Desem, Day 0

I've decided to start a desem again.

What the heck is desem? Well, it is supposed to be a Belgian whole wheat bread, nly Belgian friend d__ doesn't know about it. In any case, it appears in the best whole-grain bread baking book I've ever read, The Laurel's Kitchen Bread Book : A Guide to Whole-Grain Breadmaking. My Amazon review is quoted here:

The one thing that sets this book apart from all others is not the thorough instructions, or the fact that all the bread recipes use whole grains. It's the recipe for desem bread. "Recipe" doesn't adequately describe the extremely detailed instructions for making this what maybe the ultimate whole-grain, natural-yeast bread. It almost resembles a science experiment, and can be a great project for anyone who is interested in the way flour and water mixed together interacts with whatever bacteria (?) is floating in our air to create natural leavening agents.

And the results? Well, they are simply amazing. This bread literally tastes different every time it's baked - it keeps getting better and better as the desem (which is like a 'mother', a bit of dough you feed and carry on from baking to baking) matures. It's also quite a lot of work - I've let several desems die over the years due to neglect. If you are going away on holiday for some time, expect to have to start over or spend a lot of time reviving the desem (unless you can find a willing friend to pet- I mean, desem-sit for you!) Perhaps keeping a desem doesn't fit a modern lifestyle. Still I keep on starting new desems simply because the flavor is so unforgettable. In any case, get this book, enjoy the other whole-grain breads in there - and eventually, I urge you to try the desem bread.

So, today was a day for getting enough flour for the initial incubation period. This is really the most crucial step in the whole process. There are only 3 ingredients in desem bread: whole wheat flour, salt, water. The type and quality of the flour is the difference between success and failure.

The flour has to be really fresh, or the natural leavening agents won't like it and will not come to live in your desem. It should also be free of any preservatives or nasty things - mouse droppings, insect bits, whatever, or your bread will taste rotten. (Believe me I have encountered some pretty foul flour, especially from some health food stores where the stock doesn't rotate fast enough.) It also has to have a pretty high gluten content, since the lightness of the bread when it gets to the "mature" stage depends entirely on the how much the bread can expand. If you choose a soft, low gluten flour, the "cells" in the bread will be small and wimpy, and you will have a leaden bread. In the book, they recommend looking for flour that is at least 12% protein.

I've added one more requirement to this list, and that's that the flour be affordable. Desem requires a lot of fllour. You don't want to be buying some specially produced designer flour, unless of course you can afford to.

Only one whole wheat flour sold here regularly fulfills these requirements, and that's the Coop house brand Bio (meaning organic) Vollkornmehl. Coop is the second biggest supermarket chain in Switzerland after Migros. It just barely meets the protein requirement, is date-stamped, and has no nasty flavors lingering in it. The Migros brand Vollkornmehl is too low in protein, and therefore too low in gluten. (actually the Migros brand white flour is very low in gluten too - bread made from it has an almost cakelike texture.) And flour from the Reformhaus, the major health food store chain here, is expensive.

So, now I have a 10 kilos of organic whole wheat flour. I'll be using about 6 kilos of this tomorrow at least.

The other critical ingredient is water. Chlorine somehow seems to kill off the leavening agents, so tap water is to be avoided, unless you can filter it. I just use bottled still water. The last ingredient, salt, is only used later on, and can be plain old salt.

So, now I'm ready. In the morning I am going to start my desem incubator.

Please click on the desem category link to follow along.

Filed under:  bread baking desem

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We just read the desem chapter in the Laurel's Kitchen Bread Book and tried to look up the Baldwin Hill Bakery in Massachusetts, which seems to have gone out of business. Now what? We need (desperately) to know whether this is all worth the effort. We've been joking about desem sitting but apparently it is true.

Our attempts to find more about desem has only led us to Laurel's Kitchen readers, so I guess we'll have to find a suitable flour supplier in New York City.

You may want to consider milling your own organic whole wheat flour. Very easy once you get a mill of your own. I use a Nutrimill and belong to a co-op to get organic wheat berries delivered at a drop off point near me. I order the wheat berries in bulk and it is very affordable. You might consider using the They will have everything you need to go on this adventure of the Flemish Desem Bread.

I own a bakery and would so love to go to Boston under the tutorship of the bakers at Baldwin Hill Bakery.

Grace to you.

I tried making desem from scratch 4 years ago. I must have had a bad batch of whole wheat flour - when the starter was growing it was already giving off grossome odor. Ignorance/wishfull thinking led me to believe that when I get to the baking stage the terrible odor would go away during baking. I was sadly mistaken - I was almost got thrown of the house.

I am getting back my confidence again or perhaps I should just find a store in the Los Angeles area where I could just buy it. I have been buying sourdough bread from Whole Foods Market but the ingredients do not list whole wheat flour.

Any suggestion?



I did not find the laurels kitchen book all to informational as I tried this recipe. I was left with a lot of questions by the end of the first week and my sample bake of bread was discusting. I had no Idea if I was suppose to use the flour that was also used as a storage for the young ball or not so of course being frugal i used it as part of the process of making the bread. It was fresh after all. but at any rate the bread was crappy the formula was somewhat confusing for me I will try again some day.

