The Fresh Loaf

News & Information for Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts

does sourdough starter always smell so bad?

impecunious1's picture

does sourdough starter always smell so bad?

Im new to baking bread, but I became addicted to it and have been making bread daily for the last five months. I have been reading about sourdough starters and decided to try it. 

It was started with 1/4 c flour and 1/4 c spring water. 

fed it on day 3 and used on day 4.

It smelled awfull in the jar. One of the worst smells I have ever smelled. But I went ahead and made a loaf, and it was pretty good, but I am not a sourdough aficionado. I just want to know if starter always smells so bad. I know there are many different recipes for starter but I have to use regular all purpose flour since I dont buy any other flour. Do you get worse/better smells from different flour?

clazar123's picture

"Bad" and "good" are so particular to an individual and more of a value judgement than a description. What did your starter smell like? It is hard to describe smells in print. Starter can smell anything from yeasty/beery to sweet,overripe fruit to almost a dirty sock smell (but NOT cheesy-that is a different bacteria infesting the starter). Sometimes it smells like fingernail polish,sometimes like vinegar,sometimes it is so sharp it burns your nose when you sniff it. I love all those smells (except the cheesy-that is very unpleasant to me).

I suspect you did not have a starter but some type of bacterial infection if it was that odorous (of any kind) after 4 days.I am amazed you were able to get a loaf of bread from it. Did you add any other yeast?

Please read some more about starting a starter and the different stages it goes thru as it develops.It usually takes at least 7 days if not a bit longer to get something that will raise dough. The search box works very well. Here is a link I got when I entered "starting a starter" in the search box.

Have fun!

fancy4baking's picture

I'm guessing that you must have smelled something like fish!! If that is the case then i think you are on the right track in maturing your stater. But to have a decent loaf of bread after only 4 days of creating your starter, well this is new to me.

Anyhow, in the process of making a new starter (which i am doing now) you need to keep feeding it twice daily with flour and water until you see some signs that indecate the readiness of your starter, signs like: smell, increment in size, bubble (amount, size & distribution in the vessel), frothy surface.

FlourChild's picture

That was probably a different microbe that raised your bread, as mature sourdough starters would normally take much longer than 4 days to develop when starting with such a small amount of flour.

Do a search for the pineapple juice solution, and you'll find much more info about it.

Keep up feedings to your starter whenever it reaches a bubbly state of affairs (sometimes 1x  per day, then 2x as it develops further), you'll be amazed how much better it smells when the right microbes win over the culture.

impecunious1's picture

I got this "4 day starter" from  (I think)  but I have been reading so many different recipes it just seemed that the one I used should have worked. It all seems the same, some people use juice some dont, but the process is sumed up : mix equal parts water and flour, cover and let sit 2-3 days, feed, repeat with more frequent feeding.  I noticed a seperation, but then the next day it rose, lots of bubbles, thats when I fed it, the fourth day I think it looked like pancake batter, 

To describe the smell, I would it was a deep smell, not stinging, and not fishy, but almost gagging me. It was so bad I dumped out what I had not used. Me and my sister ate the bread and really liked it. I havent gotten sick from the stinky starter.

And yes there was a slight sour taste to the bread, and the chopped onions on the loaf made a beautiful round loaf as well as flavorfull.

So what I am hearing is that sourdough starter is an aquired scent, you have to learn to like it?

aytab's picture

Why did you dump out the left over starter if it made a good loaf of bread? It sounded like you were on the way to having a very good starter and you threw it out. Hmmmm.... my starter always smells rather yeasty and slighly over ripe. I wouldn't wear it as cologne but I do love the smell.'s picture

I'm no expert -- a novice like you actually, having made my first starter only about 6 months ago.  I certainly didn't use it within the first week.  However, I have been using it weekly for a few months now and have learned some things (not nearly enough though) in the process.  A sourdough culture is undeniably a complex and dynamic little ecosystem.  The dominant (= or =/= detectable) microbes shift over time depending on what grain you started it on, whether or not you began by acidifying it (e.g., pineapple juice) and the conditions under which you maintain it (refreshment frequency, maintenance temperature, refreshment grains & hydration, etc.).   The starter I have settled on (having started way too many at first -- probably a common sidetrack among newbies) has gone through some fairly offensive fragrance stages, sometimes for no obvious reason that I was aware of.  One fragrance was like nothing I'd ever experienced -- maybe dirty socks as someone mentioned.  Good news is, those fragrances vanish at 400-500˚F.  And more good news is that, as your starter teaches you what it likes and how it responds to your treatment, you can nudge it in directions that suit your taste, by manipulating the variables listed above.  You're conducting a very diverse and assertive orchestra.  In its complexity there is essentially infinite flavor and fragrance possiblity, way beyond merely "sour".

I would certainly recommend following Debra Wink's protocol (it has worked multiple times for me).  It's published in Peter Reinhart's Whole Grain Breads book and online in many places including here.  She has made sourdough microbiology her (probably not only) professional focus, and is a respected authority on the biology.  That's important, because there's a lot of hocus-pocus out there one needs to recognize as such, and ignore or accept with a dose of reality from scientists like Deb Wink.

Take care,


Berti's picture

definitely is not something "you should get used to" and four days is rather young for a sourdough.

my rule of thumb for a new sourdough is that a fed sourdough , if you are using the 100% hydration way, feed by weight.

so, if you have got 4 oz sour, add 4 oz water (weight) and 4 oz flour (weight), stir and let ferment

THEN, it should double on itself within 12 hours (sooner even better, sometimes its 8!) and only then its ready to bake with.

before that, you can use your extra sourdough to do quick breads or pancakes with or need to throw anything out.

also no need to keep huge quantities......just keep going and refresh small quantities, then do a big refreshment of DOUBLE the sourdough weight in water and flour, 12 hours before you want to bake.

good luck and keep us posted.

MangoChutney's picture

At a very young age, my starter smelled like soured fermenting mash.  This is not an altogether pleasant smell, combining as it does odors of dirty socks and vomit with the nicer fermentation smells.  However, it never smells now like anything other than yeast or hooch, or if I treat it badly, nail polish remover but that very seldom happens anymore.  Sourdough starter is not something you mix up to use on day 4 and then throw away, making new for every batch.  It is as you apparently read on various websites, something that you feed regularly and use repeatedly.

Now, there is a recipe that some people call sourdough, which involves mixing flour and water, letting it sit for a couple of days to sour, and adding it to a regular yeasted bread recipe for flavoring.  It may be tasty bread, but it is not a sourdough leavened loaf.

Stuart Borken's picture
Stuart Borken

does the slight hint of vomit and funk imply a potentially decent starter???

phaz's picture

More like it's on the way to becoming potentially decent starter. With only flour and water, white flour in particular, this isn't unusual early on. Along with activity (bubbling, rising) that could appear to be from yeast. It usually isn't, especially with that type of odor (vomit, or cheesy as I've heard it described). Many start over at this point. Keep going, it's about a week away from going from potential to viable.

PatMax's picture

don't worry about the smells , your starter will settle down and develop it's own nice bouquet.

All that is happening right now in your starter  is the good guys with the right stuff winning out over the others  .