New information on grain cooking suggests the traditional method of soaking grains is healthier than our Western practice of simply boiling to tenderness or dry cooking (as in granola).
Soaking renders the nutrients in grains more digestible and more easily assimilated by our bodies. This is much the same process as soaking dry beans overnight (and why we shouldn't do as some modern recipes are suggesting and skip the soak for our dry beans). It's possible that this soak also makes the grains more alkaline after cooking since it increases the amount of available calcium.
With the increase in grain consumption, there has been an increase in the number of people complaining of difficulty in digesting grain, but after properly soaking grains, these people report fewer or no problems.
There are whole books devoted to the "evils of grain consumption". This is a recent development no doubt due to this increased prevalence of grain sensitivity. But grains have supported millions, whole societies, for centuries. Is it the grains themselves? or could it be our method of cooking grains that is the problem?
This is especially important information for every vegan and vegetarian out there, whose diet consists of such a large proportion of grains. You've been told how good they are for you, but you're not getting all the nourishment from them you're supposed to. In addition, the non-neutralized phytic acid can "steal" the nutrients from your other foods by binding to minerals in your digestive tract, blocking their absorption.
What does soaking grains accomplish?The soaking breaks down some of the hard-to-digest proteins, making assimilation much easier, and neutralizes phytic acid, which is an anti-nutrient that prevents absorption of minerals such as calcium, magnesium, iron, zinc, and copper.
Because grains are seeds, they also contain enzyme inhibitors, which protect the seed from germinating until the conditions are proper for growth. If ingested, these inhibitors can prevent the body's enzymes from working properly, and digestion will be hindered. Soaking grains neutralizes these inhibitors and stimulates the production of beneficial enzymes and increases vitamin content, because the seed is being activated toward growth. This active, live seed is nutritionally superior to one that is "closed up".
Further "proof" that soaking grains is the superior method will be found in your own experience. I've always loved brown rice, but ironically, didn't eat it all that much....until I started soaking it first. My desire for it has increased, my enjoyment of it has increased, and the nourished fulfillment I feel after eating it was an unexpected surprise.
How to soak grainsThis is the basic method of soaking grains, as presented by Sally Fallon in her book Nourishing Traditions.
The cultured products--yogurt, whey, kefir, and buttermilk--are most highly recommended as they give the added benefit of providing the beneficial bacteria, like lactobacilli, which can, in essence, begin to pre-digest the grain for you. As Fallon states, this is what the first and second stomachs do in the four-stomached herbivores.
The vinegar and lemon juice offer an alternative acid in a pinch and give those with true milk allergies an option. If you're lactose intolerant, the cultured products may be fine for you, since most of the lactose has been broken down to lactic acid. All acid choices serve to discourage spoilage from unfriendly bacteria, a more important consideration during a longer soak.
Which of these acids is best for soaking grains?Be aware that some of the acids recommended can produce a sour note in your grain. Some people enjoy this flavor, while others do not. In my experience, kefir and yogurt and yogurt whey do not create a sour taste, but raw milk whey does (which I personally didn't care for). The kefir I used was homemade from raw milk, but commercial kefir would be even milder.
Overall, yogurt and yogurt whey are the best options, both for good flavor and easy availability. See here for tips on how to manage a container of yogurt.
If you are having issues with a sour flavor, there are a number of options for you to experiment with. (Soaked grains often hold more liquid than unsoaked, so if you alter the basic method of soaking grains remember to add enough extra water to compensate for the acid you're omitting.)
- First try a mild commercial yogurt (like Dannon or organic Stonyfield, if you can find it) or the whey from yogurt for your acid. This page shows an easy way to always have yogurt whey available for soaking grains. This produces the mildest flavor.
- Lessen the amount of acid until it becomes palatable to you. You will be sacrificing some, but not all, of the nutritional benefit of the soaking. Many are happy with this arrangement, using half the prescribed amount of acid, or 1 tablespoon per cup of grain.
- You can rinse your grains after soaking and use fresh water for cooking. This raises the question, however, of whether the soaking liquid contains nutrients that you don't want thrown down the drain. Hopefully, future studies will answer this question.
- You can soak grains in plain warm water. One study shows there is phytate reduction with a plain water soak, but again, like the other alternatives, you will lose at least some of the nutritional benefits, as well as the protection from spoilage. So be extra careful when using straight water, and throw it out if it develops an unpleasant odor or questionable appearance.
- Some people are experimenting with other acid fruits besides lemon--oranges and grapefruits, specifically. While they wouldn't offer the same benefits as the cultured milk products, they might be comparable to the results obtained by vinegar and lemon juice. These fresh fruit juices will add some living enzymes.
Bottom line, any soaking method will increase the nutritional qualities of a grain, but for optimal nutritional benefit, one should follow the traditional methods of including an acid.
Of the grains, whole brown rice and whole millet are least in need of the soaking process as they contain lower amounts of phytates than other grains, but the soak is still recommended to neutralize those they do have.
If you just don't have the time to soak your rice or millet, Fallon suggests long-cooking, like 2 hours, in a high-mineral, gelatinous broth, like bone broth. I'd rather squeeze in a couple hours of soaking and cook as usual. But these two grains will work the best when you're in a rush.
To prepare basic soaked brown rice:
Fallon's recipe calls for the addition of 2-4 tablespoons of butter at the same time as adding the salt. The vitamins A and D in butter help us absorb the vitamins and minerals found in grains. When fasting, it is recommended that you use the butter, as there are theories that the body needs a fat to get rid of fat-soluble toxins, and it is a fact that we need saturated fats in our diets. You might use ghee, aka clarified butter, if you prefer, from which the milk solids have been removed.
This will create a slightly softer finished grain, but not mushy. People with sensitive digestive systems will definitely notice the gentler feel of soaked grains, since they are so much easier on the system.
In the 2008 paper "Effects of soaking, germination and fermentation on phytic acid, total and in vitro soluble zinc in brown rice", Dr. Robert J. Hamer's group found that soaking alone didn't have much of an effect on phytic acid in brown rice. However, fermentation was highly effective at degrading it. What I didn't realize the first time I read the paper is that they fermented intact brown rice rather than grinding it. This wasn't clear from the description in the methods section but I confirmed it by e-mail with the lead author Dr. Jianfen Liang. He added that the procedure comes from a traditional Chinese recipe for rice noodles. The method they used is very simple:
- Soak brown rice in dechlorinated water for 24 hours at room temperature without changing the water. Reserve 10% of the soaking liquid (should keep for a long time in the fridge). Discard the rest of the soaking liquid; cook the rice in fresh water.
- The next time you make brown rice, use the same procedure as above, but add the soaking liquid you reserved from the last batch to the rest of the soaking water.
- Repeat the cycle. The process will gradually improve until 96% or more of the phytic acid is degraded at 24 hours.
You can probably use the same liquid to soak other grains and beans.