The Importance Of Soaking Nuts, Grains, And Legumes

August 5th, 2010 - filed under: The Food » Food and Health

I recently wrote an introduction to fermented foods, in which I mentioned the practice of soaking grains. Many readers responded with interest, curious to learn more about this traditional technique. Yay! You guys make me so happy! And that brings us here: the ins and outs, the whys and the hows, an all-around intro to soaking your nuts, grains, and legumes.

Why Would You Want To Soak?

Nuts, grains, and legumes are each different kinds of seeds. As such, they have evolved protection mechanisms to keep them safe until conditions are desirable for germination. For example, seeds are difficult to digest in order to facilitate seed dispersal – the animal that eats them carries them away, and then ‘drops’ them right into a pile of ‘fertilizer’. How marvelous! But in order to pass through the gut intact, they must be indigestible.

Further, all seeds need to remain secure until they are able to sprout. This stability is maintained via elements that suppress the enzymatic activity involved in germination. These elements – the ones that render seeds difficult to digest and allow them to lay dormant – are termed antinutrients.

Antinutrients are so named because they may ‘take’ more nutrition than they provide. During healthy digestion our own enzymes work to disassemble food into usable molecules. This begins in the mouth with the enzymes present in saliva, and continues in various forms throughout the entire digestive tract. But antinutrients work by inhibiting our digestive enzymes and preventing them from breaking down food, interfering with healthy digestion.

As well, antinutrients bind to precious minerals like iron, zinc, magnesium, and calcium. Essentially, they steal these minerals from our bodies. A diet rich in antinutrient-containing foods can lead to mineral deficiency and may contribute to poor bone density.

One of the most prevalent antinutrients is phytic acid. Grains are relatively high in phytic acid, though it exists in seeds and legumes as well. In situ it’s found bonded to phosphorous, residing in the bran of the seed. The bran is the hard outer layer rich in fiber, protein, and omegas. Phytic acid in the bran prevents premature sprouting. It has a strong affinity for minerals, and any mineral it binds to will become insoluble. This is how phytic acid leaches nutrients from the body.

Other antinutrients include flavanoids, like tannins, starches, and some proteins, such as lectins. All of these may irritate the stomach and interfere with digestion. However some, like flavanoids, are cancer-fighting and have other nutritive qualities. Clearly, nutrition science is complicated and convoluted – more on this at a later date.

SO, soaking seeds initiates germination. That’s the whole point. By ‘kicking off’ the sprouting process, antinutrients are disabled and enzymatic activity increases. Phytic acid is deconstructed and inhibitors are neutralized. The acid used in the soaking medium breaks the bonds that bind important minerals, and they become bioavailable. Thus, the seeds become digestible – and nutritious.

Soaking also begins to ‘pre-digest’ the seeds. For example, soaking and sprouting can break down certain proteins, such as gluten. This can facilitate digestion as well – some people with gluten sensitivity can eat soaked and sprouted glutinous grains. Phytase is the enzyme that is responsible for cleaving phytic acid from phosphorous and other minerals. Probiotics are a critical source of phytase, so eat your beasties!

Well, How Do You Soak?

There are four simple components that go into soaking seeds: liquid, acid, temperature, and time. That’s it!

To soak the whole seed, like almonds or rice or oatmeal or lentils . . .

  1. Cover with water, enough to allow the seed to swell.
  2. Add an acid, either lemon juice or vinegar, about a tablespoon per cup of water (rough estimates are okay).
  3. Allow to sit at room temp for at least 7, but ideally 12-24, hours.
  4. If possible, drain and then proceed as normal.


  1. Cover with an acidic cultured liquid, like kombucha or water kefir (for nuts, whole grains, legumes) or yogurt or ‘milk’ kefir for (for oatmeal, porridge).
  2. Allow to sit at room temp for at least 7, but ideally 12-24, hours.
  3. If necessary, drain and then proceed as normal.

To soak flour for use in a recipe . . .

  1. Mix the flour with whatever liquid is called for in that recipe, plus the sweetener (if called for) and the fat (if called for)
  2. Add 1tablespoon of acid, either lemon juice or vinegar, per cup of liquid.
  3. Allow to sit at room temp for at least 7, but ideally 12-24 hours.
  4. Add the rest of the ingredients and proceed as normal.

So that’s it – the why and the how of soaking seeds (nuts, grains, and legumes). I hope it helps to clarify things, and maybe even inspires you to tackle this traditional, nutritive technique.


  • Britt!

    Mmmmmmmm, sorry, I’m still a wee bit confused… Why should I add acid (or alt milk/yogurt) to my baby and my oatmeal if it’s not sproutable? Does it make it more digestible than simply soaking in plain water?

  • Britt!

    Ohhhhhhhhhhkay… I just re-read this article and answered my own question… “YES!!!” ; )>

    So nevermind! = )

  • Minna Toots

    Do you soak sesame seeds as well? I can’t see any reason why not to soak them but I can’t really find any decent source to confirm my intuition so I thought I’ll ask you. :P

    Also, I recently found this article on oatmeal and phytic acid: according to that soaking oatmeal isn’t going to lower phytic acid as much as we need so it’s rather pointless. Have you heard about that? What are your thoughts?

  • Sayward Rebhal

    Hi Minna,

    I don’t usually soak sesame seeds! I know some nuts/seeds, like Brazil nuts, don’t need soaking, and I think that sesame are the same. I *have* soaked them before, when making sesame milk. But when I make homemade tahini I do not soak them.

    I hadn’t heard about that, but I really loved that article and the author’s perspective. I often forget to soak my oats overnight, and have given up stressing about it. ;-) However, from now on when I *do* remember, I’ll certainly go ahead and add a little ground buckwheat. Why not? =D

  • Laeti

    @Sayward Great blog! I did not know that soaking nuts was healthier. I often snack on almonds, walnuts, cashew nuts, hazelnuts etc. Can I soak a whole bag of almonds, let them dry and then put them back in the jar? It seems difficult to get rid of the moist. Thanks. Your feedback would be greatly appreciated.

  • Sayward Rebhal

    I wouldn’t do this without the help of a dehydrator. But if you dehydrate them, then definitely!

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