Every whole-grain sourdough starter I’ve attempted to make has gone south at some point. Oh, there were a few successes along the way, particularly at our previous home where we had a wood stove, but since moving to a home that stays cooler, my skills as an whole-grain artisan bread-maker were a flop. Over and over again. My man never complained about the dense, very sour, hard loaves that popped out of the oven. Many a time I’ve found myself grateful he isn’t a picky eater!
Surely we aren’t so poor we cannot afford commercial yeast? No indeed! It’s just this: I don’t like commercial yeast. After avoiding it for several years, I was surprised to discover that consuming it once again made my stomach feel gross. Why? I have no idea. But because of this, we primarily use our whole grains for porridge, biscuits, pancakes and baking-soda breads. Here and there, I’d pull out a yeast recipe like my Spelt & Rolled Rye Molasses Bread. But overall, we try to avoid commercial yeast and with my sourdough defeat, my man missed a good slice of bread!
In spite of my failure, I kept my ears open, knowing there had to options and one day stumbled across a recipe for a fermented bread. The process was unique, unlike anything I’d ever heard of. I quickly became very excited. A natural-yeast bread that didn’t taste sour-like? A starter I must feed 1-2x per week? A starter that must be kept cool? I was sold! I am so excited to introduce you to desem (DAY-zem) bread!
What is Desem Bread?
Desem bread is a very mild sourdough bread. So mild in fact, that most folks won’t label it as such. Perhaps referring to it as a natural yeast bread would be a more accurate term! There is a special, 2 week process to cultivate the proper yeasts, after which the starter must be fed 1-2x per week. The bread is delicious, absolutely delicious! The recipe and technique is ancient, originally said to be Flemish.
Most of the information you’ll find online about this bread originated from the “Laurel’s Kitchen Bread Book.” To the best of my knowledge, the writers of this dear old book are the ones that introduced this natural-yeast bread to our culture. Laurel & Bronwen spent years experimenting, researching, traveling (where they discovered desem bread) and fine-tuning their bread recipes.
If you struggle with baking yeast breads, I’d highly recommend their book! There are also a few sourdough option tucked in among the pages and Desem Bread ranks highest among them!
How is it Made?
First of all, it must be made with freshly-ground wheat flour. If you don’t have a grain mill and wheat seeds (aka berries), perhaps its time to invest into both! You can read more here about Milling Your Own Flour. Also please note that this recipe was tested with red fife wheat!
The starter for this sourdough bread was traditionally made by burying a small lump of dough in a large amount of fresh-ground flour. Today, you can just keep the dough in a container with a lid. The dough starter must be fed on schedule and be kept in cool temperatures to ensure the proper yeasts take over.
When time comes to bake bread, a portion of the desem starter is used, while the remaining bit is fed and returned to the loose flour and cool temperature.
If made according to recipe, this bread doesn’t have the strong, tangy-sour flavor of sourdough. Of course, if you prefer sour bread, using more starter and less fresh flour will give you just that! But on average, most folks who use this recipe do so because they don’t necessarily care for the pungent flavor of wild yeasts.
What You Need to Begin
To make this recipe, you’ll need wheat berries, a flour mill and if doing it in the traditional manner, approximately 30C of fresh-ground flour and a 2 gallon crock, food-safe bucket or paper bag to hold the fresh flour and starter. You’ll also need cool temperatures of 50-65F (10-18F), plus lots of diligence and patience!
Getting your starter up to par will take 2 weeks. Once it has reached the maturity needed, it ought to be fed 1-2x per week, and always 12 hrs before baking day. While the following recipe sounds and looks complicated, its really so very simple! Do it once and you’ll never forget the routine!
How to Make a Desem Bread Starter
Search your home until you find a location that hold to temperatures between 50-65F (10-18C). Cultivating the proper natural yeasts depends on this! Once you’ve found it, clear a safe spot to keep your starter where it can remain undisturbed. We have a not-so-well insulated entryway at the back of our home that is rarely used. It holds to perfect temperatures throughout the winter.
For a traditional approach, send wheat through your flour mill until you have approximately (give or take) 30C. Place half of the fresh flour in a container of choice. I recommend using a crock since it holds to cooler temperatures. You can purchase USA made open-mouthed crocks for relatively cheap. They work beautifully!
In a bowl, combined 2 C flour with 1/2-3/4 C water. The dough will be very stiff. Knead for 3-5 minutes by hand, until dough softens and grows slightly sticky. Depending on your wheat variety, this may take anywhere from 2-8 minutes.
Place dough in container with a lid or if you’re going old school, put it in a container that is half-filled with flour. Cover the dough with the remaining half of flour. Cover the top with a tightly-woven cloth and secure to keep bugs out. Move it to the chosen place and let is sit until day 3.
On day 3, bring the container to the kitchen. Remove the ball of dough from the flour. It will probably have a tough, dry skin on it. Peel it off as you would an orange. If perchance the skin has not hardened and the ball is still moist, discard half of it.
Take 1 C flour from container your dough was buried in. Mix it with 1/3 C water. Knead, then combine the fresh dough ball with the old one. Ripping them up into pieces will speed the process. Knead until the lumps disappear and the two are well mixed together. When dough begins to feel a bit sticky, roll it into a ball and bury it in the flour once again at the half-way point. Repeat this process for both day 4 & 5.
