To Soak or Not to Soak - Why soaking can help you get the most out of your grains, legumes, nuts and seeds

25 Mar 2019 10:37 AM | Aliya Umm Omar

Grains and legumes have been consumed for many years, but it wasn’t until the past 50+ years that we stopped traditionally preparing grains by soaking them. The practice of soaking grains has become more common in our modern age due to the book “Nourishing Traditions”. In it, author Sally Fallon Morell teaches the reader about how food was prepared in traditional cultures that were not exposed to industrialised food in an industrialised world.

By soaking the grains in an acidic medium (lemon juice, buttermilk, liquid whey, yogurt, or apple cider vinegar) you break down the anti-nutrients in the grain and the minerals are released making them digestible.

It is the whole grains that require more careful preparation than their more refined counterparts. When the bran and germ are removed from grains, as in white rice or white flour, many of the nutrients are stripped from these grains, but many of the anti-nutrients are as well.

Anti-Nutrients in Grains

Grains are like seeds, in a way. Those very same wheat berries that you might grind to make flour can also be planted in a field and allowed to grow into a stock of wheat, if they haven’t been chemically treated to prevent it.

Because they are like seeds they contain protective elements in their outer seed coat and bran. These protective elements help to combat predators such as insects, or potentially damaging environmental threats such as bacteria, sun radiation, or weather. These anti-nutrients include phytic acid, lectins, enzyme-inhibitors, and fibre in the bran that can be tough to break down in the digestive tract. Most of these anti-nutrients are part of the seed’s system of preservation—they prevent sprouting until the conditions are right. 

It is the germination process – when the conditions are right – that encourages the grain or seed to throw off these protective barriers and give forth a shoot. In order for that germination process to happen, there must be moisture and warmth. 

What is Phytic Acid?

Phytic acid is one of the most touted “bad guys” in grains. It essentially works as a chelating agent, binding with the minerals in the grain, and preventing those minerals from being absorbed in the digestive tract.

Phytic acid is an organic acid in which bound to phosphorus in a snowflake-like molecule.It is mostly found in the bran or outer hull of seeds. In humans and animals with one stomach, the phosphorus—a vital mineral for bones and health— is not readily bio-available. In addition to blocking phosphorus availability, the “arms” of the phytic acid molecule readily bind with other minerals, such as calcium, magnesium, copper, iron and especially zinc in the intestinal tract and block their absorption. This is why a diet high in improperly prepared whole grains may lead to serious mineral deficiencies and bone loss.In this form, the compound is referred to as phytate.

Phytic acid not only grabs on to or chelates important minerals, but also inhibits enzymes that we need to digest our food, including pepsin, needed for the breakdown of proteins in the stomach, and amylase, needed for the breakdown of starch into sugar. Trypsin, needed for protein digestion in the small intestine, is also inhibited by phytates.

Other anti-nutrients in whole grains include enzyme inhibitors which can inhibit digestion and put stress on the pancreas; irritating tannins; complex sugars which the body cannot break down; and gluten and related hard-to-digest proteins which may cause allergies, digestive disorders and even mental illness.

Soaking Benefits

Plants need moisture, warmth, time and slight acidity in order to sprout. Proper preparation of grains is a kind and gentle process that imitates the process that occurs in nature. It involves soaking for a period in warm, acidulated water in the preparation of porridge, or long, slow sour dough fermentation in the making of bread. Such processes neutralise phytic acid and enzyme inhibitors. Vitamin content increases, particularly B vitamins. Tannins, complex sugars, gluten and other difficult-to-digest substances are partially broken down into simpler components that are more readily available for absorption.

Soaking flours and grains is a shortened version of fermentation. It is usually done for 12 to 24 hours and it is often recommended to introduce an acidic medium to the process, mimicking the acids that are naturally produced during the souring process.

Benefits of using cultured dairy as the acid counterpart:Cultured dairy contains beneficial bacteria, in the form of a specific culture, and naturally occurring acids. It has been used as a medium to soak grains and flours in, although lemon juice and apple cider vinegar are just as effective. Cultured dairy such as milk kefir, buttermilk, and yogurt all contain enzymes. Enzymes are a big part of what kick-starts the process of breaking down fibre and anti-nutrients. Furthermore, the nutritional components of dairy (protein and fat) create a more balanced and nutritious baked product than one made with water alone. 

The Next Step from Soaking

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 more for you. It naturally neutralises anti-nutrients and increases the vitamin content of your grains, giving you a more nourishing food product. It naturally decreases the starchiness of grains as the friendly organisms eat it up and produce acids. However, it takes more time than soaking and it produces an end product that may be too tangy for our western taste buds.

As 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 flavour of fermented grains, though they don’t always have to taste like a bowl of vinegar if prepared properly.

Recipes for Health

Soaking grains in cultured dairy has been practiced for generations. The entire basis of the “eat traditional foods” concept is that a food can be trusted as a large part of your diet when it has been eaten by a traditional culture with a history of robust health.

