Soaking Grains: A Traditional Practice

by Ann Marie Michaels on November 17, 2009

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soaking grains

Humans have been soaking grains for thousands of years. Soaking grains has been practiced by every culture around the world that has subsisted on grains.

Doesn’t that blow your mind? Every culture. And we wonder why we have so much gluten intolerance today.

Soaking Grains Throughout History

Corn, a staple food in North American and Mesoamerican cultures since pre-Columbian times, has traditionally been soaked in a solution of water and cal, or pickling lime, prior to cooking and eating. Called nixtamalization, the earliest evidence of soaking corn is found in Guatemala’s southern coast, with equipment dating from 1200-1500 BC.

Maize subjected to the nixtamalization process has several benefits over unprocessed grain for food preparation: it is more easily ground; its nutritional value is increased; flavor and aroma are improved; and mycotoxins are reduced. (Source: Wikipedia)

Today people have stopped soaking corn, or are soaking it for a much shorter period of time. My former nanny told me that when she grew up in a small village in Guatemala, they always soaked the corn in lime water for 1-2 weeks. Nowadays, she she says they don’t soak it at all — they just cook it with the lime.

Unsoaked Corn and Pellagra

In the early 1900s, for example, in the American South, people were using corn more frequently in their cooking for corn breads, corn grits, and the like. However, unlike our neighbors south of the border who were soaking grains, Americans were not soaking it. As a result, we saw an epidemic of Pellagra — 100,000 afflicted in 1916.

Pellagra_NIH

The traditional food preparation method of corn, nixtamalization, by native New World cultivators who had domesticated corn required treatment of the grain with lime, an alkali. It has now been shown that the lime treatment makes niacin nutritionally available and reduces the chance of developing pellagra. When corn cultivation was adopted worldwide, this preparation method was not accepted because the benefit was not understood. The original cultivators, often heavily dependent on corn, did not suffer from pellagra. Pellagra became common only when corn became a staple that was eaten without the traditional treatment. (Source: Wikipedia)

Soaking Grains: Other Traditional Methods

It isn’t just corn that is traditionally soaked. Injera, a pancake-like bread from Africa (specifically Ethiopia and Somalia), is made by mixing teff flour with water and letting it ferment for several days (Source: Wikipedia).

Similarly, sourdough starter, a mix of fermented flour and water, was used in all bread baking prior to the 20th century. Modern commercial yeast, commonly used in America today, did not exist.

The sour taste of sourdoughs actually comes not from the yeast, but from a lactobacillus, with which the yeast lives in symbiosis. The lactobacillus feeds on the byproducts of the yeast fermentation, and in turn makes the culture go sour by excreting lactic acid, which protects it from spoiling (since most microbes are unable to survive in an acid environment). All yeast-leavened breads used to be sourdoughs, and the leavening process was not understood until the 19th century, when with the advance of microscopes, scientists were able to discover the microbes that make the dough rise. (Source: Wikipedia)

My Experience

I grew up eating sandwiches on white bread and Kraft Macaroni & Cheese. I remember tasting sprouted bread for the first time twenty years ago, when I was in college in San Francisco. On an avocado and cheese sandwich with alfalfa sprouts. I thought it tasted pretty good — and I knew it was healthier, but I didn’t know why.

I’ve bought sprouted bread since that time, as well as German dark rye breads and traditional sourdoughs. I guess I was just always looking for more flavor. I didn’t know these breads were actually healthier.

Reading Sally Fallon-Morell’s book, Nourishing Traditions: The Cookbook that Challenges Politically Correct Nutrition and the Diet Dictocrats, really opened my eyes. Since I devoured that book two years ago, I’ve been going back to the traditional ways and soaking my grains. I always soak my oatmeal nowadays, and I eat sprouted bread or naturally fermented sourdough bread. I also bake with sprouted flour.

Soaking Grains: Why It’s Important

There are many nutritional benefits to sprouting and soaking grains.