By day 4 most will see signs of fermentation which include: a cracked ball of dough (as pictured below), flour being pushed to the surface from underneath activity and a slightly ‘fermented’ but wholesome smell when you peel your desem starter.
On day 6, bring the container to the kitchen. Take out the dough ball and remove only the tough, outer skin. Taking flour from the container, mix 1 C flour with 1/2 C water. Knead into the desem dough as before. This time, place the dough in a clean, empty bowl that has a fitted lid. Return container and bowl with dough to the cool temperatures. Let dough sit for 24 hrs.
Day 7-Part 1: On day 7 and after 24 hrs have passed, combined 1 C fresh flour with 1/2 C water. Take the dough from bowl and knead until smooth and sticky (5 minutes or so). Cut dough into quarters and return one of the quarters to the bowl, replacing the lid once again. Let it rest for 8-12 hrs at room temperature. This is going to be your starter, one that will supply your need for bread over the upcoming months. What about the 3/4 of starter that is left over? Use it up somehow! See below for options.
When the 8-12 hrs are up for the 1/4 piece of starter, combine 1 C flour and 1/3-1/2 C water. Knead it into the 1/4 piece of starter until well mixed and moist. Return it to the container full of loose flour and set it back in a cool place. On each of the 5 following days, add 1 C flour with 1/3-1/2 C water to the starter. After 5 days of feeding, it will be ready to use for baking real desem bread (see below)!
Desem Bread Recipe
It may take some time to perfect exactly how to bake this bread. Highly recommended is a lidded clay baker. A lid of some sort is a necessity or your loaf will be very well done on top. A casserole dish, dutch oven, even a second bread loaf pan when turned upside down, acting as a lid will help! Once, when making a huge loaf, I used a pampered chef stoneware baking bowl and put a flat pizza stone across the top. It worked very well! If you don’t have, improvise! And give yourself time to figure it out. I’d also recommend using healthy bake-ware options!
- 4 1/2 C flour
- 2 tsp salt
- 1 3/4 C desem starter
- 1 3/4 C water
- ideally, a clay baking dish, but definitely a dish with a lid
Directions: combined flour with salt and water. Add desem starter, roughly measured out. Knead the two together until well combined and bread dough is sticky and shiny. Set in a bowl that allows for a wee bit of expansion and place in a slightly warmed oven for 3 hrs. When time is up, tip dough out of bowl and gently deflate. Fold edges over and gently knead, always bringing edges in to the center. Form a ball and seal off the bottom side with a good slide across the tabletop.
Grease a baking dish that has a lid. Sprinkle with cornmeal or flour if necessary. Put back in slightly warmed oven and and let dough rise for 2 hrs with high humidity (place a hot wet cloth on the bottom rack). When dough has risen, slash the top with a knife. Remove lid only to sprinkle water on top. Replace and set oven to 400F. If loaf is browning too quickly on top, reduce heat to 350. Loaf is done when bread sounds slightly hollow if tapped.
Is it too complicated to read and remember? I thought it might be! Instead of having to pop back online, I’ve put together a well-laid out, step-by-step downloadable tutorial for you. Download it and have it ready to go at your very fingertips! Get your own PDF copy here: How to Make Desem Bread.
I’d love to hear from you, your thoughts on flavor, grains used, technique and more!
Richard Knapp says
Bury a small ball of desem starter in a crock and cover with flour as you would during your winter baking season. Place this in the fridge. I have kept the starter going this way – using/feeding/replacing it only once a month for years. The moldy crust has to be discarded.
What an excellent idea! I’m going to have to try this!
Thank you for this recipe and presentation. I followed the method from Laurel’s Kitchen Bread Book some time ago. I have a nice starter which is very active. I noticed you didn’t do a “cool” first rise before a second warmer rise. I’m wondering if there is a lot of leeway in preparation of the desem bread for baking. A big question I’ve tried to find an answer for is, how do we keep a desem going during the summer months? I enjoyed your post here and thank you again for sharing your experience!
I would recommend experimenting with desem bread and see if you like one rise, or two. And then go with that! I haven’t found a good way to keep desem starter alive during summer. 🙁 So it’s my “winter” sourdough. That being said, you can freeze the starter and I’ve thought that some day, I’d like to try freezing lots of starter and using it during summer season. But I haven’t done that yet!
Sandy Mercaldi says
Autumn –Are you sure it’s OK to freeze desem starter? We’re just beginners with it (last couple of months), and would love to take a break from eating only desem, good as it is — so being able to freeze the starter would be a great help. But we don’t want it to die, so that we’d need to start from scratch (especially because we have no reliable source of freshly milled flour). Thanks for any help you might have for us!
I’m not certain how long the starter stays alive in the freezer, but I know that when people go on vacation, they often freeze it and revive the starter when they return. I would imagine it would remain alive for at least a few months. But it would have to fed and revived before using it in baking again.
Sandy Mercaldi says
Thanks very much!
Such a simple, yet delicious, sourdough recipe- thank you for sharing! Though I started with rehydrated desem starter (and used pre-ground einkorn flour), i look forward to making my own starter using this method as well. What a nice tool to have up one’s sleeve. Thank you again.