Desem Whole Wheat Sourdough Bread: a Primer | Sourdough | Breads

MAKING DESEM WHOLE WHEAT SOURDOUGH BREAD: A Primer Jonathan Kandell, Tucson AZ Created April 2006, Last modified May 2010.

“Desem” is a delicious 100% whole wheat bread made with water, salt, and natural starter—and that’s it. It does not use commercial yeast. Desem is a simple, nutritious, versatile bread. I bake many other breads but keep returning to desem as my basic weekly loaf. The term “desem” is Flemish for levain, and, in fact, the bread is similar to the French “Pain au Levain” and “Pain Poilâne”. Although made with natural yeasts and microorganisms (i.e. “sourdough”), desem does not taste sour and is not at all like “San Francisco” loaves. Some features of desem bread • The taste of pure nutty wheat is highlighted. • It uses no oil, yet is moist, and stays fresh longer than commercially yeasted bread. • The raw bitterness and heavy texture found in many whole wheat breads are mellowed in the natural yeast process without the need to add white flour, gluten, or conditioners. • The nutrition inherent in the whole grain is broken down into usable form by the microorganisms.

2-8T flax seeds. Morning of day of baking: 2. just a dash of honey. 6T½c water. 1/3 c whole wheat bread flour. form into a tight ball. remove a walnut-sized piece of the “second build” from step 1 to use as next week’s madre. Mix it with a little flour. molasses or maple syrup (optional).1c water. Activate a firm starter for the day of baking: Morning of the day before baking: The “first build”: 2T storage starter. 2-8T flax seeds. 1¼-1½c water. ¾c . In winter: ~2c whole wheat bread flour. add in .1 c starter from step 1. just a dash of honey. Break it into small chunks in a coffee mug.MASTER FORMULA Synopsis: A small piece of firm starter is expanded by a factor of three a couple times until there’s enough dough for a loaf. 2t salt. mix. molasses or maple syrup (optional). Take a grape to walnut-sized piece of stored firm starter (hereafter called the “madre”) from the fridge. In summer. and store in a 1 inch layer of whole wheat flour in a small closed jar in the refrigerator. mix well. Mix final dough and knead: In summer: ~3c whole wheat bread flour. Just as above. add 1 -1½ c starter from step 1. (Room temp 60-80 F) Knead: Knead by bread machine: My favorite way. Break up the rest of the ‘second build’ of the starter from above into a bread machine pan. see “Creating a starter” below.) 1. kneading a bit. 1¼-1½c water. 2-8T flax seeds. and let sit for a minute or two. The starter should look like a kitchen sponge inside. 2t salt. break up the ‘first build’ into pieces in a small bowl. add ½ . alternatively. Add in 1 cup flour. Add in water and let sit a minute or two. about 2T. Evening of the day before baking: The “second build”: Add to the ‘first build’ from above: 1c whole wheat bread flour. just a dash of honey. 3. Add in water. Take out next week’s madre: Before continuing. 2T water. molasses or maple syrup (optional). (Room temp 70-90F) In winter. You may. let sit a few minutes. and let sit for 8-12 hours at room temperature in a covered mug or other small container. form into a tight ball. and let sit 8-12 hours overnight covered. (If you don’t have a starter. add in 2T of water. and then it’s baked. form into a ball kneading a few seconds with your fingers. Add in 1/3 cup of flour. 1½ t salt. use 3c all year long and vary the amount of starter in step 1 to vary with the season: 3c whole wheat bread flour.

