What is Desem? Meet the Old Belgian Sourdough Starter!

Published Categorized as Sourdough Tips Tagged

Imagine a bread so rich in flavor, so complex in texture, that it makes you question everything you thought you knew about baking. Enter desem: the enigmatic sourdough that’s been captivating bread lovers for ages. But what exactly sets this Belgian-born bread apart from its crusty counterparts? Let’s slice into the world of desem (and desembrot) and uncover its secrets.

What is desem? Meet the old belgian sourdough starter!

Table of Contents

What is Desem?

Desem bread, a beloved Belgian sourdough tradition, showcases centuries of artisanal baking expertise. This special bread is known for its exclusive use of whole wheat flour and low-hydration dough, creating a dense, flavorful loaf with a chewy interior and thick crust. The slow fermentation process, which takes between 12 to 24 hours, allows natural yeasts and bacteria to develop rich flavors and boost the bread’s nutritional value.

How to Make Desem

You’ll need just two simple ingredients: whole wheat flour and water. When selecting your whole wheat flour, opt for a high-quality, organic variety to ensure the best results.

To create your desem starter, mix equal parts whole wheat flour and water in a non-reactive container, such as a glass jar. The consistency should resemble a thick paste. Cover the container with a breathable lid or a clean cloth, allowing air to circulate while keeping out debris. Place the starter in a warm, draft-free spot in your kitchen, ideally around 70-75°F (21-24°C).

Over the next few days, your desem starter will begin to ferment, developing a complex flavor profile and a slightly sour aroma. To encourage this process, you’ll need to feed your starter daily. Each day, discard all but a small portion of the starter (about 1/4 cup or 50g) and mix in equal parts fresh whole wheat flour and water. This feeding process provides the yeasts and bacteria with the nutrients they need to thrive.

As your desem starter ferments, you’ll notice bubbles forming on the surface and a slight expansion in volume. This is a sign that the yeasts are actively feeding on the sugars in the flour, producing carbon dioxide and lactic acid. The aroma of your starter will also evolve, becoming more pronounced and tangy over time.

After about 7-10 days of daily feedings, your desem starter should be ready to use. You’ll know it’s ripe when it doubles in volume within 4-8 hours of feeding and has a pleasantly sour smell. At this point, you can begin using it to bake your first loaf of desem bread.

To maintain your starter’s vitality, continue feeding it daily if kept at room temperature, or store it in the refrigerator and feed it weekly for a more low-maintenance approach.

What is desem? Meet the old belgian sourdough starter!

Baking with Desem

A good rule of thumb is to use about 20-30% desem starter in relation to the total flour weight. This will provide enough leavening power without overwhelming the flavor of the bread.

Aim for a dough that is slightly tacky but not overly sticky. Desem doughs tend to be on the firmer side compared to other sourdoughs, so don’t be tempted to add too much water. Knead the dough until it becomes smooth and elastic, then allow it to rest and ferment at room temperature for several hours or even overnight in the fridge for a slower, more flavorful rise.

When you’re ready to bake, shape your dough into your desired loaf form and let it proof until it has nearly doubled in size. Scoring the top of the loaf with a sharp blade will not only create an attractive pattern but also help control the bread’s expansion in the oven.

For the best oven spring and crust development, preheat your oven to a high temperature (around 450-475°F or 230-245°C) and use a baking stone or steel if you have one. Adding steam to the oven during the first few minutes of baking will also contribute to a crispy, shiny crust that’ll make your mouth water.

One of the most common mistakes when baking with desem is not giving the dough enough time to ferment and develop flavor. Resist the urge to rush the process, as desem bread truly shines when it’s allowed to ferment slowly and naturally.

Another pitfall is overworking the dough, which can lead to a tough, dense texture. Be gentle when shaping your loaves and avoid adding too much flour during the process, as this can throw off the hydration level and affect the final result.

What is desem? Meet the old belgian sourdough starter!

Desem vs Sourdough Starter

While desem is a type of sourdough starter, it stands apart in several key ways.

Traditional sourdough starters often use a mix of flours, such as rye or all-purpose, and tend to have a higher hydration level. This results in a more liquid, bubbling starter that requires frequent feedings. Desem, on the other hand, relies solely on whole wheat flour and maintains a thicker, dough-like consistency.

The unique composition of desem contributes to its distinct flavor profile. The exclusive use of whole wheat flour imparts a nuttier, more complex taste compared to starters that incorporate lighter flours. Additionally, the slower fermentation process of desem allows for the development of deeper, more nuanced flavors. While traditional sourdough starters can produce delicious bread, desem offers a truly one-of-a-kind taste experience.

