The Fresh Loaf

News & Information for Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts

Starter smells like alcohol

debdp's picture

Starter smells like alcohol

Today is like day 6 of my flour/water starter.  I was trying two different starters in case one failed.  One uses pineapple juice, the other I used water with rye and wheat flour.  This is about the water and flour only starter.  Day 4 I started adding in a bit of white flour with rye.  And did the same last night.  To me it was a slightly stinky smell, but the same smell it's held for the last 5 days. But just now I lifted the lid for a whiff and totally different smell, more like alcohol. 

Is that normal??

ElPanadero's picture

May I ask what quantity of starter you are maintaining and how much water and flour are you adding at each feed?

It is normal for the smells to change throughout the process as the yeasts and bacteria multiply and begin to ferment.  Ethyl Alcohol is one of the by-products of that fermentation as well as CO2.   That said, I don't usually get a strong alcohol smell when I first create a starter, it usually happens over a longer period and especially if I haven't fed it well.  The latter is when hooch liquid appears on top.  I find the smells of my starters quite pleasant as they are relatively new.  I guess your pineapple starter will smell very sweet.




debdp's picture

The starter is 1/2 cup flour to 1/2 cup water.  Because I was somewhat confused on some things I started researching on the internet and found a site that had more explanation so I started to follow that recipe, which used 1/2 cup flour but slightly less water. It also slowly adjusts the flour from all rye to all white over the course of a few days.  The first few days of my starter using wheat and rye it was bubbling and doubling in size.  And then when I started adding white flour mixed with rye I didn't notice any rising. But I am still seeing slight bubbling, but not nearly as pronounced the first three days. 

So far I've used the toss off to make biscuits and muffins and they've come out great.

The pineapple starter does smell much sweeter but it has not doubled and has had only a few bubbles since it has started. 

ElPanadero's picture

for what it's worth is as follows:

Equal volume (cups) of flour and water is not the same as equal weights of flour and water.  The ratios are different.  When creating a new starter I would aim for about 60%-70% water to flour as a drier starter (allegedly) experiences less problems than a wet starter. 

I would always build a new starter from just rye flour (second choice wholewheat flour) as these flours have (allegedly) more yeasts than ordinary white (AP) flour.   I've never failed with rye, it gets going very quickly.

I would never switch flours mid-creation of a starter.  Get one good starter up and running with rye if possible then when it is established, use a small quanitity of it to build a NEW second starter with say white flour.  Once a starter is very well established (like the one DABrownman has) you can freely feed it almost anything and it will be as happy as Larry!.  In the early stages, just keep to one flour to keep the environment constant.

I personally measure everything when baking.  Cups of one substance weight differently to another, even flour types so it's easier and safer by far to just weigh.  If you don't have a cheap set of scales consider buying some.

You are maintaining about 120g of starter.  I would cut that down to just 50g and add 50g of flour and 35g of water making 135g in total, then discarding 85g leaving 50g and feeding 50g+35g again and repeat this until the starter is away.  Once it's doubling nicely I would then maintain it at 100% which is 50g starter + 50g flour + 50g water making 150g and would keep that in the fridge and feed once per week in teh same 100% ratio.

Rye is your friend here.  Use it exclusively to get up and running in the fastest time and then use a little bit of it to create a new white starter.  ATB

kingtroller's picture


I'm unsure of your question... are you creating a new sourdough culture or just feeding an existing one?

Something else to consider... you are growing many things in a 6 day process. The two you care about are yeast organisms and the bacteria that supports healthy yeast cell growth. The bacteria is constantly multiplying and changing the pH balance of a culture... it's up to the baker to decide how much influence we allow it before final bake. Bacteria growth is where we get our sour flavors and usually peaks with higher room temperatures. Finding the balance of proper dough rising and flavor development is the challenge. Bacteria levels will escalate to the point of retarding yeast growth. Off-putting flavors will result if you don't refresh the mixture with new flour and water or put into the refrigerator to slow down run-away bacteria growth.

