INTRODUCTION: INITIAL SETBACKS WITH SPROUTS
A couple of weeks ago I tried sprouting a medley of sprouting seeds. This was partly a project to do with my grandson. Instead of just sticking to alfalfa, I was seduced by enthusiastic discussions and reviews online about sprouting a variety of plants. So, I got some mesh jar lids and purchased a suite of seed mixtures on Amazon. Each mixture, sized for one jar-load, came in its own little plastic bag.
The “sprouts” I was used to were alfalfa sprouts, which appear in the grocery store in bundles of thin, hair-like strands, several inches long. I have never deliberately bought them, but if they were there in a salad bar, I might drape a little clump of alfalfa sprouts over everything else on the salad plate.
It turns out that there are several rather different classes of “sprouts” that folks grow to eat. Some, like alfalfa, clover, radish, and broccoli, start as very small seeds. In the course of sprouting, the seed more or less disappears, and a long slender tendril is produced, which is mainly what you eat.
But many of the seeds in the mixtures I got were beans or peas (some familiar and some unfamiliar to me). Those are pretty big seeds. Even if the sprouts they produce ends up much longer than the length of the seed, when you eat those guys you are mainly eating the seed part. Granted, the biochemistry of the seed may be somewhat altered when you soak and sprout them. But in the end, you are eating a cold, uncooked bean.
A cold, uncooked bean is not that appealing to most folks. When my grandson took his first bite of our home-grown sprouts, he promptly spit it out, pronouncing, “That’s disgusting.” We adults put little dabs of our sprout mixtures on salads and in sandwiches, but everyone lost interest after a day or two, and I ended up throwing some out. It is not that the first bite of the sprouts was bad, you just didn’t want a second bite. So, our family sprouting venture was kind of a fail.
A further fail had to do with the wheat seeds that were in some of the mixtures. In the sprouting process we typically gave the seeds an initial overnight soak, covered in water, then poured off the water and then twice a day poured in fresh rinse water, then inverted to drain the seeds but let them stay moist. All this was easily done in mason jars with mesh lids. For most of the seeds, we (per directions) let them sprout for about 3 days past the initial soak.
That was fine for most of seeds, but I noticed the sprouted wheat in these mixtures tasted terrible, just like grass. That puzzled me, because I have eaten sprouted wheat bread in the past that tasted fine. Consulting the internet revealed that with wheat, it should be germinated, not fully sprouted. If you wait three days, when several distinct tendrils are showing and are say 3/8” long, that is probably too late. You should stop when the little shoots are about 1/4” (6 mm) long, which may be only 24-36 hours after the initial soak.
PLANNING TO MAKE UNCOOKED “ESSENE” BREAD
I have always had a mild interest in the technology of Biblical times or earlier. Before engines or even water-power, how did people grow food and make stuff? In the case of preparing wheat to eat, how did people do it before metal cookware or maybe before clay oven technology was perfected? It seems soaking wheat seeds to soften and partly sprout them may have played a role. In the germination process, the enzymatic chemistry of the wheat seed goes into action and breaks down some of the highly stable compounds in order to activate them for supporting active growing instead of stasis. Studies show that this sprouting chemistry renders the material in the wheat more amenable to human digestion than in the original seed and greatly increases the vitamin A and C content.
Now, you can simply buy sprouted wheat flour (the wheat is sprouted, then dried, then ground to flour) in the store and then follow published bread and other recipes for using it. And there are bread recipes which use typical ingredients like flour and yeast, and just stir in some sprouted wheat grains. But I wanted to see if I could do what some person might have done in the Middle East thousands of years ago, absent high-performance grinding and baking apparatus. In particular, I had read that if you take sprouted whole wheat, mash or grind it as a paste, and simply set it out in the hot sun, it will dehydrate to make a dense, edible loaf. This is now often called “Essene” bread (whether the dehydration is done in the sun or in a low temperature oven).
This name hearkens back to the Jewish Essene sect, whose members lived a rigorous ascetic lifestyle in first century Judea. Some Essenes lived in monasterial settlements along the shore of the Dead Sea, and are thought to be the ones who secreted sacred scrolls in caves there.
The connection between Essenes and sprouted, sundried wheat bread seems to be due mainly to this passage in the so-called “Essene Gospel of John”:
Let the angels of God prepare your bread. Moisten your wheat, that the angels of water may enter it. Then set it in the air, that the angel of air may embrace it. And leave it from morning to evening beneath the sun, that the angel of sunshine may descend upon it. And the blessings of the three angels will soon make the germ of life to sprout in your wheat. Then crush your grain, and make thin wafers, as did your forefathers when they departed out of Egypt, the house of bondage. Put them back again beneath the sun from its appearing, and when it is risen to its highest in the heavens, turn them over on the other side that they may be embraced there also by the angel of sunshine, and leave them there until the sun sets. … And the same sun which, with the fire of life, made the wheat to grow and ripen, must cook your bread with the same fire.
