Is Fermenting Grains Traditional?

I am sitting here with thirty pages of research printed off, a dozen other studies open in my browser,  and another blogger’s research article opened. It can be information overload when researching this topic! That’s what I don’t want to do with you all. So I will be taking one aspect of fermented grains at a time. Today I wanted to answer the question, “Is fermenting (sometimes called soaking) grains really a traditional practice?”

After I was first introduced to fermented (or soaked) grains, I began to notice traditional fermented bread products, such as the delicious and hearty traditional dark sourdough rye breads, and the injera served at the Ethiopian restaurants. I found these tangy breads intriguing and delicious.

When I started trying to research this subject in earnest, I quickly found one resource helpful in learning more about the history of fermented grains as well as getting overall information on the topic. Fermented Cereals: A Global Perspective has a lot of information both on the history and the topic in general. It’s long, but it makes a great starting point if you are interested in the topic.

One of the topics they discuss are the fermented grains that are currently being made still in underdeveloped countries (yes, there are some places that wonder bread hasn’t quite reached yet!). It was interesting to read the different methods and recipes for fermented grains.

They also have outlines of the process went through to ferment the grains and it can be quite the production! You have to ask yourself, why were people so willing to put so much work into preparing their grains (and legumes)? It’s not as if they didn’t have better things to do! The care, time and work they put into fermenting their grains is very interesting to me. Also interesting to me is the fact that they mill (or remove the bran and even the germ and endosperm) in some of the grain ferments. Sometime to mull about for sure!

But let’s look at some of the grain and legumes ferments mentioned in this article and elsewhere.

Asia

  • The fermentation culture “chu” is used in the Asia Pacific area to ferment cereal based wines, soy sauce, fish and meat sauces, sour breads, and fermented porridges and snacks.
  • Many “acid leavened” breads and flat breads are consumed on a daily basis in India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Nepal, Sikkim and Tibet as well as other neighboring countries. A few examples include Idli, which is a fermented batter made from legume and rice flour and fried into a thin “pancake” and Dosas (very similar to Idli). There are Korean and Philippine fermented rice flour doughs that are similar except they don’t contain legume flour. Brem is a special snack in Indonesia which is a solid cake made from fermented rice.
  • Mungbean Starch noodles and Thai rice noodles are traditionally made with fermented batters as well.
  • Soy sauce, Miso and Natto are all fermented products (also made with starters)

Africa

  • Ogi is a traditional weaning food in Africa and is made from fermented maize, sorgum, or millet.
  • Kenkey is a fermented maize dough made in Ghana and the end product sounds somewhat similar to tamales. The dough is steamed wrapped in plantain leaves.
  • Banka is made from maize and cassava and is also fermented.
  • Other fermented products include: Bogobe, Koko and, Mawe, Mahewu (magou), Uji, Kisra, Enjara

Latin America

  • Acupe -Beverage based on germinated maize, fermented and sweetened Arroz requemado- Fermented rice grains
  • Cachiri -Fermented beverage based on maize, manihot or fruits. It is produced in clay pots
  • Jamin-bang -Bread based on maize fermented for 3-6 days and cooked as a cake.
  • Toco- Dessert based on maize fermented for 2-3 months and cooked

European

  • Swiss Rye Breads (Dr. Price was impressed with the health of the Swiss who ate a sourdough rye bread daily)
  • American Sourdoughs have a long tradition in our country.
  • Beers-Traditionally many beers were very low alcohol, but full of important enzymes (more like a kombucha!).

Russian

  • Tolokno-soaked oats, dried, cooked with milk or broth
  • Oat kisel’, a soured oat dish. The oats were sprouted, fermented and dried and then cooked and strained. This made a kind of sour gelatin.

I think that it goes without saying that fermented grains were and are an important part of food production in the past and present. And to emphasis the care that went into these ferments, I wanted to give the description of  two Russian ferments, Tolokno and Oat Kisel.This is quoted from Against the Grain by Katherine Czapp  published by the Weston A Price Foundation.

