Saturday, June 5, 2010

Fermented Grain Recipes from Around the World

In my last two posts on grains, I described how traditional food processing methods make grains more nutritious and digestible (1, 2). I promised to briefly describe a few recipes from around the world, then got distracted by other things. Here they are.

Africa: Ogi

Grain fermentation is widespread in Africa and is probably nearly as old as agriculture on the continent. The nutritional importance of fermentation is suggested by the amount of time and effort that many African cultures put into it, when they could save themselves a lot of trouble by simply soaking and cooking their grains.

Ogi is a common West African porridge that's eaten as a staple food by people of all ages. It's even used as a weaning food. It's made in essentially the same manner from corn, sorghum or millet.

Whole grain is soaked in water for one to three days. It's then wet milled, mixed with water and sieved to remove a portion of the bran. Extra bran is fed to animals, while the white, starchy sediment is fermented for two to three days. This is then cooked into a thin or thick porridge and eaten.

South America: Pozol

At first glance, some people may think I left the 'e' off the word 'pozole', a traditional Mexican stew. However, pozol is an entirely different beast, an ancient food almost totally unknown in the US, but which fueled the Mayan empire and remains a staple food in Southeastern Mexico.

To make pozol, first the corn must be 'nixtamalized': whole kernels are boiled in a large volume of water with calcium hydroxide (10% w/v). This is a processing step in most traditional South American corn recipes, as it allows a person to avoid pellagra (niacin deficiency)! The loosened bran is removed from the kernels by hand.

The kernels are then ground into dough, formed into balls and placed into banana leaves to ferment for one to 14 days. Following fermentation, pozol is diluted in water and consumed raw.

Europe: Sourdough Bread

Sourdough bread is Europe's quintessential fermented grain food. Before purified yeast strains came into widespread use in the 20th century, all bread would have been some form of sourdough.

Although in my opinion wheat is problematic for many people, sourdough fermentation renders it more nutritious and better tolerated by those with gluten/wheat sensitivity. In an interesting series of studies, Dr. Marco Gobbetti's group, among others, has shown that fermentation partially degrades gluten, explaining the ability of fermentation to decrease the adverse effects of gluten in those who are sensitive to it (3). They even showed that people with celiac disease can safely eat wheat bread that has been long-fermented with selected bacteria and yeasts under laboratory conditions (4). Rye contains about half the gluten of bread wheat, and is generally nutritionally superior to wheat, so sourdough rye is a better choice in my opinion.

To make sourdough bread, first the dry grains are ground into flour. Next, the flour is sifted through a screen to remove a portion of the bran. The earliest bread eaters probably didn't do this, although there is evidence of the wealthy eating sifted flour in societies as old as ancient Egypt and ancient Rome. I don't know what the optimum amount of bran to include in flour is, but it's not zero. I would be inclined to keep at least half of it, recognizing that the bran is disproportionately rich in nutrients.

Next, a portion of flour is mixed with water and a "sourdough starter", until it has a runny consistency. The starter is a diverse culture of bacteria and yeast that is carefully maintained by the bread maker. This culture acidifies the batter and produces carbon dioxide gas. The mixture is allowed to ferment for 8-12 hours. Finally, flour and salt are added to the batter and formed into dough balls. These are allowed to ferment and rise for a few hours, then baked.

My Experience

I've tried making ogi (millet) and pozol, and I have to admit that neither attempt was successful. Pozol in particular may depend on local populations of bacteria and yeast, as the grains' microorganisms are killed during processing. However, I do eat fermented grains regularly in the form of homemade brown rice 'uthappam' and sourdough buckwheat 'crepes'. The buckwheat crepes are tasty and easy to make. I'll post a recipe at some point.

The first two recipes are from the FAO publication Fermented Cereals: a Global Perspective (5).


Aaron Blaisdell said...

Gosh. So much work just to eat grass embryos.

Echolight Studio said...

Aaron, i concur.

i'll stick with starchless.

K Black said...

What about the classic, always delicious Ethiopian/Eritrean injera?

Unknown said...

Stephan, do you have any further information on how this sieving is accomplished? (Specifically for the sourdough bread) I plan on getting a home mill within the next couple months to make my own breads and would be interested in any leads you have on this.


