Sourdough Starter Smells Like Vomit

A sourdough starter that smells like vomit is likely due to butyric acid produced by the bacteria present in your sourdough starter and is completely normal. Some people report that their sourdough starter smells like parmesan cheese, blue cheese, or even sour milk in the first few days. A sourdough starter that smells like vomit may do so for the same reasons, however, the stench may be more intense.

If you continue to feed your starter daily for another week or two the bacteria and yeast will become more established, and better balanced, and the smell of vomit will go away. Over time, your sourdough starter can smell like many other things as it develops.

The vomit smell also indicates that the sourdough starter is hungry and needs to be fed. A hungry starter will emit acids that can produce these unpleasant smells in your sourdough starter. In other words, the good bacteria in your starter have eaten up all the nutrients and carbohydrates in the flour and want to be fed again.

How do you know if your sourdough starter is spoiled?

In some cases, the intense smell of vomit may indicate that your starter has spoiled.

Always ensure that your starter:

  1. Lives in a clean, glass jar.
  2. Is not exposed to potential contaminants in the air like family members sneezing or other airborne particles.
  3. Does not contain other substances other than flour and water.

You may have to restart your sourdough starter if it has potentially become contaminated with any of the above issues.

If you suspect your sourdough starter has become contaminated you can visually inspect it and see if any of the following problems appear:

  • Black dots appear in the sourdough starter.
  • Black, white, or green furry patches appear on the top of your starter.
  • Colorful streaks appear in your starter, such as red, pink, or orange.

In any of these cases, you should throw out your sourdough starter and start again. Emilie Raffa at the Clever Carrot website has a very simple sourdough starter recipe you can use.

Why does my sourdough starter smell weird?

New sourdough starters can develop weird smells every couple of days as the microbial environment multiplies and develops. Sourdough starters can smell like alcohol, acetone, cheese, stinky feet, and even vomit. As surprising as it sounds, all of these are perfectly normal and generally go away after a few days of regular feeding.

The initial bacteria that start feeding on the carbohydrates in your starter flour produce lactic acids that release these weird sourdough starter smells. A sourdough starter can contain more than fifty types of bacteria based on the environment and type of flour used, and all produce slightly different odors which can make sourdough starter smell weird.

Also, a hungry sourdough starter can release funky smells. The solution is to simply keep feeding the starter on a regular schedule (once or twice a day).

What does a bad sourdough starter smell like?

A contaminated sourdough may develop unpleasant smells, but as we’ve seen even a healthy, maturing sourdough can develop weird smells too. So how do you tell the difference?

If you have a funky-smelling sourdough starter that doesn’t start improving after a full week of regular feeding then you may want to consider tossing it and starting again.

It’s important to visually inspect your sourdough and not just smell it. What does your sourdough look like? Black spots, colored streaks running through it, or fuzzy patches are all signs that your sourdough starter has developed harmful mold.

Sourdough starter black spots or fuzzy mold

If you start to notice black spots or white fuzzy areas on your sourdough starter you need to discern if this is mold (bad!), just hooch (fine!), or dried spots (also fine!). You’ll know for sure it’s mold if you see anything fuzzy growing on the black spots. If you aren’t sure, just keep feeding your starter for a few more days and see if the black spots go away or develop more, get larger, and start growing fuzz. If any of these things happen it is time to throw out your starter. There’s no coming back from mold.

Mold forming on sourdough starter

White fuzzy mold on a sourdough starter. If it looks like this you need to throw it away and start again.

However, much more common are tiny black pools that form in the air holes of your starter. These tiny specs of liquid can develop and even form a full layer of what is called “hooch” on top or in the middle of your starter. It may look unsavory but don’t worry, it just means your sourdough is hungry. You can pour the hooch off the top or simply stir it in at the next feeding.

Liquid on top of your starter is called “hooch” and is perfectly safe

The dark layer of liquid on top of the starter is commonly called “hooch” and can smell like alcohol. It is normal for starters to produce hooch, and usually indicates that the starter needs to be fed with fresh flour and water. To refresh your starter, simply pour off the hooch and discard it, then add 1/2 cup of water and 1/2 cup of all-purpose flour to the starter.

The dried starter on top of the mixture can be stirred back in

Dried spots can sometimes get a little discolored but that’s just dehydration. Make sure to keep your starter in a spot where it doesn’t get dried out and there is no draft, and keep it well-fed each day and this discoloration should go away. You can stir the dried bits into your sourdough starter, or if there’s a thick layer you can even just peel it off and throw it out. If the discoloration persists, try a refresh with fresh flour, water and starter. Then keep it in a warm spot and feed it regularly to get your starter back to its vibrant color. Sourdough starters are resilient so don’t worry too much if you have some minor issues – it should work out just fine! Good luck!

Can you get botulism from sourdough?

No, you cannot get botulism from sourdough. Botulism is caused by harmful bacteria that develop in low or no-oxygen environments (anaerobic) and a sourdough starter lives in an aerobic environment with lots of oxygen.

Furthermore, live bacteria cannot survive the high heat of the baking process. This means that sourdough bread, despite their long fermentation times, are not actually “alive”. What gives them a distinctive flavor is volatile compounds created during the fermentation process, which are then preserved by the heat of baking. So while you won’t be able to find any active ingredients in a slice of sourdough bread. ]

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