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Laurel's Desem Starter

This is part of our "Sourdough Starter Primer" a deep dive into how to create, maintain and use a sourdough starter.

Laurel Robertson's "The Laurel's Kitchen Bread Book" is one of my two favorite whole grain bread books. It offers a wealth of information about how to make good breads with whole grain flours. The only complaint I have about the book is that her grasp of sourdough is somewhat limited. In most cases, she uses yeast to start a starter, and if you've made it to this page you have probably read what I think about that.

However, she does detail the production of a Flemish bread called Desem bread, which is a sourdough bread made with a starter that is made without yeast. This special starter is actually very similar to what we think chuck wagon cooks in the old west used to do. Her description of the starter and the bread are truly romantic, and worth the price of the book all by itself. Once you have created the starter you may use it for other breads, of course. This is paraphrased from her book, and I have not, as yet, tried it. I'll be trying it as soon as I get back from Camp Bread, and then I'll share my observations. I hope to find some good Desem bread while I'm in San Francisco, so I'll have a better idea of what I'm trying to do.

Well, I'm back from Camp Bread and the "Great Desem Project" has begun. I'll comment on it in blue text, and add pictures. At the end of the project, I'll probably re-write this section from the ground up.

You should start by getting 10 pounds of fairly coarsely ground organic whole wheat flour. The flour should be as fresh as possible, preferably not more than 5 days from the mill. Since the flour should be fairly coarse, I would suggest not using a micronizer mill, such as a WhisperMill, WonderMill or NutriMill to grind the flour if you normally grind your own flour as the coarsest setting on these mills is still pretty fine.

As many other people have commented, that's a LOT of flour! Surely the process doesn't require THAT much flour! And people complain about pitching half their starter as they build it the first time with my process and Professor Calvel's. I think the other processes are less wasteful. I used my KitchenAid flour mill to grind some hard red winter wheat into flour. It is slower than a WhisperMill, but the instructions called for coarsely ground flour and the WhisperMill doesn't do coarsely ground. Also, the KitchenAid doesn't heat the flour as much. It was 3 hours until the grinding was finished. I had to let the mixer rest for an hour half way through the process, and probably should have let it rest longer and more often.

Laurel suggests using fresh spring water. She suggests not using distilled water as the process works best if the water still has minerals in it. A recurring question with regards to sourdough starter is what sort of water may be used with it. Many people insist that sourdough starter can be killed by chlorinated water. Others say that it cannot be started with chlorinated water. In my experience, chlorinated water has not been a problem. I have started, fed and used starters with chlorinated water with no problems. However, I have heard that the more persistent forms of chlorine used by some cities, such as chloramine, can cause problems.

In general, if your tap water smells and tastes good it will probably work well with sourdough. If you have problems with your starters, you may want to try using de-chlorinated water. Since few home filters will remove chlorine from water, and from what I am told neither boiling nor standing will remove chloramine, I suggest that you try bottled water if you are experiencing what you think might be water related problems with your sourdough.

Once you have the ingredients, you will be embarking on a seven-day process.

Day one - put the 10 pounds of flour in a container that is about as wide as it is tall. A bucket or an 8 quart or so bowl should do the trick. Take two cups of flour and add 1/2 cup of water. Add more water, if needed, so you can knead the dough ball into something that is stiff but not impossible to handle. Think bagel dough. Knead the dough ball for a few minutes, then form it into a round ball, and then bury the ball in the container of flour. The dough ball should be well centered in the container of flour, and covered by the flour. Cover the container to protect the flour from pests, the wind and so on. You will need to keep the container between 50 and 65F and not let it go above 70F at any time. Now, ignore the container for 48 hours.

Well, that's all done. I'm ignoring the bowl of flour, which has the ball of starter wannabe in it. It still seems like a lot of flour!

Day two - Ignore the container.

So far, so good. I'm getting pretty good at this "ignore it for two days" thing. Of course, I'm a guy and we can ignore almost anything for days on end without even working up a sweat.

Day three - The surface of the flour may have a crack in it or have risen - this is a hint that something is happening. After washing and drying your hands, dig out the dough ball. If the dough ball has formed a skin on it, use a sharp knife to cut it off. Whether or not the dough ball has formed a skin, you will want to discard enough of the dough ball that you are left with a mass about 1/2 the size of what you pulled out of the flour.

