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Sourdough Smells like Alcohol – Why? Safe to Eat?

Sourdough used to be one of those things that you can only find in specialty bread shops. But over the years, it has gained in popularity among home bakers, especially during the lockdown and shelter-in-place periods.

Being cooped up at home, people turned to baking and cooking to ease some of the anxiety brought about by the pandemic, and for a lot of people, sourdough became the perfect stay-at-home project.

Sourdough is essentially slow-fermented bread, and when we dabble in anything fermented, alcohol inevitably becomes part of the conversation. Alcohol is a natural byproduct when yeast and sugar are involved, and as sourdough involves those things, it can happen sometimes that it develops an alcoholic smell.

But in what situations does this happen? And if sourdough smells like alcohol, is it safe to eat?

Why Does Sourdough Smell Like Alcohol?

Sourdough bread can smell like alcohol when the starter used is underfed. A sourdough starter should smell pleasantly yeasty, with a slightly sour smell. If it has an overwhelming alcoholic smell, it means that the yeast in the starter are in need of food. Sourdough starter that smells like alcohol can be fixed through increased, regular feedings.

Sourdough Smells like Alcohol - Why? Safe To Eat?
Sourdough Smells like Alcohol – Why? Safe To Eat?

What Is A Sourdough Starter?

A sourdough starter is a symbiotic and stable colony of wild yeast and good bacteria that is created through the fermentation of flour and water and is used for leavening and flavoring bread dough. It is a system that needs to be regularly maintained and fed so as not to disturb its balance.

The specific composition of yeast and bacteria in each starter is different; as the microbiome population would depend on the organisms present in the flour, the water, the air, the jar, geographical location, and some studies even suggest, the baker’s hands!

Each starter begins with a group of yeast and bacteria, and in a true reflection of the process of natural selection, the best, most resilient group of bacteria and yeast eventually dominates and gives the starter its unique microbial composition.

The specific strains may be different for each starter but in general, they are composed of wild yeast and lactic acid bacteria.

The yeast is what is responsible for producing the carbon dioxide that is necessary to produce the airy, fragrant bread that is the stuff of every bread baker’s dreams.

The lactic acid bacteria is the one responsible for giving it that tangy, sour taste, and prevents bad bacteria from proliferating in the starter. 

The resulting colony, after the initial fight for dominance, produces something that is actively bubbly and rises when fed, and that has a pleasant yeasty and mildly sour aroma.

Once stabilized, each starter will develop its own characteristic smell. But during the initial process, it can range in smell from vomit, to used socks, to stinky feet, spoiled milk, and bad-smelling cheese.

If the balance is not achieved, the sourdough starter may end up smelling like other things, too. A strong alcohol, nail polish, or vinegar smell indicates that there is an imbalance going on in the colony. 

A sourdough starter is a colony of bacteria and yeast created through fermenting flour and water.
A sourdough starter is a colony of bacteria and yeast created through fermenting flour and water.

My Sourdough Bread Smells Like Alcohol! Did I Do Something Wrong?

In the case of sourdough, the smell of alcohol can usually be attributed to the starter that you used in making your dough. While a faint alcohol smell can be considered normal, an overwhelming alcohol smell indicates a state of imbalance in the system.

What could have caused it?  

Your Starter is Hungry!

If your starter smells strongly of alcohol, it means that it is hungry and needs to be fed more.

We asked Cultures for Health, a premier resource for all things fermented, for the specific reason why this happens. In an email to us, they mentioned that the reason why a sourdough starter can smell strongly of alcohol is that it isn’t fed enough.

When a sourdough starter isn’t fed often enough or feedings are skipped, it will begin consuming discarded yeast, as well as its own waste, leading to the unpleasant aroma of alcohol or nail polish remover.

– Cultures for Health

In other words, in the absence of a food source, the yeast in your sourdough starter will feed on its dead neighbor or its own waste in an attempt to survive. How’s that for horror movie vibes! 

So if your starter is smelling like it had too much to drink, it is likely starving and just needs more food. To avoid putting your starter through the heartbreaking predicament of eating their dead friend or their waste, just give it more food to eat!

A sourdough starter that smells like alcohol needs to be fed more.
A sourdough starter that smells like alcohol needs to be fed more.

How Can I Save My Sourdough Starter That Smells Like Alcohol?

Luckily, all hope is not lost. A sourdough starter that smells like alcohol can likely be saved by increasing the number of times it is fed. Cultures for Health mentions though, that if your starter has not been fed for a while, it may take a while for you to be able to nurse it back to good health.  

You just need to keep feeding it until it reaches that ideal state of balance.

If for some reason, increasing the frequency of the feedings doesn’t work, Cultures for Health advises discarding 2 tablespoons of the alcohol-smelling starter and feeding it with a quarter cup of water and a quarter to a half cup of flour. In the next feeding, feed the usual amounts.

By diluting and introducing a new group of bacteria to populate the starter, you give your sourdough a fighting chance to regain its natural state of balance.

How Do I Know When It’s Time To Toss My Sourdough Starter?

Alcohol, acetone or vinegar smells are one thing, as they usually can be fixed with increased feeding to allow the right bacteria mix to dominate with the right sustenance. 

But if you see something pink or orange in your starter or you see signs of visible mold, it is a sure signal that bad bacteria have taken over your sourdough starter and the good guys lost. At this point, it is best to just toss it and start over.  

Is Sourdough That Smells Like Alcohol Safe to Eat?

