Why to Soak or Sprout Grains, Legumes, Nuts and Seeds
Many health conscious folks incorporate whole grains, legumes, nuts and/or seeds into their diets because of the nutrients they contain, such as B vitamins (thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, folate) and minerals (calcium, magnesium, selenium, zinc) just to name a few.
But did you know that without first soaking or sprouting these foods many of those nutrients are not bioavailable to humans? Not just that, but antinutrients actively block absorption of vitamins and minerals from the other foods in the gut and put strain on the digestive system.
Cultures around the world figured this out long ago and are sure to always soak, ferment or sprout these foods before eating. But for some reason in the past few generations we seem to have missed the memo, touting granola, raw nuts, and improperly cooked brown rice as some of the healthiest foods we can consume, when indeed they are not.
It takes more time to properly prepare these foods but it is well worth the effort for the nutrients gained and increased ability to digest them. Especially if you have trouble processing certain foods such as beans or gluten grains, give these methods a try.
First things first, let’s get to the science behind it all.
The Science of Sprouting
When it comes to whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds they all act as the seeds of the plants they came from. They serve as little pods of genetic information and stored nutrients that can survive the off season in order to sprout in the future, without which these plant species would never survive.
In order for these seeds to sprout into healthy little plants the nutrients they contain must be able to last months or even years, so they come packed in very complex forms to prevent them from breaking down. When a seed gets the right signals to sprout again it starts converting its dormant energy into usable forms so it can start growing.
One common component of seeds is phytic acid, which acts as a seed’s main source of phosphorus. Phosphorus is a nutrient necessary for plants and animals alike as it is used in the structure of DNA and cell membranes. Phytic acid, however, has a complex structure which locks the phosphorus away, so it is not bioavailable to humans.
Furthermore, phytic acid has a strong affinity for binding with minerals, like calcium, magnesium, iron, copper, and zinc, as well as vitamin B3, also known as niacin. When phytic acid is present in the gut it acts as a sponge for these nutrients and prevents us from absorbing them, it is therefore considered an antinutrient.
In order to neutralize phytic acid’s harsh effects the enzyme phytase is needed to break it down, however seeds before sprouting contain enzyme inhibitors which keep phytase and many other enzymes dominant, preventing them from doing their job. Humans do not produce phytase, and furthermore, many of our own digestive enzymes are rendered useless when we consume food full of enzyme inhibitors. Luckily, there are methods to neutralized enzyme inhibitors and reduce the amount of phytic acid in food. Cooking alone breaks down some, but soaking and sprouting are even more effective methods.
How to do it at home
There are a growing number of options for buying pre-sprouted flours, nuts, and seeds at health food stores nowadays, but the freshest, most nutritious and cheapest option is always preparing it yourself.
All you need to do to neutralize most of the phytic acid in foods is to soak in liquid for a few hours, particularly if it has a bit of acid or salt in it, which further help to neutralize enzyme inhibitors. This kick starts the first steps of sprouting without fully sprouting the food. The result will be something very similar to how these foods are normally enjoyed, just packing much more of a nutritional punch.
For whole grains and legumes:
- Put dry grains or legumes in a glass or ceramic bowl
- Cover with filtered water (grains you can fill about an inch above, legumes drink up more and need a water level twice as high)
- For every cup of dried grain or legumes add 1 tablespoon of apple cider vinegar (white vinegar or lemon juice work as well, but raw ACV works best)
- Cover the bowl (not air-tight, just putting a plate over will do)
- Let soak for at least 6 hours, up to 24
- Strain, discarding soaking liquid, rinse
- Cook as usual (on the stove or in a rice cooker, a slow cooker is great for cooking beans as they need a bit longer)
This is based on soaking methods in Nourishing Traditions by Sally Fallon as well as Healing with Whole Foods by Paul Pitchford. I use this process all the time with rice and whole barley, which I get from Rice and Beans LA, pictured above. I typically make a big batch of some cooked grain at least once a week to have on hand.
It is ideal to use raw whole grains and legumes as they are still alive and intact so they can begin sprouting as they usually would, but this method will still help reduce phytic acid even if the product isn’t raw or whole, for example rolled or steel cut oats.
Whey, a byproduct of fermenting raw dairy which is rich in lactobacilli probiotics, may also be used as a soaking medium because the probiotics help to break down complex starches and proteins, as well as neutralize tannins. Learn how to make your own in my article about Making Clabber and Whey.