It turns out that this Essene Gospel of John is almost certainly a fraud, having been elaborately forged in the 20th century, so there is no actual explicit connection between the Essenes and “Essene bread”. No matter, the name seems here to stay.
MAKING THE ESSENE BREAD
First, I bought online a small sack of organic “Hard White Wheat Berries”:
The hard berries have higher protein/gluten content than soft wheat, and the white variety contains less bitter tannin than the red wheat.
At noon, I started soaking 2 cups of wheat berries (seeds) in around 5 cups of water.
At 9:00 PM (after a 9-hour soak), I drained off the water, put the wheat seed in a sieve colander, ran some more clean water through to rinse it, and sat the colander in a big bowl with some water in the bottom.
I covered the top of the colander with a plate, and draped a thin towel over the whole bowl. The aim was to keep it 100% humidity in there, but allow some air access.
About 9:30 AM, after about 12.5 hours sprouting overnight, tiny white nubs were just barely appearing on the seeds. I am calling this “hydrated”, not yet “sprouted” wheat. I could chew these grains, though they were tough.
The volume had swelled from 2 cups of dry wheat to nearly 4 cups of hydrated wheat. Most of it I ran some more water through, and put it back in the colander in the bowl to continue sprouting, but I took 1.5 cups of this hydrated wheat to process into my first Essene loaf.
SUN-DRYING MY FIRST ESSENE LOAF
I wanted to grind the wheat like a good ancient person would, I but didn’t have anything suitable to grind with. I mashed a few grains on a plate with the bottom of a jar, but that just kind of flattened them. If I tried to rub the grains between two bricks or between a rock and the pavement, I was sure it would get full of grit.
In the end, I ran this hydrated wheat through a very un-Essene electric food processor with stainless steel blades. I started with half the load (3/4 cup) into the food processor, and pulsed it several times. Not much was accomplished – – the hard grains just bounced around. I tried adding the other ¾ c of hydrated wheat (for total 1.5 cups wheat) and also about 1/3 cup of water. That helped the blades to start cutting into the kernels.
A number of long pulses, with occasional scraping and stirring of the contents, gave a pleasing moist mash. It even smelled a bit like bread dough made with wetted regular flour. (I think this means the starch in these grains was still mainly it its original, pre-sprouted form).
Most of the grain husks were chopped into pieces, and the inner starch mixed with the water and formed a sort of wet flour paste that gave the mash a little coherence. In hindsight, I could probably have added a little less water, but this mash was OK.
I shaped the mash into an oblong “loaf” just under an inch thick. (Most recipes for Essene bread call for more like 1 ½ inches thick, but my mash looked pretty wet, and I did not know how my sun-drying in the humid U.S. East Coast air would compare to the arid Dead Sea atmosphere).
I did not have a clean, sunlit hot rock to set my loaf on, so I put it in a cast iron frying pan, to then put out in the sun. My theory was that the black metal could absorb heat from the sun and conduct it to the loaf. That worked pretty well – – the pan stayed hot to the touch all day. I put it up on the concrete stoop just outside our door, to discourage any varmints from sampling my wheat. What could possibly go wrong?
Well, first there were the ants. I spotted them before they spotted my loaf. I spritzed the area with some insecticide, let the fumes dissipate, then put the pan back down in the sun. By this time, it was around 10:30. All seemed well.
Except…when I checked an hour later, a corner of the loaf was all messed up, and bits of wheat were scattered about. It looked like a bird had pecked into my loaf. I don’t know what diseases my avian visitor might have been carrying, so I carved away that corner. The rest of the loaf in the pan I covered with some window screening that I had lying around, and resumed the sun-drying. The picture below shows the covered loaf, with the pecked corner removed:
The wheat which I had cut off the corner I patted into a little pancake and cooked in the electric skillet to try to sterilize it. It sat at around 250-300 F for 15 minutes or so. This little bit of loaf firmed up nicely… the bottom was slightly browned, the top had a flexible dry crust, and the middle was chewy. This was encouraging.
I dehydrated the main loaf in the pan in the sun for about 6.5 hours. The upper side (exposed to the air) dried to a nice chewy crust. The underside tended to stay wet, so I flipped the loaf at several points. The inside stayed very moist, but the whole thing had some coherence. So, I had a loaf of genuine sundried Essene bread (“Loaf #1”):
This view of a cut edge shows it was still somewhat gooey inside:
Maybe I could have added less water or sun-dried it longer, to give a drier final product. The taste of this sundried loaf of pure wheat was very blah and unappealing. My wife said it needed salt. I sprinkled some salt on it, and it tasted much better.