Another aspect that sets desem apart is its lower maintenance requirements. Due to its thicker consistency and slower fermentation, desem starters need less frequent feedings compared to their more liquid counterparts. This can be a boon for bakers who don’t have the time or inclination to tend to their starter multiple times a day. However, it’s important to note that desem still requires regular care and feeding to maintain its vitality.

When it comes to the final product, bread made with desem starter showcases some distinct characteristics. The whole wheat base contributes to a denser, more substantial loaf with a slightly chewy texture. The crust tends to be thicker and more robust, thanks to the lower hydration level of the dough. While traditional sourdough bread can range from light and airy to dense and tangy, desem bread consistently delivers a hearty, flavorful slice that reflects its rustic origins.

While desem bread is undoubtedly the star of the show, this versatile starter can be used in a variety of recipes.

Desem Pancakes

Who says desem is just for bread? Inject some sourdough goodness into your morning routine with fluffy, flavorful desem pancakes. The natural fermentation of the desem starter adds a subtle tanginess and depth of flavor that’ll elevate your pancake game to new heights.

Top these golden beauties with fresh fruit, a drizzle of maple syrup, or a dollop of whipped cream for a breakfast that’s both indulgent and nourishing.

Desem Pizza Dough

Take your homemade pizza nights to the next level by swapping out your regular dough for a desem-based crust. The slow fermentation of desem yields a pizza dough that’s crispy, chewy, and packed with complex flavors. Whether you prefer a classic Margherita or a loaded supreme, desem pizza dough provides the perfect canvas for your favorite toppings.

Fire up the oven, grab your favorite ingredients, and get ready to savor a slice (or three) of sourdough pizza perfection.

Desem and Desembrot Should be in Your baking Arsenal!

This Belgian sourdough stands apart from sourdough out there. While it may require more time and effort than conventional breads, the unique taste and quality of desem make it a favorite.

It’s a must-try!

What Is Desem: FAQs

Is desem bread healthy?

Yes, desem bread is considered healthy due to its natural fermentation process, which breaks down gluten and enhances nutrient bioavailability. The slow fermentation also produces beneficial bacteria and acids that improve digestibility and flavor. However, individuals with gluten sensitivities should still exercise caution when consuming desem bread, as it contains wheat.

What is desum?

Desem is a traditional method of making bread using a whole wheat sourdough starter. The process involves a long, slow fermentation that can take up to 24 hours or more. This unique fermentation technique results in a flavorful, nutritious loaf with a distinct tang and a chewy texture.

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What is desem? Meet the old belgian sourdough starter!

Desembrot (Desem Bread)

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Here’s a classic desem bread recipe you can try making asap!

Ingredients

Scale

Starter

  • 60 g Whole wheat flour
  • 40 g Water

Bread

  • 500g whole wheat flour
  • 50g water
  • 150g active desem starter (30% of flour weight)
  • 10g salt

Instructions

Desem Starter

  1. Prepare desem starter (7-10 days in advance). Mix equal parts whole wheat flour and water in a glass jar
  2. Cover with a breathable lid and keep at 70-75°F (21-24°C)
  3. Feed daily. Discard all but 1/4 cup (50g), add equal parts fresh flour and water
  4. Starter is ready when it doubles in volume within 4-8 hours of feeding

Desem Bread

  1. Combine flour, water, and active desem starter
  2. Mix until just combined, cover and let rest for 30 minutes (autolyse)
  3. Add salt and knead until smooth and elastic (about 10-15 minutes)
  4. Cover dough and let ferment at room temperature for 4-6 hours, or overnight in the fridge
  5. Gently shape into a boule or batard
  6. Place in a proofing basket or bowl lined with a floured cloth
  7. Let proof at room temperature until nearly doubled in size (1-3 hours)
  8. Set to 450°F (230°C) with a baking stone or Dutch oven inside
  9. Score the top of the loaf with a sharp blade
  10. Transfer to hot stone or Dutch oven
  11. Add steam to the oven (e.g., ice cubes in a tray)
  12. Bake for 35-40 minutes, or until deep golden brown
  13. Let bread cool completely on a wire rack before slicing

Notes

  • Adjust hydration if needed for a slightly tacky but firm dough.
  • The slow fermentation process develops complex flavors and enhances nutritional value.
  • Author: Natasha Krajnc
  • Category: bread
  • Cuisine: Belgian

By Natasha Krajnc

Hi! My name is Natasha and I'm specialized in home sourdough bread baking and currently based in Slovakia - a very small country in Central Europe. My bread baking story began in 2011 when I decided to give up commercial yeast. I felt tired all the time (especially after eating bread and other foods made with yeast), I wasn’t motivated to do anything, had trouble concentrating throughout the day, my abdomen was bloated and I was like a trumpet on steroids – basically, I was quite a wreck. I was a big bread lover (and still am) and having to stop eating bread was quite hard at that time but I felt I was on a right way to give my body a chance to heal itself.

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