We have consumed nuts for thousands of years, right back to the earliest days of mankind. Not only do they provide an abundance of nutrients, but their high amounts of protein and healthy fats make them great dietary staples and go-to energy sources.
However, nuts are hardy fruits designed by nature to protect seeds, after all. For this very reason, they did not evolve to be eaten and have developed their own defences against such a threat. In this article, I will explain to you why to soak nuts just as our ancestors did, and how doing so is beneficial (and easy)!
(Side note: For our vegetarian and vegan friends out there, this is essential. Because you’ll probably use nuts as an alternative protein source, proper preparation methods are required to prevent any deficiencies in certain minerals).
The Ancient Art
As I mentioned above, humans have used nuts as food for a very long time! And just as with any other food, we had to try them before we knew they were safe. It was undoubtedly our very curiosity that led to many of the discoveries of mankind, and many foods are no exception.
Nowadays a lot of things are different from how they used to be, and once again foods are no exception. There was a time when every family and member of society would try to eat in the best way that they could in order to preserve their genetic wealth for generations to come. This obviously wasn’t always easy and may have required a lot of work both on the move and farming, hunting and foraging, and also preparing. It’s the latter point that I want to expand on here.
When you dig into your daily (hopefully fermented) oats or open a tin of pre-soaked beans or what have you, it’s evident that your food didn’t come straight from the farm as it is, and thus would have gone through its own form of preparation already before being ready to eat.
Unfortunately, in the modern world, much of the preparation of food is processed in unnatural ways and often uses multiple inorganic chemicals. Our ancestors knew better. And although they were at risk from multiple threats to their well-being that many of us are not today, they were fortunate enough to have a much better diet.
This is in part thanks to their advanced knowledge of proper food preparation. The Aztecs were known to soak and dry seeds, the ancient Chinese would ferment soy to create the first tofu, and the ancient Egyptians would often ferment their bread dough for days.
Phytic Acid and Nuts
Cracking on… See what I did there? 😉
Nuts contain a well-known chemical compound called “phytic acid”. I also speak about this in my post on How To Ferment Oats (you definitely should, it’s amazing)!
Its role within plants is to provide a source of energy as well as phosphorus and organic chemicals for cell function during the seedling phase.
Not only this, but phytic acid is designed to protect the stored fats, proteins, and minerals of seeds. It does so with chemical binders which cannot be broken down by the digestive enzymes of most animals, and these bind to iron, zinc, and calcium mostly, but also to magnesium. These nutrients in turn toughen the seed and its husk. This process led to phytic acid being classified as something called an anti-nutrient.
Because of this, consuming nuts in large amounts – and in fact grains too (but more on that in another post) – may lead to a deficiency in these minerals and has done to people. Because of this it is important to follow a balanced diet. Also, when eating nuts with other foods it will prevent the absorption of these nutrients from those foods. However, this is only the case when the nuts are not prepared well. When you buy pasteurised (the most common type) or raw nuts sold in the supermarket, they are often still very high in phytic acid.
So, how do we reduce those levels? By soaking.
What Soaking Really Does
The process of soaking nuts activates the enzyme phytase. This is what is used by the nuts to break phytic acid down into its stored energy and nutrients so that they become “bio-available” (i.e. available for use).
Because we rely on enzymes (a type of protein), it is important that we do not use nuts that have previously been roasted or heat-prepared, as the high temperatures denature the enzymes. This basically means that they won’t be able to do their job.
Phytase activity deconstructs the “phytates” (phytic acid), making the nutrients in the nuts more absorbable. The more phytic acid levels are reduced, the more nutrients become available and the less minerals will be bound to. This is great news for us and makes the digestive process much easier.
Another benefit of soaking is the reduction of “enzyme inhibitors” found in nuts. They are used so that the seed will not sprout too early. The enzymes we release during digestion in order to process carbohydrates, fats, and proteins are prevented from working efficiently by these enzyme inhibitors. This makes digestion slower – and for some people more uncomfortable. Furthermore, antinutrients such as tannins and lectins are also reduced, but make sure to peel the skin off (this is very easy after soaking)! (This is where tannins are found).
