Sourdough Starter FAQ: What Should It Smell Like?

Last Updated on January 2, 2024 by Gabby Hatten

Jumping into the sourdough world is overwhelming, but it doesn’t have to be! With years of experience, I am here to answer all your questions about what a healthy sourdough starter should smell like.

In the early days of starting a sourdough starter, good bacteria and wild yeasts work together to ferment the mixture. This process creates lactic acid and acetic acid, giving the starter its unique flavor and aroma. It’s like a lively and vibrant ecosystem coming to life! You can use all purpose flour, whole wheat flour, rye flour, almost any type of flour will do! Because of these variations, no two starters are going to smell, or behave, the same way. Lucky for you, I have experimented with most flour options and have compiled a list of different smells and what those smells typically mean.

Nail polish remover smell

This means your starter is hungry. No need to panic, your sourdough community is simply trying to tell you to feed them. Carry on with discard/feeding as normal or maybe feed a little extra.

Alcohol smell

If you’re getting a strong alcohol smell, chances are you’re also seeing a dark liquid forming on the top. That dark liquid is called hooch, and it’s not bad! It simply means your starter has eaten all of its food and it is starving. Hooch is actually alcohol (hence the smell), which is a by-product of the fermentation process. You can pour the hooch out or stir it in and feed as normal.

Unpleasant smells

I have definitely opened up a jar of starter only to be greeted by an off-putting smell. For some, that is reason enough to toss. But in my experience, unless there is mold or bugs, a bad smell (like cheese, but not in a good way) is not cause for concern.

Mature starter

From new starter, to active sourdough starter, to feeding frequency, to feeding ratio and every other variable; sourdough comes with a variety of smells. With my mature starters, I sometimes notice a sweet smell. It’s a cycle that ebbs and flows! Note: I do boost my starter with a little bit of honey every few months.

For best results

What can you do to avoid a strange smell? The short answer is regular feedings, a clean jar, and a room temperature environment. Paying close attention to your new sourdough starter is the best thing you can do to ensure a healthy starter* and avoid sourdough starter issues. My rule of thumb regarding sourdough is if there’s no mold- don’t throw it out! 

Get your sourdough starter going

Have you tried different recipes with no luck? Check out my no fuss sourdough for dummies guide. Your first sourdough starter can be your only sourdough starter with my easy to follow start up guide! Remember, sourdough is filled with living things. Your sourdough journey will be filled with ups and downs, the best way to stay positive when the learning curve is feeling too steep is to simply remember that sourdough has been around much longer than any of us, TikTok, Amazon, and all the aesthetic tools you may think you need. It is resilient, and so are you (:

Words of wisdom from yours truly

  • the float test is a lie
  • sometimes all you need is a new jar
  • fruit flies love active starter- don’t leave it uncovered or they will get in
  • feed at regular intervals 
  • starter rises at a slower pace in cooler temperatures
  • sour smell is a common occurrence
  • always wipe the sides of the jar
  • if you want better luck troubleshooting, keep a sourdough journal to truly understand your sourdough culture and learn it’s patterns. 

*healthy starter: this term usually refers to a mature (at least a couple months old) starter that is consistently doubling within 4-6 hours. 

Still have questions?

Leave a comment with any questions you still have and I’ll be sure to answer!

Author Profile

Gabby Hatten
Gabby Hatten
Hello there, I'm Gabby! I am a mother of three, married to my wonderful husband Marco, and I have a deep passion for simple living, vintage homes, and cooking everything from scratch! Although I grew up in Las Vegas, my husband's military service brought us to the east coast, where we have now made coastal North Carolina our home. While I didn't grow up on a farm, I have always been fascinated by that lifestyle and have dedicated my adult life to learning and embracing those skills, which I am excited to share with all of you!

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2 Comments

  1. Hi there!

    I am a newbie. I printed out and decided to use your calendar to begin my sourdough starter. However, not really sure where I went wrong. I am on day four. I have added in discarded as mentioned on Calendar. However, it seems that from the very first day I had to discard I almost threw everything away that was in the jar. In other words, I don’t know if the starter should be multiplying by day three when asked to discard so much? Anyhow, tonight will be day five, yesterday evening, I discarded 50 and added 25 of water and 25 of sourdough, as mentioned above, it almost emptied out the entire jar. Can you please tell me what could be going on?

    1. Hi Emilia! That is perfectly fine, just keep on going (: This method is purposely keeping small amounts to avoid unnecessary waste. However, you can up the numbers you keep and discard less if you’d like! It will work all the same (: