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Soaking Whole Grains: Why Do It?

In addition to storing grains long-term, I like to soak my grains. Here’s why. 

sourdough bread slices
Your mission, if you choose to accept, is to try soaking grains in one recipe this week. You’re right: it’s controversial. But it can’t hurt.

It is said that traditional cultures almost exclusively soaked or sprouted their grains before baking with them. I talked about the process of soaking whole grains when I shared this pancake recipe and this baked oatmeal recipe.

Today I’ll tell you why and how to soak grains.

The Basic Science Behind Soaking Grains

  • Grains are seeds. (All this information therefore, pertains to legumes, nuts and seeds as well.)
  • Seeds are meant to pass through the system relatively undigested so they can be planted elsewhere (think in nature).
  • To make it possible for seeds to pass through undigested, there are some anti-nutrients built in to make them difficult to digest.
  • Seeds also need to be preserved until the time is right for sprouting, so they have certain compounds that stop the active enzyme activity of germination.
  • These compounds also serve to hinder active enzyme activity in your digestive system.
  • “Soaking” grains is one way to mimic the sprouting process.

Enzyme Inhibitors in Whole Grains

Normal digestion depends on enzymes working to break down food, starting with your saliva and running the course through the entire digestive system. Enzyme inhibitors, found in whole grains, interfere with normal digestion by…well…inhibiting it. They stop the enzymes from doing their jobs properly and stress out the pancreas.

What Is Phytic Acid?

wheat berries and whole wheat flour

Phytates bind phytic acid along with phosphorus and are found in the bran part of the whole grain. Its role for the seed is to prevent premature sprouting. A seed needs to be preserved until the conditions are right for growth.

When we eat foods containing phytates, the minerals we think we’re getting from them simply aren’t bio-available. We can’t make use of them and they pass right on through. Consuming too much phytic acid can cause mineral deficiencies and poor bone density. It’s awfully ironic that when we pat ourselves on the backs for eating more whole grains over white flour, we’re opening ourselves up to another problem.

How Do We Counteract the Phytic Acid in Foods?

Phytase is the name of the awesome little enzyme that will go to work for you to break phytic acid apart and free the minerals in whole grains and legumes. Phytase requires simple conditions to be “activated”:

  1. Moisture
  2. Slightly acidic environment
  3. Warmth
  4. Time

Soaking your whole grains…

  1. in water (warmer than room temp, ~100-110 degrees or so)
  2. with an acidic medium added
  3. at room temperature or above
  4. for 12-24 hours

…fulfills all the requirements. Properly soaked grains are easier to digest and allow your body to absorb more minerals and nutrients from the whole grain and other food sources at the same time.

SOAKING GRAINS research and recipes

For an in-depth exploration of the health benefits of soaking grains see my post here.

Added Bonus: This process begins to pre-digest the grains, including breaking down complex starches and tannins that can irritate your stomach, as well as beginning to break down proteins like gluten. For some, this reduces gluten sensitivity.

Mimicking good growing conditions may also neutralize both phytic acid and enzyme inhibitors. Seeds only need moisture, warmth and time to sprout, so some might omit the acidic medium that activates the phytase when soaking intact grains that could still germinate. Some amounts of phytic acid are blasted away and enzyme inhibitors are tackled when seeds or legumes are sprouted as well. For more on that, read the health benefits of sprouting and how to sprout legumes and whole grains.

Why Does Soaking Make Grains Healthier?

Soaking the grains begins germination, rendering the enzyme inhibitors unnecessary since they exist to protect the seed and prevent early sprouting. They are neutralized so that the seed can sprout, making everything more accessible to our bodies. Levels of phytates are also reduced in soaking because the acidic liquid helps to break the bonds they form with minerals.

How to Soak Grains

Start with soaking oatmeal, because it’s easy.

soaked oatmeal

The basic “recipe” is:

  • Mix the grains – whole or flour form – with whatever liquid is called for in the recipe, along with the sweetener and fat. (Add 10% wheat flour if using oats, because oats are too low in phytase.)
  • If the liquid is water or milk, replace 1 Tbs per cup with an acidic medium:
    • vinegar, lemon juice, whey
  • If the liquid is something cultured already, you can just mix it up with the grain: yogurt, buttermilk, kefir
  • Allow to rest at room temperature for 12-24 hours.
  • Add remaining ingredients and proceed with recipe.
  • Further instructions for adapting recipe with flour for soaking here.

Benefits of Phytic Acid?

There are some benefits of phytic acid, including its role as an antioxidant (cancer fighter). It is also possible that the chelating (cleaning out/binding to minerals) property of phytic acid is useful to reduce toxins in the body. In Scripture, there are times when people were supposed to consume unleavened bread. Leavened bread at this time would have been fermented, i.e. with reduced phytates. It is thought that the time to eat unleavened bread may have been a sort of cleanse for the system.

More Information

There are several other ways to neutralize phytic acid, including sprouting seeds/grains/nuts, fermenting, and lacto-fermentation.

This dietician says soaking isn’t important.

Read what other bloggers have to say about soaking grains:

Other Sources: Weston A. Price Foundation, USDA, National Institutes of Health

Need More Baby Steps?

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That’s why we took the best 10 rookie “Monday Missions” that used to post once a week and got them all spruced up to send to your inbox – once a week on Mondays, so you can learn to be a kitchen steward one baby step at a time, in a doable sequence.

Sign up to get weekly challenges and teaching on key topics like meal planning, homemade foods that save the budget (and don’t take too much time), what to cut out of your pantry, and more.

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

67 thoughts on “Soaking Whole Grains: Why Do It?”

  1. Can I leave the milk and flour mixture out on the counter for 24 hours? Or does it need to be refrigerated?

  2. Kathryn Grace

    I’ve read numerous articles about soaking over the years. Yours explains it best.

    Today’s recipe-of-the-day on a Facebook page I curate (Cooking with Whole Grains & Real Whole Foods) called for soaking the dough. To support that recipe, I wanted to share an article with my readers that explains why soaking is important and, luckily, found yours in a search. Thank you for your research and for sharing so clearly.

    I’m glad to have found you and look forward to reading more of your articles over time.

  3. Hi,

    I’ve been meaning to tackle the task of making my own whey for some time now. How do you know if the whey is good and will “work” like it’s supposed to? If I’m going to use a whole thing of raw milk or even store bought yogurt, I want to make sure I do it correctly and that the final product is going to do what it’s supposed to. Is there a way to check the whey?

    Also, maybe a slightly bizzare question, but could I use breastmilk to make whey??

    1. Hi Lisa,
      No idea on the breastmilk, but to use yogurt, as long as the yogurt is cultured, the whey will be. I don’t think you can mess it up! Follow this method:
      🙂 Katie

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  6. Whole grains user

    Thanks for the great articles.
    I always have a batch of sourdough starter handy.I was wondering if I can add it to the soaking water instead of kefir , whey etc, to reduce the phytic acid content?Will that work for grains and beans?
    Thanks again for sharing so many useful articles.

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  8. Richard Lynch

    I read this and don’t see how anyone is convinced one way or another that soaking is either good or bad. Phytic acid is not necessarily an enemy to the human body, as it seems to have properties that could just as well remove heavy metals from the system and prevent cancer. On the other hand it may reduce digestive ability meaning that you get less from what you ingest. Well… If both are a potential benefit, why exclude either? Soak half the grains. You’ll include the benefits of both ideas/processes.

    A suggestion as to the potential benefits of Phytic acid (mentioned in part in this article)…

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  18. MilWifeMamaofOne

    Katie –

    I LOVE your blog and refer to it frequently as I learn more about REAL food and how better to incorporate it into my family’s diet. Thank you for the time, thought, and energy you’ve devoted to experimenting and sharing. You’ve been a blessing for us.

    My one question is can you please date your updates as you add them? Many of your posts, including this one, have updates you add at some later date but I have no idea when the updates have been added and if a more current blog post has more current information or not. It can be a bit confusing.

    Thank you again and God bless!

    1. Thank you so much for the kind words! That’s a really good point; I hadn’t thought of that before, even though I know that posts need to be read at any time in the future and make sense. Hmmm…I will try to do that from now on, thanks!

      For this post, the only “update” I see is a link to the soaking grains page, which actually IS the place you’d find the most recent updates/posts on this subject, if there are any. I kind of let the issue drop when I got overwhelmed by it all and realized that no, I’m not a scientist and will never have anything definitive to say about it! 😉

      1. MilWifeMamaofOne

        Yay! Thank you, I know dates will be helpful for future sifting. It’s amazing how much information is out there and just how much we have to learn about the food God has provided for us! May you and your family have a blessed Lent and Easter :).

