I’ve had Laurel’s Bread book for years. I guess it was inevitable that once I got into sourdough, I would have to try Desem, which she brought to everyone’s attention in her book. Desem is a Flemish Style Sourdough and the making and caring for Desem are well documented not only in her book, but on a nice blog I found online: Seems like anyone’s Desem journey begins with bricks. They sure smell and taste good, but it makes one feel like a newbie all over again. Questions like…”Why is it sticky? How long should I knead? Why isn’t it raising like it should… I did everything right, why is it dry and heavy? Do I really have to bake it for an hour?” and other assorted questions newbie sourdough bakers usually ask. It puts me back into the newbie seat and gives me a great perspective on why newbies have a hard time with regular sourdough.

I got the Desem starter going very well and decided it was time for the first baking. I of course, thinking I knew better, followed some of my own instincts and ways of handling sourdough….not good…first newbie mistake…not following directions. I put together the dough my way and kneaded it for only five minutes, because after all that is what you have to do to avoid overmixing for long proofed sourdoughs. Not so with the Desem. When the book says 12 minutes, it is 12 minutes in the mixer. Anyway the dough with my first batch was kind of slack and almost wettish in a slimy way. But I didn’t know any better, after all it smelled really good. Here is what it looked like when done mixing:

desem dough

I didn’t realize it then, but the Desem wasn’t at it’s full potential, and needed more maturing. After the dough was done fermenting, I formed it into a ball and cut it in half to make two loaves:

cut dough

The dough had a strange feel to it, wettish, sticky and slimyish. I decided to make another mistake and put the dough into Bannetons:

dough resting

I say mistake because the dough was so sticky, it stuck horribly to the Bannetons. I was barely able to peel the first dough out of the Banneton, but after baking here is the first loaf:

first desem loaf

Looks not too bad …right? Think again! It was flat!:

flat desem

The second loaf was even worse, it really wouldn’t come out of the Banneton, so I had to pull it out and the dough was torn to pieces, here it is after baking:

second desem

YIkes! What a brick!

I will say that the first loaf was salvagable and tasted and smelled terrific!

Here is the crumb:


So on to my second batch. Four days later I made another batch of Desem. The mixing was better but the dough was still very sticky. I decided to try using a baking bowl to raise and bake the bread in. I was worried that it was so sticky that it wouldn’t come out of any bowl, banneton or basket.

sticky dough

Even when it is sticky, you can still handle the dough easily, it is just that as the dough sits, it kind of sags and starts weeping water which makes it stick to anything it is sitting in. As you can see in the picture, I didn’t need to use much flour to roll out the dough and form boules:


Here are the dough balls in their baking dishes (Pyrex bowls) and proofing:

proofing Desem

The Desem loaves baked up fine this time but were somewhat dense still:

baked Desem

They were pretty loaves and the smell and flavor make me want to keep trying. I have had raves about just the smell while the Desem is baking. The flavor is just so full bodied wheaty with a tangy sour. In case you didn’t know Desem is completely whole wheat, with only water, salt and the natural wild yeast in the Desem starter. So it is somewhat of a challenge to figure it all out and get a good loaf of bread that is not dense.

Here is the crumb on this batch:

Desem try # 2 crumb

I thought you might like to see what the Desem starter looks like:

Here it is buried in it’s container filled with freshly ground whole wheat flour, you can see it bulging out at the top:

desem starter

Here is the Desem starter ball after I dug it out of it’s container:

ball of desem

This is what it looks like split open:

split open

Here is a closeup:

Desem closeup

I dissolve this lump into some water and add flour the night before I want to bake. Then I put half back into the flour container and bury it again, and the other half I let ferment until the next day.

 So here I am trying for the third time. I am following the directions much more closely and my Desem starter is more mature. I mixed up a batch of Desem dough and I could tell right away it was going to be a nicer dough. It was more stretchy and didn’t feel gooey like it was earlier. I forgot to take a pic while it was in the mixer but here it is rolled up in a ball before shaping it weighed over three pounds:

Desem Ball

Instead of dividing it and having two loaves I decided to try one large loaf. However I didn’t want to bake it in a dish again, and I didn’t want a boule shape. So I came up with this set up to be able to lift the dough out of the pan when it was ready to bake. I was using the baking pan as a shaping pan really:

pan setup

This was a large long baking pan and I had one of those clear flexible cutting boards that I hoped would not stick and help me lift out the loaf. It looked like this with the dough in place:

dough ready

However I misjudged again! The dough grew so large and spongy that it filled up the pan!

dough filled pan

Well there was no way of lifting it out of that pan, so I turned the whole contraption over and upended it on my hot baking stone. It looked like a whale! I was so large!

