Why You Should Soak Your Grains
As humans have evolved over thousands of years they found numerous ways through trial and error to maximize the nutritional value of their food. We still see some of those practices in place today, like the addition of ash or lime to maize to make masa, or the natural pickling of vegetables like cabbage to soften their fiber and preserve them in sauerkraut or kimchi. One tradition we don’t see very often anymore is the process of soaking grains before cooking them. So why does it matter if we do this? First, we need to understand what grains are and how they behave.
All grains are seeds, and seeds are resilient. Like us, they have evolved to survive and reproduce. They have all the genetic information that their plant requires to grow as well as stored food to get the plant going. For humans to get the most nutrients from consuming those seeds, they need access to that stored food, but it takes some help. In nature, the first step of germination is called imbibition, where the seed absorbs water and swells, breaking the “seed coat”. This process activates the previously dormant seed, including enzymes that break down the stored food into chemicals that can be metabolized. For the evolving human with less secure access to food, activating the seeds before eating them kept them sated longer. If you and I had a cup of grains, and I soaked mine and you didn’t, you would get hungry again before I did. A more formal term for the result of soaking grains is pre-digestion—we are converting the food into something that is easier for our body to digest before we even start to eat, and in turn, unlocking all of those previously stored nutrients.
So what happened? Why did we stop cooking like this? It seems our society has changed and our cuisine now largely revolves around convenience. Large scale producers focus more on maximizing profits than maximizing nutrition. Modern humans eat to feel full quickly, not to feel good or refreshed, so the perception of nutrition itself has been lost. We have seen an abundance of calories as a result of the “green revolution”, but counterintuitively, we continue to see malnourishment in children and the rise of chronic diseases. Humans are just beginning to scratch the surface of understanding how the modern diet is impacting their health. As we look to connect people with their farmers, we are also looking to connect the food we serve with our health, happiness, and survival, and understanding why we cooked the way we did can be helpful as we look to reclaim good nutrition.
Next time you’re buying beans, think about buying them dry, and following these simple steps to squeeze more nutrition out of them. I like to prepare a pound at once and then use them in different dishes throughout the week. The day before you cook the grains wash them and cover them with twice the amount of water and a cap full of white vinegar. The next morning when you wake up, rinse them off and boil them, bringing that old nourishing tradition back to life. Should take about an hour for them to be the right softness. I hope you enjoy!