The Fresh Loaf

News & Information for Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts

Sourdough starter good smell/ bad smell

Devon123's picture

Sourdough starter good smell/ bad smell

Hello everyone

I have read this forum many times and being new to sourdough baking I have found it to be enormously helpful. I was just wondering, however, if someone might be able to shed some light on a problem I seem to have.

My starter is a couple of weeks old, and I followed Sourdoughlady's pineapple/rye flour instructions. My starter- or in fact I have 2- seem to be rising well, doubling in about 8 hours or so, and raise the dough of my bread pretty well and according to guidelines, with a nice crumb. However, I have one issue troubling me, which is when I stir the starter down after a feed, it smells foul; I can only liken it to the smell of burning hair/and or rotten eggs. During the starter rise it smells great UNTIL I stir it down and then I guess whatever gases are in there are let out. I am assuming that this is a result of having too much bad bacteria of whatever sort in there, but I am at a bit of a loss as to how to get rid of it, especially as my bread seems to be rising well (touch wood!). I have also found that if I use rye flour instead of white, or a mixture of the two, to feed the starter, it smells much better after stirring. 

I was just wondering if anyone might have any tips or experience about this, and I am sure it has been asked often before. My problem is, I can't see what I'm doing wrong, but there must be something. I am using organic unbleached flour, and feeding on a 1:1:1 basis daily, or 1:2:2 if I want it for baking with. I am also using tap water, so I wonder i f that could be the problem?

Many thanks in advance for taking the time to read this!

Ford's picture

 I noticed an off-aroma (like salt-rising bread dough) when I started with whole-wheat flour and water alone.  Debra Wink  discovered this was due to a strain of bacteria called leuconostoc that seems to be more prevalent in flour now than it was formerly.  This bacterium is self-destructive as it produces acid that inhibits its growth.  Apparently, the bacteria are not harmful.

However, since yours is a more mature starter, perhaps there are sulfur compounds in the tap water responsible for the odor.  Try using bottled spring water. 


Just Loafin's picture
Just Loafin

A 'couple weeks old' starter is unstable, even though yeast might now be present. It will take around 4-6 weeks before you can expect all the various weird smells to go away. You can still bake with it, but the flavors are usually quite bitter (especially the after taste). It shouldn't make anyone sick, though. If you live in an area that is served with treated/municipality water, then I doubt that is causing you any problems. It's when the water comes from a well where you might be introducing more undesired organisms.

If it doubles or triples at 1:2:2, then maintain that, as your yeast are plentiful and healthy. It will take them a few more weeks to make the culture more suitable for the companion organisms we want, and more hostile to the ones we don't want. You've come this far, be patient.

If you are getting really strange results when adding primarily white flour, you could very well be experiencing another phenomenon: Thiol

Many, myself included, have run into this when initially starting with something other than AP, and then switching to it. It takes a minimum of 9 days to flush this nuisance out, but it is well worth the wait. Use the search bar upper left and put 'pineapple' in it. Read Debra Wink's Pineapple Juice Solution, parts 1 and 2. You will get an invaluable education while waiting for your starter to really mature.

- Keith

Devon123's picture

Thank you very much both Ford and Keith for your helpful insights, it is much appreciated. I am still playing around with one of the starters and not baking with it, and in fact today when I stirred it down it had no bad aroma at all, so I think Keith is probably right on the button when you say that my starter is still in the early stages and has some way to go in order to settle down properly. Ford thank you for the info on the Leuconostoc which I have read more about after seeing Deborah Winks' Pineapple Solution. I guess I am a little impatient to get baking as being used to dried yeasts all this waiting is killing me! Yes Keith I will stick at it for a bit longer as having come this far if I have been growing Thiol producing bacteria I am keen to get rid of them.

I also noticed that my rising time after feeding the starters seems to have reduced significantly today, so it seems as though things are still developing and improving. I think my bread so far has most likely been down to luck rather than judgement!

Thank you again, for the reassurance and great suggestions.