Sourdough Starter Smells Like Vomit – Should A Starter Smell Like Barf?

Published Categorized as Sourdough Starter

No one likes the sound of anything potentially smelling like vomit, let alone their sourdough starter! If you are wondering whether a sourdough starter should smell like vomit, then the short answer is yes. Your starter will smell like a wide variety of things, though it’s best to recognize them before going into a frenzy! Here’s why sourdough starter smells like vomit and other things, and what you can do!

Sourdough starter smells like vomit – should a starter smell like barf?

Table of Contents

What is a Sourdough Starter?

A sourdough starter is a living mixture of flour and water that serves as the foundation for creating delicious, tangy sourdough bread. It is home to a thriving community of wild yeast and beneficial bacteria that work together to create the signature flavor and texture of sourdough.

A sourdough starter consists of just two simple ingredients: flour and water. While you can use all-purpose flour, many swear by the nutty, complex flavors that whole wheat or rye flour can bring to the table.

Once flour and water are combined, the mixture is left to ferment at room temperature, allowing the wild yeast and bacteria naturally present in the flour and air to get to work. These microorganisms feast on the sugars in the flour, producing carbon dioxide (which creates those lovely bubbles in your bread) and lactic acid (which gives sourdough its signature tang).

To keep your sourdough starter healthy, you’ll need to “feed” it regularly with fresh flour and water. This process replenishes the nutrients that the yeast and bacteria need to thrive, and helps to maintain a balanced ecosystem within your starter.

Unlike commercial yeast, a sourdough starter is a natural leaven – meaning it relies on the wild yeast and bacteria present in the environment to rise your bread. This natural fermentation process not only creates a more complex flavor profile but also makes your bread easier to digest and more nutritious.

What Causes Unusual Smells in Sourdough Starters?

Sometimes the delicate balance in a starter can get thrown off, leading to some funky smells wafting from your starter jar.

This imbalance can be caused by factors such as:

  • Overfeeding or underfeeding your starter
  • Using contaminated flour or water
  • Keeping your starter in an environment that’s too warm or too cold
  • Not cleaning your starter jar regularly

Some smells you might catch that are unusual:

  • vomit-like smell
  • strong vinegar or nail polish remover odor
  • rotten egg or sulfuric smell

While these smells can be alarming, don’t throw out your starter just yet!

In most cases, you can bring your starter back to its former glory by adjusting your feeding schedule, using fresh flour and water, and making sure to keep your starter in a clean jar at a consistent temperature (around 70°F or 21°C is ideal).

My Starter Smells Weird, Do I Need to do Something?

Again, your sourdough starter will impart a variety of smells throughout its life. This is often because new bacteria have developed within the starter. These new bacteria will produce unpleasant smells like vomit, cheese, sour milk and apples. These smells indicate a very young and unmaintained sourdough starter, requiring frequent feeds.

Sourdough Starter Smells Like Vomit

It’s pretty normal for your new sourdough starter to smell odd during the first 14 days. After 14 days of regular feedings, these smells will slowly disappear, and you’ll have a wonderful smelling sourdough starter.

Sourdough Starter Smells Like Sour Milk

Sourdough starter contains wild yeast and oragnic bacteria, which experience lacto fermentation, creating lactic acid. This process is exactly the same as sour milk, cheese and yogurt.

The smells are perfectly normal for a starter, and with regular feedings, the unwanted bacteria will disappear and the wonderful sourdough starters smell will take over.

What to do If My Starter Smells Like Cheese

If your sourdough starter smells a lot like cheese the this is due to lacto fermentation that often occurs during sourdough fermentation, while the organic bacteria create lactic acid. The smell is a sign that the sourdough is very young and doesn’t need to be fed for much longer.

Is a Vomit Sourdough Starter Safe?

When your sourdough starter emits a vomit-like odor, it’s a sign that certain bacteria, such as those producing butyric acid, are dominating the fermentation process. While these smells are a normal part of the early stages of starter development, a persistent vomit-like odor can indicate an underlying issue that needs to be addressed.

Consuming bread made with a sourdough starter that consistently smells like vomit warrants caution. While not all off-smelling starters pose a direct health risk, the presence of certain bacteria or contaminants can compromise the safety of the bread. In some cases, a neglected or improperly cared for starter may harbor harmful pathogens that can lead to foodborne illnesses.

When in doubt about the safety of your sourdough starter, consult with food safety experts or microbiologists. These professionals can provide invaluable insights into the potential risks associated with using a malodorous starter and guide you on when it’s necessary to discard a starter and start anew.

If your sourdough starter consistently smells like vomit, even after several rounds of feeding and care, it’s best to err on the side of caution. While discarding a starter can be disheartening, prioritizing safety is paramount. Consider starting a fresh batch of starter, ensuring that you follow proper feeding schedules and maintain a clean fermentation environment. 

How to Revive a Smelly Sourdough Starter

Discard and Refresh with Fresh Flour

If your sourdough starter smells like vomit, don’t panic! The first step to reviving it is to discard most of the smelly starter, leaving just a tablespoon or two in the jar. Then, add equal parts fresh flour and clean, lukewarm water to the remaining starter. The introduction of new ingredients will help balance out the bacteria and yeast, giving your starter a fresh start.

