Feb 23, 2011

Reader's Question:: Why Soak Grains?

From a reader:
I've been hearing more and more about soaking grains and I've been trying to ignore it because it seems so overwhelming to me.  I scoped out some wheat berries in the bulk section of Whole Foods the other day and I thought I'd ask you for some advice.  

It's my understanding that soaking grains is important because it breaks them down and makes it easier for digestion... right?  Can't I just buy flour at the store and soak that, or do I have to grind my own wheat?  How do I grind wheat?  Have you found that making bread this way saves money?

I (Julie) agree that it can seem overwhelming to understand - let alone try to implement what you've learned.  By writing this post I am not a grain expert.  Please do more research - but this is my limited understanding.

Something we try to emphasize on this blog is baby steps.  Rome wasn't built in a day and your eating habits (or in this case grain habits) won't change in a day unless you're a pro at overcoming burnout.

After you feel like you understand the task at hand, find baby steps for soaking grains.  For a while I eliminated most wheat in my family's diet because I felt paralyzed by what I knew and just didn't want to eat it if I couldn't soak it.  Similarly, I have a friend who feels like unsoaked grains mess so much with her adrenal glands and endocrine system that she will choose white bread (gasp!) over unsoaked or sprouted grains.

Why soak grains?
Short answer: to make them more nutritious and digestible.

Longer answer:  Think about grain storage in ancient days, like in Egypt where they would store grains for years preparing for famine.  Grains are encapsulated in a natural, protective coating - a preservative if you will.  This outer shell enables grains to be stored for a long time.  So, if you eat grains as is (without soaking or sprouting) your body is not able to digest them properly and the grain can actually keep your body from absorbing minerals it needs.

Nourishing Traditions: The Cookbook that Challenges Politically Correct Nutrition and the Diet DictocratsNourishing Traditions explains it this way:
Phosphorus in the bran of whole grains is tied up in a substance called phytic acid.  Phytic acid combines with iron, calcium, magnesium, copper and zinc in the intestinal tract, blocking their absorption.

Which means eating a roll made with unsoaked whole wheat with your steak dinner could be counter productive.  The iron in the red meat will be partially blocked from the phytic acid in the unsoaked wheat rolls.

If we were ruminant animals our guts would be fully prepared to digest the grains.  But I am not a cow.

{What is sprouting? It's when grains are soaked in water for a while, rinsed and allowed to sprout which begins the breakdown of the outer protective coating.  Some say that sprouting makes the grains more nutritious.  Both soaking and sprouting make grains more digestible.  Preparation and how you use them in a recipe is different for each method.}

I heard an illustration once: eating a Little Debbie Snack cake in the plastic is like eating grains not properly prepared.  Not only is the plastic (outer shell of grain) difficult for your body to digest, it prohibits your body from digesting what is encapsulated inside the plastic.

Fifty years or so ago, when my grandparents bought whole rolled oats, it used to say on the round container something to the effect of: for best results soak overnight.  My dad remembers his dad soaking oats in water overnight before going to bed.

Nourishing Traditions also points out:
Traditional societies usually soak or ferment their grains before eating them, processes that neutralize phytates and enzyme inhibitors, and in effect, predigest grains so that all their nutrient are more available.

For maximum phytic acid breakdown, oats should be soaked with an acidic medium (like a couple tablespoons of kefir, yogurt, or apple cider vinegar).  I've not yet been able to wrap my taste buds around the "cultured" flavor, so my baby step for eating oatmeal is to soak rolled oats in plain water overnight.  I cover the oats with about 1/4-1/2 inch of warm, filtered water and leave it on the stovetop for 8+ hours.  In the morning after turning on the burner, our oatmeal is ready in mere minutes.

Can I buy whole wheat flour at the store and soak it?
Most certainly!  However, once the grain has been ground it begins a process of oxidation and quickly the nutrients are depleted.  Katie at Kitchen Stewardship does a fabulous job explaining the nutrition here as well as comparing methods.  Please read her post.  She's also hosting a giveaway for a grain mill.

How to grind wheat?
To grind wheat you need a machine.  Some super-duper blenders are able to grind grain.  I've not yet purchased a grinder, so I can't speak to this topic.  I have a friend who grinds a couple of pounds for me at a time and I freeze it.  This isn't as nutritious as fresh ground wheat; it is my baby step until I get a grinder.

Does making bread save money?
Yes and no.

Everything in the kitchen (and life!) seems to be a function of time, money and energy.  Just last week I read that Sarah the Healthy Home Economist buys her bread because she does not enjoy baking, as well as it saves her time and energy for creating other high nutrient dishes that she does not want buy.

It is cheaper to make your bread than to buy quality soaked (or sprouted) bread.  But do you have the time?  The proper tools?  The energy to figure out how to do it?

Another option that I have been actively exploring in recent days is bartering.  Do you have something (talent, resource, etc.) that you can trade for bread?  Presently I'm making seven gallons of kombucha a week and using it to barter for fresh milk and babysitting.  I've also convinced my hair stylist that meals from my kitchen are worth a haircut.  :) It seems that with bartering both parties win.


See what others are saying on Real Food Wednesday.
Related posts: soaked bread in the bread maker.
Soaked granola

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  1. I despised the soaked oatmeal with the lemon or buttermilk, but when I tried the whey I couldn't tell a taste difference. You might try it that way....So far my morning oatmeal is the only thing I have soaked so I'm far from knowledgeable! But as you say.....baby steps.

  2. I'm not sure soaking pre-ground wheat (flour) would be useful. As you pointed out, the nutrition lost on grains after milling is enough to wonder why ever bother with breads at all if not freshly milled, but another point to consider is that I have never seen ground grain sprout. I think the sprouting helps deliver the effect desired, not just soaking.



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