According to Wikipedia:

Sprouting grains causes increased activities of hydrolytic enzymes, improvements in the contents of total proteins, fat, certain essential amino acids, total sugars, B-group vitamins, and a decrease in dry matter, starch and anti-nutrients. The increased contents of protein, fat, fibre and total ash are only apparent and attributable to the disappearance of starch. However, improvements in amino acid composition, B-group vitamins, sugars, protein and starch digestibilities, and decrease in phytates and protease inhibitors are the metabolic effects of the sprouting process.

Soaking Grains Increases Absorption of Minerals

We Americans eat a lot of bread, crackers, tortillas, and oatmeal. All of these things contain phytic acid (and other anti-nutrients). Unless phytic acid is broken down, it actually blocks absorption of important minerals like calcium and zinc.

We all know the nutritional benefits of choosing whole wheat flour over refined white flour. But if we eat whole grains, we’re eating the bran, or the outer part of the grain. That’s where the anti-nutrients like phytic acid are contained. Unless we soak or sprout our whole wheat, and soak our oatmeal and peanuts, we are blocking mineral uptake. Kind of defeats the purpose of trying to eat healthy!

Phytic acid occurs primarily in the seed coats and germ of plant seeds. It forms insoluble or nearly insoluble compounds with minerals including calcium, iron, magnesium and zinc, such that they cannot be effectively absorbed into the blood. Diets high in phytic acid and poor in these minerals produce mineral deficiency symptoms in experimental animals (Gontzea and Sutzescu, 1958, as cited in Chavan and Kadam, 1989). Source

Soaking Grains Activates Enzymes

According to the naturopath and herbalist Isabell Shipard (Shipard, 2005), “Sprouts are a tremendous source of (plant) digestive enzymes. Enzymes act as biological catalysts needed for the complete digestion of protein, carbohydrates & fats. The physiology of vitamins, minerals and trace elements is also dependent on enzyme activity.” Source

Grains and legume seeds of all plants contain abundant enzymes. However, while grains and seeds are dry, enzymes are largely inactive, due to enzyme inhibitors, until given moisture to activate germination. It is these inhibitors that enable many seeds to last for years in soil without deteriorating, whilst waiting for moisture. Enzyme inhibitors in some grains and legume seeds (for example trypsin inhibitors in raw soybeans and certain other beans and peas) need to be inactivated by heating or other processes, before they can be safely fed. However, heating, cooking and grinding processes can also inactivate certain digestive enzymes within grains and seeds. Fortunately, during germination and sprouting of grains and seeds, many enzyme inhibitors are effectively neutralized, whilst at the same time the activity of beneficial plant digestive enzymes is greatly enhanced. Source

Soaking Grains: How to Properly Prepare Grains

There are two ways to reduce phytic acid and increase enzymes. One is to soak or sprout whole grains before using them in recipes. The other way is to soak ground flour in sourdough starter, yogurt, or kefir.

White flour doesn’t have a lot of anti-nutrients, because the anti-nutrients are found in the bran, which has been removed. However, white flour doesn’t have any nutrients either. It’s an empty food that has no real nutritional value.

So, ideally, you want to eat soaked or sprouted whole wheat flour. Try to minimize intake of white flour, but if you do eat it, it’s best to ferment it with sourdough starter, which makes it more digestible.

One trick I employ is to use brown rice pasta instead of regular wheat flour pasta. Brown rice is much more nutritious than refined flour, and rice is not as high in phytic acid so it is not essential that it is soaked. However, I do soak our brown rice when I make it, and we don’t eat a lot of brown rice pasta.

Resources

Check out the marketplace for sources for sprouted flour and grain mills to grind your own whole grains, and a wide selection of sourdough starters. For information on soaking grains, pick up a copy of Sally Fallon’s Nourishing Traditions: The Cookbook that Challenges Politically Correct Nutrition and the Diet Dictocrats.