Tolokno is oat flour made by an old Russian folk method. Whole oats were soaked for 24 hours (sacks of oats would be submerged in a pond or river) and the swollen grains then set overnight in the Russian oven–a large masonry oven for cooking and home heating. The oats would be taken out, the oven refired and the oats placed inside again to gently roast until completely dry and smelling of malt. The oats would then be pounded or ground, and the resulting sifted flour was called tolokno from the verb “to pound.” It would be cooked with milk or meat bouillon to make a thickened soup which–in contrast to modern grain products–was very easy to digest, considered good for stomach or intestinal ailments and deemed an excellent food for convalescents and children.

Oat kisel’ is another old Russian delicacy made from soured oat gelatin. Whole oats were sprouted, gently dried in a warm oven and then set in warm water for 24 hours at the back of the oven where they started to ferment. The oats and the soaking water, now containing many nutrients from the oats, were slowly heated to just the boiling point while a patient cook stirred constantly. The kisel’ was then strained and the liquid poured into a dish, where it would gelatinize, becoming thick enough to cut with a knife. It was pleasantly sour (“kis” is related to “kvas” and means sour) and was traditionally served with milk and honey. Kisel’ could also be made with rye or peas, and in the latter case was served with meat bouillon.

Is it just me, or does that seem like a lot of work and care? I mean these were people often two steps away from disaster. To put so much work and care into food preparation speaks to me that they viewed this process as very important.

Conclusion
A quick overview of global grain preparation habits seems to demonstrate that grains were fermented for daily consumption and that a lot of care and work went into fermenting the grains properly. The methods vary, and there is a lot of information to absorb from this history and much still to learn and glean from the information already gathered, but I am certain that claims that fermented grains are traditional must be true! I am also convinced that traditionally these methods must have been held in high esteem for so much work to be invested into them.

Stay Tuned for more!

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I love beautiful and simple food that is nourishing to the body and the soul. I wrote Fresh: Nourishing Salads for All Seasons and Ladled: Nourishing Soups for All Seasons as another outlet of sharing this love of mine. I also love sharing practical tips on how to make a real food diet work on a real life budget. Find me online elsewhere by clicking on the icons below!

Comments

  1. Kelly says

    Thank you so much for this! I wish our modern culture embraced these slow food preparations. May God bless you.

  2. says

    Very solid research, Kimi. Another thing I have read consistently is that fresh-ground flour is an essential part of the process as well. And by fresh that means ground shortly before using (as opposed to a week earlier, etc.). It’s hard to find flour that fresh nowadays unless you grind it yourself.

  3. Yoderclan says

    Hey,
    I really appreciate the time you are taking for all of us to learn about this. I was having a lot of health problems from about Jan. til April. I really think changing my diet to whole grains (also soaking them) and getting on board with a Naturopath really helped me. I have a great result…pregnancy after a month of following instructions I found through your website, my naturopath and keeper of the home. Thanks.

  4. says

    I’m surprised that you left off some of the most common soaked grains in Latin America — corn soaked in lime. I once spent a summer in a small Mexican village teaching Spanish to some native indian children. Every morning I woke up before sunrise to the sounds of goats, chickens, and the mule-powered village mill starting to grind the buckets of lime-soaked corn that the women would bring to use to make their daily ration of tortillas. According to the villagers, it had always been done this way. I’ve since learned that history bears this out. Native cultures have been soaking corn in lime for thousands of years in order to make it more digestible and increase its nutrient density.

    • KimiHarris says

      Hey Kristen,
      That’s another excellent example. I discussed that certain process in more detail here and here. There were truthfully so many fermented grain dishes that I didn’t list them all. :-)

    • says

      Yes, this is called nixtimilization. We need to nixtimilize to get the Niacin from the corn. In the deep South, many of those who subsisted on corn go palegra (Niacin deficiency) due to this forgotten way of treating corn. Mostly, the African-American community was affected. Another reason to PAY ATTENTION to our ancestors and the food preparation techniques they offer us!

  5. says

    Thank you for presenting this information in such a clear and easy to read format. I am not able to eat any grains at this time due to intestinal damage but am very interested in how to prepare healthy grains for my family. Your blog has been invaluable!

