The Fresh Loaf

News & Information for Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts

What does your Sourdough Starter smell like?

DonD's picture

What does your Sourdough Starter smell like?

I have read so many different descriptions of the smell of sourdough starters that I do not think that there is a concensus as to what it should smell like. I guess because starters raised in different areas impart different flavor profiles to the finished bread that it is natural that they would smell differently in their raw state.

I keep a good number of French and Italian wines and I dry cure a lot of salami and prociutto in my cellar so I would like to think that wild yeast and lactic and acetic bacteria are omnipresent in my house. It is a romantic notion but I guess that is why I do not have any trouble making and maintaining my sourdough starters.

I maintain a 100% hydration white bread flour starter and make my final build from there using different types of flours and hydration to suit the bread that I want to make. It was 'conceived' six months ago from the Hamelman's method. I keep it in the refrigerator and feed it once a week in a 1:2:2 ratio. The smell of my ripe white flour starter about 8 to 12 hours after feeding is a very pleasant fruity smell with a mixture of ripe (but not overipe) banana and apple. I only detect a very slight acidic smell but no excessive sourness. If I make the final build with whole wheat or rye, then I get more of the acidic and wheaty smell and less of the fruity smell.

I am curious to know how sourdough starters in different areas of the country (or the world) smell like.

Ps. I am located in Washington DC


rainwater's picture

After maintenance feeding (once a week, or sometimes every other week) the starter is scented very smooth, fresh, and sweet.  After sitting in the fridge for a week or two it comes forth with something that reminds me of the spackling used for drywall..... :)  Before I bake any sourdough loaves, I give a fresh feed....after about 12 hours, I use the fresh starter to make my first build.  My best results always come from using freshly fed starter. 

Janknitz's picture

He is a wine maker and knows all the correct descriptive terms for the various smells--there is actually a CLASS for this at UC Davis.  Sometimes my husband conducts inservice trainings for the hospitality staff and they practice smelling and describing individual components that go into good and bad wines. 

To me, my starter has a "clean, sour smell".  Not very descriptive, but then again, I'm no wine expert either. 

clazar123's picture

When it has been in the refrigerator for a while it has the sweet,fruity smell you describe-actually an acetone smell.It continues to smell this way if I don't discard any of it and just add flour to feed it.

When I discard most of it,leave it on the counter and feed it several times over the course of a day,it acquires more of a mild,yeasty smell .It can double itself very quickly!

I did make a fruit/water starter once. That is a project worth pursuing again. That liquid starter definitely smelled like beer/mead and worked fairly well to raise a loaf of bread.That bread had a definite fruity undertone and a heavenly aroma when it was baking.

I know they say the yeast is on the flour when you make a starter but I started a starter at work with the same flour I used for my home starter and it was completely different! It was a wild thing that very vigorously raised bread even as a young culture.I work in a basement that has plenty of mold and wondered if that starter would be different-it sure is! So even if the yeast comes from the grain,there is some influence from the place it is cultured in.

All my cultures make delicious,not-sour breads.

LindyD's picture

I pulled my culture out of the fridge, where it's been since the day before Thanksgiving, popped off the lid, and sniffed.   

It has a light scent of alcohol, which reminded me of white wine, as well as earth tones, like the fragrance of a hayfield.  It smells quite wonderful.

I pulled off a hunk and tasted it (I think tasting is just as important as smelling). It has a very pleasant, slightly acidic, taste.   

About an hour after refreshment, the earth tones remain, but now there's a layer of warmth, created by the activity of the culture. 

I live in Northern Michigan and maintain a very stiff culture using bread flour and well water.  Can't give the hydration percentage because I don't measure when refreshing.  My culture is kneaded, so it's pretty easy to feel when it's where I want it.

A bit over two years old, it allows me to easily build a higher hydration levain or quickly develop a rye culture.  It makes wonderful sourdough with a tartness I love.

I'm a happy camper up here in the snow belt.

Postal Grunt's picture
Postal Grunt

My starter is only a few months old and quite vigorous. I homebrewed beer for about fours years so I suspect there are a few ale yeast survivors in my kitchen where I bottled and downstairs in the basement where I kept the carboys for fermenting. However, right from the start, the smell has been on the sweet side and nutty. It doesn't seem to change much whether I use an AP or a WW flour. A Tbs. or two of rye flour wil send it into foam overdrive but the smell stays consistent. I'm baking only two loaves a week and a pizza crust on Fridays unless I'm volunteered for something so my starter is usually in the fridge just chillin' at about 100% hydration.