form a ball. Place about ½ cup water in a cast iron pan on bottom of oven. add in salt and knead for 10 minutes by hand in five minute increments with five minute breaks in between (i. stretch-and-fold the dough. After half an hour. and (optionally) just a dash of sweetener. and tucking in to re-form into a ball. flax seed. Do a quick peek to quell your curiosity and check on the crust . 5. Ferment: 4 hours By bread machine: After kneading turn off the machine and let sit undisturbed in the bread machine pan for 4 hours at room temperature (65°F-80°F ). Bake: about 60 minutes. Ideally the final dough ball will be firm but quite soft if pressed. 5 minutes of kneading. but here are some guidelines from my own ovens.) 3. and return under bowl for remainder of time. Use one hand to rotate the dough while the other shoves the bottom under. During second cycle. and let sit covered by a bowl for about 1½ hours (give or take fifteen minutes) at room temperature. a 5 minute break. You “stretch and fold” by pressing the dough flat and then pulling both ends a bit until it reaches its maximum stretch without tearing. By hand: Mix everything but the salt. adjust the water a dash at a time until the ball has the correct texture. To form the ball: Flip dough out of container upside-down (so skin is against cutting board) and gently flatten into a rectangle.whole wheat flour and salt in amounts specified above. 4. Proof: about 1½ hours Form into a tight ball (“boule”) and place free form on parchment paper atop a peel. This is the hardest part to impart in a formula since every oven is different. carefully slide parchment and dough into oven atop a pizza stone. Gas Oven: 18 minutes @ 450°F then 40 minutes @350°F Starting from a cold oven. Run on the dough cycle for 20 minutes. Flip over and begin rotating and tucking under to create a sphere with a tight skin. You will likely need to adapt what I say. folding the long ends back over themselves like you’re folding a letter. finishing with 5 more minutes kneading. You’ll note that in all the methods you want steam and intense heat at beginning followed by mellow dry heat for the remainder. By hand: Let sit in a covered bowl at room temperature (65-80°F ) for 4 hours. gradually tightening the skin like a balloon (see photo below). for one or two times.e. Fold the corners in to the center overlapping like a pinwheel to create a circle. When you bake you want the dough to be near maximum height. Turn on at 450°F and bake for 18 minutes. At ½ or 1 hour intervals. At the end of four hours the dough will have grown somewhat.

it is crucial that your flour be fresh. Defrost the other half in the closed bag. never in fridge. Bake 10 minutes. and then bake another 30-50 minutes at 350°F until the crust is an orange-brown and the bottom has much dark brown. It will stay fresh four to six days at room temperature. then turn down heat to 350°F for the remaining 40-50 minutes. Store your whole wheat flour in the fridge. If your flour doesn’t smell sweet from fresh germ or if it tastes bitter in any way your flour is too old.(it should be nicely browned). Slip bread and its parchment onto stone. then bake uncovered at 350°F for the remainder of the time.) Electric Oven with a cloche: 19 minutes covered @ 450°F then 34-44 minutes @ 350°F uncovered Preheat cloche or flowerpot or dutch oven or roasting pan lid along with stone at 450°F for at least 30 minutes. Slip bread onto stone or into dutch oven. but store-bought flour is more practical for most of us. 6. Or use without preheating. Electric Oven: 10 minutes@450°F then 50 minutes @350°F Preheat oven and stone to 450°F for at least 30 minutes. NOTES Many desem bakers grind their own wheat. then store as above. (A lot of flour you purchase at reputable supermarkets will be stale even when purchased within the expiration date. add about half a cup of boiling water to a cast iron pan on a shelf (wear a glove so as to not burn your hand). fresh flour tastes somewhat sweet without a bitter aftertaste. Cool and store After letting sit an hour.) Buy from a store with rapid turnover and use your tongue and nose to test: fresh germ smells sweet and fruity. Since desem is just whole wheat and water. If you don’t own a bread box. (In my oven I put the iron pan above the bread to shield the top burner. Whole wheat flour will go bad in several weeks at room temperature. Cover and let “steam” under the lid for 15-20 minutes. Forming a boule with tight skin by rotating with one hand while tucking under with the other. store cut-side down in a ziplock bag which is turned sideways so its opened on the side. Store the rest cutside down in a bread box. . cut loaf in half and freeze half in a freezer bag.