    Thanks,
    Karen

  6. Nanci says

    Interesting! Thanks.
    Don’t know if I will ever be able to eat grain again. Am doing GAPS to try to end all the allergies as I am allergic to all grains.
    If I do add them, I think soaking will make a huge difference.

  7. Sarah says

    One of the very interesting things I learned from the book Ancient Futures, by Helena Norberg Hodge, was the way we look at cultures often began after they had already deteriorated form their traditional ways. When these food processes were started they were most likely thriving, not “two steps from disaster”.
    _Ancient Futures” is about a 3000 year old culture in Lei and Ladakh and the changes it went through during the introduction of tourism into the area.

  8. says

    This is a question that I have had since learning about Traditional Foods. I really appreciate the time you spent researching and sharing about this.

  9. Sandy says

    I love that you’re doing this!!! I asked my mother about some of these things..she actually comes from a small village and she says that they would harvest all the corn and they would heat the corn in lime and then leave it there basically the nixtamalization (about 20 lbs. worth). She says then it was just left there and every day pretty much three times a day they would grab some and then grind it and use it (tamales, tortillas, pupusas). I honestly have to press hard and ask several questions to get all the information out. It was just so long ago for her since she’s now lived in the US more than half her life. My mom didn’t do a lot of this in the US although she did still cook from scratch and make a lot of soups in broth (fish, chicken, beef). When I ask her why she didn’t still do things that way she says she didn’t know how to do those things here, but she always knew the food was different and of lesser quality ( I remember her always saying how skim milk was just basically water and how horrible it was that they skimmed all the cream;she thought it was cheap of course knowing how valuable cream actually is). Apparently when she first came she tried to do things the only way she knew how, but quickly became discouraged in not finding the tools she needed.

    I got a little sidetracked there, but thanks for doing this!

  10. Sandy says

    Oh and they would harvest and nixtamilize in huge batches but only the amount they needed. They had the rest of the corn kept dry in barrels until they would soak them as well as needed. I realized I was giving off the wrong impression.

  11. ruth says

    Thank you. Very informative.

    For me the big question that I haven’t found a solid answer for is this: I’m sure soaking a whole grain, drying it, and then grinding it into flour as you’ve described above is useful because traditional cultures all over the world did it. But I just “soaked” my oats in yogurt before I made granola, or I sometimes “soak” ground flour before using it in a recipe. Does soaking flour (as opposed to a whole, unground grain) actually make it more digestible?

    I hope you talk about this in one of your posts.

    Thanks again for the great work!!

    • KimiHarris says

      Hey Ruth,

      Another blogger actually felt from her research that ground flour was even better as far as reducing anti-nutrients. I haven’t found a study that discussed this yet, but I am sure there is one out there. :-)

  12. Carla Aoyagi says

    Just a short question/ramble.. maize.. or in other words corn, has only been out of the Americas for less than 500 years… I’m assuming old world countries that adopted corn into their diet must have consumed something in its place prior? This goes for a lot of foods we now take as ‘ethic’ cuisine (i.e. they didn’t really have the food ‘traditionally’… in the sense that the food has only been in their diet for 500 years or less)
    Taking that into account, at what point do we consider something Traditional?

    Also, you raise a very good question when you ask about why do peoples go through all that extra work to prepare grains correctly, especially (at least in my research) since grains and legumes don’t see to offer a lot in respect to nutrition… I understand that they do store well for the winter, but there are many things that store just as well, or better, and have a better nutrition, and in my opinion better taste, than grains and legumes (nuts, dried fruit and vegetables, storing and cultivating types of vegetables, meat and dairy- both can be cured/cultured, in addition cared for…)

    I just wonder if culture and certain, culturally ingrained food addictions, can be a hinder to finding a diet that actually works for an individuals dietary and taste needs- whether the ‘food’ in question is Coke-a-Cola or traditionally leavened rye bread.