Also, check out the following blog post for more on soaking grains: Soaking Grains, Beans and Legumes: Top 5 Reader Questions Answered at the Nourished Kitchen.

This post is part of Real Food Wednesday.

Photo credits Wikipedia
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{ 40 comments… read them below or add one }

jennifer November 18, 2009 at 2:02 AM

Thanks for another wonderful clarifying article Ann Marie
We have found the transition to soaking grains relatively easy,if not thought-intensive-I am really glad for the simplicity of coconut flour,just the same!
My family are really enjoying food so much more now that I use lashings of butter,cream and chicken stock in everything!
I have found pasta a hard one-we don’t want the phytates in wholemeal ,yet white pasta is so devoid of value.Here in Australia I haven’t come across much brown rice pasta at all, and the white rice pasta is so flabby and disgusting.So I end up buying organic white pasta yet feel it is such a nutritional shortcoming,even though pasta is such a good way to get children to eat vegies and good fats and meat.
By the way,I don’t think I have had such a serious case of food envy as I had looking at all the food from the wapf conference.It’s given me some new ideas-I’m glad you had such an enlightening time there, and am looking forward to what you have to share.

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Kenneth E. Tucker November 18, 2009 at 2:43 AM

wow… VERY well researched and linked! thanks for the ’411′. a new fan, Ken

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Valerie November 18, 2009 at 4:58 AM

Thanks Ann Marie. I bought some Sprouted Flour this weekend at the Conference to bake with. We have been eating store bought Sprouted Breads for awhile and there is NO comparison on taste with White Bread. My son who is a ASD child tolerates Sprouted and Soaked and a lot of my IBS problems went away as well. I just sent him to school with some Pumpkin Chocolate Chip Muffins I made. First time baking with it, next time I will either use more liquid or less flour, they came out very yummy, but a little drier than traditional muffins.
I can’t wait to try different recipes, my husband is the “cook” and I am the “baker” here!

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Valerie November 18, 2009 at 4:59 AM

I mean to say Sprouted Breads are MUCH better tasting than White Bread! I did not mean that to be confusing!

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Melissa @CelluliteInvestigation November 18, 2009 at 5:10 AM

This is great news for all those French Toast lovers out there! I just sent it out to all my friends on Facebook.
.-= Melissa @CelluliteInvestigation´s last blog ..Cellulite, Estrogen, and Female Incontinence: Everything I Know About Hormonal Balance I Learned From My Dog =-.

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JenE November 18, 2009 at 5:28 AM

Thanks for posting this, Ann Marie!! My family was just asking the very question that you have in your subject line. Now, I can forward your info to them!
Great meeting you at WAPF! : )
JenE

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Soli November 18, 2009 at 6:47 AM

I’ve been eating soaked oatmeal for breakfast for some months, first soaking in lemon juice and now whey since I have it. With the coconut oil, raw milk, raw honey, and cinnamon, one serving fills me up SO well. Perfect early morning breakfast. (especially since I don’t like to eat meat in the morning. it’s just too much for my belly.)

Sharing this.

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Amy @ Simply Sugar & Gluten-Free November 18, 2009 at 6:58 AM

I am new to the entire soaking/sprouting process and it fascinates me. I am gluten-free not because I have celiac disease but because eating gluten causes me to obsess about food and the next thing I know I’m binge eating and have gained 30 pounds. I have had Ezekiel bread once or twice since going gluten-free and I know it has gluten but it never caused the obsession or binge eating. That said, I don’t eat it today. It’s one of those things I’m not willing to mess with.

I do see the reasonableness in your point about gluten-intolerance being on the rise(and I’d also include food allergies). I often wonder if we’ve polluted our bodies to the point where it starts rejecting foods. I don’t have an answer for any of it and am just in the process of exploring answers for myself.

