Little Hints of Spring: Growing Sprouts At Home
Spring is a great time to begin an indoor gardening project in your home. Just as the shoots and leaves are poking up from the ground outside, a little green parallel universe develops in a Mason jar on your kitchen counter. Dormant seeds need just a bit of daily encouragement, and before a week is through they’ve burst into action and grown into a squiggly, pillowy mass of healthful, edible leafy greens.
Vegetable Origins: A World of Nutrition
Though we often think of sprouts as a class of vegetables all on their own, they are really just baby versions of what will eventually become full-grown produce. Each sprout packs a serious nutritious punch—with vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and enzymes protecting against free radical damage— providing the body with far more of the healthful compounds per ounce than their adult counterparts.
Broccoli sprouts, for example, contain higher concentrations of isothiocyanates than full-grown broccoli. These sulfur-containing phytochemicals inhibit the action of certain enzymes, thereby helping to protect the body against various cancer-causing agents.
Other health benefits include those of bean sprouts, which are a rich source of protein, vitamins, minerals and fiber, and contain isoliquiritigenin, a “potent anti-tumor agent.”
Also, Alfalfa sprouts boast a high concentration of saponins, which work to lower your cholesterol by preventing the body’s reabsorption of bile. They can also help to fight fungal infections, and even boost your immune system.
Low Investment, High Return
Of all the gardening projects you can tackle at home, sprouting is the one of the easiest, least expensive (in both time and money) and most rewarding. The instant gratification factor is hard to argue with—sprouts generally take between three to six days from seed to harvest.
Even if you don’t have a green thumb, you can successfully grow a jar of sprouts. Believe me, I know from firsthand experience. I have a pretty sketchy track record when it comes to taking care of houseplants, herbs and vegetable gardens, but my trusty sprouting jar hasn’t failed me once.
Three tablespoons of sprouting seeds produce a full quart of finished sprouts in three to six days. You can watch them grow practically before your eyes, and it’s just plain fun to see them go from seed to sprout so quickly. If you have children, it’s a no-brainer to get them involved, too. They can help with the simple task of rinsing the sprouts twice a day, once in the morning and once before you go to bed at night.
A Few Odds and Ends
Sure, you could go full-out and get a spendy sprouting kit. There are tons of different set-ups, made out of cloth, plastic, glass, terra cotta and stainless steel. This proliferation of options speaks to the ease of growing sprouts in general—they will thrive in just about any environment with enough moisture, good drainage and protection from excessive heat and light.
If you’re trying out sprouting at home for the first time, go the simplest route and use a quart-sized Mason jar. Besides the jar itself, you’ll only have to purchase two other things: the seeds you plan to sprout, and a lid with a mesh screen, so you can rinse and drain your sprouts right in the jar.
A Tasty Treat, Raw or Cooked
Beyond the health and nutritional benefits of sprouts, I just love the way they taste. Each variety has a distinct flavor and texture, and it is easy and fun to experiment with growing different ones until you find your favorites. Radish sprouts have a spicy kick, just like a mature radish, while broccoli sprouts are milder and have a distinct cruciferous aroma. Clover sprouts are milder still, while cress has a peppery profile.
Most leafy sprouts taste best eaten raw in salads and sandwiches, while bean sprouts are great raw or cooked in stir-fries and sautés. As for grain sprouts, they can be incorporated into your baked goods, adding chewy texture and whole-grain flavor.
In the last couple decades, it has come to light that there is no effective way to completely eliminate the risk of E. coli and Salmonella in raw sprouts. If you are in a high-risk group such as children, pregnant women, the elderly and those with autoimmune conditions, it’s best to cook your sprouts above 160°F. to ensure they won’t cause foodborne illness.
Some seed suppliers say that disinfecting your seeds before sprouting them will also help to mitigate these possible health risks. The instructions inside seed packets from Botanical Interests recommend beginning your sprouting process by soaking the seeds in a 2% bleach solution for 15 minutes. Use a teaspoon of bleach per cup of hot water, then rinse the seeds well before their subsequent soak in cool water.
If you’ve got a budding interest in sprouts, there are plenty of resources online for learning about sprouting and ordering supplies. Here are three of my favorite sites for information and equipment:
Sprout People operates out of a warehouse in San Francisco, and you’ll find tons of unusual sprouting seeds and proprietary mixes in their online store—it’s a one-stop shop for absolutely everything you’d ever need to grow sprouts and microgreens.
Mountain Rose Herbs offers a fairly small selection of single-variety sprouts for sale, in four-ounce, eight-ounce and one-pound quantities. I especially enjoyed John Gallagher’s video, found on the sprouting seed page of their website. He demonstrates the Mason jar (my favorite), and also shows you what sprouting bags and trays look like in action.
The International Sprout Growers Association provides a wealth of information about the nutritional value and health benefits of sprouts—they’ve compiled the findings from numerous research studies into an easy-to-read brochure. Read more on their website, including a history of sprouts, information on different varieties and recipes for juices, salads, main dishes and even desserts.