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What is "Hooch"?

This question comes up fairly often. If you watch old movies or TV shows, the answer is obvious. Hooch is a dark liquid in or on your starterHooch is cheap, bad booze. And, even in sourdough circles, that's pretty close to true

There's a great example of sourdough hooch to the right. It was taken in 2001 when I knew much, much less about sourdough than I do now. In sourdough, hooch is a light liquid that is thrown off by a sourdough starter. Since sourdough starters have yeast in them, and since yeast produces alcohol, there is some alcohol in hooch, but you have to be pretty hard up for a drink to even consider drinking hooch.

Most of the time, hooch is on top of the starter, however I have seen starters where there was a layer of starter in the middle of the starter, like a pousse-café or B-52. The specific gravities of the layers keep them separated. Honestly, I have no idea why the thinner hooch layer stays in the middle of some starters.

Yeah, but why does it happen?

Hooch is formed and thrown off when a starter is fed too little, and too infrequently. I usually see it in thin starters, such as the ones fed with a cup of flour and a cup of water. This starter has a hydration of around 166%. This means that there isn't much food (flour) in the starter compared to a thicker starter. The starter eats the food and slows down. And then it throws off hooch.Thin starters, or starters which are fed less frequently, tend to throw off hooch more often than thicker starters, or starters which are fed more frequently. I see hooch as presumptive evidence of starter abuse. Brewers have done work looking at yeast that has been starved. It deforms. And it takes many generations for the yeast to become fully healthy again. I haven't seen similar work with sourdough starter, but I am a believer in the industrial engineer mantra, "it takes a consistent process to make a consistent product". When you abuse your starter, you are short-changing your bread. You might look at my sourdough primers on Maintaining a Starter, storing a starter, or reviving a starter.

For a number of reasons, I suggest that people keep their starter at 100% hydration, that is one part flour to one part of water by weight. The starter works more slowly than a thinner starter. So, you don't get into starter emergencies as quickly. This protects the sourdough beginner. Also, you have a great indicator of starter activity - if the starter can double in size between feedings, it is ready to use. Neither thicker nor thinner starters offer that indicator. Thicker starters can be difficult for a beginner to work with. Feeding a thicker starter can involve kneading more than mixing.

But, whaddya DO about it?

If you have just a bit, stir it in, feed the starter and keep going. If you have a lot, like an inch in a quart jar, pour it off, replace it with water, and then feed the starter. You can prevent hooch by keeping your starter fed well and often.

Thicker is better!

Having said that, there is a time I suggest a thicker starter, and that is when you are storing your starter. A storage starter has A thick starter, fed 9/11/14special needs. I store my starter at about 60% hydration. That is 100 parts of flour to 60 parts of water by weight. I'd be embarrassed to admit how long I've kept that sort of starter in the fridge and had it revive.

This starter was last fed on 9/11/14 and immediately refrigerated. The top of the starter was where the top of the tape is. The picture was taken today, 9/21/14. As you can see, the starter has pretty much doubled in size, despite being refrigerated. Many bakers feel a thicker starter has more vitality than a thinner starter, though not as much sour.

When I want to use a starter, I take some out of this jar and feed it at 100% hydration for several days. So far, this starter has been with me about three years.

When the starter takes more than two days to revive, I feed it until it is very lively, then switch it to the lower hydration and replace what is still in the jar. It takes about 500 grams of starter to half-fill this quart sized canning jar. Again, we won't talk about how long some of the thick starters have been stored. So, let's just say months. And no hooch.

19 thoughts on “What Is Hooch?”

  1. Although it was a bit of a lengthy experiment, I was able to utilize Hooch to create a decent tasting fermented drink, one that tasted like Hoegaarden Wheat Beer none the less. My theory was that since there was some form of yeast in the sourdough, and prior to commercialized yeast an easy source could have possibly been the hooch of wetter starters, that one could foreseeable do more than a “backwoods” drinks. It was alcoholic (by how much I do not know, except the brain became a bit foggy) and had a very good head and a golden color. With some sugar, honey, lemon, licorice root and some other ingredients I cannot think of right now I successfully created a “Hooch Beer”, which I named the “Yoppen Yover”. However, I found the process a bit taxing since I usually use a dryer starter for my bread. I would have to go out of my way to create a Hooch Beer starter, using the 1/1 (One cup and one tablespoon) method in order to begin proper hooch production. Then I would have to regularize the fermentation period. The experiment was a fun “Let’s see if I can do it” one, but I do not have the time or desire to perfect it.

    1. That sounds interesting. Sadly, like you, I don’t have time to pursue the idea of a hooch beer. Let us know if you try again!

  2. This is my first time making starter and I really didn’t do any research! My question… My starter has three layers! First layer (about an inch) looks like regular flour, then a layer of hooch (just learned what this is!) and then a layer (about 4-5 inches) of what the starter should look like?
    I’ve been stirring it all together every day when I feed it. Is this ok? Or am I waaaaay off!!

    1. Hi Kathy,
      We strongly favor measurements by weight, rather than volume, and assume bakers understand that.

      A cup of water weighs 225 grams.
      A cup of flour typically weighs somewhere between 120 and 160 grams. Thus a cup of water and a cup of flour are not at all the same in weight. The inconsistency in the cup measurement is another problem. We cover that in the “What’s A Cup?” article.
      -Mike

      1. Ok. Please forgive my lack of math skills. I am using a scale in grams. I weigh my measuring cup that I am using. It’s 56 grams. I need 113 grams of flour so i add flour until I hit 169 grams. Seems to be almost a cup. Then I do the same with water. I need 113 grams and am using a cup that weighs 56 grams. I need 169 grams. Visually, also almost a cup. I obviously don’t understand!