Todd S. said...

I find this intriguing. Sourdough bread was always my favorite anyway, and I've heard that it doesn't carry the same issues as normal bread. I may have to try it some day - maybe for special occasions. I have to agree with the first two posters though, that the cost/benefit ratio doesn't seem to work out in favor of benefit in this case.

Are there any particular flours that one could use to try these things? I don't have the equipment (or patience) to mill grains at home.

Todd S. said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Todd S. said...

Sorry for the deleted post, Stephan.

The link to the second article in the series (in the first paragraph above) is broken.

sandra said...

I've had recent success with making my own sourdough rye bread- texture and appearance identical to the "European Sourdough" in the freezer @ Wholefoods.... The taste was more sour (which my family likes) as I used a tiny amount of starter and let it ferment for a long time.

I made up a recipe by combining info from the following:

Basically, I used the no-knead method to make the dough (with 100%rye flour and my homemade sourdough starter) and then just let it sit for about 48 hours, for the baking method I used the steps from the Danish sourdough bread recipe...

This method is really not that much work - it just takes a long time!

Unknown said...

If you can find a West African grocery store anywhere near you, you might be able to buy an "ogi" mix, though it might go by any of 100 names, depending on whether it comes from Ghana or Nigeria or what-have-you. I know I buy a great fermented millet "powder" in my mostly Ghanaian store, mix it 1 part fermented flour to 5 parts water, stir well, boil and let it bubble a bit, and I have a great, sour porridge, that I love to add butter and / or raw cream and / or honey to. Yum!

I have run out of it at the moment, or I'd tell you what it said on the label. But I'm sure the store-person could direct you, if you asked for a "porridge mix" or something similar.

Good luck!

Anonymous said...

You should not eat grains at all. They bring mankind a lot of diseases. Look at . On the one hand grains contain loads of sugar and on the other hand they contain loads of dangerous chemicals.

Kindke said...

Agree with Aaron I think its kind of sad so much work to be able to eat grains properly.

The bottom line is Grains and Vegtables dont WANT to be eaten, this is why they are full of toxins and poisons and taste horribly bitter ( broccoli etc )

Fruit on the other hand has been purposely designed by plants to be eaten.

Anyone who hasnt watched it should see the Christmass Lectures 2009, its all about plants, vegtables, and toxins.

Brian H said...

Thanks Stephen. Can you think of any reason (aside from personal taste) that one would want to add fermented grains into their diet rather then get their carbohydrates from tubers and fruits? It just doesn't seem practical to do so unless these foods were somehow essential to our health.

Unknown said...

Two dumbest question ever on the blog... but the alcohol content of these fermented grains would be 0? Only wondering because of the previous ethanol post, heh.

And, off the top of your head, if you made a big batch and froze some, would you lose some benefits of fermenting? guess i'll hit google with this right now too, any input is appreciated.

Really interesting post. Must have helped their survival a lot to use the processes.

I'm not sure that fermenting is a lot of work... you just let it do what it wants to do, and seems easy to set up a processing chain after the initial 1-14 day fermenting period. Very little upkeep unless you're trying to make enough for a whole village by yourself. Cheap, too.

Rhonda said...

How about dosas? Fermented rice and lentil crepes. Traditional, delicious, and not hard to make. It just takes time. I have had much success with these.

Also, injera made from teff is easy to make and tastes good.

Stephan Guyenet said...

Most fermented grain recipes really aren't that difficult. They're considerably less work than baking a cake, they just take more planning.

Hi K Black,

That's another traditional fermented grain with deep roots. I like injera a lot. Most injera in the US is made with 50% white flour though.

Hi Brock,

I've never done it myself, but I think it's done using a screen. You can probably buy flour sifting screens online.

Hi Sandra,

Thanks for the links, that sounds great.

Hi Brian,

I don't think there's anything in grains you can't get elsewhere. But some people want to eat grains for a variety of reasons. It's just a matter of preference.

Hi Nathan,

These types of fermentation typically produce a small amount of alcohol, but I'm sure it evaporates during cooking.

