Jane Says: Soaking Is the Secret to Healthier Whole Grains

To maximize the nutritional value of whole grains, it's worth giving them a long soak in water.

Whole grains like spelt (pictured) and barley benefit from a good soaking. (Photo: Lisa Charles Watson/Getty Images)
Jane Lear is a regular contributor to TakePart. She was on staff at 'Gourmet' for almost 20 years.

“How important is it to soak grains?  Does that mean whole-grain foods (bread, pasta, etc.) aren’t healthy?” —Marcia Lima Gom

I don’t know about you, but the dispiriting news that arsenic is a common component in rice has me not panicked, exactly (what, me worry?) but vowing to make whole grains an even bigger part of my diet—and to start cooking more often from the prize-winning Ancient Grains for Modern Meals, by Maria Speck. Her heritage—equal parts Greek and German—enables her to combine the simple, sparkling-fresh ingredients of Mediterranean cuisines with northern Europe’s whole-grain way of life. “My mom’s tomato omelet with feta cheese was served with huge slices of my dad’s favorite whole grain bread, cut from a traditional loaf almost the size of a bicycle tire,” she wrote in her introduction. Multi-culti meets delicious, in other words.

Speck demystifies the soak-or-not-to-soak question with practical advice, and was happy to elaborate when I reached out to her the other day. “In my book, I suggest soaking only slow-cooking whole grains in water overnight. These include whole wheat berries, spelt, Kamut, rye, and hulled (whole grain) barley,” she said. “But quick-cooking grains such as quinoa, millet, buckwheat, brown rice, or cornmeal do not need to be soaked.

“I find that soaking grains, such as whole wheat berries, makes them less chewy and thus more pleasing to eat,” she continued. “They cook up nicer and plump up beautifully. This traditional method is common in both Germany and Greece, where I grew up.

MORE: Cheap, Sustainable, Delicious: Whole-Grain Pasta With Fresh Tomato and Zucchini Sauce

Sounds good to me. I have far more experience soaking dried beans than I do whole grains, and I find that when beans have had time to soften and absorb water during an enjoyably lengthy soak (about eight hours), they cook much more evenly.

Just as importantly, though, when heartier whole grains have been soaked, they are easier to digest, “especially if you are new to these more-chewy whole grains,” said Speck. Those of us of a certain age immediately conjure Saturday Night Live’s “Colon Blow” cereal commercial, which was enough to make an entire generation throw their copies of Diet for a Small Planet and the Moosewood Cookbook in the trash—er, on the compost heap.

Speck went on to explain that grains and beans also contain highly variable amounts of phytic acid, which blocks the absorption of certain minerals. Sprouting, soaking, and fermenting raw grains activates an enzyme that reduces PA. Research on this topic is evolving, so stay tuned.

If Speck and I are interpreting the second half of the above question correctly, our reader wonders whether bread and pasta—made from grinding whole grains into flour—are less nutritionally valuable than eating the whole kernel. Prevailing wisdom will tell you that, generally speaking, the less processed food is, the better it is for you nutritionally.

But Speck is quick to add that she believes in eating with pleasure. “I love an aromatic whole-grain bread,” she said. “I often use more coarsely ground whole-grain flour when baking bread, and I include whole-grain kernels for added chew. Similarly, I enjoy a nice plate of whole-grain pasta once in a while. I believe it can be a part of a balanced diet, especially when served with lots of vegetables.”

Over the past few years, there are a couple of things that have made my life easier when it comes to working whole grains into my culinary repertoire. One is the realization that they are crops, like fruits or vegetables, and so they vary from year to year, depending on the weather, where they were grown, how and when they were harvested, how they were handled, and how long they were stored. As with anything, practice makes perfect, and the more you cook with whole grains, the easier it is to gauge their behavior in the pot, for instance, or when they’ll be done.

Secondly, cooked grains store beautifully in the refrigerator or freezer. Speck makes a point of explaining how to store and reheat grains correctly, and the masterful Lorna Sass takes the idea and runs with it in yet another prize winner, her Whole Grains: Every Day Every Way, published in 2006 and now in its sixth printing. Keeping what she calls “the grain bank” full of cooked grains is the key to quick, healthy meals; in fact, you can even add frozen grains directly to simmering soups or stews. Now, that is fast food.

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