        1. Hi Kathy,
          I don’t think the issue is math, it’s physics, and I think you made a mistake in measuring.

          Maybe you remember the old kids riddle, “which weighs more, a pound of lead or a pound of feathers?” Kids will say, “Lead!”and then the riddler will say, “No! A pound is a pound, they weigh the same!”

          Let’s turn that on its head. What weighs more, a cup of lead or a cup of feathers? This time, the answer is lead. A cup of lead weighs, from what I read, about 5.55 pounds, feathers a lot less. How much a cup of feathers weighs depends in part on how many are crammed into a cup. It packed loosely, the cup won’t weigh much. If packed tightly, the cup of feathers weighs more. If the feathers are shredded into really small particles and then compressed, the cup will weigh more.

          What does that have to do with water and flour? Water, like lead, cannot be compressed. A cup has one weight, 225 grams. If someone gets a different number, they over or under filled their cup.

          Flour is like feathers. It isn’t a single mass, it is a collection of smaller pieces which can be packed more or less tightly into a container, or can be compressed. When flour sits on a shelf in a sack it compresses. The flour companies say that flour weighs 120 or 130 grams per cup. To get this weight they want their customers to sift the flour to decompress it, spoon it into a cup until the cup is overflowing, and then scrape off the excess with a straight edge, like the back of a knife. If someone scoops flour from a sack, the weight is much higher, often 150 to 160 grams. If the baker aggressively scoops the flour it becomes more compressed in the cup and can weigh in excess of 200 grams. The variability is why professional bakers weigh their ingredients.

          The 113 grams being almost a cup of flour sounds pretty close. The 113 grams of water being almost a cup, not so much. Scales are designed to ignore small changes in weight so they won’t be affected by people bumping the table they are on, air drafts from open doors or air conditioners and so on. If you poured the water slowly enough, you could fill a container and have the scales still show zero.

          Hope this helps.
          -Mike

  3. I forgot to feed my starter last night. It’s now been 20 hours since it was last fed. There is some liquid on top and this is my first time using a random neighbors starter. I was going to bake bread with it today as I’ve consistently fed it for 3 days. Should I discard the liquid on top and discard some starter too? I now have a lot of starter it seems. If discarding how much should I discard? After I feed again today can I bake with it tomorrow? Sorry for all the questions !

    1. Hi Karmen,
      The liquid on top is, as you guessed, hooch. I’d stir it in and feed the starter. I’d hold off on baking until it’s fed and risen again.

      Since I don’t know how much starter you have, or how much you need to bake, it is hard to advise you. Look at how much you have and how much you need. Since you’ll double the starter when you feed it, work backwards. Let’s say you need 4 cups of starter, or about 1,000 grams. Let’s say you have 5 cups or around 1,250 grams now. I’d discard half of that, getting you down to 2 1/2 cups or 600 grams. (All numbers are very VERY approximate.) Then I’d feed it to double it. Say 2 cups of water and 4 of flour, or 300 grams each of flour and water. The goal is to have some left over to continue the starter for future use.

      Hope that helps,
      Mike

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  5. We recently got a start from a local bakery they give about 2 tablespoons our for free. I mixed it with 50grams water, 50grams organic flour. It bubbled a little the first day and that night had hooch on it. Thinking it needed fed i did another 50/50 and today it has hootch again. We haven’t had it rise at all but it does bubble a little. Do I just keep feeding it?

    1. Hi Tom,
      Thanks for the question.
      You might use the search tool on our web site – it’s the text entry box with a maghnifying glass in it that is in the upper right part of our web pages.

      Look for “feeding a starter” and “maintaining a starter”.

      Good luck,
      Mike

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  7. Hello, I’m trying to start a sourdough starter for the first time, using a recipe from the Kitchn website. I didn’t know that the liquid at the top of my starter (on day 4) was “hooch” until I just read this article. I have already stirred the hooch into my starter and fed it again. Am I able to still use this starter, or should I start over?

    1. Hi Christina,

      I don’t comment on other people’s starter creation techniques.

      Hooch is a sign that a starter is working and hungry. Feeding a starter the same amount every day without discarding starter is a recipe for a hungry starter. Imagine getting a cute Greyhound puppy. How long do you think you can keep feeding your pup 1/2 to 3/4 cup a day? As the pup grows, it needs more food. Same with a starter. I notice that they don’t discard until day 5.

      As to your question, starter is far more robust and resilient than people would have you believe. Most web sites act like it is a fragile hothouse flower that must be coddled. This is more because so many people ignore what a web site says, so the web site tries to put the fear of god and sourdough failure in people so they’ll at least try to follow the directions.

      My advice is to stir the hooch into the start, discard half your starter, and then feed it. Repeat the discard and feed steps twice a day. You should get a happier starter.
      -Mike

  8. I’m pretty new to sourdough so I don’t know much about troubleshooting. Whenever I put my starter in the fridge, even for only 1 or 2 days, it develops a thin layer of hooch. Why is this? What can I do to stop this from happening?
    (I feed the starter with equal parts flour and water by weight, leave it to settle in room temperature for a bit, and then put it in the fridge)

    1. Hi Becky,

      Many people think refrigerating a starter puts it into suspended animation, like a science fiction cold-sleep tank. Nope. Not quite.

      When you put it into the fridge, the starter remains active as it cools, which can take a while. While a refrigerator temperature is enough to drastically slow a starter, it isn’t enough to stop it. Biological urges are very strong.

      My own approach to refrigerating a starter is outlined in the post, “Storing a Starter“.

      Hope that helps,
      -Mike

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