First loaf suggestions, if you please....

Bread Or Alive


After a woefully slow to start starter, it now seems to be doubling in size nicely over 12 hours (or less), so I reckon I'm now ready to roll (ahem). It smells a bit like paint stripper, but I'm simply hoping this is very normal (if it isn't, then advice on rectifying this too would be marvellous).


So any suggestions for a good first ever sourdough loaf recipe? There are so many to choose from here that I'm a little baffled. I've made plenty of normal loaves in my time, so I'm hoping (doubtless naively) that this first sourdough will be a genuine revelation. Suggestions that take this into account would be appreciated.


FYI, my starter is the one suggested right here, so 70% white and 30% rye, 100% hydration.


Results, however lame or triumphant, shall be posted.


Thanks in advance.

256 users have voted.


Karniecoops's picture
Karniecoops 2010 February 9

Hey there Bread or Alive - I'd try Shiao-ping's pain a l'ancienne or Ross's pain de campagne (both on this website) a whirl.  They are both great bread makers and have provided great recipes. One of my all time favourites when I started out was Susan's Norwich sourdough on  It's a cracker as well.

Your starter shouldn't smell like paint stripper, but if it bubbles up nicely after being fed then you know you are on the right track.  My first loaf would have made a better building material than food, but heck its been fun getting better at it! :o)


Happiness is making bread!

rossnroller 2010 February 9

 I second Karen's suggestion re Susan's Norwich sourdough. That was one of my first, and I've made it many times since. Easy to work at that hydration, and the finished loaf is gorgeous in crust, crumb and flavour.

By the way, thanks indeed, Karen, for mentioning me in the same sentence as Shiao-Ping, but I fear I am undeserving of such elite company! Waaay too kind! And let me say, from what I've seen of your breads you're right up there yourself!

All the best with your debut bread, Bread Or Alive. You realise you're on a path to addiction, I trust?

Bread Or Alive 2010 February 9

Thanks for the tips. Norwich it is, I reckon.


This smell of my starter is a mild concern, however. I see somewhere else here that someone has mentioned their's smells like acetone. I'm not sure what that is, let alone what it smells like, but it sounds like it could be a spirit-like smell. Put it this way, if I inhaled the smell of my starter for any length of time, I would probably go a little light headed. It's not alcohol, and not quite spirit, but somewhere in that region. Any clues as to what might be going awry (a-rye, ahem)? I started it with white flour alone, then after a while of bubbles but no increased volume, I started adding rye, and now I am getting the growth. But this smell too...



Karniecoops's picture
Karniecoops 2010 February 9

Acetone is essentially nail polish remover!  haven't really got my chemical head on so can't think if the alcohols produced could morph into something else.  If your starter has been sitting inactive for a while it will kind of separate with a liquid "boozey" layer on the top, but that is quite fine.  Just mix it in, feed it up and off you go@!

And Ross is right, now that you've started making SD bread, its pretty damned hard to stop!  Kinda like playing golf, you hit one or two good shots and you think, hey, I can do that again!  Make one good loaf, get one great looking gringe and there's no turning back!  You'll just love it!


Karniecoops's picture
Karniecoops 2010 February 9

ok, just had a thought .......... and its 20 mins past midnight!  Amazing!  Maybe you're smelling a bit of excess acetic acid.  Maybe you need to feed it more often as your bugs and yeast have run out of grub!  Are you keeping it in the fridge when not in use?   Feed, make bread, save some, stick it in the fridge till next time, then Feed, make bread, save some, stick it in the fridge till next time etc etc.

If it bubbles up and goes crazy after feeding then its ok :o)

Bread Or Alive 2010 February 10

Well, I haven't made a loaf yet, still waiting for the starter to be properly active after an intial false start. So it's not in use at all yet. Now it seems to be working (it's doubling in size), but now there's this spirit-eqsue smell to it, so not sure whether I should start using it or not. Seen elsewhere that it could be to do with the amount of feeding I'm doing, so will try feeding twice a day perhaps.


Mind you, I'd have thought that if anything, it would be slower eating everything I'm feeding it, as it's being kept in a cold-ish room in London (not the fridge, but probably not a million miles away from being that cold anyway - small kitchen, with no radiator). I could keep it somewhere warmer perhaps?

davo 2010 February 10

I would try storing it a bit warmer. My starter went a bit acetone-smelling for a while, when stored in the fridge and not fed so much. Cure seemed to be to bring it out and feed at normal room temp - like 20 deg C. It has stopped since then (many months ago), even with more recent periods of fridge storage and low feeding, so I can't be certain what brings it on. ALso, when you feed, I hope the ratio is a little retained starter to a fair bit of new food, rather than the other way around. That is, keep the retained bit relatively small by discarding most (or storing separately in a bowl to incorprate into pancakes or whatever), and then feeding. I suspect that if it's a combination of hungry and cold - you might have more chance of getting that acetone smell - only as that's (roughly) what happened to me.