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Deb November 18, 2009 at 7:11 AM

Great article – I’ll be sending folks to this article – you’ve done really an amazing job of making the information clear and easy to understand. Thanks!
.-= Deb´s last blog ..Bill Mayer Speaks Out On Vaccines =-.

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Paul Dulaney November 18, 2009 at 9:26 AM

For years I had a bowl of oatmeal every morning and couldn’t understand why I suffered from constipation with all that fiber in my diet. Then I read in Sandor Ellix Katz’s Wild Fermentations how traditional porridge was made from oatmeal that had been soaked for 12 hours or so. What a difference it has made! Now if I forget to soak my oatmeal the night before I will find something else — maybe a hard-boiled egg — to eat in the morning.

Anne Marie – I agree with you; it is amazing how we have lost knowledge within our families of the importance of soaking grains, despite the fact that all peoples everywhere have been doing this for millennia! The Wikipedia article on porridge, for example, makes no mention whatsoever about soaking before cooking.

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Karin November 18, 2009 at 9:32 AM

Hi Ann Marie,
I love your blog! I just wanted to make a correction on your definition of
nixtamalization it is an alkaline solution that corn is soaked in not acidic.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nixtamalization

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Paul Dulaney November 18, 2009 at 9:37 AM

A short follow-up: If anyone is interested in soaking oatmeal as I do, make sure you heat the water to about 110 deg F. It also helps now that we’re into cold weather to put it in some sort of insulated container. My own system to to put the oatmeal mixture into a glass with a plastic lid ( http://www.fishseddy.com/browse.cfm/4,309.html ) and then lower the whole thing into a thermal mug (my son got one with his drink at 7-11 — yes, I know, don’t start with me).

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merry September 19, 2013 at 4:23 AM

I like oatmeal but it doesnt’ like me. it gives me tons of flatulence. will soaking it stop that or have i just developed an intolerance to oats. Pretty much ALL grains bother me to some degree, oats being the worst. I”d be new to soaking grains and know zero about it or how to do it. even after reading a few articles, i’m still lost on this idea.

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Angela November 18, 2009 at 10:12 AM

Great article! It was so good meeting you at Wise Traditions last week.

Angela

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cheeseslave November 18, 2009 at 11:00 AM

Amy -

I think the human body is very strong and can rebuild from just about anything. Sally Fallon Morell says that she and her brothers and sisters grew up with crooked teeth and wearing glasses, but she was able to reverse that in her own kids — in just one generation.

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cheeseslave November 18, 2009 at 11:02 AM

Paul –

One of the great things about Wikipedia is it is open for anyone to edit. Maybe you could register on that site and edit that page. Why not?

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cheeseslave November 18, 2009 at 11:07 AM

Paul – How do you measure the temperature of the water? Do you use a thermometer?

I got a neat thing at the pet food store. It’s a reptile mat. You can set your ferments on it and they will stay at just the right temperature.

Another thing I love is my Excalibur dehydrator. Not only do I use it for drying (soaked nuts, seeds, oatmeal for cookies, etc.) but I also use it for keeping ferments at the right temp (you just take all the trays out and sit stuff inside.

See my resources page for where to buy dehydrators http://villagegreennetwork.com/marketplace/kitchen-tools-appliances?pid=1 target=”_blank”

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cheeseslave November 18, 2009 at 11:08 AM

Karin – Thank you, I fixed that. What would I do without my readers/editors? You guys always help me catch errors — thank you!!!!

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Leigh November 18, 2009 at 11:42 AM

Thanks for such well-written and excellent information. How long do grains and flours need to be soaked before cooking or consuming?

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cheeseslave November 18, 2009 at 12:05 PM

Leigh – Good question and one I should have addressed above. I will update the post. Please get a copy of Sally Fallon’s book, “Nourishing Traditions” — she covers most grains/nuts/seeds in that book and tells you how to soak/sprout and ferment them all.

