The Case for Soaking Your Grains

You've read the recommendations. Most people need up to 11 servings of whole grains per day. Wow, that's a bunch of whole grains! So, why not try some new varieties?

Some of the more recently popular whole grains — such as quinoa, brown rice, millet, amaranth, buckwheat and teff — are sources of fiber, protein, B vitamins and iron. What's more, the Harvard-based Nurses' Health Study and Health Professionals Follow-Up Study have shown that eating grains on a regular basis may reduce the risk of stroke, heart disease and Type 2 diabetes.

The Pros and Cons of Phytic Acid

Along with all of their nutritional goodies, most of these grains contain phytic acid. This is good because phytic acid binds to toxins and impurities and removes them from your system — but phytic acid also has a tendency to bind to minerals that your body actually needs, preventing them from being fully absorbed. So, how can a grain lover access the bounty that grains have to offer without the negative effects of too much phytic acid? The solution: soaking!

Soaking flour or whole grains in water with an acidic medium such as apple cider vinegar or lemon might sound bizarre, but it's a practice that has been used around the world for centuries. The acidic environment helps to "wake up" up the enzyme phytase, which begins to break down phytic acid. What's more, soaking has been shown to improve the overall digestibility of most grains.

Happily, soaking grains is pretty darned simple! With a little advanced planning and a couple extra minutes of food prep, you'll have more nutritious, delicious and easily digested grains.

How to Soak Grains

Step 1: Pick Your Acid
Combine 2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar or lemon juice in a pot with enough warm water to cover your grains. If you prefer, use yogurt or buttermilk instead. These substitutes also break down the phytic acid and impart a little extra flavor and nutrient value.

Step 2: Add Whole Grains or Whole-Grain Flour
Make sure the grains or flour are completely covered in the liquid. Stir if necessary.

Step 3: Soak
Let the grains sit in the pot in a room-temperature area for at least 1 hour or overnight. Although exact soaking times vary by grain (for instance, buckwheat should soak for a minimum of 15 minutes, while quinoa needs 2 hours), a good overnight soak generally will do the trick. It's an easy evening chore: Just place the "pot o' grains" on your stove or countertop, cover it and off to bed you go.

Step 4: Cook
When soaking is complete, your grains will be ready to prepare. Just take note: Soaked grains (especially those soaked for a lengthy period of time) often cook faster than un-soaked grains. Keep an eye on the heat and the time when preparing.

Add a new grain to your repertoire. Do you typically stick to rice or oats? Try branching out with millet, quinoa or buckwheat. You can cook them in about 20 minutes (less if you've soaked them). Inviting a new grain into your diet is a grand way to explore the tradition of grains' flavors and nutrients.

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Mary Purdy, MS, RDN
Mary Purdy, MS, RDN, is a Seattle-based registered dietitian nutritionist and is past president of the Greater Seattle Dietetic Association. She has a private practice, teaches at Bastyr University and is the communications chair of the Dietitians in Integrative and Functional Medicine DPG. Read her blog, Nourishing Balance, and follow her on Twitter and Facebook.