It should smell more like a slightly yeasty/beery pleasant smell, rather than sharp/acrid.

Good luck.

LeadDog's picture
LeadDog 2010 February 10

 Nail Polish Remover (ethyl acetate) is a wine flaw that I am very familiar with.  Normally this odor is made because the wine is exposed to oxygen.  I just a quick search on the web and there are two other ways that that ethyl acetate is made in wine.  One seems to apply here to the smell in sourdough starters.  Ethyl acetate can be made by yeast under stress which I think is the case in sourdough starters that are under fed.  The yeast are running out of food and this puts them into a stressful state.  In the other two ways that ethyl acetate is made in wine is it is made by alcohol combining with acetic acid.  That also makes sense for sourdough since both of them are made during fermentation.  Take your pick but I would say feed the starter more often like twice to three times a day.

Bread Or Alive 2010 February 10

I followed some Dan Lepard advice on his site on this subject, and added a tablespoon or so of live yoghurt when I last fed it, but now it's barely risen at all. And still has the acetone smell to it. Bugger. I'm loathe to start again, having poured so much nice flour into it. But maybe the feeding is the issue, and I need to be doing it more than once a day.

I'll give it a couple more days and see if that sorts it out. As soon as I ditch most of it and refresh, the smell goes (obviously), so maybe refreshing it when I start to smell it might be an idea? From start to now has been nearly a month now, so like I say, I'm loathe to start again after coming this far.

thanks so much for all your help.

bethesdabakers's picture
bethesdabakers 2010 February 11

Why don't you just take a deep breath and bake a loaf of bread?

The purpose of a starter is to raise dough, so how are you going to know is it works or not if you don't put it to the test? You'll wonder what all the fuss was about.

A couple of years back I tested half a dozen methods for making a starter and all bar one (and it was clear that that one was not active) were raising loaves within seven days. Nothing clever about it.

 Final word of advice: don't tinker. Use one method and stick to it until you are successfully making bread. Then you can start to adapt.


Good luck



Bread Or Alive 2010 February 15

the main reason I'm not baking a loaf with it is because it smells like nail varnish remover, which in turn will surely give the results an off taste. It works fine. There's no doubting that, it's doubling in volume in 8 hours or so and looks great.


currently, I refresh (upon which it smells fine), and then in a few hours, it's back with the spirit smell. I had read somewhere that if this particualr strain of yeast (the one making the acetone smell) is dominant, then that's that, and no amount of feeding will sort it. I think I might just start again.

Karniecoops's picture
Karniecoops 2010 February 16

I agree with Mick - go on give it a crack!  you might be surprised at the results :o)

What's the worse thing that can happen?

Bread Or Alive 2010 February 16

convulsions followed by slow, agonising death. or perhaps at best, the 'ballroom blitz'. or possibly the outside chance of a good loaf.


encouragement has been appreciated, but I canned it this morning. it just wasn't right, and I want to start as I mean to go on, and I now have a 100% rye one going, so give me another week and I'll be posting some pictures of my first efforts.

mesourman 2010 March 28

Sorry to come so late to this thread, but I hope this helps. Warning: vaguely chemical stuff follows. If you are chemo-phobic, the punchline is that an acetone smell is normal and expected from a sourdough starter. Now be brave and read on.

Normal sourdough starters include:

  1. - yeasts (make alcohol and good bread flavours; the small amount of alcohol is proabably lost during baking),
  2. - lactic acid bacteria (make lactic acid, just as in yoghurt, which makes the bread have some sour taste), and
  3. - acetic acid bacteria (makes acetic acid, the same as what makes vinegar sour and smell vinegary, and also obviously makes the bread sour, although being volatile, some of it is presumably lost during baking).


The 'nail polish remover' or 'acetone' or 'spirity' smell (which is certainly unpleasant) is actually ethyl acetate.

Now, as LeadDog points out, ehtyl acetate can arise from the combination of ethanol (alcohol from the yeast) and acetic acid (from the acetic acid bacteria). However, the acetic acid bacteria can also make ethyl acetate directly, and I think this is likely to be the more important route.

So, ethyl acetate is a normal product from a normal part of sourdough starters!

How much of this acetone-like smell you get depends on how dominant the acetic acid bacteria are in your starter. The bacteria prefer growing in warmer starter, so the conditions that favour more sour bread also favour this smell in the starter. Keeping the starter cooler (and from experience, refreshing more often) will give less of this smell, as well as less sour bread.