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Elizabeth from The Nourished Life November 18, 2009 at 12:52 PM

Wow, very thorough post on soaking grains. I think it’s easy to be intimidated by soaking grains, and it’s great to start slow so it’s not overwhelming. I always recommend soaked oatmeal (porridge), because it’s very simple to soak the oats in water and then cook them like usual in the morning.

I posted just the other day about a very easy soaked-grain quick bread I made recently. I’ve had the hardest time finding a bread recipe I can get along with (soaked or not) and this one finally hit the spot. Still, I avoid grains most of the time so it’s really just a treat. But it sure tastes good with grass-fed butter on top. :)
.-= Elizabeth from The Nourished Life´s last blog ..My Version of Homemade Bread =-.

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Paul Dulaney November 18, 2009 at 1:02 PM

I use a Taylor Instant-Read Pocket thermometer ( http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B00004XSC4/ref=ox_ya_oh_product ) that costs $6.50 or so. Note that the dial is smaller than it looks in the picture, so you could have trouble reading it if you’re far-sighted.

I didn’t edit the Wikipedia “porridge” article per se, but back in July I did pose a question on the Discussion page to the “porridge community,” if you will, asking whether anyone else could confirm Katz’s statement that historically porridge has been a fermented product. So far no one has come forth with an answer.

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Leigh November 18, 2009 at 2:20 PM

Thank you Ann Marie. I recently bought a copy of Nourishing Traditions and am still working my way through it. I will definitely put that chapter to good use.

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Erica K November 18, 2009 at 2:33 PM

I used to soak my oatmeal overnight in water and yogurt (as in Nourishing Traditions), but eventually my husband rebelled — he doesn’t like the slightly sour flavor. So I’ve taken to soaking it in water only — I figure that’s better than nothing, but how good is it? And is there anything else I could do to make it more nutritious without adding a sour taste?

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Paul Dulaney November 18, 2009 at 3:11 PM

Erica, in the lead up to the 2008 Olympics I was reading the blog of an American woman who was in training to compete in one of the distance events, and she mentioned that a lot of the top African runners considered teff to be their secret nutritional weapon. (Teff is a tiny grain that is actually a member of the millet family.) So now I throw in a heaping tablespoon of teff to my oatmeal. If nothing else it does seem to make for a thicker porridge. After my oatmeal/teff mixture has cooked I also add flaxseed meal, brown rice bran, maca powder, and raw cocoa powder and let that sit for a while. Then just before I eat it, I put in some Trader Joe’s French Village Cream Line (?) plain yogurt. Needless to say, it takes a while to get used to the flavor of a concoction like that, and a little bit of sourness is hardly noticed! But really, adding a little teff is a painless way to boost the nutrition of oatmeal. Teff comes in two varieties that I know of; the most commonly found one is brownish colored and is rich in iron. I use the so-called “ivory” teff ( http://www.goldminenaturalfoods.com/IVORY-TEFF-HEIRLOOM-QUALITY-1-LB/productinfo/0132-7001/ ) which is lower in iron because I have read that men should not supplement with iron (though I don’t know how much credence to put in that).

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tina November 18, 2009 at 8:56 PM

Ann Marie,

That’s a great idea about using the dehydrator to ferment during the colder months! I’m so gonna do that. I’ve been using my microwave to clabber my milk and sprout seeds. I put hot water bottles and leave the light on so it stays warm but by morning, it’s pretty darn cold in the wave.

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Wardeh @ GNOWFGLINS November 18, 2009 at 11:39 PM

Erika A. ~ Hopefully no one will tell me this is a no-no, but I can’t think why it would be… Try soaking with Kombucha – this does NOT leave a sour taste, period.