e. desem is not supposed to be sour. The “rule of thumb” is just under 50% water to flour by volume. That’s the wonder of desem! Desem bread does not have the huge oven-spring of white artisan bread. You want the dough to be firm enough to hold its shape but moist enough to expand and rise. and for the dough itself. So for each 1 cup flour use about ½ cup of water…maybe a little less. or you can be like me and adjust to your mood. This will come from experience.) While you want to leave plenty of time for fermentation. The longer the builds the more complex and sharp the bread will taste. With many disasters I’ve never made a loaf I couldn’t eat.” go to the next stage sooner to avoid disaster. In addition to shifting with the season. You will know you’ve over-proofed if the boule “explodes”. Unlike many other sour-dough breads.Flax seed too goes bad quickly at room temperature so store it in the freezer. the four-hour “core” fermentation should be held as a constant--adjusting the amount of starter. or if the dough is thin and weak. you will learn how you like it. From my experience a four hour ferment is optimal for texture and flavor. Don’t assume you can stick to exact measurements--you’ll often need to adjust the water a bit as you’re kneading. You’ll notice this approximate ratio is utilized at all steps: for the starter.) If you’ve misjudged and notice the rise is “out of control. (The above formula assumes you are starting with cold ingredients. and/or the final bread is too flat and has more sour taste than usual. the more raw and simple the bread will taste. Feel free to vary the proof as needed to maximize the final loaf height before the skin rips. You’ll notice the percentage of starter is 15-25% in summer and 25-33% in winter. so you do not need to slash the loaf. that seems to be about right on average at room temperature (give or take fifteen minutes) to get maximum rise in the final loaf. and/or salt (i. there is nothing magical about the one-and-half hour proof. You’ll learn which you prefer.) You will discover how hydrated you like your desem. Although almost all aspects of the recipe are open to adjustment. temperature. during its last phase. but will also be squatter. everything else) as necessary to ensure this. You want to bake the bread just short of its maximum proof. (I’ve used as little as ½ cup starter. I find slashing actually makes the loaves flatter. In temperature extremes you may have to vary the starter percentage even more to avoid over-proofing and sour taste. The shorter the builds. (Better to underproof than overproof. you’ll see by experience how much starter to use to ferment in four hours. A less hydrated desem will be firmer and taller. but don’t take these figures religiously. A more hydrated desem will be moister and have more air holes. so it rises up rather than out when it hits the hot stone. the surface cracking like an earthquake. with a tighter crumb and a bit drier. The amazing thing is… it still tastes pretty darn good. spreading out . At each stage you want the starter to be at maximizing rising power but not to the point it starts to break down and turn sour. has zero oven-spring or even collapses like a soufflé in the oven. for the builds.

rather than up in the oven. Use any flat rimless object as a peel: I use the lid of my Cameron’s stovetop smoker. desem tastes best to me in its traditional shape of a free-form boule. A baking pan without rim also works great. can easily turn too sour. Feel free to omit either or both. and they go flat on you if you miss the window of opportunity. Likewise. as with Essential Bakery’s desem in Seattle with lots of decorative markings. just wheat. My newer electric oven demands preheating and placing a pan on the shelf above to shield the loaf from the top burner. to each his own. no sweetener. I also occasionally throw bbq wood chips near the burners to create some smoke or use smoked salt. Getting the crust orange-brown and somewhat shiny (like the photo at top of article) is essential to achieve the right flavor. The key to this is high heat and steam at the beginning. I should note or accuracy’s sake that in its basic form desem bread has no flax and no sweetener. To show how much it can vary: My old gas oven worked best baking with a cold start. Make it your own! Please email me with methods which you find work for you so I can share them. and so do I. I’ve indicated what works best for me after much trial and error over a decade. Or for those with cash: an actual peel. There are many ways to bake desem at home to simulate a wood oven. Use part white-whole wheat… Proof in a banneton. Rather than steaming the whole oven. (You won’t confuse it with your fresher madre because it will be darker. in case you forget to remove some of the second build or it gets ruined. I find the flax—though unorthodox—adds the perfect nutty complement to the wheat and I highly recommend it. Desem traditionally uses a firm starter. VARIATIONS I LIKE Traditional: no flax.) By the way. Retard fermentation in the fridge. I’ve given guidelines above. there is nothing sacred about firm starters. but I’ve tried a poolish-consistency starter and the results are the same. water. Preheat oven… Use more or less water… Cover with a flower pot for first 15 minutes of baking… Bake in a large dutch oven… Bake in bread pans… Slash… Change the shape… Don’t use parchment paper… Add different ingredients. tend to explode out of their container and create a mess. However. in my experience this bread does not benefit from a banneton. salt • . but there is no way around the fact you’re going to have to experiment for your oven. (However. For some reason I have yet to figure out.) I highly recommend that when you take the storage starter out of fridge for the madre you leave a grape-sized bit of it in the storage container as insurance. like a dutch oven or the lid of a roasting pan placed over a stone. be warned: liquid starters are more fickle. you can also experiment with an enclosed container. Many people have success with this. But feel free to use different methods and procedures. (I often do).

