Grains have been a staple crop for many a society since ancient times. But grains, like all seeds, have a coating full of anti-nutrients along with some tough-to-digest fiber in the bran of the seed. Because of this, many of these ancient cultures also worked at preparing grains that would be both easy to digest and more nutritious than the bare seed itself.
There are three main ways grains can be prepared for optimum nourishment, each of which is slightly different in its final result.
The process of sprouting is, in the simplest terms, the process of seed germination. In the case of grains, the grain “seed” is kept warm and damp, just as it would be in the soil, and after a short period of time a tiny sprout begins to emerge from the very core of the grain.
Changes to the Grain Seed When Sprouted
The sprouting process is a complete biological transformation of the seed. In this process there is a lessening of the starch of the grain and at the same time an increase in the protein, fat, amino acid composition, and B vitamin content. Through the enzymatic action that occurs in the sprouting process the anti-nutrients found in the grain are also lessened.
Advantages to Sprouting Grains
Many people prefer this method of grain preparation because the grains can be sprouted in large batches and dried for storage. They can then be ground into flour as needed and made into bread without the need for soaking or souring afterward.
Sprouting is also a good way to prepare whole grains that will be consumed as a side dish.
Sprouting at home, under sanitary conditions, is considered perfectly safe.
Souring refers to the process of fermentation. Sourdough is probably the most widely known method of grain fermentation, though ancient cultures prepared soured porridges more often than bread because porridge can be made with roughly cracked grains.
Why Sour or Ferment Grains?
Grain fermentation was very likely practiced because people found that fermented grains were more easily digested than unfermented ones, and the fermentation added an additional level of taste and variety. Additionally, fermentation allowed for longer storage times, so was a matter of simple practicality before the widespread use of refrigeration.
Sourdough as Soured and Fermented Grains
The original leavened bread, sourdough, is made in such a way that not only is the bread lightened by the leavening, but the acids and bacteria present in a sourdough culture also pre-digest the grain and neutralize some of the anti-nutrients inherent in all seeds.
One thing to keep in mind is that grains do better in fermentation, and therefore soaking, when they are cracked to expose the starchy endosperm. This starch is what the wild bacteria will feast on in order to proliferate and create beneficial yeasts and acids.
When souring, you can allow wild organisms to inoculate your grain and water mixture naturally, or you can choose a starter culture. Sourdough starters are the most likely choice for breads, but you could also use anything that contains beneficial bacteria: whey from cultured dairy, water kefir, or even a bit of brine from a batch of fermented vegetables.
Preparing grains by soaking has become more popular in recent years and is a precursor to the fermentation process. Soaking is beneficial in its own way.
The How and Why of Soaking Grains
The hydration of the grain results in enzymatic action that can reduce the enzyme-inhibitors in the grain. If an acidic medium is used, as is the case when you soak grains in cultured dairy, the acids can help to break down anti-nutrients as well as fibers.
Soaking is usually only performed for 12 to 24 hours; beyond that fermentation begins, which some argue is a more complete way to pre-digest the grain and neutralize anti-nutrients.
Whether you choose sprouting, souring, or soaking, know that the time and effort, though small, is worth it. In the process, you are nurturing grain from a seed with built-in protective elements that make it difficult to digest, to one that is a nourishing staple in your diet.