This is really our explanation of why to soak nuts.
The Soaking Process
So, now that we know in detail why to soak nuts, let’s explore how.
The way that nuts are soaked should be in optimum conditions for phytase activity. Using a 1:2 ratio of nuts to water, these are achieved by adding 1-2 tsp sea salt per cup of water to decrease the pH and keeping the nuts in a warm place above room temperature. It is vital at this stage that filtered or dechlorinated (/boiled) water is used. Most often, they are left for anywhere between 3-24 hours, depending on the nut. By this time much of the phytic acid should have been reduced. For convenience, the time can be reduced (probably to 3 quarters of the time) by adding a tablespoon or so of apple cider vinegar or whey, or of a phytase-rich grain such as rye, wheat, or barley flour to the solution. After soaking, remove any that float as these may be rancid.
These are the soaking times for some common types of nuts (and a few seeds):
12-24 hours (often done in the afternoon for the next morning):
7-8 hours (often done overnight):
- Macademia Nuts
- Pine Nuts
- Pumpkin Seeds
- Sunflower Seeds
3-4 hours (often done throughout the day):
- Brazil Nuts*
- Cashews* (Beware of over-soaking as they can take on an oily texture*)
- Sesame Seeds
Like others, I personally believe that soaking also allows for the development of more complex flavours, but it may also change the texture. For a start, they will swell. In general the nuts and seeds will become crisper, and yet slightly softer.
Also, do note that in order to prevent soaked nuts from spoiling quickly, you should dehydrate them, which can be done using a dehydrator, or an oven at ~170°F for 12-24 hours. Otherwise they may be drained and dried (with a paper towel) before refrigarating and using within 24 hours.
We cannot fully eliminate phytic acid from nuts, and trying to do so would be impractical. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as in small amounts it may actually have some benefits (anti-cancer, antioxidant), but I’ll cover that and more about other anti-nutrients in separate posts.
A Little Extra – Sprouting and Fermenting
So, we’ve covered most of what there is to about soaking nuts, but there are multiple ways to decrease anti-nutrients, and although they take a little more work and time they’re certainly worth it.
As I said, activating phytase is the same action that a seed will take when it is starting to sprout. This provides them with energy and phosphorus. Some of you may have realised that by soaking we are effectively replicating the early processes of plant growth, and you’d be right!
This is where things get a little more interesting… By sprouting and fermenting we can actually amplify the same effects of soaking. These processes have added benefits such as being probiotic, and increasing nutrient levels.
Both the sprouting and fermenting of nuts (and seeds alike) require soaking, so with what we’ve just learned they should be quite a bit easier! Also, sprouting cannot be done with pasteurised nuts: you must get raw. Why not pick up some raw almonds here!
These will certainly be covered in their own posts! There’s simply too much detail to write about all of these without making one post too long. Keep an eye out if you’d like to learn more with me. 🙂
In a Nutshell…
Eating nuts is a highly nutritious way to get your protein and healthy plant fats, and especially if you eat them often or in large amounts it is important to prepare them properly.
Soaking is a traditional and effective way of making nuts healthier and more digestible that has been used for thousands of years. The purpose is to reduce anti-nutrients and increase the bio-availability of minerals like iron, zinc, calcium, and magnesium. But we know why to soak nuts now anyway!
Sprouting and fermenting can also be done, and will often have a more vigorous effect and add multiple extra benefits.
Even though soaking takes time, your efforts and patience are very rewarding, and after a few times you’ll find this easy and – if you’re like me – you’ll probably look forward to the process.
I really hope you enjoyed this article as much as I did! Once again, keep an eye out for the posts about sprouting and fermenting if you found this interesting.
Leave a comment below with any suggestions, questions, or just to chat! Have a nice day 🙂
Until the next one, stay healthy