The Fresh Loaf

News & Information for Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts

Epic Failure?

Photogirl's picture

Epic Failure?

I am on my 3rd round of sourdough starter.  2 were gifted, ended up throwing them in the trash.  Started my own starter from scratch.  I have weighed all ingredients, warmed the bottled water, etc.  I have done EVERYTHING correct.  The starter bubbles up nicely, all appears well.  But it smells VERY strongly like paint thinner.  NOTHING like sourdough!!   I am using King Arthur brand flours.  I am about to think I was destined to buy my bread, not bake it.  :(


clazar123's picture

If you want some ideas on how to proceed, a lot more details are needed. Over what time frame did this occur, what quantities of flour/water did you use, what consistency did you maintain it at, ambient room temp, feeding schedule,......all crucial bits of information.

Just from the comment about the smell, I would guess the starter was about a week old. Wild guess. The most common error when starting a starter is giving up too soon. It goes through phases.

Please provide more details, use the search box to get more information,read the handbook,check the Sourdough forum for help and be patient.

emkay's picture

Yes, like clazar123 mentioned, please give us more details.

I'm a newbie and my starter is now 27 days old and it seems to be doing just fine. Around day 11, it began to smell of acetone/paint thinner. The smell would dissipate after I stirred the starter, but would return an hour after stirring.  After reading a lot of the very helpful posts here on TFL, I decided to keep with my once daily feeding schedule, but increase the feed from 1:1:1 to 1:2:2. I did that for a couple days and it still smelled like acetone. So I went to a once daily of 1:3:3. After a couple days, the acetone smell went away. 

Hope this helps.


Bingowings's picture

I started with half a cup of water and half a cup and a bit more of flour.

To get mine started I had to find a Goldilocks zone in my kitchen. I was told the on top of the fridge was a good spot but no shakes in my kitchen. In the end I found a plate shelf near (but not too near) the radiator worked also I read somewhere that yeast gets a bit of a boost from living next door to ripening fruit so I kept the fruit bowl there for a couple of days (I don't know that actually helped or if it would have activated anyway but using 'chicken soup logic' it certainly didn't do any harm).

It took about a week to really kick off adding roughly equal amounts of flour and water daily at least, more if needed. Hooch, the liquid that you might see on the surface before feeding is a good sign of that it's hungry. It started off with the childhood remembered aroma of acrylic paint or PVA glue but then became more fruity and zesty (like winter stored apples).

If you are really struggling adding a tiny bit of instant yeast (a slither of the edge of a teaspoon) to get started won't burn the rule book.

You can do it, keep going.

Photogirl's picture


I used the starter recipe and instructions that was given out from a bread class.  The starter recipe was from "A Passion for Bread" by Lionel Vatinet.  The first 10 days starter was kept on kitchen counter.  After day 10 I was at the point of storing in the fridge for a week.  I have now had it in the fridge for 2 weeks and fed according to the directions.  I have fed 1/2 cup of starter with 4.25 oz of flour (King Arthur Bread Flour), 4.25 oz. of bottled water, heated to 85 degrees. 

I haven't had any separation of the is bubbly and has risen.  But the odor is just awful!!  I did make a loaf of bread with some of the first batch of starter (that I received in class and ultimately threw away)....the bread wasn't very good, it didn't have a sourdough was almost like the way the starter had smelled.  

I am going to feed again tomorrow, probably a couple of times and make the sponge.  Hopefully this loaf won't taste like the last one!  :)






largeneal's picture

...apparently I'm as new as you on this issue (I'm on day 7 or so).  I've been going off these instructions (roughly):  I'm using a 4 cup glass measuring container & I cover loosely with plastic wrap.  At some point each day I'll try to put in on a hot pad to give it a little push (for an hour or two...right now my tomato/jalapeno plants get jealous if any other organisms use it :) ).  Of note, from days 3-5, the smell was awful.  Now, however, it has a good, sweet smell.  Apparently throughout the development process different strains of bacteria thrive then die off, and their thriving is what causes the nasty smell (but once they're dead, the other organisms product compounds that prevent further growth).  So I went through a "worry phase," but was reassured by people on here to just trust in the process & let the bacteria fungus do their work.

placebo's picture

You want the starter to evolve past the acetone-smell phase, which others have suggested you can do by continuing to feed it regularly. Putting a starter into the refrigerator slows its development down.

Capn Dub's picture
Capn Dub

Creating a starter requires but three ingredients: flour, water, and patience.

People give up on their starter, throw it away, and start over.  Mistake!  That nasty smell is not that unusual--perhaps even the norm.  Add a small amount of patience and it will go away.