As long as you can cut off the bad parts and scoop out some clean light-colored starter in the center you’re fine. Make the dough a bit wetter than usual (roughly halfway between the hydration of ciabatta and normal desem) and therefore use need a banneton. you’ll notice a dark crust gradually forms and move toward the center. If you know you won’t be baking for awhile. it assumes you bake bread once a week.e. Poppy: poppy seed (1/4c) and honey (3T) IF YOU HAVEN’T BAKED IN AWHILE The above recipe assumes you have a storage starter which has been used a week earlier.• • • • • • Asiago & Black Pepper: Add in black pepper. Saffron: follow standard recipe. but add in a tiny amount of whole saffron leaves. Apples & Cinnamon. Poilâne-style levain: to your usual 1c active desem starter (adjust amount to season). let sit 12 hours. I’ve never had to go above three or four builds. You can revive any starter this way if you haven’t baked in awhile. (I’ve easily revived chips that were ten years old. In other words. Use a bit more sweetener than usual. Add in 1/3 cup whole wheat flour and 2 tablespoons water. You can store these at room temperature indefinitely. Rest of recipe as usual. (Google images of “Pain Poilâne” for an idea of the hydration of this flattish loaf and its beautiful but pretentious slash pattern. Use a walnut-sized piece of this re-activated piece in the recipe instead of the storage starter.) Knead 15 instead of 20 minutes. In the evening cut out a small jelly-bean sized piece of “clean” light-colored starter from the middle of the storage starter. though the rye may speed things up. Walnuts and dried apricots. You can use that tiny bit as your madre and proceed as usual. Adding fresh flour to stiffen it up extends storage time. Ferment and bake as usual. 1c white flour. During the last kneading add in 255g apple pieces sautéed in 3T butter with 1t cinnamon. 1c whole spelt flour. I also highly recommend you create starter storage “chips” by drying out some starter flat on wax paper. add 1/2c dark rye flour. As you store your starter. since the starter is a bit dormant from the fridge. Or you could add a touch of salt. When this “clean” bit gets to be really tiny (sitting in fridge about 3 weeks) I suggest you add in an additional (i. on account of spelt and rye. As evident in the base recipe. third) build one additional day before baking. the longer it will last in the fridge. and chunks of asiago cheese after kneading. Or you might see white mold. the stiffer the storage starter. I never use fewer than two builds.) . Add fruits and nuts in last minutes of kneading.