    • KimiHarris says

      Hi Carla,

      Interesting question! When you see corn travel out of the Americas, like to some of the European countries and to Africa, you notice that they lose the traditional ways of preparing it. Nixtamalization was lost and so were nutrients. As I have researched this topic, I found out that some researchers were even trying to bring back this ancient art in some countries, like Africa! It’s also true that certain foods only go back so far in some cuisines! For example, tomatoes is another food that only made it over to Italy in the last 500 years or so. So really, you could say “traditional” Italian food would be without tomatoes. So at what point do you consider something traditional? I don’t think there is really any specific timeline in my mind. The most important thing to me is avoiding “modern foods”. We have rapidly made changes in our food supply and how we eat. If you eat grains and legumes, traditional methods of preparation will probably help you get more nutrients and digest them better.

      However, I know what I have many “no grain” readers (who are already probably bored of this topic!). Many of them do so solely because of health issues, some because they feel this is the real “traditional” way to eat-the so called caveman diet. I think that “no grain” diets can be really helpful to certain people (since I know some of them!), and I certainly think that there are more nutrient dense foods than many grains and legumes. However, I do find from reading the literature for the whole “cave man diet” that there is a lot of guesswork going on and many different claims are made as to what their diet was like. Some claim very opposite things. :-) In the end, I personally wouldn’t change to a no grain diet simply because I think of it as more traditional. I would do so if it made me feel better (I did a month of no grain and starches and it didn’t help me feel any better). I think it depends on what works for you. I personally feel better if I have a small amount of grains every day and so I traditionally prepare them. :-)

      • says

        Hi there Kimi,

        Again, great article… I’ve been reflecting on forest cultures lately. In Northern and Central Europe, I would imagine that the indigenous peoples were more forest-based — meaning their diet… So, that would be animal products and tree products. Maybe they used more nuts…hazelnut and chestnut flours…for their breads? It seems that the wheat culture is from Mesopotamia and the Mediterranean, correct? Just wondering how the grains finally made their way up into Central and Northern Europe…and how that changed the landscape…diet…and cultural ways…

        Be well, Lindsay

  13. Jim says

    Someone should write a book that is simply recipes for all the listed ways of “activating” the various grains…. I wish I had time I would.

  14. Lupe says

    It is so interesting and encouraging to find other people so passionate about food and nutrition! I love the research and the input from the site and the comments.

  15. bunkie says

    i want to thank you too kimi, for this theme. i too am attempting to soak grains before making bread, and soaking beans with vinegar, etc… and such over night. it just feels right! and the more info you provide, proves it! thanks so much!

  16. says

    I am so excited about this!! After doing some (mild) research of my own and mostly experimenting I have been soaking my grains/flours. I have been able to tell a difference personally of not feeling weighed down and bloated. My 1 year old seemed to have tummy trouble after eating bread, crackers, etc. and when soaked grains are all he gets he is much happier. None of us have any major foreseen grain problems here but I believe that this method works. I think it does help with digestion and I continue to use it. I love how it makes you be prepared leaving little room for excuses to eat out or I don’t have enough time. Half the work is done when the batter has sat overnight or 24 hours. I am not perfect and would love some more tips and encouragement of how to be better prepared to stay on top of soaking. It’s no good when I have slacked and don’t have anything soaked on hand especially for the little guy. Thanks for the motivation!! Can’t wait to read more.

  17. says

    I really appreciate you writing on this topic Kimi. Is there any chance you will mentioning why people have become intolerant of gluten grains in relation to this topic?

    I used to really be into the primal/paleo diet, until I started to think about the food people ate in the Old Testament. Bread is first mentioned in Genesis, and all through the OT & NT. I think, if properly prepared, bread can be the staff of life!

  18. says

    I’m really enjoying this theme, Kimi, and appreciate all the research you’ve done! I now prefer, and love sourdough breads of all kinds and feel significant changes when I eat bread that hasn’t been prepared that way. . .

    I’m part Kumeyaay, a Native American tribe from the San Diego area, and know that they traditionally made a bread made with acorn flour. Primarily hunters and gatherers, and somewhat nomadic (they tended to have a summer camp and a winter camp) they still made the time to gather the acorns, soak them for several days (I’ve heard as much as two weeks) before making the flour that they made, basically, tortillas out of. I always heard that it was to “get the bitterness” out of the acorns, but since I’ve learned more about fermenting and soaking grains, nuts and legumes, it makes sense that it was also done to make it digestible.

