JMonkey’s Desem

JMonkey’s Desem

This post illustrates starter maintenance and an end-to-end bake of a whole wheat Desem loaf using home milled hard white spring wheat berries (Prairie Gold) using JMonkey’s Desem post as a blueprint. It is relevant to some of the starter yeast-vs-LAB ratio discussions on TFL this past week.   It is fun to find such useful posts and discussions from the TFL “archives” back in 2009.  He summarizes the style succinctly, and helps dispel a lot of mystique around this style of bread:

I enjoy making Desem, which is really just a traditional Pain au Levain (French sourdough) made with whole wheat flour. From what I’ve read (and if others have read differently, please, chime in!) the French, historically, have disliked a strong sour flavor in their breads, and so bakers had to work very creatively to eliminate as much sour as they could, especially when sourdough was the only levean they had!

Here’s what they did:

    1. They kept their starter firm.
    2. They kept their starter cool (50 to 60 degrees F)
    3. They used quite a bit of starter so that the bread would rise quickly and the bacteria would not have much time to produce a lot of acid.

I’ve been interested in heading in this direction for my regular home milled whole wheat bakes, and a number of Desem posts from notable TFL bakers caught my attention, which I summarized in this thread.


I’ve been maintaining a cool 50 % hydration starter fed at a 1:1:2 ratio for a couple of weeks and have had some luck achieving the desired temperature range of 50-60 F by storing the starter in a mason jar inside a wide mouth thermos with large ice cubes refreshed at the 24 hour feeding cycle.  A lid and silicone jar top provide some insulation to prevent direct contact between the starter and the ice cubes.  From occasional measurements with an IR gun this seems to reach an initial temperature of a little below 50 F and it slowly climbs to a little below 60 F by the next feeding, which can be adjusted by the number of ice cubes.  The stiff low hydration starters don’t readily provide the same peak volume feedback associated with higher hydration starters, so this exercise has required a little bit of blind faith.  In this temperature range, feeding the starter the night before and using it the following morning seems to work out fine in practice.  One recipe I read described a ripe Desem starter as resembling the texture of a kitchen sponge.  Using a pH meter or Doc’s weight loss approach may provide a better mechanism for optimizing the maintenance schedule, and I’m interested in any additional thoughts in this direction.


The dough was mixed for an initial conservative 75% hydration per the above post, and I used a refrigerated overnight saltolyse, so very little gluten development was required on the bench.  I used the water allowance from the low hydration starter for the laminate-roll-spray-and-cut-up style mixing and continued to add water by feel with the sprayer.  I bulk fermented at a warm active kitchen room temperature (77-80 F) to roughly 1.3x using an aliquot jar, at which point I pre-shaped, rested, folded, stretched and rolled it into a tight burrito.  I dusted it and placed it into a banneton for a very short final proof (probably 1.5x via the aliquot meter).  The dough was very strong.  I have found the HWSW Prarie Gold exceptionally easy to work with for a whole grain flour and will be interested to try a similar bake with some heritage grains soon.  I slashed it then placed it in a batard clay baker in the oven at about 475F for 20 minutes and another 18 minutes uncovered, after lowering the temperature slightly.