(d) shortening the time for the proof. (e) adding more salt. in baking desem you’re taking a stand against commoditization and mediocrity. Remember. It often stems from your ambient temperature being high. The final loaf is too dense and small. The loaf tastes and smells different each time I make it. a shorter proof (namely: stop at point where it starts to spread out-not-up rather than going up-and-out). My starter has been in the fridge and has some mold or dark spots on it. it might very well still work. . As long as you have a jelly-bean size of nice tan starter left you’ll be fine. (b) allow each stage of the two initial builds enough time so that the starter is fully active—light. 7.TROUBLESHOOTING 1. 80s. Should still taste great. (c) picking a warmer room in the house or up high. This comes from way too much activity during the four hour proof stage. however. If not. e. 3. If. 5. (d) slightly more water so the dough is loose enough to expand. Nothing seems to be happening during the fermentation period. The dough explodes during the proof. (g) decreasing fermentation time.g. Try any and all of the following: (a) using a higher percentage of starter in relation to flour in the final dough. by choosing a cooler room in the house or refrigerate for a bit (“retard”). so delight in the way the shape and flavors change with the seasons. This is the nature of the beast. Often it is only really during the proof that the yeasts hit their full stride. Can be indicative of over-proofing or too little or too much steam during the first 20 minutes. and. This can come from either too cool an ambient temperatures or not enough starter. airy when run finger through it. smelling fruity-before going on to the next stage. (f) a dash of molasses or maple syrup. (b) lowering the ambient temperature.g. If you insist on more consistency. or (c) using cool water. in the end the final loaf is too small see # 2 above. weigh the ingredients instead of measuring by volume. or. Slice off the bad parts. paradoxically. 4. Don’t panic. (e) longer proof (more volume). You need to reduce biological activity by (in order of preference): (a) using less starter in relation to flour in the final dough. (g) less salt. 2. 6. reactivate starter next time as directed above with extra builds. (f) getting better at forming a tight skin. The crust never gets orange brown and shiny. This is not abnormal. and use an electric proofing chamber. My starter doesn’t look like a kitchen sponge when I break it open. Alan Scott describes the signal for the end of fermentation as the dough “starting to move”. You just need to grow that jelly-bean to a walnut. cold or frozen flour. e. Don’t panic.

Let sit covered another 24 hours. it’s (almost) as easy as letting a moist towel develop mold. Start from 1/3 cup of whole kernels of organic whole wheat. ideally at 50-70F. for 24 hours. adding new flour if needed. you need to reduce the water content so it ends up being firm like dough (i. and place in a mug or small bowl. If your starter is a liquid (texture of thick pancake batter). I’ve done them all and they all produce exactly the same bread. simply substitute whole wheat flour for your usual builds. throw half away. Bury this chunk back in the flour. covered by at least a half inch on top and bottom). Repeat this cycle until the ball has lots of bubbles on the inside. Don’t worry if they’re not whole wheat or “desem”. every 12 hours.e. Nothing garners more fear in the hearts of novice bakers than the prospect of creating a natural starter from scratch. then drain. Convert a white sourdough starter you already have to firm whole wheat. so. again. Remember. 60% hydration).) Form into a firm ball. Throw half away. minimally. and starts to have the texture inside of a kitchen sponge. there is at least a half inch above and below. it’s very easy. You can create the starter in a number of ways. Grind in a coffee grinder or mortar-and-pestle into a mush. Cover the lump with whole wheat flour (or. sourdough is a natural process--nature does the work. There are many ordinary people on the net willing to share with you at no cost crumbled flakes of dried starter. From this point on. you can easily convert any starter to whole wheat. I’m here to tell you it’s actually very easy to create a desem starter. If my Primer does nothing else. To convert. To use a gross analogy. Truth be told. (In my experience mashed organic whole grain kernels work better than flour. Make a desem starter from scratch. you can treat the walnut-sized piece as the madre and bake the loaf following the recipe above. 3. roll in flour.CREATING A STARTER FROM SCRATCH: Three Options Traditional instructions for desem have such rigid rules it would scare off even seasoned sourdough bakers. Soak them overnight. At this point quicken the routine (that is. (Carl’s Friend’s starter is an excellent free one: Google to get the address. . Add in enough whole wheat flour and water (2 parts flour to 1 part water) to bring the clump back to walnutsized. Dig out ball.) 2. The starter is now considered “active”. It won’t look like anything occurred though you may smell some odors. add enough flour and water to bring back to walnut-sized piece) to twice a day. Get some dried sourdough flakes from someone. at least after a couple bakes: 1. Let sit covered at room temperature. After a couple weeks of normal bread baking it will be all whole wheat.

