Thursday, November 14, 2013

Returning to the Old (Arab) Ways: Why I Soak My Grains

Here is what I remember about my mother's kitchen: no matter what kitchen, whether we lived in Mundelein, outside of Chicago, or Beit Hanina, outside of Jerusalem, you could always find on tje counter top a bowl full of water with something or other soaking in the liquid.  If I looked into those bowls in the morning, I could see my future:  the hummus I would eat tomorrow, the rice I would have for dinner, the lentil soup my mother would make later on that day. 

It was all a part of the mysterious rhythms of Rhoda's kitchen, first do this, then do that, and as a child I just followed the contours of my mother's movement, eating at her table, and sometimes even pouring rice into a bowl and covering it with water for her.  She taught me to let the rice soak, then rinse it several times until the water ran clear before cooking it, so that each grain would cook just right, tender, but still firm and fluffy. 

But then I grew up.  I moved across the world.  I graduated, I inherited her old pots, and bought my own bag of rice.   And when I started cooking, I asked her questions, such as why do I have to soak the rice?   Her answers were always the same - because it will cook faster.  Because it allows the grains to open up, to taste better.  Because that is the proper way to do it. 

By now, I was living far away from my family with no mother to stand next to me as I cooked, so I turned to the closest tutor I could find:  The Food Channel.  I spent hours watching those cooks dicing vegetables deftly, stirring soups, layering flavors, and I memorized their methods, their systems, their rhythms.  I soon found myself pouring rice directly into the pot, like I saw the celebrity chefs doing on television.  Why should I soak my grains? I asked myself.  No one on the Food Channel soaks their rice.  And just like that, I swept aside my traditional Palestinian roots, and set out to be more modern, more efficient, more American. 

In my mind, that was that. 

Years later, after the birth of my second child, I started to feel a little crumpled around the edges, not out right ill, but a little sickly. I suffered from many small maladies, the kinds of strange little problems that make you think about your health and your age.  I started to wonder if this was it, if my health had peaked and now I would start suffering from a slow decline in health.  This depressing question led me on a hunt to learn about how to nourish my body as fully as possible, as I had a hunch that my health was inexorably linked to my diet.

Can you imagine my astonishment when I learned that almost all traditional cultures treated their grains in some way?  That for most of history, people around the globe realized that grains, legumes, nuts and seeds are hard to digest and that unless we treat them in some way - by soaking, fermenting or even sprouting them - they will not build our health, but in fact detract from our health?  How could I have missed this, I asked myself, given how much time I had spent pursuing healthy habits and nutritious meals for most of my life?  How could I not know something like this, something that apparently all people have known for all time? 

Except that my mother had, in some fashion, taught me to do this.  And I, in my hubris, had walked away.  It was time for me to start listening to my mother, to start remembering the ancient wisdom of my people, and return to the old ways, to the ways that my people had nourished themselves and their children for hundreds and even thousands of years. 

Nuts and Bolts of Phytic Acids

We now know what the problem is with grains, nuts, seeds and legumes -  they are all high in antinutrients, specifically phytic acid, which blocks our digestive track from being able to absorb nutrients from foods.  Phytic acid is nature's clever little storage system for plants - it functions as a phosphorous store, or an energy store, that plants draw on when conditions are right for germination.  In order to be able to effectively digest foods that contain phytic acid, and to unlock its phosphorus stores, animals need to have a supply of the enzyme phytase in their digestive track.  Ruminant animals do have the necessary gut bacteria to produce phytase, so they can digest these foods.   Nonruminant animals do not have the enzyme phytase.  Phytic acid passes through them without breaking down at all (producing phosphorus-rich manure).  Humans fall into the category of nonruminants:  we do not have the necessary enzyme phytase to break down phytic acid.

Not only are we unable to benefit from the phosphorus in these phytic-acid rich foods, but the phytic acids have another pesky attribute:  they bond with minerals, particularly zinc, iron, calcium, magnesium, and niacin.  This is the problem:  when these molecules bond, they are rendered unavailable for absorption, which means that just because you eat something that contains a mineral does not mean that your body has absorbed it.  Ironically, phytic acid is most concentrated in the hull of grains, so the more "whole" the grain, they higher the levels of phytic acid.  People who eat a diet rich in untreated grains are at greater risk for nutritional deficiencies, especially if their diet depends upon grains for these important trace minerals.

Unless you eat a grain-free diet (and many do), it is impossible to avoid phytic acid completely, but by treating your grains, as traditional cultures did, you can reduce the amount of phytic acid in your grains.  Cooking your high-phytic foods will reduce levels of phytic acid, and soaking them prior to cooking will reduce levels even further.  Sprouting these foods will also reduce the phytic acids, as you effectively unlock the storage mechanism in the plant. Finally, fermenting the grain (introducing a lacto-bactillius culture, such as a sourdough starter for bread) will also break down phytic acid because, like the ruminant animals, these bacteria produce the enzyme phytase. 