How to Soak

Soaking grains, legumes and flour is not hard, in fact it is quite easy.  It just takes thinking ahead a bit and a little time.  Here is what you need to soak grains, flour & legumes:

·       Warm filtered water - warm water is necessary to properly break down the phytic acid and other minerals 

·       Acidic medium - yogurt, buttermilk, lemon juice, apple cider vinegar, whey, milk kefir and coconut kefir.  Note that all dairy needs to be cultured.

·       Baking soda for legumes

·       Warm place in the kitchen

·       Time


Soaking Grains

1.      Place the grain into a glass bowl and cover completely with filtered warm water.  For every 1 cup of liquid you will need 1 tbsp of acidic medium. All grains, with the exception of buckwheat and millet, need to be soaked for 12-24 hours.  Buckwheat and millet have low levels of phytic acid and only require 7 hours soaking time.

2.      Place your bowl of soaking grains on the counter top and cover.  You could use a clean towel with a rubber band around the circumference holding the towel in place. 

3.      Allow the grain to sit in a warm place for the time needed for that particular grain.

4.      You do not have to rinse the grains after the soaking time if you do not want to but you can.  

5.      Proceed with recipe.  Note: many soaked grains will take less time to cook than non-soaked grains. 

Soaking Brown Rice

The ideal preparation of brown rice would start with home-milling, to remove a portion of the bran, and then would involve souring at a very warm temperature at least sixteen hours, preferably twenty-four hours. Using a starter would be ideal. 

For those with less time, purchase brown rice in air-tight packages: 

1.      Soak rice for at least eight hours in hot water plus a little fresh whey, lemon juice or vinegar. 

2.      If you soak in a tightly closed mason jar, the rice will stay warm as it generates heat. 

3.      Drain, rinse and cook in broth and butter.

Soaking Flours

If soaking flour for recipes like pancakes, muffins or quick breads:

1.      Add the liquids (water, oils, sweetener) and flour together in a glass bowl and 1 tbsp of acidic medium for every 1 cup of liquid used. 

2.      Cover and allow to soak overnight.

3.      Proceed with the recipe in the morning by adding the remaining ingredients (such as the eggs, milk and other perishable ingredients) and cook as directed.  

If soaking flour for yeast breads:

1.      Add together flour and water (reserving 1/2 cup water to dissolve yeast) and 1 Tbsp of vinegar or kefir for every 1 cup of water added.  You can also add the sweetener and oils if you want.  

2.      Cover and allow to soak for 8-12 hours.  

3.      After soaking add the reserved water to the yeast with a tsp of honey  and proceed with recipe. 

Soaking Legumes


For kidney shaped beans:

1.      Add enough water to cover the beans and a pinch of baking soda.  

2.      Cover and allow to sit in a warm kitchen for 12-24 hours, changing the water and baking soda once or twice.  

For non kidney shaped beans such as northern beans or black beans:

1.      Place beans into pot and add enough water to cover the beans.  For Every one cup of beans you need 1 tbsp of acidic medium.

2.      After soaking is done, rinse the beans, replace the water and cook for 4-8 hours on low heat until beans are tender.

Remember: If you are soaking legumes, it is best to rinse them several times during the soaking time to prevent them from starting to ferment.  Always rinse legumes before cooking.


Traditionally prepared Soaked Porridge 


·       1 cup rolled organic oats (not quick oats)

·       1 cup filtered water

·       2 tbsp acidic medium (yogurt, lemon juice, apple cider vinegar, buttermilk)

·       1/2 tsp unrefined sea salt

1.      Add 1 cup of oats, water, and the acidic medium into a glass bowl and stir well. Cover and let it sit overnight on the counter (at least 7-8 hours).

2.      In the morning add another 1 cup of filtered water and the unrefined sea salt, stir well. (**Note: if you feel the oatmeal is too sour, you can rinse the oats before adding the additional 1 cup of water, but this is not necessary.)

3.      Heat to a low simmer and cook for 5 minutes.

4.      Serve with a generous portion of butter and cream.

To Sum Up…

Nature has set it up so that the grain or seed may survive until proper growing conditions are present. Nature’s defence mechanism includes nutritional inhibitors and toxic substances that can be removed naturally when the conditions are right for it to germinate. Soaking them is a way for us to mimic the natural process of releasing this defence mechanism and unlocking the vital nutrients inside these precious grains.

Soaking allows enzymes, lactobacilli, and other helpful organisms to break down and neutralise a large portion of anti-nutrients and phytic acid in grains. Soaking in warm water also neutralises enzyme inhibitors, present in all seeds, and encourages the production of numerous beneficial enzymes. The action of these enzymes also increases the amount of minerals, and vitamins, especially B vitamins. During the process of soaking and fermenting, gluten and other difficult-to-digest proteins are partially broken down into simpler components that are more readily available for absorption. This process of fermentation, has been used for thousands of years by various cultures to create foods such as sourdough bread, dosas, and soured porridges.

A diet high in improperly prepared whole grains may lead to serious mineral deficiencies and bone loss. Buy only organic whole grains and soak them overnight to make porridge or casseroles; or grind them into flour with a home grinder and make your own sourdough bread and baked goods. For those who lack the time for bread-making, kindly-made whole grain breads are now available. 


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