Adjust Feeding Schedule

Once you’ve refreshed your starter with new flour and water, it’s time to get back on track with a regular feeding schedule. Aim to feed your starter twice a day, once in the morning and once at night. This consistent feeding routine will help keep the good bacteria and yeast thriving, and prevent the buildup of unwanted acids that cause those funky smells.

Monitor and Maintain

After a few days of regular feeding, your starter should start to smell better and show signs of life, like bubbling and rising. Keep an eye on it and adjust the feeding schedule as needed based on how active your starter becomes. If you notice any off smells starting to develop again, don’t hesitate to repeat the discard and refresh process.

Be Patient and Persistent

Reviving a smelly sourdough starter takes time and persistence, so don’t get discouraged if it doesn’t bounce back right away. Stick with the feeding schedule, and trust the process. With a little TLC, your starter will be back to its bubbly, fragrant self in no time, ready to create delicious loaves of homemade sourdough bread.

Preventive Measures for Future

To keep your sourdough starter smelling fresh and healthy, you must establish a consistent maintenance routine.

Regular Feeding Schedule

Aim to feed your starter at roughly the same time each day, whether that’s every 12 or 24 hours, depending on your starter’s activity level and the ambient temperature. Consistency is key to maintaining a balanced ecosystem of yeast and bacteria.

Proper Containers

Choosing the right container for your sourdough starter can make a world of difference. Opt for a glass or ceramic container with a loose-fitting lid, which allows for proper air circulation while preventing contaminants from entering. Avoid using metal containers, as they can react with the acidic nature of the starter and impact its flavor.

Keep It Clean

Each time you feed your starter, take a moment to clean the container’s rim and sides with a clean, damp cloth. This helps prevent any crusty buildup that could harbor unwanted bacteria. Every few weeks, consider transferring your starter to a fresh, clean container to further minimize the risk of contamination.

What Should A Sourdough Starter Smell Like?

A healthy sourdough starter should have a range of pleasant, yeasty aromas that indicate active fermentation. The scent can vary depending on the age of your starter and the type of flour used, but generally, you can expect a fragrance reminiscent of beer, yogurt, or even fresh fruit.

As your starter matures, it will develop its own unique bouquet. In the early stages, you might notice a strong, almost alcoholic smell, similar to beer or wine. This is a sign that the wild yeast is actively consuming the sugars in the flour and producing alcohol and carbon dioxide.

As the bacteria in the starter begin to proliferate, you may detect a tangy, yogurt-like aroma. This is the result of lactic acid bacteria, which give sourdough its characteristic tang and help to create a more complex flavor profile.

Some even report catching whiffs of ripe fruit, like apples or bananas, emanating from their starters. These fruity notes are a byproduct of the fermentation process and are perfectly normal.

A well-maintained sourdough starter should smell pleasant and inviting. If your starter has a clean, yeasty, or slightly tangy scent, it’s a good indication that the microorganisms are balanced and thriving.

Keep in mind that the aroma of your starter can change depending on the room temperature, humidity, and the type of flour you’re using. Whole grain flours, like rye or wheat, tend to produce more pungent, earthy aromas due to their higher mineral content.

Sourdough Starter Smells

Your sourdough starter will undergo many changes throughout its life. The important thing is to not give up when faced with challenging smells, because chances are, there’s always a logical explanation behind it!


How Do You Know If Your Sourdough Starter Has Spoiled?

Common signs of a spoiled sourdough starter include visible signs of mold, or an orange/pink tint.

What Should Sourdough Starter Smell Like?

Your starter should smell fresh, fruity and yeasty.

Why Does My Sourdough Starter Smell Like Sour Milk?

If your starter has a very strong sour milk smell, then this might mean that your starter is very hungry.

What Does It Mean If My Sourdough Starter Smells Like Cheese?

If your starter smells like cheese, then this is due to lacto fermentation that occurs during the fermentation process.

What is The Liquid Floating On Top Of My Starter?

If you notice some liquid floating atop your starter, then this simply means that the starter is hungry. The starter creates a hooch when it runs out of food, and it can be a variety of colors.

What Happens If I Missed a Feed?

It’s important to feed your starter at regular intervals, whether that is 8 or 12 hours, consistency is very important.
If you happen to miss a sourdough feeding, don’t panic. Simply discard as normal, and feed your starter.

Why Isn’t My Sourdough Starter Bubbling?

Often sourdough starters start off great and then drop a little between days 3-7. Though unsettling, theis isn’t a bad thing, and is normally an indication that the good bacteria are taking a little longer to take over.
With patience, you’ll be able to watch and catch your starter bloom. If you’re particularly worried you can always stir your starter in between feeds to encourage the levels of oxygen in the starter. This will help the good bacteria and yeasts to develop.

By Natasha Krajnc

Hi! My name is Natasha and I'm specialized in home sourdough bread baking and currently based in Slovakia - a very small country in Central Europe. My bread baking story began in 2011 when I decided to give up commercial yeast. I felt tired all the time (especially after eating bread and other foods made with yeast), I wasn’t motivated to do anything, had trouble concentrating throughout the day, my abdomen was bloated and I was like a trumpet on steroids – basically, I was quite a wreck. I was a big bread lover (and still am) and having to stop eating bread was quite hard at that time but I felt I was on a right way to give my body a chance to heal itself.

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