StartersWarwick Quinton

Dough Starter (Desem)

StartersWarwick Quinton
Dough Starter (Desem)

'Dough' Sourdough Starter is one for the keenest sourdough bakers among you.

It makes great sourdough bread, with a deep, rich SOUR flavour, which, despite the capitalisation, isn't harsh at all. It's just 'deep', in the same way that a mature wine is 'deep'.

It can be made from scratch, or you can convert liquid starter, or even  a chunk of old dough.

Dough sourdough starter keeps for at least 2 weeks between feeds, once established and at the correct consistency. 

Dough sourdough starter is quite similar to the Flemish method commonly known as 'Desem', which one of my readers (thanks Julie, you've started me on a Quest!) introduced me to.

It becomes  very powerful over time, and has a truly complex flavour.

This method, where the starter is kept as a dough rather than a liquid, is quite similar to the 'cowboy starter' used by cowboys in the USA last century. You can store this type of sourdough stater quite successfully inside a bag of flour for weeks at a time, if you find yourself away from refrigeration.

I've converted liquid starter  for this recipe, because it was already active. It seems to be working very well after two years (at time of writing - now as I revisit this article it's been used for nine years) of constant use, and in fact has become my preferred leaven at present. I'm using it commercially, and it is proving to be very effective for volume, due to its simplicity and stability.

The basic ratio for Dough Sourdough Starter is one part water to two parts flour. It's like a dough, but you can vary the amount of dryness according to your requirements. I'll return to that subject later.

As sourdough starter becomes active, it transforms flour and water physically. What starts off looking like dough, soon becomes a kind of dry sponge in texture. After a week or two, this dry sponge looks more like a gluey, gelatenous mass.

The micro environment in the sourdough starter has a changing array of bacterialogical and yeasting processes, converting carbohydrates to sugar and then alcohol. The way this occurs in a dough starter is quite different to a liquid starter - a liquid starter will separate, with the solids on the bottom and a liquid 'hooch' on the top. Dough starters get very stretchy and elastic, as the carbohydrate is consumed, and eventually moulds attach themselves to the remaining paste. You don't ever get a 'hooch'.


Begin your dough starter with an established liquid sourdough starter.  Cover the top of the starter with about a centimetre of flour. Start to combine the flour with the liquid starter by pushing it with your fingers through the mixture below. The mixture will become thicker. You might need to knead a bit, which will help to get all the flour into it. You will end up with a tough dough. Then you simply loosely lid the container of starter you've made, and put it in the fridge.

A week later, your starter will have transformed itself into a pasty, gelatenous substance. Add a bit more flour by pushing it through with your fingers. It will become quite awkward to mix as the starter is very sticky and will attach itself to your fingers. Try to get as much flour mixed into it as you can, so it comes away from your fingers. 

In a week, add a drizzle of water and add just enough flour to return it to a dough state. Push it through with your fingers as before.

In a few days, you will have a thick, sponge like starter, which can be easily maintained.


Feeding the dough starter from this point is very easy. At home,  I run a 'base' of up to 750 grams, which allows me to get a couple of uses before feeding is necessary - but how much of a base you establish is up to you -  how often you bake, and how potent your starter is. When I say ‘a couple of uses’, I should mention that a ‘use’ for me equates to making about 20 loaves at a time. So I would typically use 200 g for this.

Typically, if you are using this site, you will make two kilo doughs, so 20g - 50g of a mature dough starter is enough to leaven a dough this size. Thus, you can keep about 400 grams of starter, which can give you quite a few uses before it will need feeding.

Feeding only needs to occur when the dough starter has softened substantially. Dough starter is optimally ripe when it breaks like cake. It is overripe when it stretches like chewing gum. I feed it when I have halved my ‘bed’ of starter, and I only feed it to return it to the size of the ‘bed’. I leave mine in the fridge after a feed, and it takes 3 to 5 days to be ready for use again. If I’m in a hurry for it to ripen, I can leave it out of the fridge after feeding for a day, and it will be ready to use. Then I put it back in the fridge. Dough starter can be used in any of the recipes in the site - but at about a quarter or less of the amount of liquid starter in the recipe. Dough starter is strong, and likes to be used in conjunction with a pre ferment, so very little is needed. 


It's best to feed the starter with the types of flour needed predominantly in the breads you prefer to make.

  • For a traditional desem style starter, you'll need to feed with freshly milled wholewheat or whole rye flour, coarsely ground. This will deliver very fulsome breads, no matter what flour is in the bread recipe.

  • For a classic loose textured sourdough, feed with white organic wheat flour. I like to use a sifted stone ground ‘white’, as it is a bit coarse.

  • For multigrain breads, try a 'lite' flour, which will help with rise too. 'Lite' is a miller's term for a certain amount of the bran being removed - up to 50%, depending on the mill.

  • You can feed dough starter with a variety of flours over time - mine is now so strong that whatever I feed it tends to become absorbed wholly within a few days anyway.


Another important requirement for good sourdough starter of any kind is fresh flour. Organic flour is excellent starter food, but if you can't get it, regular will do.

The fresher the flour, the more wild yeasts the grain itself will be sustaining. This wild yeast only has a short life, so flour that is only a few months old will be sustaining very low levels of wild yeast. While these will still eventually get a fermentation process happening, old flours are simply not a patch on fresh ones when it comes to sourdough starter.

If you want to possess some decent 30 year old Desem dough starter, you can order it through our School of Sourdough website. We can freight to anywhere in Australia for free.

Due to complex quarantine issues, we can't freight live starter outside Australia. Sorry!

If you want to learn more about desem starter, and how to use it, we hold regular Sourdough Workshops here in the Lower Hunter Valley of NSW. Why not check out our School of Sourdough website for upcoming dates?