Like many people, I started soaking grains shortly after reading Nourishing Traditions. I very hesitantly filled a bowl with oatmeal, covered them in water, and plopped a couple of spoonfuls of yogurt into the mix. I let it sit out on the counter uncovered overnight.

The next morning my husband walked into the kitchen with me and we stared at this bowl of stuff that had sat out overnight. He asked what was going on suspiciously. We looked at it, looked at each other, and promptly threw it in the trash.

I had left the bowl uncovered and that is what lead to its demise.

But, honestly, our minds were still so colonized with the pasteurization/germ theories that we were afraid to eat the stuff.

Over the last five years I’ve gone on to soak every grain that wasn’t nailed down. I am convinced, more from anecdotal evidence than from scientific papers, that grains need to be "dealt with" before they can be cooked and consumed.

But I am not convinced that soaking is the end all, be all of creating a nourishing, easy-to-digest food that ought to be eaten every day. And I think it is misleading to say that most societies "soaked their grains" traditionally.

Why? Because many societies actually fermented or soured their grains. Soaking is a half-step, an homage to fermenting, a vague shadow of what has been done in the past.

Don’t get me wrong, soaking is a great start. Whether you do it to neutralize phytic acid or simply break down the fibers of tough to digest grains, you are at least improving upon the grain product in its most raw form.

That said, soaking is just the beginning of the fermentation process. If allowed to soak longer, those grains + water + acidity + warmth will equal fermentation and that is what we should really be after.

Fermentation naturally produces an acidic environment that will pre-digest those grains for you. Fermentation naturally neutralizes anti-nutrients. Fermentation will naturally increase the vitamin and mineral content of your grains, giving you a more nourishing food product. Fermentation naturally decreases the starchiness of grains as the friendly organisms eat it up and produce acids.

But fermentation takes more time than soaking and it produces an end product that may be too tangy for our western taste buds. I expect that is why in her book Nourishing Traditions, Sally Fallon has many recipes for soaked grains and a token sourdough recipe.

What You Can Do

Because soaking is the beginning of the fermentation process, you can simply continue the soaking process until your grains/flours have fermented. It will get a little bubbly (think sourdough) and smell a big tangy. That’s when you know you have truly soured or fermented your grains.

You’ll also need to simply get used to the sometimes tangy flavor of fermented grains, though they don’t always have to taste like a bowl of vinegar if prepared properly.

Check out these recipes and resources for fermenting grains:

Perpetually Soured Porridge Pot

Sourdough A to Z ebook (my favorite sourdough resource)

Cultures For Health (find tons of articles on sourdough and various starters)

Complete Idiot’s Guide to Fermenting Foods (lots of sourdough recipes)

I am a realist, though, and realize that (just like in our home) what is ideal isn’t always what happens. So while only eating fermented (or sprouted, which I didn’t really address) grains would be ideal, it just doesn’t always happen.

And that’s life.

Do you soak, ferment, or sprout grains?

 

27 Responses to Why Soaking Grains Isn’t Necessarily the Best Way to Prepare Them

  1. Cathy says:

    I very occasionally eat steel cut oats and will soak them overnight first. Generally, though, I’m avoiding grains as you used to do. Yep, finally got there. ;) I do cheat now and then and have corn tortillas or chips at our favorite Mexican restaurant.

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  2. Cindy says:

    I started baking sourdough again this year, and my family loves it. My often jaded 10-year-old refers to it as “the real bread” or “the good bread.” I’m really interested in soaking and fermenting grains, however. For newbies like me, who have only dabbled in lacto-fermented pickles and salsa, where would you suggest starting? Soaking steel-cut oats? And then how do you prepare them after they’ve soaked/fermented?

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  3. Laura says:

    There are so many opinions on natural and whole foods out there. It seems like they are constantly changing, in waves… like the latest diet trends. I’m not saying the information in the post is wrong, but if you look “2 blogs over” you are going to find someone else saying don’t eat grains, don’t eat dairy, being vegan is best… It can be confusing sometimes. I think it’s best to do what is best for your own body, glad you could share some new information with people who might be looking for this alternative!