Late yesterday, I took out some dried discard from September to see if I could get a new culture going and it responded within 18 hours. I'm tempted to develop a tangy white starter to go with my hybrid starter.

weekend_baker's picture

I have a new starter that I've been growing since we moved to Australia about 5 months ago.  At first it smelled disconcertingly of sesame seeds (due, I think, to using Lauke unbleached organic flour), but now it has settled down to smelling rather like brandy.

In England, my two year old starter always smelled of brandy--deep wood and sweet notes with a deep alcoholic tang.  Even though I was maintaining that starter with very hard water, and different flour (variously Dove Farms white organic bread flour and a locally stone ground flour that was only available if there was enough wind to power the windmill), in a usually cool and damp house.

I suppose the fact that I am maintaining the two in the same way, the same hydration (pretty stiff), feeding about once a week, and keeping it in the fridge in between, means all my starters end up smelling the same, in spite of the different wild yeasts, flour, water, ambient temperature etc.

misterrios's picture

The first month I had my starter it smelled sour, faintly of vinegar. I put it in the fridge for a week, and after a few days of feeding, it developed a fruity smell with just a touch of sourness. I racked my brain before pinpointing the scent. Peaches.

I'm in Germany, though, and started my starter with rye flour. I do find it funny that the smell changed dramatically after it lived in the fridge.

JoPi's picture

My starter smells like spicy apples....


osx-addict's picture

I've got a starter that I've been running for about 2 weeks now from a Carl's 1847 sample I got in the mail.. It was working for a while but now doesn't seem to want to double.  If I smell it, it vaguely reminds me of fingernail polish remover but my kids and my sister-in-law disagree (they think is smells yeasty) -- perhaps just my nose is out of calibration..  Is this behavior normal if it won't double overnight when sat out in a warmish area (mid 60's to mid 70's).. Hope I'm not OT!

bakerking's picture

I am glad you asked this question because I  am always smelling mine and wonder about other's. The starter I use and refresh smells  slightly like opening a can of paint. My combined discards that I keep in the refridgerator smells like apples, my wife and I both agree. It is a couple months old, when it was new it smelled very strongly of paint and made a very sour loaf. I like a very mild non-sour loaf so I am glad it has mellowed and gotten sweeter.

diverpro94's picture

Haha! I probably have the most awkward description.... To me it smells like sour honey butter. It's a somewhat disgusting, but strangely enticing smell (at least to me). It smells sweet and creamy, with a strong sour smell which, surp--rising--ly, kind of smells good. Oh sorry... I live in Sooner country (A.K.A. Oklahoma). Go Sooners!

Oldcampcook's picture

I live in Oklahoma also (just south of Tulsa).  I have a number of starters which I have collected and/or made.  My sour rye will about knock your socks off if you are not used to it.  The one I bought from Breadtop has a sweet, apple odor.  My home made one has a pleasant fresh flour smell.  Others, depending on the starter, range from a paint odor to a slightly spoiled smell.  I use the same flour in all but my potato flake based one. Most of my starters are over three years old.


Fanciesmom's picture

A few weeks ago I started a Carl's 1847 packet that I got 2 years ago. because of moves - I lost it! - it just hung out wherever it was hiding until the move from CA to ND.  It smells like boozey apples & pears.  It's just been sitting on the counter in a crock - being fed once a week, while I wait for it to get really wonderful.

I've had lots of starters over the years, my OCD daughter threw out a 100+ year old Alaskan starter because she thought it was rotten!  Was that grounds for homicide (just joking LOL)?


hutchndi's picture

Carl's OT sourdough starter, being fed once a week at room temperature, and it smells of boozy apples and pears? I am surprised acumulated hooch has not eaten its way through the bottom of your crock. Carl's is usually a very fresh smelling culture, and it is extremely active, to the point where there are allot of bakers who mistakenly believe that it contains some kind of commercial yeast mutation. I have had an old Carls starter packet  turn up in the bottom of my junk drawer, after I put it there over a year ago for some strange reason, and upon refreshing it, it took much longer than the usual day or so for it to show signs of life. When it finally did, I never thought it was the same, and felt it was overtaken by another culture in my flour. Even if this happened to your starter, having whatever it is sit on your counter starving for a week at a time seems rather sad.

kfseefeldt's picture

I had the same question.

I started my Bahrain starter from Sourdoughs International two weeks ago. Today, it smells like Desitin (white zinc paste for diaper rash). Not very pleasant, but certainly not the putrid and alcohol smell I had after the initial activation. Plus, now there is no hooch present. It's been doubling in 3-5 hours after feeding at 64-68 degrees F (my current house temp).

I'm raising a loaf right now and hope it comes out as good as I am hoping it does.