Hi r.a.,

The uppatham I eat are basically thick dosas. I make dosa batter and keep it in the fridge. At that point, I can whip up a tasty uppatham in 5 minutes if I want. One batch feeds several people for 3-4 days. It goes with practically anything. It's very convenient.

Todd Hargrove said...


Do you know any Ethiopian places in Seattle that don't use wheat in the injera?

Stephan Guyenet said...

Hi Todd,

They all use wheat as far as I know. Some of them claim they'll make you 100% teff injera (or teff-corn injera) if you call in advance, but having done that twice now, they've failed to deliver both times.

Rhonda said...

No. But I make mine with ground teff from Bobs Red Mill.

chris said...

I'd be interested to hear how you prepare your dosa (and other variations you've tried)

any concern that by fermenting things during the preparation, there is less available substrate for colonic fermentation?

Rhonda said...

You have to plan this one 3 days ahead
Day 1
Put in separate bowls, and cover with water
1/3 cup of urid dal
1 cup of basmati rice
soak overnight
Day 2
put separately in food and puree until each forms a paste.
Mix together
Cover and let sit somewhere warm overnight.
I put mine in the oven with the light on. (It's too cool in my house
Day 3
Add one teaspoon of salt
And enough water to form a batter, like a pancake batter, or even thinner.
Head a frying pan on medium high
Cover with about 1 teaspoon of butter. (usually it's made with oil)
Pour about ¼ cup of batter onto the pan
Using the back of a spoon, spread the batter out In a spiral motion,
When it is lightly brown, flip it, and cook for a minute on the other side

This is traditionally eaten with sambar and potatoes, or you can put an egg right in the middle while it's still on the frying pan.
And eat it with some chutney

Stephan Guyenet said...

My version is not quite traditional. I use 2/3 of the rice as brown, 1/3 white. I use short-grain rice because it makes a dosa that holds together better. I also use a wet grinder, which makes the batter very smooth. You can't do brown rice in a food processor because it won't get it smooth enough. I soak both together 12 hrs in advance.

I grind the rice and urad dal together in the wet grinder, add salt and a bit of a fermentation starter (makes the fermentation faster and more reliable). I just use the rice soaking/fermentation water from the description in my post "a new way to soak brown rice". I ;et the batter sit for about 12 hours and it's done.

I make them thick, more like uppatham, and I fry them gently in a cast iron pan with a lid on, so they're more steamed than anything. I don't claim they're traditional, but I like them more than the ones I get in the restaurant. I feel better after eating them too.

Ed said...

r.a. and Stephan, do you rinse the rice & urad dal before grinding, or just drain? And I assume you use filtered (de-chlorinated) water at every step.

Rhonda said...

Hi Ed
I have a well, so my water is chlorinated. That's a good point. I think the chlorine would inhibit the fermentation. R.A.

Stephan Guyenet said...

I always use water that's been dechlorinated by my Brita filter. I do rinse the grains before grinding.

Medjoub said...

What is your fermentation starter, Stephan?

Stephan Guyenet said...

It's the soaking liquid from this post:

But any fermented grain starter should work.

Kiran said...

After having read a bit about gut flora, mostly on cooling inflammation.

I'm beginning to wonder if we are doing the gut a disservice by fermenting these foods, resulting in reduced food for gut bacteria.

Ravi said...


It's not uppatham; it's uthappam and it's awesome. For people who want to do the traditional thing, you can ask for Idli Rice in Indian stores and follow the recipe. Wet grinder gives you the best consistency and quality of batter. Use ghee to cook.

Can you tell me the advantage of mixing brown rice? I practically eat this everyday( seriously) and I am sure it won't be as good with brown rice. Why would you want to spoil a good thing?

Stephan Guyenet said...

Hi Ravi,

Ha, I guess I misspelled it. I'll correct it. The advantage of using brown rice is nutritional. I think it tastes just as good if not better with brown rice. The texture isn't as good for dosas, but for uthappam it doesn't matter. I do use a wet grinder and I love it.

Stephan Guyenet said...

By the way, I use about 1/2 to 2/3 brown rice, and the rest white rice.

Ravi said...