Soaking Grains

My mother taught me to simply soak grains in room temperature water, but other sources suggest that a warm environment is even more helpful (use warm water, place in a warm spot in your house), and that adding a little acidity to the soaking water helps break down the grains further.  You can use lemon, vinegar, yogurt, kefir, whey - anything acidic - and add a tablespoon or two of this to your warm water.  Then cover them, and let them go for half a day or longer.  When they are sufficiently soaked, you can rinse them, if you like, and then continue with your recipe. 

Soaking tenderizes grains, and this will reduce your cooking time for all of your recipes.  Not only that, but since this soaking does soften the grain, you will be amazed at how well you grains will now cook up, because you don't have to cook them to mush to soften them anymore.  Your lentils will be tender without falling apart, your grains of rice will be soft without breaking down into mush, and your morning pot of oatmeal will cook up in mere minutes. Even if it does take a little planning to soak a grain, I think you will find that the payoff is quite substantial, both to your health and your enjoyment of food. 

There are many, many resources out there that treat this subject extensively, providing tips, charts, and recipes.  Other ways to treat your grains include fermenting (hence my love of sourdough bread) and sprouting, and there are many resources on those topics as well. 

Other Resources: 

Soaking Grains: Top 5 Questions - from my favorite traditional foods blog, Nourished Kitchen. This post explains the ins-and-outs of soaking grains. 

Soaking Grains, A Traditional Practice - from the food blog, Cheeseslave.  A helpful look at how grains have been treated throughout history. 

Traditional Foods Basics: Treating Grains - from another favorite food blog, GNOWFGLINS, which focuses on "God's natural organic whole foods, grown locally and in season."  This post is their primer on the subject and contains many links to recipes for soaked, fermented or sprouted grains.

Nourishing Traditions Cookbook - the cookbook/informational text by Sally Fallon and Mary Enig, which is a manifesto of sorts for the traditional foods movement.   

Related Posts: 

*Soaked Vermicelli Rice - a basic rice recipe, with soaked rice and fried noodles

*Authentic Hummus - with soaked chickpeas

*Lentil Rice Pilaf, or Mujjadara - with soaked lentils

*Lemony Lentil Soup - with soaked lentils

*Traditional Foods Basic, Part 1: Eat (Good) Germs


  1. Great post, Jessica! I'm always soaking something on my kitchen counters, too. Darwin takes note of it; I wonder if someday he'll recall his childhood kitchen the way you remember your mother's.

    After you soak rice, how much water do you simmer it in?

  2. Hi Terita, and thanks! How fun to think that Darwin is growing up with bowls of soaked foods around his kitchen. I wonder what our children will think of this practice down the road.

    I just go "shy" on the cooking liquid a little bit - so for one cup of rice, I use about 1 3/4 cups of liquid. Great point that I forgot to mention in the post, because otherwise, you can end up with mushy rice!

  3. Thank you for this post. It is very timely for me.

  4. This is so fascinating - I had no idea! I make lentils and rice all the time but had no idea it could be causing negative health problems. What about flour? Of course I can't soak pre-ground flour but are there some flours that are better than others?

    1. Hi Rebecca! Actually, you can soak flour! There are many soaked muffins and bread recipes out there (check out the GNOWFGLINS link above, for example). You basically mix your flour into your wet ingredients until moistened, and make sure that one of the ingredients is acidic in nature (buttermilk, kefir, yogurt, etc.) and then set it in a warm place in your house to soak, and then proceed with the recipe. But soaking is not the only way to treat grains - you can also sprout or ferment. Sprouting grains and then dehydrating and grinding them is a bit beyond me, so I keep a supply of sprouted flours on hand. I don't use it often, but it is good in a pinch. The most effective way to reduce phytic acid in grains, though, is through fermentation, so that is why I keep a sourdough starter and use it enthusiastically!

  5. This is so interesting and I really don't know much about it. I've read a couple other blogs where they soak their grains, but I never really knew why! Thanks for explaining it so thorough. I've got to get some reading done on this and look into it further. Thanks so much for sharing on the Homeacre Hop! Please join us again soon!
    Mary :)

  6. Thanks for sharing this post at Traditional Tuesday today. I'm visiting from there! My first encounter with soaking grains/beans/lentils was in the home of Turkish friends. Over the years, I have seen this practiced in homes of Southeast Asian, Turkish, and Arab friends. It was only in the last year or so that I figured out why it was so important (and why it made their food taste so much better than my imitation versions)! Thanks for the well-written article!

  7. HI Jessica,
    Thanks for this informative article. I have a question. I soak my oatmeal each night for morning cooking. I have often wondered if I need to rinse the oatmeal after soaking it. You rinse beans and rice after soaking, so why not oatmeal?

    1. I think that you certainly can. I like the Nourished Kitchen's answer to this question:

  8. Hello, I've found your blog, and we are passing around your recipes and hints in our Orthodox Church during Lent. Thanks for all the information! The beans are soaking on the stove as I write!

    1. I am so happy that you are finding my recipes helpful! What are your fasting restrictions? Perhaps I can work up a few more recipes for you and your community. Many Palestinian Christians are Orthodox and fast during Lent, so we have a lot of relevant food.


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