I'm still a baker for baldwin hill bakery. Ask me anything!

I am desperately seeking a way to get Baldwin Hill Sourdough Bread. PLease e-mail me at

I have been grieving for years....


I started my Desem starter in the morning so the feeding schedule is every morning. How can I adjust the feeding schedule to be in the evening?

i used whole wheat flour that i bought from a natioal food dist an applied the Desem bread rec. in Laurels and had moderate success. Nevertheless the loaves were lofty but fell substantially when placed in the oven with little oven spring.The dough seem fragile and i had to nurse the loaves into the oven.I dont know how fresh the flour was or if it was pesticide free. I did use spring water here in nw Florida natural crystal clear spring water is free for the taking.sorry ocd. anyway is that common using just run of the mill cool milled whole wheat flour or just pure luck? buy the way i still have the desem and will try again with a more substantial flour. peace...

How can I contact you over the phone? I have a bakery in South East Georgia where I would like to build a wood fired oven and make the Flemish Desem Bread for the folks in our area.

I have started a desem several times. As noted above, it is easy to let it die. I have just recently started another. Yes, it is worth the trouble. In fact, I go to more trouble. I bought a home mill so that I could grind my flour fresh for the desem. I also grind corn for cornbread and polenta, and rice for a breakfast porridge.

I skipped the first week Desem bread recipe. I didn't like week two results (my husband, however, did), but week three -- oh my. The most wonderful bread I have ever eaten came out of my own oven yesterday. I am a Desem believer. Since I don't eat much bread, I've cut the recipe and instructions in half and feed only enough to bake one loaf per week instead of two...but after yesterday...let's just say, things could change.

I don't know if anyone's still looking at this page, but could anyone tell me if the Baldwin Hill Bakery is still around or not? I've been looking it up and it seems to have disappeared. My boyfriend happens to be going on a trip to Boston tomorrow and it would be quite fortuitous if he could tell firsthand if it's worth taking the plunge...

(And thanks for your Amazon review - I remember that being one of the ones that made me get the book!)

Hi Lisa. I did a Google Maps lookup for the Baldwin Hill Bakery and came up with this:

map link.

It has a phone number listed there. Maybe it's worth calling them up?


Not sure if anyone will see this but just in case...

I've just started making a desem starter. I'm on day 3 and the starter smells kind a peppery. Is this normal?

How would I know if it's gone off?


Hi Marion. As long as it doesn't smell rotten or really bad, it should be ok. For me in the early stages it just smells sort of wheaty, then later on it can smell a bit sour if it's been too warm or so.

Oops, pressed that Post button too fast. I meant to say, the smell does seem to vary according to the flour, the climate, etc. Peppery sounds okay to me.

Thanks Maki.
Now on Day 8 and it smells very appetising!

Glad I persevered.

I'll let you know how it goes.
(I baked a bread with the excess desem yesterday. It didn't rise well but the flavours were interesting and it's all gone so can't have been that bad!)

I made Desem first from Kiko Denzers cob oven book but it was lacking, then with your's I was able to make remarkable loaves. Unfortunately I killed the starter some time ago.

I am presently starting a new batch, I hope to bake it in my new cob oven soon! And to grind my own flours too, mmmmm yum!

TrackBack from tashian:
I made my best loaf of Italian bread yesterday. What made it so good? I think I finally worked out how much water you're supposed to spray onto the loaf before it goes in (to make a crusty crust). Anyway,...

A great place to stop by if you're in the northeast USA is Wave Hill Breads (or Bakery?) on Rt 7n in Wilton, Connecticut. They make one loaf, and I'm pretty sure it's a close relative of tradtitional European desem loaves.

They are only open from 5am to noon, so you have to get there early!


Thank you for mentioning our bread, Peter. People can call us at the bakery at 203 762 9595. We do have erratic hours but will try to post regular hours soon. People can buy our bread at stores in Fairfield County, Connecticut and Westchester County, NY and at farmers markets in season.
Among the stores that sell WAVE HILL BREAD are:
The Village Market in Wilton
Whole Foods
Caraluzzi's in Bethel and Georgetown
Aer Yoga Cafe in Cross River (where Martha Stewart buys it)
Walter Stewart's in New Canaan
Palmer's in Noroton Heights/Darien
Mrs. Green's in Stamford
Napa & Co. in Stamford
Ancona's in Ridgefield
Peter's Market in Weston
Litchfield on Fridays at the Community Center and at Amazing Grains
For more info, email us at
Thank you.

Thanks for stopping by Margaret! I'll have to try your bread next time I'm in the States.

About 20 years ago, I was eating macrobiotically, and the doctor I had recommended only one bread--Baldwin bread, from Boston. It isn't sold in Chicago, so I'm trying to locate the bakery that made it. Is your bakery perhaps the one that made a macrobiotically bread, and if so, can I order it on-line?

I found this page after I happened to purchase a loaf of desem from Bennett Ridge Bakery in Santa Rosa California. It is such a wonderful loaf that I had to look up the word.

So, for those of you curious for a taste, it is available here in Sonoma County.