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Soaking Grains Exploration: What is the pH of your Favorite Soaking Medium?

If I had a nickel for every time I wished I had a science lab at my house, and the knowledge to put it to good use…

The trouble with yearning to know more about how (and if) some of the traditional foods practices work is that there aren’t a lot of companies who profit from whole foods, therefore there’s not a trail of dollars to “encourage” research. I have yet to find a peer-reviewed, valid study testing the amount of phytates in grains before and after soaking as a home cook would do it. I’m not going to wash my bran 3 times in acid and then make burger buns with it like one study did.

Even more importantly, it’s difficult to find studies of the phytates’ effects in humans after consumption. Do they really inhibit absorption of minerals? (Probably.) But can we treat them, with the soaking process as described, to truly make a difference?

I understand that Rami Nagel, author of Curing Tooth Decay, does some independent research, but I want more.

I was pretty excited when my mom, who reads my blog, saw my wish to have a pH test in my kitchen, unearthed some old pH strips for me. I spent a few days sticking them into food to see what I could find!

Disclaimer: I’m the farthest thing from a scientist, so take these results with a grain of salt as “interesting” but not ground breaking, please.

What’s the Deal with Soaking Grains and Why Does pH Matter?

The reason I even cared about the pH of my food is that the theory of soaking grains generally rests on phytase, the enzyme that, when activated, breaks apart the phytate from the phytic acid and the good minerals in the grain. Phytase is activated under moist conditions with a slightly acidic pH of 4-4.5. Therefore, I wanted to know if all the various soaking options put forth by Nourishing Traditions actually had a pH in that range.

A quick primer: In case it’s been ages since high school chemistry, pH is a scale of 1-14. Seven is the center and shows the pH of plain water, which is neither acidic nor basic. (An acid and a base are opposites.) A very strong acid like stomach acid or hydrochloric acid falls way down in the 1-2 range, and a baking soda solution tested about a 10 with my strips.

I tested baking soda water as a control to see if the strips seemed to be working right, along with water, which shouldn’t change the color of the strip at all. pH paper works by reacting with the solution into which it is immersed and changing color depending on the pH.

My Kitchen Lab Results

Regular household white vinegar is supposed to be about a pH of 4-4.5, and when I tested undiluted vinegar it made the strips redish orange, which translates to “2-4.” Deep red is the lowest pH and highest acidity, a 2.0. Orange is categorized “strongly acid” with a pH of 4.0. Even with this scientific equipment, it was a bit of a judgment call about precisely where on the scale a given color result landed.

ph strips (2)

This is a photo of the strips after dipping into straight vinegar (bottom) and the requisite 1 Tbs. of vinegar in a cup of water that I would use to “soak” a recipe. The top color matched the orange for “4.0” nearly exactly, which is encouraging as it’s just what we’re looking for!

It seems to make sense that a diluted acid would be weaker than straight. When I tested my yogurt whey, however, I found some surprises:

ph strips

This photo shows three tests, from left to right: whey + water (1 Tbs/cup), straight whey, and straight yogurt. The color didn’t change much from the dry strip, which you can see at the top of each piece. I’d put it squarely in “yellow” or “6.0,” a rather far cry from 4-4.5. Here is another photo, turned sideways, with plain water at the top as a control (they whey + water is now at the bottom):

ph strips (3)

It looks to me like whey + water and plain water are awfully similar. I figured the shade of the whey and the yogurt as a 6.0, with the yogurt perhaps having a slightly darker hue (which means slightly more acidic), but still I’m guessing it’s a 5.0, maximum. A different day I tested brand new, fresh yogurt, and I might have given it an “orange” but quite a weak one. I also tested 1/4 cup whey with 3/4 cups water, which would make a pretty wickedly sour soaked oatmeal already, and it remained at a 6.0. Using just a Tablespoon of whey or yogurt per cup doesn’t seem to provide the appropriate pH for phytase to be activated!

Testing my sourdough starter on a whim also resulted in a shade only slightly darker than water, even though it’s well known that sourdough reduces the phytic acid content of grains.

No Yogurt to Soak??

Although I was disappointed that yogurt didn’t test at a 4.5 pH, I still have a hunch about soaking that has little to do with activating phytase. My mom has noticed that soaking oats in whey seems to work better than soaking in lemon juice, digestively. I’ve always thought there might be some lacto-fermentation going on, which would be a different, although similarly beneficial, process than phytase and phytic acid breakdown. Just a hunch.

Lactic acid is what makes sourdough work its magic. Rami Nagel has also recently stated that he’s found whey to be the most effective soaking agent. Hmmm…!

A New Option

I am just learning about water ionizers, and apparently they can change the pH of the water. So if soaking is really all about pH, then the new technological way to do a traditional soak could be to simply make your water pH 4.5 with the ionizer. Now I haven’t tried this myself because I don’t have one of the machines, but it’s a fascinating concept, no?

Katie the Scientist?

Hardly. I must close with the reminder that I have no idea what I’m doing, and these are hardly conclusive results. It was just something fun to do in the kitchen, and it gives me food for thought. I think we can say one or more of the following is true:

  1. My pH strips were old and created an invalid test.
  2. My knowledge was lacking and created an invalid test.
  3. A diluted vinegar solution possibly activates phytase and initiates the breakdown of the phytic acid/phytate bond.
  4. Whey, yogurt, and diluted whey might not touch phytase at all…but they might initiate other beneficial processes, like lacto-fermentation.
  5. Katie wishes she had access to lots of money and scientists willing to design and carry out a study with real people and traditional food preparation techniques.