    I know this is sort of off-topic, but have you done any research on the role of dry roasting to reduce phytic acid in grains and legumes? I feel that I’ve read that it helps with nuts, (and I have no idea how I came about this information right now! :) but wondering if it would also be something to consider. . . especially in terms of something simple like peanut butter.

    Anyway, thanks again for your research; it’s wonderful to have it available so concisely, and I look forward to reading more!

    Best,
    Sarah

  19. says

    The gluten grains (barley, farro, kamut, oats (if milled w/ wheat), rye, spelt, wheat) have gluten and, therefore, people can develop an “allergy” or gluten-intolerance or celiac disease if they eat too much/too often. Wheat is especially bad because it has been hybridized over the years to contain much more gluten than it had in Bible times.
    Non-gluten “grains” (amaranth, buckwheat, corn/cornmeal, millet, quinoa, rice, sorghum, teff) are really seeds & do not have gluten.
    Beans & grains also have phytic acid. Fermenting is essential to reduce phytic acid & neutralize enzyme inhibitors. See Nourishing Traditions cookbook by Sally Fallon or visit westonaprice.org/foodfeatures/be_kind.html

  20. says

    I got on a tangent & forgot to mention that I read somewhere that back in our grandparents/great-grandparents’ day, on the box of oatmeal it had instructions for fermenting the oats before eating them. Somewhere along the line, probably due to our “fast-paced” / “fast-food” society, the fermenting instructions got dropped because it took too long.

  21. says

    I’m planning on asking my readers to experiment with grains this fall by eating only soaked, or only unsoaked whole grains, or no grains, etc. and comparing their digestion. I’d love to have some of the folks who commented here to join in! I’m explaining the process this Friday…
    :) Katie

  22. says

    Thank you for making this easy to read for beginners – that’s me. After reading some of the comments, I am reminded why I get so stressed out about this whole issue. It can quickly become so overwhelming that I just shut down. But I have continued reading and soaking my grains.

    One thing I desperately need is help with the cooking after the soaking. My rice is coming out like clumps and the quinoa was so mushy that I just could not eat it. Yuck. I am going to check out your older posts to see if you have instructions on how to cook soaked foods. If you haven’t written about it, could you please?? :)

  23. Brenda says

    As someone who researched gluten-free for my own health a while back, I’d like to clarify one little thing…. OATS, IN AND OF THEMSELVES, ARE GLUTEN-FREE. However, they become “guilty by association,” you might say. That is, it is usually milled in close proximity to the truly gluten containing grains, and it thereby becomes contaminated. And that can be true of any gluten-free grains So, if you love your oats, you only need to find a gluten-free processing source. Right off the top of my head, Bob’s Red Mill comes to mind, and you can find oats here:

    http://www.bobsredmill.com/gluten-free/index2.html

  24. says

    Great article! Also, in Russia/Ukraine area…they make Kvass…this is a fermented beverage (low-alcohol content) made from honey, water, and old Dark Russian Bread. In Simferopel (center of Crimea, Autonomous Republic of Ukraine)…I remember barrels of Kvass in the Summer in the park. A babushka would vend the drink and you had to pay barely the equivalent of a nickel for the drink! Of course, the USDA would pounce on such a thing in the US (Boooooo — hissssss)… There, it was a delightful, mead-like, sparkling drink!

  25. Sangeetha says

    A correction, if you don’t mind. Idli is more like a dumpling than like a pancake. It is steamed, not fried. Dosa is fried. Not deep fried of course but just like pancakes. The batter is made by soaking legumes and rice, then grinding, followed by fermenting. Traditionally, not using flour. Kind of like the difference between soaked wheat pancakes and soaked flour pancakes.

  26. Ole says

    Hi.

    Are you absolutely sure that the tolokno-flour was sifted after it had gone through the drying-phase?

    I wonder because millers usually want to get more moist in the grain before sifting, so roasting the grain would result in quite a lot worse separation. What do you think about that?

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