AnnMarie ~ Great article-great research-great overview-great quotes! I was struck by the fact that this information is on Wikipedia! Why don’t more people know and do this? I have to be honest and fault myself, too, though. I knew about this for several years and only this year began following the Nourishing Traditions style diet. And to our benefit – my daughter whose been gluten intolerant is no longer – well, as long as grains are soaked, sprouted or fermented.
.-= Wardeh @ GNOWFGLINS´s last blog ..Chai Tea Gift Mixes =-.

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Leslie November 20, 2009 at 8:50 AM

Hi Cheese Slave,

I just found your blog after going to a nutritionist and changing my eating for my family over the past two and a half months.

Very interesting about corn meal. I am now looking for a good recipe for cornmeal and found this one that soaks the cornmeal with buttermilk, which I thought was interesting, but would love your thoughts on it.

http://chezannies.blogspot.com/2009/05/recipe-for-corn-bread-with-bacon.html

Thanks and I love your blog! It’s a great inspiration for me!

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Leslie November 20, 2009 at 8:54 AM

Hmm.. I just read a bit on Wikipedia about it. So, if you wanted to use corn meal, would you suggest using masa harina?

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Martha November 20, 2009 at 9:50 AM

Erika,
I just add about a tablespoon of whey to each cup of water I soak our oat groats in. No one notices any sour taste.

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annie December 13, 2009 at 8:50 PM

I wouldn’t use Wikipedia as a source because it is not credible.

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Lee Burdett September 15, 2010 at 5:48 PM

Can I send a little shout out to plug my dvd? Well Fed Family has a Breads dvd that demos five different kinds of breads made from freshly milled grains using the soaking method. We’re a little, tiny business with a big message. :)
http://www.wellfedfamily.net/education.html
thanks,
Lee

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LeahS July 20, 2011 at 10:16 AM

It does blow my mind. How can we possibly ever begin to think that we (our technology) could ever be better than thousands of years of tradition!

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M. Jane January 5, 2012 at 6:39 PM

Is there evidence that soaking up to 2 weeks increases nutritional value regarding the Nixtamil (corn masa process)? I’ve been following the wild fermentation processes and know this is a bit different, but maybe not so. Can you post any info on the soaking length and where you got your info about how length of time is a plus. THANKS! MJ

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cheeseslave January 6, 2012 at 7:21 AM

Hi, M. Jane

In Sally Fallon Morell’s book Nourishing Traditions, she says it was traditional for corn to be soaked up to to weeks. I spoke to my former nanny from Guatemala and former housekeeper from Honduras and they both said that where they grew up, they soaked the corn for 1-2 weeks.

I’m sure you could find more references online to validate this.

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Liz P February 6, 2012 at 8:29 PM

Hi Cheeseslave,

I really enjoy your work and blog! I’m excited to watch the sprouting/soaking webinar coming up. Can I submit questions for the event?

Which reduces phytic acid content more, sprouting grains/legumes or soaking them? If I sprout my rye to make bread and then grind it, do I soak the flour again before cooking it? Same question in re to soaking… if I soak the grains, then grind, do I soak the flour again?

Also, do you suggest some kind of heating pad or germ flat to keep water warm for soaking? My oven and fridge are not as warm as 90F when they are turned off.

Oh, one more question… if I sprout grain, is it better to eat it dehydrated or cooked in the oven? Wait… one more… is white bread really better for you than unsoaked or spouted whole wheat?

Phew.
:-)

Liz

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cheeseslave February 6, 2012 at 8:39 PM

Great questions! I’ll write your questions down and you’ll be # 1 on the list of questions I answer in the webinar.

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Aliylanna November 20, 2012 at 8:50 PM

I was wondering if you might know the difference in nutritent value between teff and sprouted teff flours????

Teff is our fav grain..but wondering if I need to sprout it first.

thanks

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cheeseslave November 21, 2012 at 2:11 PM

It should be fermented or soaked — not sure if you can sprout it.

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Chante January 22, 2014 at 7:43 PM

What’s up to all, the contents existing at this site aare
truly awesome for people knowledge, well, keep up the good work fellows.

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