Baking sourdough bread is something that many people think is fun. In fact, baking sourdough has become a bit of a trend in recent years.
During the pandemic, many people took to baking it as something to do to pass the time. Even with things getting better, many people are still hooked on it.
If you’ve recently started baking sourdough at home, you might still be learning some of the basics. It’s usually easiest to get a sourdough starter that you can use, but many choose to make their own.
You might notice that this sourdough starter smells really sweet. Is it supposed to be that way or is there something wrong?
Continue reading to learn about what causes this sweet smell. You’ll also get some important tips for baking sourdough so that you can enjoy great results.
Why Sourdough Starters Smell Sweet
Understanding why sourdough starters smell sweet shouldn’t be too hard once you see what’s happening. The sweet smell and taste occurs due to high amylase enzyme activity.
These enzymes are converting complex starch molecules into simple sugars. The starches will have a neutral smell and taste, but the simple sugars are the opposite.
When the amylase enzymes go to work, it’ll make the starter smell and taste sweet. This is normal, but it can go too far, which you’ll learn about later.
You should know that the amylase enzymes are an important aspect of baking sourdough bread. These enzymes make it so that the simple sugars are present, and the simple sugars get consumed by the yeast.
The yeast ferments the dough, and it produces both alcohol and carbon dioxide gases. Alcohol is significant for flavoring reasons while carbon dioxide is what causes the bread to rise.
Knowing this, you can see why it’s normal for sourdough starters to smell sweet. You should know that having the bread turn out too sweet will be a problem as well.
If a sourdough starter is overly sweet, it could make it harder to bake the bread. Sometimes a sourdough starter that is too sweet will compromise the flavor of the bread while also making things sort of gummy.
Keep reading to learn about the reasons why it might be too sweet. This should help you to troubleshoot so that you can have a better experience.
Amylase Enzymes Are Present Due to the Flour
One thing to know is that amylase enzymes are present in the starter due to the flour. Flour is used in baking many things, and it’s an important part of baking sourdough bread as well.
When water is present, the amylase enzymes will begin to break the starches down into simple sugars. Sometimes amylase enzyme activity might be higher than usual for certain reasons.
You want the amylase enzymes to make the starches into simple sugars, but you don’t want things to go too far. To understand what might have gone wrong, you’ll need to learn about some of the potential scenarios that have led to poor results when baking sourdough bread.
Too Much Rye Flour in the Mix
Rye flour contains more amylase enzymes than many other types of flour that you might use. This means that using it can lead to issues with making the sourdough starter too sweet.
People often use rye flour during the starting phases, though. When you’re trying to get the starter ready and build the sourdough culture, it makes a lot of sense to use it.
You simply need to be careful with how much of it you’re using. It’s possible that you could use more than you should and make the sourdough starter way too sweet.
So long as you’re following a basic sourdough bread recipe, it shouldn’t be anything that you will have to worry about too much. Just be mindful of how much you’re using and try to stick to recommended measurements.
Too Much Salt in the Mix
It’s possible to throw things off by having too much salt in the mix, too. Salt can be used to inhibit the activity of yeast.
The presence of salt slows down the yeast and makes it take longer for it to consume the sugar. If you have more salt in the mix than you should, it can make it so that the simple sugars aren’t being consumed as much as normal.
Essentially, this leads to issues where residual sugar will be present in the starter. This makes the starter smell and taste even sweeter than normal.
It’ll have an impact on how the bread turns out once you bake it as well. For this reason, you need to be careful not to use more salt than is necessary.
If you put too much salt in the sourdough starter, you could keep the yeast from being able to consume the simple sugars as intended. If you follow recipe instructions, it should be easy to avoid this issue.
Sometimes Flour Can Have a High Percentage of Damaged Starches
This consideration might be odd if you don’t know much about this topic, but you could be using a type of flour that has a high percentage of damaged starches. It’s fine if you don’t know what this means yet, but you will once you dig into the details.
Amylase enzymes are known to metabolize damaged starches first. This is because it’s easier for the enzymes to do so.
Using a type of flour that has a high percentage of damaged starches could cause there to be more sugar present in the starter. This might be what is causing the starter to smell and taste sweeter than normal.
Some types of flour have a higher percentage of damaged starches than others. The typical American flour that you buy at the grocery store contains around 9% damaged starches.
European flour usually only has about 7% damaged starches. Of course, there are many other types of flour that you can find at grocery stores.
When using a flour type that has 10% damaged starches or higher, it can throw things off a bit. This is why it’s generally recommended to stick with a flour type that you know has a damaged starch content that is less than 10%.
Does the Flour Have a Low Falling Number?