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    Shannon Reply:

    @Laura, I understand what you are saying. In the years since being exposed to everything from Nourishing Traditions to staunch vegans to paleo no-grain enthusiasts I think the most important science is the one in which you examine what works for you and your family. We notice a stark contrast in how we feel when we eat sourdough pancakes versus regular mix them up and cook them them right away pancakes.

    Perhaps it is just a matter of our own personal health issues when it comes to eating non-fermented grains, but I also think that it is fairly evident (NT aside) in historical cultures who ate grain as a very large part of their diet that they often fermented it and often times simply because fermentation just happens when there is no refrigeration, and other times when commercial yeast is unavailable.

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  4. Lindsey says:

    I would like to do this more – but since I became GF a year ago, I don’t use much grain at all, even the gluten free ones.

    Do you have a favorite gluten free sourdough recipe?

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  5. I have been trying to adjust to the taste of sourdough for about three years, and I’m still not there yet. I love it in pancakes, but that is probably because the baking soda I use in the recipe neutralizes most of the acid. I’ve even tried all of Wardeh’s suggestions for reducing the sour taste, although I never could remember to feed my starter that often.

    But I do agree with you. I generally soak my grains still, but I do it for the longer end of the recommended time, and in a warmer environment (my oven with the bulb on) and the result is always foamy and bubbly by the time I use it, so it’s probable that I’m getting very early fermentation. And I’ve been meaning to try the fermented porridges you have posted and that are in Wild Fermentation, but I have a hard enough time getting my kids to eat regular soaked oatmeal of late.

    I have been fermenting my brown rice for about two years. I think it was from kitchen stewardship’s series on soaking grains, but I can’t remember… whoever it was had talked to a food scientist who had actually tested phytic acid levels after various preparation methods. Ah, I found the link- http://www.kitchenstewardship.com/2010/04/01/phytic-acid-in-rice-reduced-96-with-accelerated-fermentation/ The link explains the science behind it, but basically you soak a first batch of brown rice in plain (non-chlorinated) water for 24 hours. Then you reserve about 10% of the soaking liquid when you drain it, and cook the rice (although this first batch will be significantly higher in phytic acid than subsequent batches… I would cook it and feed it to my chickens or eat it myself, but I wouldn’t feed it to my son who has very obvious problems digesting unsoaked grains, particularly rice). This reserved liquid, the pre-ferment, can be stored in a small container in the fridge for an indefinite amount of time. The next time you soak rice, cover it with water and add the preferment. As with other grains I let this soak in the oven with the light on, which keeps it around 110ish. When I’m ready to cook it is VERY bubbly and sour smelling, but the cooked rice is tender and yummy, easy to digest, and doesn’t have a significant sour taste. Just make sure you save some of the soaking liquid from each batch.

    BTW, I’m sure you’re aware of the info above, I thought it might be of value to your readers!

    Thanks for sharing this and all your other doings with us- I know how busy you must be, and I really appreciate the time you take to share!

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  6. Cindy says:

    Thanks for the brown rice idea, Brandis. I hadn’t tried this or heard of it, so at least one of Shannon’s readers learned something new! I’m going to give this a try.

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  7. Chandelle says:

    Interesting post, Shannon. I used to soak everything, too, and fermented quite a few grains as well. Ultimately I found it unsustainable for me. I absolutely do not have the room to have lots of bowls and jars sitting out, nor have I managed to plan meals so far in advance. For a while I fretted about the issue, but ultimately I’ve found it easier to simply reduce my grain consumption and not worry too much about soaking what’s left. If I’m only have rice once or twice a week, I don’t think it matters if it’s soaked. Just my opinion, of course.

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    Shannon Reply:

    Chandelle – I’m kind of in your boat as well. I think, as I stated above, that this really is only incredibly important if a grain is a huge part of your daily diet.