  19. Katie,
    I think you might be interested in reading this article. I would be interested in hearing what you think.

    1. Jennifer,
      There are definitely conflicting reports on whole grain and phytic acid, aren’t there? I did read Breadbeckers commentary and included it in this post:

      If you’re already milling your own grains, I think that’s AWESOME! Perhaps prayerfully consider your next baby step to be trying out a soaking recipe (free ebook full of them in my sidebar). The great thing is that it’s not more complicated, just takes planning ahead to do part of the recipe the night before, then finish it at baking time. Good luck! 🙂 Katie

  20. Katie,
    I currently mill my own flour from wheat berries purchased through a co-op. I started doing this b/c I had been told and listened to audio and DVD’s that said how many vitamins, etc are in freshly milled flour. We aren’t the healthiest eating family, but this is something I can do. I now use the freshly milled flour in all my baking (sometimes only replacing 1/2 of the white flour, depending on the recipe). Now I am reading this and wondering if I am doing my family any good at all by milling my own wheat? Am I to understand that all the vitamins and minerals are there but we aren’t getting any of them?

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  22. I’m experimenting a little with soaking other recipes (mostly cookie ones) and vaguely remember reading something here on your site about the formula (or gen. guidelines) for changing the leavening in an original recipe. Could you help me find that article or point me in the right direction? I have been having trouble with the cookies being too fragile and I think that’s a result of not leaving out some of the baking powder or soda. Thanks!

    1. KJ,
      My basic “adjusting a recipe to soak” is here:
      🙂 Katie

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  26. Katie,
    I am interested in submitting a recipe for your soaked grains book. I have a question about soaking that I’ve been wondering about for awhile…if one has a recipe w/ very little liquid (e.g. a crust), do we add the fat to the liquid in order to determine how much of the acidic medium to add to the mix?
    Also, when adding the wheat, buckwheat, etc to the mix in order to add phytase, do we need to reduce the other flour? I did not when I redid my soaking for my oat bran muffins and they actually turned out great. I know it’s not a large amount of phytase-containing flour that you recommended, but a reader asked. I assume that the answer is “no”.

    1. Adrienne,
      You know, I’ve only had to add wheat flour to my soaked oatmeal, in which case quantity doesn’t matter much. If I was making a soaked recipe w/ no phytase in it, I guess I would probably make an equal substitution so I didn’t mess up the quantities!

      Soaked crust is tough – Wardeh at GNOWFGLINS has one available ala carte through her eCourses – but I’ve never done it right. I do add the fat when making any pastry, just because you kind of have to. As far as amount of acid, it should just depend on %age of the liquid. I err on the side of too much whey if I am guessing amounts.
      🙂 Katie

      1. Katie,
        Thanks for the reply. I ended up trying an old coconut bar recipe that has a pie crust like bottom. It was a bit tough to work with since the coconut oil had, of course, solidified, but it turned out really well. I used the typical 1 T for each cup of liquid and just included the fat as part of the liquid.
        In this case I used buckwheat flour for part of the crust so I didn’t have to deal w/ quantities, but I did simply add the extra buckwheat w/o reducing the oat bran in the other recipe that I mentioned. So, all that being said, I will try a few more recipes as time allows and let you know how they turn out. I think the quantities of the extra flour are so minimal that it probably won’t matter. It just seems like a lot when you are dealing with multiple batches.
        Onto new experiments, eh? 🙂

  27. For soaking beans do I need to add an acid medium like kefir or cider vinegar as I would with say flour or other grains?

    1. Chelsea,
      Nope, beans soak in plain water, 140F optimally. Don’t add an acid or they will stay tough and crunchy, and don’t even add salt until the end of the cooking time. More details in my upcoming Everything Beans Book! 😉 Katie

  28. Katie, how much do you know about the nutritionist at Small Bites? His answer sounds too easy, but then I don’t want to make things more difficult!
    We don’t have gut issues with eating wheat or other grains, so that part isn’t of concern to me, but wanting to be sure we get all the beneficial nutrients is. I’m meticulously reading thru all of the material you’ve provided, but at this time am guessing sour dough is the way to go. Thoughts?

    1. Kelly,
      Practically nothing. It’s really easy to find people who oppose the Nourishing Traditions stand on just about everything! I notice that he didn’t reply to his one commenter, so as a blogger, that makes me think less of him right there. :p

      If soaking does what it says it does, then sure, you might not have mineral deficiencies in America by eating unsoaked whole grains, but wouldn’t you rather get ALL the nutrition you can if you’re going to try to eat healthy? Kind of like, iceberg lettuce won’t hurt you, but isn’t Romaine so much better if you’re going to have a salad anyway?

      For now, I’m a big fan of sourdough, which is definitely the most researched based method of grains preparation. However – sourdough is more difficult than soaking, and it’s tricky to make some grains “soured” – like rice, oatmeal – so what then?

