suggest?

    • says

      sorry this is a bit delayed, but how is your starter doing? It is usually better to either do a dramatic shift in flour and give the starter time to recuperate and accept the new food, or to wean it slowly onto the new flour by increasing the percentage of the new flour with each feeding. How did it go?

  2. says

    Hello, I received a starter from Caleb and am concerned that it is not doing well. I started it and it seemed to be doing well, after it was put in the fridge on the third day I’m noticing that it is pretty dark on top and has some liquid on it. I am trying to figure out what I did wrong and realized that when I grind my wheat I add oats and flax seed. Is that my problem? There are like black specks in the yeast. Please help, I am so excited to use this and will be so sad if I can’t get it to work.

  3. Swathi says

    Hello Melissa,

    I recently bought your book, got some yeast from Caleb and started baking today. My dough rose beautifully during proofing, but I now have a brick to start constructing a building with! I have 2 questions in the wake of my failure:
    1. Is the reason for my brick only that I used yeast that was still working? What are all the possible reasons for a brick?

    2. Do you teach baking classes in other states? I live in the Bay Area, California and would be very interested in classes.

    I hope you will have the time to answer my questions 🙂

    • thebreadgeek says

      Swathi, it sounds like you did everything right, probably what happened was that your bread over-proofed during the first rise and wasn’t able to rise properly again the second time. As far as classes go, I am going to start doing some online classes so keep an eye out here on the blog and facebook!

  4. Deniseregina says

    Went wheat free and largely grain free a while back due to health issues. But I miss bread. Have been doing a lot of reading. Considering getting some einkorn flour and trying to make bread again. According to the company, this is an 80% extraction, so not whole wheat. I’m not in the position at this time to buy a grain grinder to make whole einkorn flour. Any experience with this? Anyone??

    • thebreadgeek says

      Denise I believe we chatted on facebook, but for other readers I suggest finding @Raw Chef Wendy on facebook. She is currently working with an Einkorn starter and baking with it. Great resource!

  5. Jana says

    I have purchased red and white wheat through the LDS storehouse. All previous attempts to grow and keep a starter have failed. Do you know if this wheat is organic? I wonder if this is why I am failing? Thanks!

    • thebreadgeek says

      I don’t think the LDS storehouse wheat is organic. But I have used non-organic wheat and been fine before. My guess is it is something else. First of all how long ago did you purchase it? How have you stored it? Could your water be an issue?

  6. Aemile says

    hello Melissa ,
    my name is Aemilie and l am 15, i’ve have been baking with my natural yeast starter for about two years now and my starter has been doing fine. l wanted to ask you about something, a few days ago my mother’s visiting teachers brought over the most delicious cinnamon-y sweet bread over to us . lt was so yummy that l asked for the recipe, they said it was called ”Amish friendship bread” and you used a sourdough starter made from sugar, milk and dried yeast. l knew this was not what the Amish really do, so l decided l would just look it up on the computer. Unfortunately all the recipes l have found use commercial yeast for their start and other things like pudding mix, white flour and sugar,sweetened condensed milk,etc…in the bread. not only that but there are no Amish people on the internet to tell me how to make the original recipe. This is so good and l am dying to make it but i don’t know where to start,do you have ideas???

    • thebreadgeek says

      Aemilie I love this question!! You are such a great detective. It is totally true that the Amish Friendship breads all are started from commercial yeast. I currently live in a part of the country where there are a lot of Mennonite and Amish communities, and I have found that they all use commercial yeast in their baking. Kind of surprised me! There may be communities that don’t but so far that’s what I’ve seen.

      I would love to come up with a great natural yeast version of this popular bread. I don’t often do sweet breads because I have a sugar sensitivity, but I know a lot of people would love this. I found a recipe for sourdough amish friendship bread, but it tries to be specifically sour which I wouldn’t want. Would you experiment on this with me? I will try to make a batch next week (I don’t have pudding and my grocery day is Monday). Here is the tricky thing. I probably wouldn’t use a full cup of starter (way sour!) so we would need to compensate for the liquid in the starter by adding more milk. I would maybe do 1/2 cup starter and increase the milk from 1/2 cup to 1 cup. I would mix the flour, milk, starter, and eggs for the overnight rise, then do the rest in the morning. Take a look at this recipe: Amish Friendship Bread and if you make it (or try) take pictures and let me know!

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