In traditional foods circles there are a lot of foods that you hear about over and over again: pastured meats, organic produce, healthy saturated fats, bone broths, cod liver oil, and soaked or fermented grains.
The practice of soaking grains has become more common in our modern age thanks to the book Nourishing Traditions. In it, author Sally Fallon Morell teaches the reader about how food was prepared in traditional cultures who were not exposed to industrialized food in an industrialized world.
Much of Fallon’s work in this book, and as a leader in the non-profit Weston A. Price foundation, comes from the work of the foundation’s namesake, Weston A. Price. He was a pioneering dentist who in the early 1900s set out to travel the world and discover whether the plague of dental problems he was seeing in the western world were also prevalent in the less industrialized nations and cultures.
What he found can be boiled down to a few tenets:
- Those who ate foods local to them, which they harvested or hunted themselves and which included prized animal products, were much more vigorous than those patients he was working with in the west.
- The foods that were eaten by these cultures varied from place to place, but all seemed to include animal products, cultured foods, generous amounts of produce, and soaked, sprouted or fermented grains – when the cultures used grain as a mainstay of their caloric intake.
- All of the societies Dr. Price studied lived in connection with the land and the food they procured from it. The lifestyle was much more agrarian than industrial.
One of the practices emphasized in Nourishing Traditions is that of preparing grains. With the onslaught of the ”whole grains are better” teaching put out by the government and other health organizations, eating and baking with whole grain flours has become much more popular in the last two decades.
It is these 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 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 such a thing.
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 fiber in the bran that can be tough to break down in the digestive tract. Those protective elements keep that grain or seed viable so that when the time is right it can germinate properly.
It is the germination process – when the conditions are right – that encourage 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. The soaking and fermentation processes mimic this natural process wherein those anti-nutrients locked into the bran and seed coating are neutralized or thrown off.
In creating an environment that is warm and moist you encourage naturally occurring bacteria on the surface of the seed, or bacteria introduced through a specific culture, to proliferate. This is the process of fermentation, which has been used for thousands of years by various cultures to create foods such as sourdough bread, dosas, and soured porridges.
Furthermore, by introducing an acidic element you help to break down the tough-to-digest fibers that are naturally occurring in whole grains, essentially pre-digesting the grain for you.
Where Soaking Comes In
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.
Because cultured dairy contains both 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.
Another benefit of soaking with cultured dairy is that milk kefir, buttermilk, and yogurt all contain enzymes. Enzymes are a big part of what kickstarts the process of breaking down fiber 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.
Finally, 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.
Kishk is one example of this. It is an important winter food in Lebanon. The process of making kishk involves a fermentation period in which wheat is combined with yogurt or buttermilk and allowed to ferment for several days. This is then dried in the sun, rubbed between the hands until reduced to crumbs, and dried in the sun for winter storage. This takes advantage of the summer wheat harvest followed by the peak milk season in September, when this food staple is prepared and put up.
A couple of added bonuses of using cultured dairy in soaking is that it can use up an excess of a culture you are already keeping and it works well with the leavening agent baking soda to create a light, fluffy baked product.
Is Dairy Ineffective as a Soaking Medium Due to Calcium?
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.
In recent years it has been argued by some that the calcium in dairy may actually inhibit the breakdown of phytic acid. And there is some interesting scientific data to back this up. But phytic acid is only one of the elements to be neutralized in grains and seeds and some argue it isn’t even the most important. Furthermore, the minerals in the cultured dairy would most likely more than compensate from the loss of minerals bound up by the phytic acid, since dairy is often richer in calcium and magnesium than grains are.