      More thoughts to come as I work on this series again!
      🙂 Katie

  29. Thursday's Child

    I have a question about recipes where you have to add enough flour to knead. For example, this morning I made cinnamon rolls. You add the flour a bit at a time until it’s the right consistency to knead. How do you soak the flour for those? Do you just mix it all without the yeast/water like the poster above said? Or could you end up needing to add some flour that hasn’t been soaked?

    1. Thursday’s Child:
      You take your best guess based on getting to know the recipe and soak as much as you can, but yes, sometimes you have to add some flour to knead to the right consistency. Some folks would just add white flour at that point, others would say you can’t get rid of 100% of the phytic acid anyway, so just use whole wheat and don’t worry. Does that make sense? 🙂 Katie

  30. This was such a great explanation of soaking grains. I’ve read for a while that you should do it, but not really understood the why’s. Thanks for breaking it down and giving some suggestion for converting recipes.. Now I’ve got to take a look at my bread recipe and see how to adapt it. I spent such a long time yesterday digging through your site and feel like I haven’t scratched the surface. I’m so happy I found it!
    .-= Jenny´s last blog ..HBinFive- Whole Grain Garlic Knots =-.

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  32. AmandaonMaui

    I have Nourishing Traditions (received it as a gift), but I haven’t read it all the way through. I was wondering about food safety and leaving dairy products to sit and ferment on the counter over night. Is this dangerous at all? Is there any risk of food poisoning?

    1. Amanda,
      I kind of wonder the same thing, but so far, so good. I’m more comfortable with yogurt and cultured products than just milk. And if I say any more, I’m sure my insurance salesman father-in-law would be angry! 😉 Katie

  33. Hi Katie. I’ve been digging around on your website some. So, in just starting this whole soaking grains thing, how would you recommend balancing the phytic acid benefits versus wanting to break it down? By eating raw seeds such as flaxseed (I grind in smoothies without soaking)? Thanks!

    1. Shannon,
      Even the best soaking system never breaks down 100% of the phytic acid, so I think you’re balanced without even trying (just a guess). Also, one theory on why phytic acid is a cancer-fighter is that it binds to minerals, including heavy metals, so if your diet and lifestyle are more free of toxins and such, you might not “need” the beneficial aspect. Does that make any sense? The whole phytic acid issue is riddled with controversy, so ultimately you should experiment and see how you feel and how your digestion changes (if it does) and go from there.
      Thanks for digging!
      🙂 Katie

  34. I would also love to have a copy of the doc of baby food recipes. I have a 3 month old and I’ve just found out that grains aren’t the best for babies. I’m new to your blog, but I love what I’ve seen so far. I’ll be exploring more!

  35. So I tried soaking my grains for a few months, and didn’t really notice any differences in our digestion. We are generally very healthy, no digestive problems, so I’m not sure what I expected. Anyway, I find it really difficult to go through all of this (it is a pain because I’m NOT a planner) for something that really doesn’t feel like it makes any difference…any advice??

    1. Meggan,

      Good for you for trying it! I assume you watched the BMs to see if they increased or got more regular.

      That aside, there are possible benefits (mineral absorption) that you just won’t be able to feel. It’s still a contested practice, so I would go with your gut (ha). If it’s taxing beyond purpose for you, don’t do it, or soak occasionally. You’ve done a good experiment!
      🙂 Katie

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  38. I am new to this- tried the recipe for dutch pancakes from nourishing traditions. Soaking medium was half yogurt & half milk (store bought, organic, lactose free) with Tbs. lemon juice. Soaked for 24 hrs. Is it normal/healthy for there to be small black flecks on the top (mold?) after soaking? I mixed it all up & we were fine, but just wondering.

    1. Lisa,
      I never have mold on my soaked stuff. ?? When lacto-fermenting, sometimes people say you can just scoop off the mold and carry on, but that usually doesn’t happen until a few days have passed. I would be nervous about that and at least scoop it off. You might want to check with someone else, too.
      Good luck!

  39. I recently found your blog and have enjoyed exploring your posts. Thank you! I’ve been learning more about soaking grains over the last few weeks. I’d be really interested in the rebuttal from the doctor you mentioned.

    I am a new mom…have an 8 month old. Do you have any suggestions about feeding him grains? The acid medium makes me wonder if it is ok…especially if I use yogurt and leave it sit out overnight. Thanks!!

    1. Jessica,
      I’m so glad you’re here! I am excited to learn/post more about this soaking thing. I even emailed Sally Fallon to see what she has to say about the dr’s response to her work (he basically says she is wrong).