Sourdough that smells like alcohol is safe to eat, though whether it is good or palatable is a different issue altogether.  Some alcohol smell on bread dough is normal, and when it bakes, the alcohol usually cooks off.  If the alcohol smell is strong though, the aroma may linger even after you bake your bread.

If it is something you can eat, there is no safety issue there. Otherwise, you may want to start over and make sure that the starter you use is properly fed and does not overwhelmingly smell of alcohol which can impart that unpleasant and bitter taste to your sourdough bread.

Sourdough that smells like alcohol is safe to eat, but it may have a bitter taste.
Sourdough that smells like alcohol is safe to eat, but it may have a bitter taste.

What Is Sourdough Bread?

Sourdough is a type of bread that is naturally leavened with wild yeast and bacteria through a “starter” made by fermenting flour and water.

Unlike regular bread that uses commercial yeast to rise, sourdough relies on natural, wild yeast and the good bacteria produced during the fermentation process to get its rise. It contains no additives and relies on the natural process of fermenting to achieve its characteristically tangy flavor and chewy texture.

Especially if you’re just starting out and making your own starter, sourdough can take a lot of time and patience to make. And I am not at all surprised that it became so popular during lockdown, because time is seemingly what most people had a lot of during that period.

Is Sourdough Healthy?

Sourdough is typically healthier than other types of bread for several reasons.

Naturally leavened

Sourdough is said to be healthier than regular white bread as it is naturally leavened and does not use commercial yeast and additives typically found in store-bought bread.

Fiber and Digestive Health

Especially when made with whole wheat flour, sourdough contains fiber that helps with digestive health. During fermentation, sourdough contains a lot of probiotics, but not many of those survive the baking temperatures.

However, the prebiotics it contains does survive, and help feed the existing good bacteria in our guts that help facilitate and maintain the health of our guts.  

Increased Bioavailability

The lactic acid in sourdough bread also helps make the vitamins, minerals, protein, and other nutrients present in sourdough bread to become more bioavailable, or more absorbable by the body. 

This then makes the nutrients more useful to our bodies. This process happens during the fermentation process through the breakdown of the phytic acid, which normally inhibits the absorption of vitamins and nutrients.

May Help Manage Blood Sugar Levels

Sourdough is also said to have a low glycemic index, which means that it doesn’t cause blood sugar to spike as it is absorbed slowly by the body. As such, it helps to manage blood sugar levels, unlike regular white bread.  This is especially beneficial for those who need to watch the levels of sugar in their blood.

Less Gluten and More Digestible

Because of the slow and long fermentation process, sourdough contains less gluten than regular bread, and is, therefore, gentler on the digestive system. In one study, it has been found that sourdough bread is more easily digested by the body compared to regular bread.

The fermentation process is really what makes sourdough a better choice for bread, health-wise, as it offers our bodies more available nutrients that it can use to promote health and well-being.

Is Sourdough Gluten-Free?

Sourdough has a naturally tangy flavor and because it is slow-fermented, is touted by many to be superior to other types of bread in terms of health benefits.

For those who have trouble with gluten, sourdough is thought to be a more digestible alternative as because of the long fermentation process, the gluten is broken down into a more digestible, absorbable form, minimizing the discomforts it usually brings about in its usual form.

Sourdough has less gluten than regular bread and because it contains good bacteria that aid the gut in its digestion, it becomes easier for the body to digest and becomes even easier to enjoy.

While it may be easier to digest and may have less gluten than regular bread, it is important to keep in mind that sourdough is not gluten-free unless it is made with a gluten-free starter. If you have gluten allergies or sensitivities or if you have celiac disease, it is important to remember this.

According to Beyond Celiac, even if it has less gluten, it still does not reach the amounts required for it to be considered gluten-free. And even if someone who has a sensitivity to gluten does not exhibit symptoms by consuming sourdough bread, there is still the possibility that the damage could still be happening inside the gut.

As such, it is important to keep in mind that when serving to people who have gluten allergies or sensitivities, to make sure that you are using a certified gluten-free products.

Sourdough contains less gluten than regular bread but is not gluten-free.
Sourdough contains less gluten than regular bread but is not gluten-free.

Frequently Asked Questions to Sourdough Smells Like Alcohol

What Should My Sourdough Starter Smell Like?

Each sourdough starter is unique and will develop its own characteristic smell. However, in general, sourdough starters should have a mild yeast-like smell with a bit of a sour smell. It should not have an off-putting, unpleasant smell. If it does, keep feeding it until it balances itself out.

How Do I Get Rid of The Alcohol Smell In My Sourdough Starter?

If your sourdough has a strong alcohol smell, it is because it is hungry and needs to be fed. Increase frequency of feedings until the alcohol smells dissipates and corrects itself.

Conclusion to Sourdough Smells Like Alcohol

Sourdough can smell like alcohol if the starter used smells of alcohol.  A sourdough starter can develop a strong alcoholic smell if there is not enough food source for the yeast in the starter, due to inadequate feeding.

Sourdough bread that smells of alcohol is safe to eat, but depending on the person’s preferences, it may be unpalatable and unpleasant to eat. 

To avoid the problem in the future, make sure to always use a sourdough starter that is ripe, mature and properly fed.

Author Bio

Daniel Iseli (Head Chef)

Hi, my name is Daniel and I am passionate about cooking. I have been cooking for the past 20 years and am happy to share my best recipes and cooking-related knowledge with you.