One way to get around all this soaking stuff and try some flour that has been made healthier for already is to buy sprouted flour, and I have two advertisers this month who make it: JoshEWEa’s Garden and Shiloh Farms. I’m honored to work with them both, and thank you, dear readers, for visiting and supporting the KS sponsors.

Catch up on this soaking grains exploration information if you want to learn more!

Unless otherwise credited, photos are owned by the author or used with a license from Canva or Deposit Photos.

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16 thoughts on “Soaking Grains Exploration: What is the pH of your Favorite Soaking Medium?”

  1. Since I like the idea of using whey (I have lots), AND since whey is similar to water in acidity, how about using whey instead of (1 cup of) water, & then adding the vinegar (1 Tablespoon) to that?

    1. Annie,
      I’m not sure why you’d need both, honestly. I think the whey would probably lacto-ferment the bread. Then again, would adding vinegar hurt anything? Likely not… 🙂 Katie

      1. Each strain of probiotic thrives in a certain ph and the acid of Vinegar would kill of some if not all the strains depending on soak time and ph. There are some lacto- fermented strains that are very resilient to withstand acid. I have been reading up on some Bacillus Coagulans that have these properties. You can buy some of these in bulk powder forms. Hopefully this can help steer you in a good direction.

  2. Thanks Katie, This is very interesting! I use Apple Cider Vinegar for soaking, just because it is cheap and very readily available. If lacto-fermentation is taking place with yogurt, whey, etc. the “good” bacteria produced by the lacto-fermentation would all be killed when you cook your oatmeal or bake your bread, etc. Yes, this is a very confusing topic!
    However, I have a fascinating book entitled “The Life Bridge, The Way to Longevity with probiotic nutrients.” It is written by the founders of New Chapter Vitamins who ferment ALL of their vitamin/mineral products.
    One paragraph states; “It is crucial to bear in mind that while many of the benefits of fermented products may derive from the presence of “viable” or living probiotics in the food, THE KEY POINT OF THIS CHAPTER IS “THE MEDIUM IS THE MESSAGE. Even when the fermented foods are pasteurized or otherwise do not deliver live culture, many important health benefits of (the fermented medium itself) have been scientifically confirmed.”
    I have an extra copy of the book and would be happy to give it to you. I would just need you to give me your mailing address somehow!

  3. Regarding the yogurt, whey, water test….Maybe I am misunderstanding, but you know that the ph of water can be drastically different depending on the source and how long it has been sitting around.
    Also, have you considered using the pH test kits for aquarium hobbyists? There are several different testing methods.

    1. Hmmmm…well, no, not exactly. I’m not a very good “real scientist” am I? I just play one on the Internet. 😉

      I was just happy to see the water come out “neutral” on the strips and thought little of it. Will the aquarium pH test kids have different equipment? I was so pleased my mom had some b/c I didn’t want to have to figure out where to get them! 🙂 So lazy sometimes…

      Thanks for the tips! Hope you stick around to help – 🙂 Katie

  4. This is a really great piece! I appreciate your research and willingness to experiment and continue learning. I agree with Mary P. that the lacto-fermentation of the whey probably produces much greater effects than the (low) acidity. Even though we can’t see what the phytates are actually doing on a chemical level, the effects of soaking are very evident in the texture and digestibility of the finished product! So we know they are doing something good!

  5. Hi Katie,
    I’d be happy to spring for new test strips if you want to re-run the tests! I sure appreciate all the time you invest in this blog. I’m trying to read all your research on grains and draw my onw conclusion, but there sure is a lot to muddy the soaking medium! 🙂

    1. Kelly,
      you are too cute! I’m pretty sure they had to be fairly accurate, though, b/c of the baking soda and plain water results, right? I just like to throw the “maybes” out there for good science. 🙂 Katie

  6. I’d be interested to have you check the ph of the grains/water/whey after the soaking period is finished. Whey, having living bacteria in it should culture the whole bowl given time. Does that change the ph by the end of the soak time?

    Scientist or no, I love reading your experiments.

    1. Jennifer, I like the way you think! I’m deadly curious now…what should I soak to stick little pieces of paper into? 🙂 Katie

  7. If you feel that your litmus paper was not working you could always make a homemade indicator out of red cabbage. There are lots of how-to’s online.

  8. I am so impressed with your site. I know much of what you write about, but what a gem this is for so many moms, wives, singles, anyone who wants to be both a Mary and a Martha. I found you looking up a recipe for oat pumpkin muffins and how I could make them using soaked oats. I bookmarked the page so I could come back when I was ready to make them. That’s when I discovered the whole site. WOW! I’ve signed up for emails and look forward to learning more. Even though I’m probably one of your older readers, one of the best ways to stay young is to keep learning. Thanks, Katie, for all you do and may God bless you and your family.

    1. Joy,
      Welcome aboard! So happy to have you (and, it sounds like, your wisdom) along for the ride. Thank you kindly for the lovely compliments. 🙂 Katie

  9. This was really great – thanks for going to all the trouble to experiment! I think you are right – that there is more to the soaking process than just adding an acidic medium. I think there is a whole process of transformation that goes on when grains soak in whey/yogurt/kefir/sourdough starter – and I think you are on to something by theorizing it’s lacto-fermentation. We know SOMETHING happens in soaking that improves the digestibility of the grain product, and I’m with you – I wish I knew exactly what :)))

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