Another thing to think about is whether or not the flour has a low falling number. The term falling number is just something that measures the activity of amylase enzymes in the flour.
This number can be figured out by looking at the time it takes a measuring pole to descend through a fixed sample of mixed dough. When the flour has a low falling number, it means that the amylase enzyme content of the flour is particularly high.
A number of 224 and lower will be considered bad in this instance. High amylase enzyme content will make it so that more sugar is present in the starter.
It’ll break down the starches too fast, and this can lead to sourdough bread that is far too sweet. This is why you’re supposed to use a flour type that has a falling number that is 225 or greater.
Issues with Malted Flour
There are types of flour out there that don’t have enough amylase enzyme content. Sometimes this issue is corrected by adding diastatic malt to the flour.
You’re supposed to add 0.1% or 0.2% based on the total weight of the flour. If you add too much diastatic malt to the flour, you’ll be putting in more amylase enzymes than you need.
As you likely suspect, this leads to the sugar being produced rapidly. The presence of too much sugar makes things sweeter than they should be.
If you need to malt the flour, you need to be careful not to add too much. Try to add only the recommended amount so that you can have a consistent experience when baking sourdough bread.
The Problems with Overly Sweet Sourdough
As touched upon earlier, overly sweet sourdough is going to be less than ideal. Even if you like the idea of having bread that will be a bit sweeter than normal, it’s just not going to turn out right.
If you bake sourdough bread using a starter that is far too sweet, you’re not going to be pleased with the results. It’ll make it so that the bread tastes far different from what you would expect.
Often, the edges of the bread will be much darker than they should be. Also, there will be issues with gummy crumb that will make it so that the bread isn’t enjoyable to eat.
You need to do what you can to try to avoid making the sourdough starter too sweet. Otherwise, you won’t be making sourdough bread as intended.
What you’ll wind up producing will not be as tasty as you want it to be. If you made a mistake this time, you shouldn’t fret, but you might wish to start over while keeping these potential issues in mind.
Why Is Dark Crust Bad?
Dark crust might not sound like that big of a deal at first, but it very much is. When your sourdough starter is too sweet, it’ll lead to a dark crust when you go to bake the bread.
This dark crust is going to taste really bad. You see, when the dough is very sweet, it’s going to cause the crust to darken faster in the oven.
Basically, the crust is going to be a bit burnt, and it’ll wind up both tasting and smelling bad. When your goal is to enjoy delicious sourdough bread, this is going to be counterproductive.
You could try to combat this issue by keeping a close eye on the bread while it’s baking. It might be a good idea to reduce the baking temperature slightly to try to prevent the crust from burning.
Of course, the best situation would be to ensure that the sourdough starter isn’t sweeter than it should be. Hopefully, you’ll be able to use the information above to avoid making mistakes.
Gummy Crumb Explained
You might not totally understand what gummy crumb is like. When sourdough bread has gummy crumb issues, it means that the texture of the bread is going to be somewhat gummy.
This occurs when too much of the structural starch molecules get converted into simple sugars. It causes a breakdown of the crumb and makes it so that everything turns out gummy.
The only real way to avoid this is to ensure that you don’t have more amylase enzymes present in the starter than necessary. This means using the right type of flour and being sure not to add more salt than you need to.
You should be able to get used to making sourdough starter that is properly balanced as you gain experience. It’s normal to make these mistakes your first couple of times attempting to make sourdough bread, though.
Making sourdough bread should be something that you look forward to. Yes, it can be disheartening to make mistakes when you first try to make it.
If the balance is off, the sourdough starter might wind up being a lot sweeter than normal. Sourdough starter usually will smell a bit sweet due to the amylase enzymes breaking down starches into simple sugars, but this process can go too far.
Using flour that contains too many amylase enzymes can be problematic. You can also make mistakes such as adding too much salt to the mix which inhibits the yeast so much that you’ll have residual sugar present in the starter.
It’s really just about using the right ingredients and ensuring that you don’t go overboard. Measure things out properly and try your best to stick to a recipe.
You can find many different recipes online that will help you out. If you follow the recipe to a tee, you’re likely going to have the bread turn out nicely.
It can be a lot of fun to make sourdough bread with your family or friends. You might even enjoy doing this by yourself just to have something to focus on when you’re at home alone.
Either way, you’ll feel more confident the next time you try because of all that you have learned. Put this information to use so that you can make sourdough bread that is satisfying and delicious.
Sarah is the founder of Baking Kneads, LLC, a blog sharing guides, tips, and recipes for those learning how to bake. Growing up as the daughter of a baker, she spent much of her childhood learning the basics in a local bakery.