By Wendy Priesnitz
Many natural foods recipes these days involve soaking and sproutingd seeds and grains. Aren’t they supposed to be healthy on their own? Isn’t sprouting alfalfa seeds dangerous? How can we be sure sprouting is healthy?
Although we are used to soaking beans and legumes before cooking them, in our culture, soaking and sprouting whole grains, seeds, and nuts is not as common. However, the benefits to soaking are said to include both improved flavor and nutritional value. That’s why many raw food recipes call for soaked nuts or seeds.
In order for nuts, grains, seeds, and legumes to survive in Nature until proper growing conditions are present, they have built-in mechanisms that inhibit germination until there is sufficient rainfall to ensure growth. These mechanisms include enzyme inhibitors, which can stress our digestive systems; phytic acid, which can block the absorption of minerals like calcium, magnesium, iron, and zinc; tannins, which bind to proteins; and goitrogens, which suppress the function of the thyroid gland by interfering with iodine uptake.
One study found that if you can remove phytic acid entirely from grains (likely impossible), you’ll improve your iron absorption by three times in the case of rice and nearly twelve times for wheat.
(By dry weight, nuts generally contain more phytic acid than similar amounts of grains and legumes; however, people don’t normally eat whole meals of nuts, like they do grains and legumes, so the phytic acid is not thought to be as problematic.)
Soaking removes these substances, preventing mineral deficiencies and bone loss, and increases the amounts of vitamins, especially B vitamins. It also encourages the production of beneficial enzymes and is said to break down gluten and make digestion easier. Soaking makes proteins more readily available for absorption and helps neutralize toxins in the colon and keeps it clean.
In her book Nourishing Traditions, the Weston A. Price Foundation’s soaking guru Sally Fallon says that many people who are allergic to grains will tolerate them well when they are soaked first.
It is thought that soaking cracked or rolled cereal grains overnight will improve their nutritional benefits. Although as little as seven hours of soaking will neutralize much of the phytic acid in grains, you can soak organic grains like rice, millet, quinoa, and wheat from twelve to twenty- four hours at room temperature in warm water. Always use a glass or ceramic container rather than plastic. Warm water will help neutralize the enzyme inhibitors and encourage the production of beneficial enzymes. That process can be aided by adding a tablespoon of something acidic like whey, lemon juice, vinegar, buttermilk, yogurt, or kefir to the soaking water. Be sure to rinse the grains after they’ve soaked in order to remove any acidic taste. Cook them in fresh water.
Wheat berries can be soaked whole for between eight and twenty-four hours. Some recipes will specify using whole berries while they are wet. Or you can dry them in a low-temperature oven or a dehydrator, and then grind them in your grain mill for use as flour. (Nuts, seeds and legumes can also be processed in this manner.)
Some grains, such as oatmeal, corn, and millet, have low levels of the phytase enzyme that breaks down phytic acid, so you might want to add some fresh ground wheat or buckwheat – which are higher in that enzyme – to your oatmeal.
Soaking Nuts and Seeds
Some people have trouble digesting nuts, especially if they are eating a lot of them, such as in a raw food diet. Again, the enzyme inhibitors that can cause digestive problems are removed by soaking. Another good reason to soak and rinse nuts – especially walnuts and almonds – is to remove the tannins and thus improve their taste.
Only soak raw (unroasted) and preferably organic nuts. First of all, remove them from their shells if necessary. Then, after soaking in a glass or ceramic container at room temperature for between a half hour and a few hours (no more than six, according to Sally Fallon), they will be tastier, smoother, and easier to digest. Harder nuts will take longer to soften. Use a two-to-one ratio of water to nuts/seeds.
Dry them thoroughly right away in a single layer in the sun, a very low oven (no more than 120 degrees F), or a food dehydrator. Store the dried nuts and seeds in jars with lids in the refrigerator or cupboard, and they are ready to use in any recipe.