At this time, the surface of the flour looks undisturbed. I dug into the flour to find the dough ball. It felt like a meteorite, hard, dense and unyielding. It took a sharp knife and some effort to cut the outer skin off. To my surprise, the inside was moist and soft. Softer than when the ball was formed.

Now knead in 1/2 cup of water to form a softer mass. Once that is done, knead in 1 cup of flour from the container. Once that is done, work in more flour or water as needed to restore the dough ball to its original consistency on day one. Again, bury the dough ball in the container of flour. Bury it fairly well centered. Make sure the dough ball is covered. Cover the container to protect it from pests, store it at 50 to 65F and leave it alone for 24 hours.

It took a good bit more flour than the recipe suggested. However, I did make a dough ball and bury it.

Day four - repeat the process from day three. By this point, the Desem should have begun to have an aroma. It should have a fresh aroma, with a hint of fermentation about it, and should remind you of sprouting wheat. If it doesn't, add a bit more water to make the dough ball a bit softer.

The surface of the flour showed a lot of disruption as the dough ball had risen. I again dug out the dough ball and found that it had a thinner crust than last time. I peeled off the crust and was greeted with a wonderful aroma. Deep, clean, and earthy. The dough ball was quite moist and it had bubbles in it. I again mixed it with water and flour and buried the dough ball into the flour. I am beginning to understand the quantity of flour - it took a good bit more than the cup the recipe called for. I doubt we'll use the 10 lbs of flour, but we'll be using a lot of flour.

Day five - repeat day four.

Day six - take the entire dough ball and knead in 1/3 cup of water until the dough is soft and uniform. Then knead in 1 cup of the whole wheat flour. This time, don't bury the dough ball. Instead, put it into a clean non-metallic container and cover it loosely. The container should have room for the starter to expand. Now leave the starter overnight.

Day seven - Take the starter out of its container, knead in 1/3 cup of water and 1 cup of flour. Adjust the water and flour so you have a medium firm dough. Knead the dough for about 10 minutes. Cut the dough into four pieces. Put one piece back into the container, cover it and store it in a cool place. This will be your storage starter. The other three pieces can be used to make bread after you let them rise for another 24 hours.

I used less than 1/2 the flour the recipe called for. You can easily do this with a 5 lb sack of flour. I used the excess flour to bake bread with.

If you want to continue baking Desem bread, I suggest you get a copy of Laurel's book. If not, you may now start treating your starter as you would any other starter.

The differences in the three methods of starting a starter are quite apparent, but the similarities are just as strong. In each case, an environment that is conducive to starter growth is created. In each case, the starter is fed regularly so that it can develop. In each case, enough time passes that any unwanted micro-organisms will die off as the desired organisms take over.

2 thoughts on “Desem Starter”

  1. Hi Mike:

    I know it’s been over 20 years since you wrote this article, so you might not even see this comment. But I’m wondering if I could ask you for a little help?

    I love the Laurel’s Kitchen Bread Book and over the last several years I have twice tried to get a desem going. Both times I’ll swear I followed Laurel’s instructions to the letter: I use only organic wheat, hand ground so it didn’t get too warm; I used only springwater; I even used a digital thermometer to make sure that the desem never got above 65°F.

    But each time the same thing happened: instead of that wonderful cidery smell Laurel describes, the developing desem smelled like rotten meat, and it had no power to raise bread.

    I will add that I once bought a sourdough starter that had that wonderful cidery smell and after a couple of days it started to smell like rotten meat also. Maybe there’s something in the air in my house?

    Anyway, any thoughts you have will be deeply appreciated. I want to make desem bread so bad I can taste it! (Well I can’t taste it, that’s the trouble. ?)

    1. Hi Michael,
      Well, not QUITE 20 years, I think it was written in 2007. That said, I’m not sure why the starter soon smells like rotten meat, that’s a new one on me.

      My suggestion would be to let the starter work at room temperature. The fermentation we are interested in slows down dramatically at lower temperatures. If that doesn’t work, drop me another note.

      Good luck,

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