Fanciesmom's picture

I'm sorry I haven't updated what my starter smells like - heaven!  Within an hour of feeding it's bubbling and getting "frisky".  I feed and care for it, and use it frequently & it's going strong.  Tomorrow is sourdough pancakes & a loaf of bread.  It must like North Dakota!

Daisy_A's picture

My starter is quite new - only about three weeks old - and I think it is still in the process of stabilisation. I am in central UK. When it is in good health and behaving well it smells of wheat and peaches with a slight hint of sour. It is a really lovely scent.

When it is 'grumpy' because I've neglected or not been able to feed, rest or discard it properly it gives off a sourer milk smell, like milk-based casein paint. I've kept everything very clean always and have recently built up the confidence to discard much more starter at each feeding. Over the past few days the wheat and fruit smell has become more dominant again and remained more stable. I know it's early days but I hope to bake with it soon to see how it comes across in bread.

It has been very helpful to read this thread on starter smells. I have 'washed' my starter once but without comparison notes would have thought there was something wrong with it in the earlier stages. It has never had bad hooch, pink or black spots or mould but being a living thing has had phases that I wasn't quite expecting. All good fun and much more engaging than baking with dried yeast alone!


Postal Grunt's picture
Postal Grunt

If your starter can double in size in 8 hours or less, do take a chance and try to bake with it. Set aside one portion for maintaining the starter and refresh that portion. Use the rest to build up the required quantity of starter for your first loaf.

Remember that sourdough bread takes its own time. Your first loaf amy not be "sour" but as long as you're happy with the flavor, keep on baking. There's lot of help available in the archived threads to answer all your questions.

Daisy_A's picture

The starter can double in 8 hours so your comment gives me hope that I could bake with it, young as it is. Thanks for your helpful reflections and for pointing me to archived threads. There certainly is a lot of help on this website and it's much appreciated by a learner!

clazar123's picture

It really depends on when I sniff. If I just pull it out of the refrig it is rather acetoney but when I feed it a few times and keep it at 80F, it gets rather yeasty. And my different starters do have different smells. I have some starter that has had a continuous run for >70 yrs and it smells like a fine wine-really delicious smelling by itself and very different from my other starters.

Zymurge's picture

I began my starter about 9 months ago, and have been pretty good about daily (or mostly daily) feeding for the first 7 months. I made it using whole wheat and pineapple juice, and after the first 10 days switched to unbleached white flour which it feeds on regularly since. I tend to leave it on the moist side (I never measure) with a consistency of about toothpaste. My theory is that a little more liquid helps maintain the low pH that the right bacterias thrive on.

Along the way I've produced plenty of loaves of excellent sourdough as I learn the ropes and the starter matures. From about 6 weeks on, the starter stabilized and tended to smell like a yeasty beer without hops and little aging. I used to homebrew beer, so I know this smell rather well! I also frequently taste the starter and it always gives a nice acid bite to the toungue, and you can taste the characteristics of sourdough in concentrated form.

Last month I went on vacation for two weeks, so I gave the starter a good feeding and placed it into the fridge. Upon return, it was a different beast. It had the odor of what I'd call a strong cheese. Not like limburger stink, but just like if you buried your nose into some yellow cheese to the point where it is almost overpowering. I tried to wake it up with a few daily feedings, and it was pretty slow to respond. After about a week of this, I tried to make a few loaves and it took over 24 hours to get a half decent rise. The bread came out pretty dense but plenty sour. My hunch is that the refrigeration is not so good for the yeasts but that the souring bacterias don't mind as much. Over time, the concentration shifts, taking away the rising power.

Since then, I've been discard half and feeding every 1-2 days. Just lately, the cheesy smell is starting to diminish and it's just beginning to have hints of beer again. Again, my theory is that out of the fridge for awhile and with a lot of new flour introduced, the yeast cultures are starting to gain ground again. I have also noticed that it increased in size faster last night than it ever has since the return from my vacation. I'm going to try a new loaf in a day or two and see if it's back where I remember it.

Along the way, I became curious about that cheesy smell. It got me wondering what would happen if I used the culture as the curdling acid in a simple homemade cheese recipe. I searched the net and couldn't find anyone that tried this. Has anyone heard of such a trick?

bakersinge's picture

or another sour since I can't give it all away. But this time, and challenged by being left on the kitchen counter, over a 3.5 days covered but not fed, throw in a few more days of (it was 3 board meetings this week) and we're looking at 10 days. It wasn't bathed in that gray alcohol witch's brew so I stuck my nose in, oh and it was a delightful beige colour.

So I had too much for full-scale revival so I pitched some wishing I had backyard pigs. And into the remaining, 125g flour and about 100mL water. Mix and cover, overnight it grew, and how. Beautiful fruity aroma, like I've never had from any sourdough starter.

bakersinge's picture