I figured you did -- I am not a stickler for spelling but just wanted to make sure you knew the right word.

Is brown rice that much superior to white rice? To me, in the end, both are carbs and have to be controlled. Other than the extra fiber( which I am not a fan of and think the fiber thing is way overblown) that brown rice provides, what nutrients -- in your opinion -- can you get in brown rice that are lacking in white rice?

Thanks for the great blog.

Anonymous said...

Great blog topic--there are many health advantages to fermented grains. But just FYI, corn made it to South America, but nixtamalized corn isn't common in the Southern Cone (Paraguay, Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil) although corn itself is.

Unknown said...


I'm interested in your comments on wet grinding vs. using a food processor for the wet rice/bean mixture.

I have been making idlis recently (so tasty) and like you I have been using your NWTSBR rice started to get the fermentation going. But I have used a food processor to grind them. It doesn't come out super smooth but it's good enough to get a corn bread consistency. I would not try to make dosas with them though.

What wet grinder do you use? I've been planning to get a home grain mill for a while now, one with a stone grinder to avoid heat build up that prematurely cooks or burns the flour. I haven't been able to determine if those products can grind wet grains though, or only dry. Any tips?


P.S. I have been adding ripe bananas to my idlis better (1 banana per cup rice), and it's fantastic. I recommend it. And the amylase from the banana allows my 9 month old to digest the idli easily. He loves them with a bit of butter (and so do I).

Thanks so much again for the blog.

Stephan Guyenet said...

Hi Brock,

I have an ultra grind plus, I think it's this model:

I bought it used for $100 on Craig's list because there's a big Indian population in the Seattle area. The construction overall isn't great, and parts of the plastic housing are failing. The motor has failed twice due to spontaneously disconnecting interior wires.

Wet grinders are awesome, but they're the same price as big food processors, i.e. they're expensive. It's the only way to get smooth dosa batter though.

Thanks for the banana tip, that sounds tasty.

Anonymous said...

Interesting, but I think I'll pass. The only real use I have for grains is oatcakes (around 5g carbs) and then only as something to hold up the cheese and butter.

Jane said...

Stephan, do you think it's possible to sieve out some of the bran without sieving out some (or even all) of the germ? That would be a bad idea. In fact sieving out some of the bran might be a bad idea too, since it's such a good source of manganese. People who eat a lot of meat have to be very careful about their manganese intake, to avoid relative iron overload. As I expect you know, iron overload has been found in many degenerative diseases, correlating with pathology, and manganese is needed to protect against the free radicals iron produces.

Here is a rather startling paper showing that iron-dependent Parkinson's in rats can be completely reversed by manganese:

You may also be aware that the phytate in bran has been suggested to protect against colon cancer:

This might be because it binds iron better than manganese, and so prevents relative iron overload. In agreement with this idea, phytate is protective in an in vitro model of Parkinson's:

You will read everywhere that iron deficiency is the most important of all nutritional deficiencies, affecting many millions or even billions of people. I have not been able to find any evidence that these people really have iron deficiency, as opposed to multiple micronutrient deficiency, and some of them even have iron overload.

'..there is evidence of the wealthy eating sifted flour in societies as old as ancient Egypt and ancient Rome.' Yes indeed, and the wealthy were the sick ones. Same thing in the UK, where before the industrial revolution only the wealthy could afford white bread. They were the sick ones too.

Things are even worse now, because by law, iron has to be added to white flour. Calcium has to be added too, and both iron and calcium interfere with manganese absorption.

joanne said...

Thanks, as always, for an informative post.

Question about dosas and/or uthappam: Do you think it would be possible for me to mill the rice and dal first (when dry), and then do the soaking?

I don't have a wet grinder, but I do have a grain mill. It's a micronizer, but it doesn't heat the flour up to a hot temp--it has a vent for cooling, and I only do a little at a time, and let it cool between just to be sure. The flour is only a little warm to the touch.

Anyone with experience in dosa making, I welcome your advice.


Rhonda said...

hi Joanne

I puree the soaked rice and lentils separately in my food processor.

Unknown said...

Stephan, I can get sourdough breads from my health supermarket at a fair price. Do you think they are healthy? Any uncertainties?