A few weeks ago, my friend Liz left this comment on my “Seven Essential Tools for Baking” post.
I answered her briefly in a comment there but promised her that I’d write a fuller response because I think it’s a great question!
Why Even Bother?
First let’s start with why even bother at all with baking anything other than a standard, mainstream recipe. It’s well-known and accepted in the mainstream nutritional world that it’s better for you to eat baked goods made with whole wheat flour rather than white flour. Whole wheat flour generally has its fiber and nutrients intact and is certainly more nutritious than white flour, which has had the germ and bran stripped from it. Most white flour is enriched with vitamins and minerals but that doesn’t make up for the fact that it’s a highly processed food. Consequently, we have all been told, “Eat your whole grains!”
The problem with whole wheat flour (and all whole grains) is that it is also full of phytic acid. Phytic acid is a substance commonly called an “anti-nutrient”. Most seeds, grains, nuts, and beans have phytic acid in their outer shell. Its function is to keep the seed/grain/bean from disintegrating until it sprouts after it’s planted. (White flour doesn’t have this because the bran is removed.) Phytic acid blocks the absorption of nutrients in your gut, making whole grains difficult to digest for many people. There are two ways to neutralize the phytic acid – either by using sprouted flour (store-bought or homemade) or by soaking the whole grain flour in acidic water for at least 12 hours. (Generally speaking, you add whey/yogurt or some kind of vinegar to make the water acidic.) Sourdough starter is acidic and the long rise of sourdough bread serves the same function as soaking your flour. We’ve discovered that in our family, our guts function much better when we are eating soaked or sourdough bread.
Soaking/sourdough not only neutralizes the phytic acid, it also does some predigestion so that the bread is easier for your body to digest. I’ve read stories of some people’s gluten intolerance going away once they started to eat exclusively sprouted/soaked/sourdough products.
I know it seems like a lot of work to either take the extra step of using soaking or sourdough when making bread. What finally pushed me to make this a regular part of our diet was reading a quote from Sally Fallon (author of Nourishing Traditions and a rock star in the traditional foods world), in which she said something like, “If my choice was between unsoaked/unsprouted whole wheat bread or all-white-flour bread, I’d chose the white bread.”* I thought, “Wow! If Sally Fallon is saying that she’d actually eat white flour, then I’d better look into this a little bit further.” At this point, I don’t use whole wheat flour or any other whole grains without doing an overnight soak or a long sourdough rise. (And by “don’t use”, what I really mean is “hardly ever ever.” For example, I do occasionally make our whole wheat pizza crust recipe without soaking it if I forget to start it soaking the night before.)
Why Choose Sourdough? Why Choose Soaked?
So, if I’ve convinced you (and I hope I have), that its worth the time and effort to neutralize the phytic acid in your whole grains, your next decision is how to do it.
Choose sourdough if you:
- like the flexibility of a long (if unpredictable) rise time
- like the complex flavor of a more sour bread
- want a very traditional way of making bread
- like more dense, chewy bread
- want to minimize the number of ingredients you use in your baking
- want to completely eliminate commercial yeast from your diet (as many do)
Choose soaked if you:
- need a shorter, more predictable rising time (because you’ll be using commercial yeast)
- prefer the flavor of “regular” bread over sourdough bread
- want to produce a lighter, fluffier bread
- don’t want the trouble of maintaining a sourdough starter
- want to improve the nutritional quality of your baked goods without adding sour flavor
So, Liz, to answer your question, choose soaking your grains! I choose one or the other based on a variety of factors, including what I want to make and how much time I have to make it.
Although I started baking the majority of our bread at the beginning of 2011, it wasn’t until later in 2012 that I entered the world of soaking grains. Over the past couple years, I have been hard at work, adapting many recipes to meet our needs. I’ve shared a few of them with you already and have more to come.
Here are my recipes for whole wheat sourdough bread, black pepper oregano whole wheat sourdough crackers, soaked [mostly] whole wheat sandwich bread, soaked whole wheat pumpkin muffins, and soaked granola.
Coming up in the next few weeks: recipes for soaked bagels, sourdough rolls, soaked whole wheat pizza crust dough, plus how to soak beans and lentils.
*Of course, I can’t find the place online where I read that quote so you’ll just have to trust my hazy memory on that one! It was something like that anyway.
Here’s an example of what you could buy for sprouted wheat flour. I haven’t bought it before because, as you can see, it’s quite expensive – about four times as much as I pay for my locally-milled regular whole wheat flour. It’s an easy choice for me to either soak my flour or use sourdough.
See this post for more about phytic acid, including its chemical makeup.