If you are unable to dry your nuts or seeds, only soak an amount that you can be sure to use within two or three days, and store them in an uncovered glass or ceramic container in the refrigerator.
Dried legumes are almost always improved by soaking with repeated water changes, for the same reasons that grains and nuts/seeds should be soaked. Soaking legumes also breaks down indigestible starches and sugars, which ferment in your gut and produce gas.
Start by sorting through them to remove any damaged legumes or beans, as well as any stones or other dirt. Rinse and then soak them overnight in the refrigerator in four parts water to one part legume. Change the water, simmer for an hour, change the water, simmer for another hour, change the water… for a total of four to six hours.
If you can’t do that, just soak them at room temperature for at least eight hours, or overnight. Soybeans and kidney beans benefit from a fourteen-hour soak. Soaking also results in a shortened cooking time.
Peas (including black-eye peas and chickpeas) are also members of the legume family. Although they don’t contain the indigestible sugars and starches that cause flatulence, their nutrition and flavor benefit from soaking.
Soaked and dried beans may be ground up and used as flour for thickening and baking.
When you are soaking nuts, seeds, and grains, they will begin to germinate or sprout. If you like, you can take the next step and sprout them further.
Common seeds for sprouting include alfalfa, fenugreek, lentils, peas, radish, and red clover. Mung beans have been sprouted in Asia for thousands of years. Most grains can grow chlorophyll rich grass crops, and grains without hulls can also be sprouted.
Sprouts are a nutrition powerhouse, with the highest amount of vitamins, minerals, and enzymes of any food per calories unit. Wheatgrass juice is a powerful and important blood purifier and liver detoxifier.
Begin by soaking one to four tablespoons of fresh, untreated (organic) seed in a wide mouth jar. (There are other methods that use bags or baskets, and you could also use a commercial sprouting kit and follow the directions that came with it.) Cover the mouth of the jar with a circle of thin screening or netting and secure with rubber band. Add water, swirl, and drain. Add one cup of cool water and soak for four to eight hours. Rinse the seeds twice a day using cool water (to help prevent mold.) Refill the jar with cool water, swirl, and drain. Invert the jar in a bowl, ensuring that you remove as much of the moisture as possible, again to avoid mold development.
Ensuring adequate air circulation and sterilizing your sprouting equipment on a regular basis will also help to avoid the growth of mold in your sprouts.
Your sprouts are ready when they are three to five cm (one to two inches) long. Eat them right away, or cover the jar and refrigerate.
Sprouts, like any fresh live food, could carry harmful bacteria. There is a very small risk that your sprouting seeds could be contaminated with salmonella or E. coli. So it’s important to know the source of your seed, and be sure it’s certified organic. Also ensure that any seeds you buy have been handled as a food crop and not a farm planting seed crop so they haven’t been in contact with animals or animal waste.
Sprouted grains and seeds are delicious when eaten raw, in salads, sandwiches, or cereal. Grain that has been sprouted for a day or two (until the sprout barely emerges) can be turned into flour. Pour a thin layer of sprouted grain onto a mesh screen in a dehydrator and dry at about 110 degrees F until it’s thoroughly dry. You can spread it on a baking sheet and set it in an oven set to the lowest possible setting, but the results won’t be as good. Once the grain is thoroughly dry, grind it in a grain mill the same way you would any other grain. Sprouted flour can be used in a one-to-one ratio for white or whole grain flour.
Soaking and sprouting seeds, nuts, and grains takes little effort for the amount of enhanced nutritional value.
The Sprouting Book: How to Grow and Use Sprouts to Maximize Your Health and Vitality by Ann Wigmore (Avery, 1986)
The Everything Sprouted Grains Book: A complete guide to the miracle of sprouted grains by Brandi Evans (Adams Media, 2012)
Going Raw: Everything You Need to Start Your Own Raw Food Diet and Lifestyle Revolution at Home by Judita Wignall (Quarry Books, 2011)