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.


    Teresa L Greenway - Sourdough bread baker, author, teacher, entrepreneur. Join my baking classes at:

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