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  8. farmer_liz says:

    I’ve been soaking grains/flour as much as possible for about 6 months. Occasionally I forget to start soaking in time, and then I just cook the rice without soaking, but so far bread, porridge and rice has been really good soaked. I think it actually improves the bread texture. Its hard to tell when soaking transitions to fermentation, I try to do 24hrs if I’m organised, so that must have some microbial action!

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  9. pbo says:

    Honestly, isn’t just easier to avoid grains all together? Once in a blue moon if you want some bread, soak/ferment/prepare them properly. However, I find it easier to just eat more nutrient dense foods that are also less problematic. Focusing on meat, veggies, fruit, and tubers.

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  10. Kurt says:

    I maintain a sourdough starter and so far I have used sourdough in all sorts of baking. This post makes me wonder, though, if I might be able to take some of my sourdough to create a separate oat starter that I could use to make oatmeal or other kinds of porridge. Would that actually work, if I took some of my spelt starter, fed it with some steel-cut oats and water and let it ferment? Could I cook that later on like I would normally cook the oats?

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  11. Amy says:

    I try to soak, but was just telling my hubby that I think I am ready to begin attempting to do my first sourdough.

    Great post!

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  12. kim metzger says:

    I have been working with a naturopath and discussed this concept of soaking nuts and grains with him. Interestingly, he didn’t really advise it. Seems that primitive cultures soaked in order to release more nutrients because their immediate concern was starvation. They needed to get every drop of nutrition out of their foods. However, since we are not at risk of starvation and live longer lives, our concern is with disease, like cancer. Phytic acid is IP-6, a potent cancer preventer. (I know, I take it to help protect me from breast cancer recurrence.) So, while you may get minimally more nutrition from the soaked grains and nuts, you may be setting yourself up for a higher risk of cancer. just thought I’d share…

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    Zara Reply:

    I know this is an older post. However, I found this bit of information to be very interesting. It’s totally new to me that Phytic acid (IP-6) is a potent cancer preventer. Thank you for sharing that info, Kim Metzger.

    I googled a bit more info on this Phytic acid IP-6. Got this info from NaturalNews that explains it further and now it makes more sense.

    “IP6 has been shown to be quite safe to use. It is naturally present in mammalian cells, and it is obtainable from food. However, in food, IP6 is bound to protein. Before it can be absorbed it must be freed from this protein. An enzyme called phytase that is present in both food and the intestinal tract performs this function. The problem is that the power of the phytase enzyme is damaging to the IP6 and renders much of it inactive and therefore less effective. Pure IP6 from a supplement is not protein-bound and is easily absorbed in tact, and able to provide its complete medicinal properties. Research has shown that when fiber from All Bran was added to the diet of rats with mammary cancer it was much less effective than the equivalent amount of IP6 added to their drinking water.”

    http://www.naturalnews.com/024635_IP6_cancer_research.html

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  13. Amy S says:

    I accidentally did this, soaking for “too long” (for like 48 or so hours, instead of 12-24) which led to fermentation, on an English Muffin recipe. I didn’t want to waste it though, and nobody could answer if soaking too long was bad, so I went ahead and made them anyway. They are sooo yummy, and while they were slightly tangier- almost like a sourdough- it was actually in a really good way!! SO glad to have found this! (also, have been making my own yogurt now for nearly a year, thanks to your crockpot yogurt post…and I have made other converts!!!) Thanks for keeping us informed:o)

    [Reply]

    Shannon Reply:

    Cool, Amy! Care to share your english muffin recipe? :)

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  14. Rachel Ramey says:

    I think it’s misleading even to say that traditional cultures always soured or fermented their grains. That’s simply not accurate. “Quick breads” of various kinds have been around for millennia. Traditional cultures just didn’t eat ONLY quick-prepared grains; they ate soured/fermented ones TOO.