A 1:1:1 feed ratio is helpful, since the acid being generated is still small and using a higher ratio, such as 1:3:3, dilutes the acid you already have, thus slowing down the elimination of the nasty bacteria.  Don't forget to add at least a cup and a half of patience, however.


embth's picture

Have you made bread with yeast?  I started baking bread with simple, straight dough recipes.  Then I used pre-ferments and "poolish" recipes.   Somewhere along the line, I was handed some starter but it was already badly neglected and too weird looking and smelling for me, so I discarded it.   A gift of some nice healthy starter about a year later enabled me to experiment with sourdough breads with some success, but I still find baking with my starter adds a lot of variables to my results.   If you read books by the many "bread gurus" out there, some of these bakers are very comfortable with natural starters and some are not.   We are talking about master bakers and very experienced bakery owners, such as Nancy Silverton (a definite sourdough fan) and Peter Reinhartt (not as enthusiastic about promoting "starters").  The great thing about bread is there are many ways to produce wonderful tasty breads….about as many methods as there are bakers.

So….my suggestion would be to bake some basic breads and enjoy some of your own healthy homemade breads.  You will see that you are not "doomed" to eat commercially produced bread.  Then you will have the confidence in your baking ability to try your hand at sourdough breads if you wish.   Happy Baking!!

Jane Dough's picture
Jane Dough

I made my first successful sourdough starter several months ago following SourdoLady's instructions found at the link below. 

I had all the same experiences as you and as many failures.  I didn't put my starter anywhere special - just on my counter where I could watch it impatiently :)  Despite my watchful eye it took it's own sweet time.  Once it starts going it's very obvious. And when it's ready to bake with it's lovely and almost sweet - the polar opposite of when it's hungry.  It easily doubles and more now.  I had to read a lot and experiment a lot with ratios and how often to feed before I felt I was obtaining the desired result with my starter.  I now keep a white and a whole wheat starter that I can feed a couple of days ahead - usually out of the fridge for two hours before the first feed and two more feeds before I can use it. 

The hardest thing for me was patience.  I can measure flour and water no problem.  Waiting is not my strong suit - it requires patience and is not measurable. 

Good luck to you!  It may take a little longer than you are expecting but it will happen :)

(Now if I can just master the next step in the baking process...)

Photogirl's picture

I continued on with feeding the starter with a little extra flour and the smell seemed to diminish minimally.  I went ahead with the instructions to make a sponge and while the instructions said to let that sit on counter for 12 hours, mine was more like 20 hours.  I cooked one loaf in a cloche, one on a pizza stone type baking dish.  They actually deflated...cooked very thin.  At the 20 minute mark the one cooked on pizza stone was browning, but not done on inside....up to 170 degrees.  The cloche loaf was nowhere near even done enough to pick up and insert the thermometer from bottom of bread.  I cooked both loaves 15 more minutes, removed the pizza stone baked bread, removed cloche lid and baked for another 15-20 minutes.

Not sure why the cloche bread was taking such a long time to bake and not sure why the loaves both cooked flat instead of staying risen.

ericreed's picture

Sounds like they may have been overproofed, if they were meant to be ready in 12 hours. After a point, the gluten can't stretch anymore and eventually will break, deflating the loaf. It's also possible excess enzymatic activity or acid production weakened the gluten after so long a rise at room temperature.

Photogirl's picture

I left the sponge on the counter for 20 hours and it was still bubbling nicely this morning.  I felt like I was ok on that.  When I made the bread and let it rise I placed in a warmer oven and it did rise till doubled in size.  When I separated into 2 loaves of bread, they also doubled in size after allowing rise time.  Having said the above, would the sponge being out longer than 12 hours still cause this issue?  I was thinking the one cooked in the cloche would have risen more than the one on the stone.  I cooked it with no covering at all.  

Thanks for your input!!


ericreed's picture

Ah, sorry, I thought the whole dough was out, not just the sponge. If the dough was rising fine, then the sponge was probably fine I would think. Collapsing is the classic indication it was proofed too long still, so that may be it anyway. I guess the sponge could be a problem if maybe it got too acidic and weakened the gluten. Did you taste it? Was it really sour? Were they dense on the inside? Or flat but open and airy like a ciabatta or focaccia?

Which recipe are you using? I have "A Passion For Bread" but I have to say I was so unimpressed when I read it that I haven't tried baking from it.

Photogirl's picture

It was flat and doughy...the taste wasn't great but not inedible....if you could get past the thin, doughy consistency.  The recipe I used was from a class I took.  The author's name was long lost as the recipe was given to the teacher in 2005.  Sadly, there is no way to contact the teacher.  

I will try again and be sure to time it so that the sponge only sits out for the required 12 hours.  


Many thanks!!


David Esq.'s picture
David Esq.

If you had a book from which many have baked, you could get much better guidance.

Did you bake the bread successfully in class?  If not, maybe your professor gave you a dud recipe. 

If you post the formula here, the good folks here at TFL will be able to better assist if you like.  And if you are making it again, take some pictures along the way as they can give the bread detectives here a lot of clues.