Desem whale

The pokey holes in the top are recommended for keeping the top crust from separating from the rest of the loaf. I rubbed the whole thing with Butter and we had a hard time not cutting into it hot, it smelled so so good! This bread is just so awesome, especially toasted when it is at it’s best. Here is a picture of the crumb:

Desem crumb

The fourth time is the charm. My Desem starter was almost a month old now and I decided to make another batch. I made it smaller so it could be one large loaf, but not a whale.

 Desem mixed up

After proofing for three hours it looked like this:

Desem proofed

This time the dough was feeling really nice, no stickiness, just a nice soft but  firm dough.

It weighed just over two pounds. I shaped it and put it in a banneton this time for proofing, but I also put a proofing cloth into the banneton sprinkled with Semolina flour.

desem in banneton

I proofed the Desem dough for about two hours and then baked it on the baking stone. Here it is slashed and ready to load into the oven:

slashed dough

I baked this loaf for five minutes at 450 and then 350 degrees for 45 more minutes. I misted as usual the first five minutes. This bread was a great success and came out terrific:

successful loaf of Desem

This loaf was perfect in every way, I am very happy with it, here is the crumb:

Desem crumb

So I would have to say about Desem Bread, that it is well worth persisting until you conquer the bread, it may take some patience and willingness to work at it until you are successful, but it is a really terrific bread. I don’t think I’ve ever tasted a better Whole Wheat bread.


12 Responses

  1. Thanks so much for this fascinating and informative post. The pictures are especially helpful. My daughter and I are just beginning to bake bread together, and I’m reading Laurel’s Kitchen Bread Book now. I read the Desem chapter last week and have been longing to taste it…it sounds wonderful. I think it’ll be a while before we’re up to tackling it ourselves, but I am really happy to have your post as a reference.

  2. Good Post About Desem

    A step-by-step look at making desem bread as described in Laurel’s Kitchen. Includes many helpful photos. (This is several steps beyond us, though. File under: Someday. I would really love to taste a desem bread…wonder if there are any bakeries

  3. Thank you for taking the time to share your desem process. I made desem about 4 years ago but it was too mcuh work with a new baby. Now the children are old enough, and I’ve started again. I’ve got a batch in the oven now (first bake with teenager desem).

    I wanted to ask you about covering your loaves while baking, but it doesn’t appear that you have done so. None the less, do you have any thoughts? I am baking in covered casseroles for that crusty crust, and wonder if uncovering after the first 20 minutes would help or hinder a crusty crust?

    Warm regards,
    Sandra in Canada

  4. nice breads. you did a excelent work.

  5. nice breads. you dis a great work.

  6. Bloody hell Theresa!
    Why isn’t there an easier way to make this recipe a bit smaller, seems like a lot of flour?
    I can’t imagine why there isn’t more information on this method?


  7. You folks contributing here are very sharp. ,

  8. My corporation was going through a fitness-phase at that time. ,

  9. I am preparing to attempt the desem for the first time. I found a farm online that sells sprouted organic wheat. After soaking them and allowing them to sprout they are dried at a low temp and then they grinde it to order… Can you tell me if this would affect starting a desem??

  10. Hi Marie, your stater made with the sprouted wheat would be filled with amylase enzymes. It should make a very active starter. I would give it a go and see what happens.

    If you use too much of this four, it will break down the gluten, which is already compromised in whole wheat. So use smaller amounts of the sprouted wheat flour for long fermented bread, or add most of the flour in during the second day stage when it will have less time to break down the gluten. Teresa

  11. I have just completed the first week of my desem starter following Laurel’s recipe. All went as described and I have made the first bowl of loaf dough…it is in my bathroom (covered!) rising at 65 degrees. I will bring it to the warm rise in six hours or so. I have been making leaven bread for my garden produce customers with a white flour live leaven for years, but I don’t want to pay the high prices for white flour anymore and I don’t want to eat so much of it either. I am SO hopeful that this will be the right method for me and my customers. I need a video for how she shapes the dough before the final rise. What the heck!? I’ll just wing it, I guess.

  12. Forgot to say: I order 50 pound bags of hard, red spring wheat berries and grind them in my Nutrimill.

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