Just don't anyone go tossing more starters out! This is totally normal, and a sign that you have a real sourdough culture rather than just yeast. Bake with it and be pleased!

If you really want to be amazed, try salt rising bread, where the starter smells totally disgusting and the bread has a wonderful and unique cheesy flavour.

Millciti's picture
Millciti 2010 March 29

"Just don't anyone go tossing more starters out! This is totally normal, and a sign that you have a real sourdough culture rather than just yeast. Bake with it and be pleased!"   Thankyou! Thankyou! Thankyou!

I have been so busy lately and haven't had as much time to see what is going on with the Sourdough Companion. But recently I have had a little more time to check out the posts, and noticed that there are a lot of new bakers with that "when in doubt, throw it out Idea" all over the site.  That kind of thinking will not help anyone achieve sourdough success! 

There are only a few rare instances to throw out starter, unless you just keep too much laying around and it starts to look like something evil - like the extra jar of starter you forgot in the back of the fridge a few months ago.  But even that can sometimes produce an interesting loaf, if you ressurrect a tiny bit from the bottom of the jar.  If your starter gets out of balance it just needs adjusted, not tossed.  I have used starter that went too long to make some of the most delicious pancakes you could ever imagine. 

Recently I gave the Micro biology department here in Ohio, some of both my starters for the students to look at.  We also used my slow low hydration starter at school to demonstrate the ketosis, or Acetone breath that you can note in a patient who's sugar balance is off, a distictive "Fruity breath".  According to Debra Wink from the fresh loaf, the fermentation process in sourdough can be compared loosly to the metabolic cycle that our own cells use to produce energy...  Yes we are indeed all carbon based life forms! 

So to those who like the scarier Scientific side of Sourdough Mu-ha-ha, take a peek at Deb Wink's article found here. . 

Yes...BreadorAlive I am sorry to hear of your choice to give up on your starter!  It was just trying to tell you something!  All starters or growing conditions are not equal, some very active starters rapidly consume their food, warmer or cooler temps, and hydration level all are factors.  My mostly white starter is very active.  I usually feed it and refrigerate after 6-8 hours to leave it a little food till the next time I bake.  However once you get your rye starter going you can easily convert it to a white starter as well. 

Terri ...

PS.  Mesourman I'm with Rossnroller... More about Salt-risen sourdough please!






mesourman 2010 March 29

Hi Rossnroller and Millciti,

I haven't made salt rising bread for several years in fact, but it is high time that I did so soon, given my new love of sourdough and all things wild (my wild-yeast chardonnay ferments this year have been amazing). I know salt rising bread from the recipe in 'The Fannie Farmer Baking Book' by Marion Cunningham, which includes this description:

"Salt rising bread is a great adventure to make and to eat. It is rather dense and heavy, with a creamy texture and a wonderful 'cheesy' taste and aroma. It will not rise quite as high as other yeast breads, but its rather compact, chewy texture makes it fabulous for toasting, and it makes the best grilled-cheese sandwiches you've ever had."

If you can't find a copy of Fannie Farmer (American book), it is worth reading the Wikipedia article at and go on to the external links, one of which gives an almost scary insight into the microbiology, and another includes recipes. Then see if you can get hold of a copy of Fannie Farmer anyway -- one of the most treasured books in our house.

I'm going to hop up now and get a SRB starter going, which means I can bake tomorrow -- good, as I should be baking SD tomorrow but forgot to refresh my starter this morning. Here is what we do for the starter according to the Fannie Farmer recipe:


2 medium-sized potatoes, peeled and sliced thin

1 quart boiling water

1/4 cup non-degerminated cornmeal such as stone-ground

2 tablespoons sugar

1 teaspoon salt.

Pu the potatoes in a large bowl, pour the boiling water over, then stir in the cornmeal, sugar and salt. Place the bowl in a larger bowl of hot water, and set in a warm place where the temperature remains fairly steady - a gas oven with just the pilot light on, or an electric oven with the interior light on, or on top of the water heater. Replace the hot water two or three times -- or whenever you think of it and it's convenient -- over the next 24 hours.Then remove the potato slices from the bowl, and continue with the sponge."

Cornmeal translates as fine polenta. Not sure if the stuff I have in the cupboard is non-degerminated or not, but I'll try it anyway, given that one of the references in the Wikipedia article says it doesn't matter.

I'll continue with the quote tomorrow, but the sponge takes a couple of hours, the final rise about three, and then we bake. By the time we make the sponge it should be smelling pretty bad!