For nuts and seeds:
- Soak raw nuts or seeds in filtered water, plus 3/4th a teaspoon of sea salt per each cup of nuts or seeds
- Soak for at least 7 hours
- Drain soaking liquid
- Dry/dehydrate in a warm over no higher than 150F or a dehydrator for 12-24 hours for a crunchy consistency
This method is also called “brining” and is based on the instructions in Nourishing Traditions by Sally Fallon. Once dehydrated, these will be very similar to how most people enjoy nuts and seeds already, so you can eat them as a snack or toss them in any recipe that calls for them.
If you are using the nuts or seeds in a smoothie, pesto, or any other dish that requires they be blended, you can stop at step 3 when they are still soft. You can make nut butter with them at this point, but it will be a little loose, drying them before food processing will make for a thicker nut butter.
You can also stop at step 3 if you wish to make your own nut or seed milk.
If you do a lot of your own baking Sally Fallon recommends that you get a grain grinder and make your own whole grain flour at home because it begins to go rancid shortly after grinding. That’s a bit too much for me, but I really don’t do much baking any more. If you have access to it, try to get your hands on some fresh milled whole grain flour, but even if you can’t soaking still helps.
There is no set method for soaking flours because it will depend on the recipe you are using, but ideally soak them in an acidic liquid for 12-24 hours. This acidic liquid should preferably be cultured milk, buttermilk, or water with whey or yogurt added to it, as these all contain lactobaccilli probiotics which as I said above help to break down complex starches and proteins, as well as neutralize tannins. If you have dairy sensitivities you can use water with lemon juice or vinegar added, it just won’t work quite as well.
If you are interested in recipes for things like baked goods and breads using this method I recommend to get your own copy of Nourishing Traditions, there are a slew of them in there.
While soaking is the beginning of the sprouting process and helps to neutralize compounds that prevent us from digesting food properly, seeds can gain further nutrition when fully sprouted.
As Sally Fallon explains in Nourishing Traditions, the Chinese were among the first civilizations to learn to germinate legumes for nutritional purposes, they would bring dried mung beans on long ship rides for germinating. Being able to enjoy fresh bean sprouts throughout their voyages provided a steady supply of essential vitamin C, usually only available from fresh produce. Sprouting also increases the content of B vitamins, carotene, and enzymes in food.
All you need to sprout in your own kitchen is a medium to large clean mason jar, some clean cheesecloth big enough to cover the mouth of the jar, the outer ring of a mason jar lid or a rubber band, and a bowl.
- Wash the raw grain, legume, nut or seed well in fresh water
- Place in the jar (do not fill the jar more than 1/2 full as they will expand, legumes should fill no more than 1/3rd of the jar)
- Secure the cheesecloth over the mouth of the jar with the outer ring of a lid or rubber band
- Invert the jar and let it drain, place the jar in the bowl upside down and at a tilt so excess water can drain but the contents of the jar can still breath, place in a cool place out of direct sunlight
- Rinse with fresh water and drain at least 3-4 times per day
When they have sprouted to your desired size, give them a final rinse and use as soon as possible or you can dry them off and store in the fridge for a day or two. With legumes in particular the skin will get loose and can be peeled away, it improves texture, flavor and digestion but is a bit of a tedious step – if you have small children that might be a fun task for them!
Grains like wheat, rye and barley will be ready in 3-4 days and produce a very small white sprout. Beans like mung, adzuki, kidney, or black beans take 3-4 days and form a longer sprout which should be 1/4th inch for most beans, 1 inch for adzuki, and 2 inches for mung beans. Lentils sprout a little quicker in 2-3 days and their sprout should be about 1/4th inch long as well. Nuts such as almonds can be sprouted for 3 days and will produce a tiny white appendage. Hulled pumpkin seeds take 3 days to sprout 1/4th inch long. Perhaps the quickest, hulled sunflower seeds only need 12-18 hours to begin to sprout, but should be used immediately.
Whatever you are sprouting must begin raw, make sure it has not been pasteurized, blanched, roasted, or irradiated because as that will prevent sprouting from occurring. Flax seeds are not recommended for sprouting because they form a gel around them which makes them difficult to rinse, but luckily they are low in phytic acid and are safe to consume raw in small amounts. Nuts that have been shelled, like pecans and walnuts, cannot be sprouted, but the soaking method above can be used to improve our ability to digest them.
While they must start raw in order to sprout, Sally Fallon warns against overconsumption of raw sprouted grains, which contain irritating substances neutralized by cooking, such as a light steam or boil.