      As for soaking w/infants, two things:
      1. Nourishing Traditions recommends only soaked brown rice for under a year old and no other grains, period. Well. I didn’t do that, but I did try to keep Lovey Girl’s grain intake to soaked stuff as much as possible, until she discovered Cheerios!
      2. The acid medium shouldn’t be any more harmful to an infant than an adult, I don’t think. If your child is old enough for yogurt, they can have the whey, and it’s a preservative so leaving it out overnight, although it sounds dangerous, is not. My daughter LOVES soaked oatmeal! For the brown rice, you can drain and rinse the acid medium off if you’re worried about the little tummies.

      Are you making your own baby food? It’s so easy and healthy! I have a Word doc of recipes I could send you if you’re interested. 🙂 Katie

      1. Katie,
        Thank you so much for your reply and the great information. I have a close friend who is a pediatrician so some of my natural remedies and ways of healthy eating are questioned by modern medicine. Funny how that works. However, the more info I have, the more confident I feel in my choices.

        Also, I particularly like your blog because I want to be a good steward of my energies and even though it’s not that time consuming to soak my grains, sometimes it’s one more thing on my to do list. 🙂 I really wrestle with wanting to everything perfectly and do it perfectly NOW. I am constantly trying to find the right balance.

        I have read about Nourishing Traditions recommendations to hold off on grains for the first year and so far my little guy has mostly been eating fruits and vegetables. However, I’ve been considering trying some grains since they may keep him full longer. He usually wakes up 3-5 times during the night and has one thing on his mind: eating. Admittedly this is probably for comfort as much as anything but maybe some rice would help if he is actually hungry. Thanks so much for the info about soaking. Also, your recent post about whey was so GREAT! I was one of those people that always skipped over this when I read about whey being an option for the acid part of soaking because the only thing I could think of was protein powder in a big tub from GNC. 🙂 Like you said, not exactly a whole, real food.

        I am making my own baby food but am learning as I go. Anything you are able to email me would be great!

        So is this the longest comment ever or what?! Sorry! 🙂

        Blessings to you.

        1. Jessica,
          I bet some soaked rice would go over JUST FINE and be waaaaay better than the little flakes everyone around you is eating. 😉 Email is on its way!
          🙂 Katie

        2. Thank you for your blog! I have learned so much from you. I’d love a copy of the doc of baby food recipes mentioned above. A teething biscuit recipe would be especially great! Thank you!!

  40. I’ve been making my own bread, but I’m not sure I can soak the flour because I add the yeast at the same time I add the water, fat and sweetener. I don’t think I can let it sit for 12 hours after that, right? Is my only option to use a sprouted grain flour?

    1. You can withhold a small amount of liquid (1/2 cup?) and the yeast, proof it when ready and add it after the soaking time. It worked for me.

    2. Michelle,
      Mary’s comment is right on. There are also recipes you can find that soak the flour already, but if you’ve got a bread recipe you love, you can adjust it.

    3. Adrienne @ Whole New

      One other idea would be to use SAF yeast that is much more temperature tolerant, uses 1/3 less than regular yeast, and does not require proofing with water. Very nice and flexible for soaked grains baking.

    4. If you are using yeast to leaven, the yeast cells provide plenty of phytase action (thus separating the minerals from the phytic acid, making them available for absorption), so there is no need to soak. Soaking/germinating really only makes sense, from a nutritional perspective, if the bread is not yeast-leavened. And, if the diet is varied in its sources of trace minerals, there’s really no point in bothering at all unless you like the ritualistic aspect of it.

      One reason for primitive cultures to have soaked may have been to soften the seeds and reduce the cooking time–fuel for a fire was expensive and still is.

      1. David-I’ve never heard of this info and am intrigued. Do you have a link to share that would set of a good series of research on this?

        1. Kelly, which info—are you referring to leavening with yeast? The science showing the nutritional value of yeast-leavening is pretty old; I first heard about it in (IIRC) my first nutrition class in the late ’70s, and it was not new info then. Do a google search for ‘yeast leavening mineral absorption’. Soaking, germination, and fermentation (would include yeast leavening, as microorganisms whether bacterial or fungal are very good at scavenging nutrients in almost any form and have enzyme systems to do so) all tend to be mentioned as means of reducing phytate and/or increasing the bioavailability of trace elements (iron and zinc, particularly) from cereals and legumes presumably by being freed from phytate.

          The primitive culture soaking comment was just a surmise.

  41. Thank you! I know the fact that it’s best to soak grains and have read explanations, but none as clear and simple as this.

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