CayoKath 2010 March 30

A fine tradition amongst the American pioneers.  I'll find my small-publication cookbook with the recipe handed down by generations of pioneer stock and post it, too.  I've never tried it myself.  Mesourman, I think I'm crushed on you.  : )  A winemaking man who bakes and has one of my favorite cookbooks to boot.  Ai yi yi!

mesourman 2010 March 30

Ahem, blush, etc. Sorry about hijacking the the thread by the way. I hope you're still with us Bread Or Alive?

Alright, the starter from yesterday has a good stink to it, and remember that we have fished out the potato slices; now here is the continuation:


1 1/2 cups milk

The above starter

1/4 teaspoon baking soda

4 cups all-purpose flour

To make the sponge: Heat the milk until it is comfortably warm to your finger, then add it to the starter, along with the baking soda and 3 1/2 cups flour. Beat briskly until smooth -- a hand rotary beater helps to smooth out the lumps. Cover with plastic wrap and again place in a larger bowl of hot water. Set in a warm place (see preceding suggestions), and let the sponge double in bulk -- this usually takes 2 to 3 hours but check it after 1 1/2 hours. When doubled, it will look creamy and light. Don't let it sit longer after it is creamy and light or it will lose its 'cheesy' flavour and become sour.


About 6 cups all-purpose flour

2 1/2 teaspoons salt

6 tablespoons vegetable shortening

the above sponge.

To make the bread dough: Put 4 cups of the flour in a large blowl. Add the salt and mix lightly with a fork.Drop in the shortening and blend it in with your fingers -- as though you were making pie dough -- until the mixture looks like fine meal. Add the flour mixture to the sponge and beat until well mixed. Add enough more flour -- 1 or 2 cups -- to make a soft, manageable dough you can knead. Turn out onto a floured surface and knead for a minute or two. Let rest for 10 minutes.

Resume kneading until the dough is smooth (this dough is heavy and rather puttylike) -- about 10 minutes. Divide in thirds and shape each piece into a loaf. Place in greased loaf pans. Cover with plastic wrap, set the pans in a larger pan of hot water, and again set in a warm place to rise. The final rise will take about 3 hours, and the loaves should increase in volume by about one third -- this is less than the usual doubling in bulk. Bake in a preheated 350F [175C] oven for 45 to 55 minutes, until golden brown. If in doubt, better to bake a few minutes longer than underbake. Turn out of the pans and cool on a rack."

In practice, there was no problem with my possibly degerminated cornmeal, the sponge went a bit too long, and perhaps as a result, the dough rose more and more quickly than the above suggests. Still definitely a good cheesy smell, in fact it is baking now and smells like cheese sticks. I'll let you know how it turns out if at least one of you tries it also! Have fun.

Karniecoops's picture
Karniecoops 2010 March 30

Well no wonder your sponge ends up smelling bad - Clostridium perfringens is an anaerobe i.e. a bacterium that can only grow in the absence of oxygen, it causes some pretty nasty infections including gangrene and enteritis!!  I'd need some convincing to think once its baked up in a bread it'd be tasty .................. but one must assume it is!  Sorry, as a microbiologist I couldn't bring myself to eat C.perf bread, it smells bad enough at work let alone growing it at home.  At least sourdough smells nice :o)  No offence intended, but there'll be no salt rising bread for this chick!


hitz333 2010 July 15

to Mesourman: thanks for the advice. Glad to know it's normal.


I'm on my second starter which is about 3 weeks old now. My first I tossed after about 2 months because of the acetone (or what I called the "wet paint") smell. My second starter got this smell in the first week (probably a summer vs winter difference?) but I'm forging ahead. I want to get rid of this smell because it DOES flavor my baked goods in an unpleasant way! I just want to clarify some things so I can know how to proceed. I got my instructions for starter from 3 different books (2 of them were just bread machine cookbooks so maybe not the best source) but they all said just to let it sit til it smelled fermented, stirring twice a day. Then when it's ready either use or put in the fridge, stirring or feeding (or using and refreshing) once a week. I never heard of twice a day feeds til I found this site! Can I get some real beginner's advice here? Firstly, what should I do to get rid of the smell? Start with a small amount of starter and do twice a day feeds... for how long? I'd like to get to the point where it's good to go and I can stick it in the fridge and not have to use up so much flour. I can only eat so much and hate just throwing it out. And what ratio of starter to flour and water do I use to feed? My cookbooks just say things like, "if you use a cup of starter, replenish remaining starter with a cup of water and a cup of flour" (or something to that extent). Anyway... any suggestions would be appreciated!

Karniecoops's picture
Karniecoops 2010 July 15

Try check out Dom's post on starting starters, it really is very good and will answer all your questions:

Twice daily feeds would be recommended until the smell is gone and it's nice and bubbly.   Once it's really active then make some bread and pop some starter in the fridge to feed up for the next loaf.

Goo luck ;o)


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