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    Shannon Reply:

    Rachel – I would have to disagree and would be interested in any historical proof you have to back this up. It is my understanding that leavening agents weren’t made widely available until the 1700s. The widespread use of baking soda dates back to the late 1700s (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Baking_soda#History), baking powder was not common until the 1800s (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Baking_powder), and quick breads themselves seem to really only take off over the last couple of centuries (see http://www.kingarthurflour.com/tips/quick-bread-primer.html).

    (please note that I don’t necessarily think those links are the be-all, end-all of history on the matter, but were the first to come up in a quick search on the matter.)

    Furthermore, in the context of agrarian cultures who relied heavily on a specific grain as a huge part of their diet, they found out quickly that fermenting the grain gave them better nutrition and easier digestion. The Swiss people of the Alps as studied by Dr. Weston A Price, for instance, survived almost solely on a fermented rye bread, cheese, butter, milk, and very small amounts of meat and vegetables that could be harvested in-season. That bread and butter/cheese made up almost all of their calories and because of that they fermented it.

    Sure there have been unleavened breads at various times in history, and actually most of the world has survived on fermented porridges and not breads because grinding grain into flour is much more difficult and baking bread in an oven was difficult when all you had was an open fire.

    Of course that’s not to say that there have never been quick breads or unfermented grains eaten by historical populations, but it is more of a general trend amongst the healthier cultures.

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  15. Lynn says:

    I was sprouting a batch of Einkorn grain to dehydrate for grinding into flour, and ended up having to go off in a different direction and was not able to do the frequent rinses. Long story short, it is now in the dehydrator, and my whole house smells like apple cider vinegar. Is this going to be safe to use after dehydrating? Anybody else have this happen?

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  16. jean says:

    Wondering: Does baking quick breads in beer help / aid the fermenting / digestion process? Does drinking raw apple cider vinegar in water help compensate for eating regular whole grains?

    [Reply]

  17. Abhijit says:

    Hi,
    I have read so much about fermenting Brown Rice. Please anyone tell me why we have to throw away water after Fermenting Rice(Keeping 10% aside). Why cant we use the same water to cook that rice.

    [Reply]

  18. […] grains and make them not only fully digestible, but be a boost to your immune system. Check out this post on how to ferment your […]

  19. […] most effective way to remove phytates from grains is to ferment them. Fermenting allows the lactobacilli and enzymes to really go to work on the sugars and gluten […]

  20. I started my first soak, of warm water, lemon juice, and rolled oats. 24 hours would have been late last night, and now it’s mid-day the next day…because things got crazy yesterday and I forgot about it.
    The bowl was left at room temp with a tea towel over them, and now they smell kinda bad, and when I tried to drain it off and got my hands wet, they also got really slimy. They don’t *look* bad and maybe this smell is the ‘fermented tang’ you talk about, from leaving them out for a day and a half.
    Can you help me understand if they were out too long (I made a 4.5 cup batch). Or what I’m supposed to do with them now? Do I rinse, drain and store in the fridge? Do they need to be dried/dehydrated somehow? Or do I need to throw it out, because they smell sour and I took too long?

    Thank you for the help!

    [Reply]

    Shannon Reply:

    Krystal – Everything sounds as it should. Tang is good, if it smelled rotten then you’d want to throw it out. I think that amount of time is just fine to soak them.

    At this point you can cook them into porridge or possibly store them in the refrigerator. You could also dehydrate them and use them in snack bars. Otherwise, I’d say it all sounds good!

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    Krystal Wight Armstrong Reply:

    @Shannon,
    Thanks very much for the encouraging feedback! I’m just gonna assume it’s not a rotten smell….there wasn’t anything growing! I likened the smell unto sharp cheese, or (sorry for the grossness) sour-smelling throwup, if I got real close to it…but stomach acid is probably kinda like fermentation right? Haha, oh goondess. I’m just gonna cook some up and brave it. Hopefully it’s fine. I’m sure it won’t kill me :)
    Thanks again.

    [Reply]

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