Meanwhile, the rest of the wheat had been sprouting all day in the colander. After about 21 total hours of sprouting following the initial 9.5-hour soak, there were now definite but very small (1/8 inch or 3 mm) sprouts on the grains:
I decided to make the rest of my Essene bread from this batch of sprouted wheat. Some sources say you should wait until the sprouts are more like ¼” long (about the length of the wheat kernel), but I was afraid of over-sprouting. This batch worked well, though I probably could have let the sprouting run another 12 hours or so.
I took 2 cups of this sprouted wheat and pulsed it in the food processor with about 1/3 cup of water. This formed a very wet mash, less firm than the morning’s mash for the sun. I could have added less water. It seemed like the consistency of the wheat had really changed over the past nine hours or so of sprouting – – the grains seemed wetter and softer than the hydrated wheat that went into the sundried Loaf #1. This new mash now all stuck up around the inside of the vessel, above the blades. A number of times I used a little spatula to shove the mash back down into blades and then repeated pulsing. I added about 1 1/8 teaspoon of salt. The mash then tasted very salty – – it would have been better to add ½-¾ teaspoon salt.
DEHYDRATING THE FINAL TWO LOAVES IN AN ELECTRIC SKILLET
I formed this mash into two ¾ inch thick pancakes, to be “cooked” in a loosely covered electric skillet, pre-coated with a little oil. The first of these skillet-cooked loaves (Loaf # 2) was dehydrated at a 150 F (65 C) setting for about 2 ¼ hours. I turned it every half hour or so – – the upper surface would dry out, but the underside stayed wet. The final product had decent texture. The outside was a bit dry, not sticky, while the inside was moist but not wet. The thickness shrank as a result of dehydration.
The second mash pancake (Loaf # 3) was cooked more quickly, at a higher temperature setting. This was cooked at 250 F (120 C) for about 40 minutes, with flipping several times. Again, the underside tended to stay wet. This finished with 5 min on each side at a 350 F setting, for total 50 minutes cooking. This gave a nice, slightly brown crust, but the inside was still very wet. It tasted good in small amounts — very dense and still quite salty, but the saltiness was welcome in this hot summer season. Here are these two finished loaves, with some bites taken out of them:
That last loaf (#3) was put in the refrigerator overnight. The other two went into the freezer. Being still wet inside and not really cooked hard, these loaves might spoil or ferment fairly quickly at room temperature.
Overnight in the refrigerator, the moisture in Loaf #3 redistributed, so both the inside and outside were moist, chewy, and not too wet. Propped up, edge view:
It was very dense (no air bubbles). I heated strips of it in the microwave. It was tasty and satisfying. The high salt content may help it to be satiating.
It was gratifying to make a palatable, healthy product from the wheat berries. I will likely not repeat the sun-drying stunt, since it took considerable time and requires a whole day of full sun, which is not so common where we live. With an electric skillet, you can dial in a temperature and walk away, and just flip the loaf periodically. The loaf seems pretty forgiving as to the exact temperature/time of drying. Both of the two skillet drying regimes I tried (150 F for 2+ hours and 250 F/350 F for a shorter time worked fine. The texture of the loaf from the higher temperature/shorter time regime improved overnight, so maybe you cannot rush the drying too much. I have noted above where I may have added too much water, and that a slightly longer sprouting time would have probably worked just as well.
Adding some salt or other flavoring seemed essential in making these loaves taste good. Various chopped nuts or fruits or other ingredients could be added. With the coarse mash I made in the food processor, and the breakdown of the wheat’s starches and proteins in the sprouting process, I doubt that adding yeast would yield a successful rising bread loaf . I’d expect more success with quick bread or pancakes made by adding baking powder and eggs and milk, etc. (This would be analogous to this recipe with using baking powder and only cornmeal (no flour added) to make cornbread). And again, there are various recipes on-line for simply adding sprouted wheat grains to other things like salads or flour-based breads.
 “Ezekiel bread” is made from a mixture of sprouted grains, which have been ground into flour. It’s named after the Old Testament verse Ezekiel 4:9, which reads: “Take wheat and barley, beans and lentils, millet and spelt; put them in a storage jar and use them to make bread for yourself…”
 That said, see here for a recipe using sprouted wheat berries which had been ground in a food processor. However, from the pictures, it looks like the sprouted wheat berries used there were hardly sprouted at all, so it was more like using unsprouted wheat.