and they all seem to work. You must use a special starter made by burying a wheat ball in a cold sack of flour Fact: You can use any whole wheat firm starter or even convert from a white starter. If the starter gets dark spots or even mold. I’ve used filtered water. there’s nothing wrong with using volume or eye-balling it. DESEM MYTHS There is one “official” way to make desem Fact: Readers are sometimes intimidated by the very specific instructions in Laurel’s Bread book. its firm mandates about desem have scared off many people from a terrific bread. Do not use tap water. If you let it go so long the center itself is moldy. Don’t use iodized salt.Store the starter atop an inch layer of dry whole wheat flour in a jar in the refrigerator. The whole process should take about four to seven days depending on air temperature. create a new starter. slice off the parts and use the “clean” part as your madre. but since you’ll need to adjust for temperature a little anyway. and there is no need to be so with desem. You need to weigh ingredients to make desem Fact: A scale is fine. There are many other ways to create starters found in books and on the web. Fact: To be frank. especially in the mid 70s. I use sea salt. (See “Note to the Desem Police” below. it will kill the natural yeast. it turns out fine You have to be meticulously clean to make sure the starter doesn’t get contaminated. Fact: I use iodized salt.) “Real” desem dough must ferment below 65°F and proof at 95°F in a humid environment. The above is what's works for me and requires relatively little effort. Fact: The bread works even better when fermented at room temperature. it will kill the yeast. it all turns out fine. AFTERWARD: NOTE TO THE DESEM POLICE Some aficionados will likely notice that some of the above violates the dogma of desem found in Laurel’s bread book and repeated on the web. As great as that book is. Fact: I’ve used tap water. There are many variations in how it is made in different parts of the world. Coat the starter in flour before storing. Replace the layer of dry flour on the bottom if it gets too moist or moldy. . No one is as strict about formulas for pain au levain or other sourdoughs. I’m sort of dirty and so is my kitchen and it turns out fine.

you’re making desem.) I theorize these guidelines arose because of how Laurel Robertson and Alan Scott needed to adjust to their climate near the ocean in Northern California where American desem got popularized. http://www. http://www. The Bread Builders. This low temperature is purported to produce different bacteria than normal sourdough. Laurel’s Kitchen Bread Book. I have tasted desem made by Laurel’s directions and at several bakeries. Jonathan Kandell. Astute readers will note that my master formula above is very similar to the classic French “pain au levain”.%20part%203 Flemish Desem “A Text by Omer Gaevert”. http://www. You are also supposed to “proof at 95°F”. (My challenge: Try both and compare. All of which I think is for the better.%20part%204 Laurel Robertson.astray.html Rolf Weichold. Take note of Gaevert’s mystic pronouncements on desem (I’ve posted his text online. and water). http://www. Desem. continued. https://docs. Omer Gaevert at the Lima Bakery in Flemish Desem see links below). and am here to tell you there is no difference in flavor or texture with a starter fermented at somewhat higher temperatures using the process described.” Pain au levain does not carry with it the cult of personality. I Was Just Very • • • • • .amazon. Richardson inherited the tendency for dogma from the originator of desem Alan Scott & Daniel Wing. Again. and neither the lore nor dogma of Desem. and are different than mine. I propose this: the important thing is you not let the bread go “sour”. In fact.justhungry. http://www. not essential in my experience--even counterproductive.According to these sources desem is supposed to use a starter which has “never seen any temperature above 65°F”. Tucson AZ 2001 LINKS OF INTEREST • • Sourdough Definitions. But here’s the thing: You’ll notice Gaevert’s instructions are different from Richardson’s and Scott’s.) To be fair. As long as you avoid that (using only whole wheat. In contrast to any specific temperature. It is awfully cold in the mornings in northern California and I posture they needed a hot proof to have bread ready for their commercial customers. the mythology. In other words: there is no desem gospel. Laurel’s instructions work fine. Gevaert referred to desem as “bread made in the old French manner. (If you happen to live in this type of climate.

org/licenses/by-nc-sa/3.0 License.Please email me with questions. Tucson AZ. To view a copy of this license. . and. please. kandell@gmail. suggestions.0/. Jonathan Share and modify this document freely so long as no money is charged for derivative works. and all subsequent documents or products carry the same restrictions: All text and photos licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3. authorship credit is retained. tell me how it turned out. visit http://creativecommons.

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