Sorry if I'm off topic.



chris319's picture

In my experience starter smells alcoholic like cheap wine about a day or two before it smells yeasty. This is a good sign. Leave it alone until then, and that means leave it alone. Don't add anything, no new flour or water, don't pour anything out, just a daily stirring.

debdp's picture

Chris319 I took action before you posted. :(   I still researched the alcohol smell and read that when it smells like alcohol (to me it's more like nail polish) that the starter needs to be fed. So I pulled out some, added fresh flour and water. Since in the beginning a mix of wheat and rye gave me great results, I replaced part of the rye with wheat so (and probably a no-no) the feeding flour is a mix of white, rye and wheat.  After I did that, the starter bubbled and started rising.  By this morning it was doubled.  It still smells a bit like nail polish this morning but not as much. 

I did the same with the 'pineapple' starter (same 3 flour blend) and this morning it is also bubbly and doubled, but smells more yeasty and less like me rather pleasant. 

I plan to keep these starters out for at least two weeks so I'll start feeding them twice a day. 

Thank you everyone for the replies. I have definitely learned a lot from your posts.  And clearly if this batch ends up failing I'll know from what you have written what I could do and what not to do. 

debdp's picture

I've used the pineapple starter to make my first loaf of bread. I used the no knead method, which I've used many times with traditional flour and yeast in the past.  It came out perfect...and I like the flavor and texture way better.  I also made biscuits with it.

I have not used the sourdough starter from the batch that smelled like acetone/alcohol yet. It still has a faint smell of acetone  But last night was the first night it tripled its rise. I mark both jars with a rubber band when I feed them so I can see how far they actually expand.

It's funny they both behave differently but I feed them identically and at the same time. The pineapple starter rises (doubles/triples) in four hours and then holds it for five more hours before starting to go down.  The flour/water starter is much slower to rise (double/triple) and takes about 6-7 hours to reach its peak height before starting to fall, but drops faster than the other starter.  My mix is still 50/25/25 of Organic white/wheat/rye.

debdp's picture

I noticed last Thursday that when I took out some of both starters and fed them for making bread, the pineapple starter was doubled and ready in just three hours.  The starter made with flour and water took about 5-6 hours to double.   I thought since the pineapple starter seemed so active I should use it with my wheat bread doughs to give them a little more lift, and use the regular starter with the white bread doughs (meaning AP flour only).  I made the two different batches of dough and placed them in the refrigerator (37-40 degrees) overnight to bulk ferment Thursday night.  Friday morning the wheat had tripled out of the bowl and down through the grates of the shelf with part of sticking to the shelf above.  The white dough had barely doubled.  I setup more starter and remixed a new batch of wheat dough. Late Friday I started baking and as it was pretty late I quit and decided that I'd use the rest of the white dough early the next morning and bake it the new batch of wheat that was bulk fermenting.  That meant the white flour dough would have been bulk fermenting about 33 hours.  When I checked the doughs in the morning I was totally surprised.  The wheat was fine (after punching it down a couple hours after it was in), but the white flour dough had become more like the dough I see in all these videos. It was kind of silky looking, supple, easy to handle.  And while I had a good window pane after the initial S&F, the dough stretched thin and gave a much better window pane than it did before going into the fridge.  The dough I shaped and baked immediately came out gorgeous and had good oven spring, but the ones that sat and proofed longer while i baked the other loaves ended up flattening and not rising as well when baked.  Unfortunately, I never got a chance to taste the bread or see the crumb as it went out to others.  

So, it seems that the regular starter is great for longer fermentation, while the pineapple starter is better for shorter fermentation times and things like biscuits, pancakes, scones and the like. 

Mini Oven's picture
Mini Oven

cooler kitchen temps, the "regular" starter, if fed the same as the pineapple one, will slow considerably and possibly return to smelling like nail polish, should that happen, skip a feeding or two so your starter can recover.  Then feed with less flour or increase your starter amount to feed.   

In my opinion, this "regular" starter hasn't quite made all the steps to reach a stable starter.  It needs to further ferment and complete the bacterial progression so that more yeast have ideal conditions in the starter.  A few warm days beating in air, no food,to fully mature should do the trick.  It should smell more yeasty and milder than "nail polish." Then adjust the long or slow rising of the loaf by the amount of starter used.

As Fall approaches and night temps drop, be wary that starters fed twice a day will slow down at night, sometimes better to skip a night feeding or feed less at night.  Pay close attention to the starters to keep them healthy.  Better to err on the side of underfeeding than overfeeding.