All About Sprouts
Spring is springing in northern lands. People are planting gardens and sauntering in sunny fields. Winter was filled with frozen and canned foods; robust root vegetables; and perhaps some wilted greens from faraway lands. We are hungry for fresh foods. If you are lucky, you may possess a garden stocked with asparagus, rhubarb, and other spring perennials. Or perhaps you are fortunate enough to live near a source of ramps, fiddlehead ferns, stinging nettles, or dandelions. Dandelions are much maligned but they offer a myriad of nutritional benefits. Even if you live in a high-rise apartment building with houseplants as your only companions from the kingdom Plantae, you can still grow great food.
There are crops that can be grown anywhere during any season. These crops usually mature within one to six days. They provide proteins, enzymes, vitamins and minerals while also offering protection from illnesses ranging from the common cold to degenerative diseases. You can grow them, in your own kitchen, for very little money. These foods can be used in delicacies ranging from salads and soups, to sweets, spreads and breads. Impossible you say. Read on.
These crops are called sprouts. Sprouts, of course are seeds that have been germinated, the beginning of the growth process for plants. Many kinds of seeds–including those referred to as grains, legumes and nuts–can be germinated and eaten.
What to Sprout and What not to Sprout
Here is a list containing some of the tastiest and most nourishing seeds that CAN be sprouted: lentils, mung beans, adzuki beans, chickpeas, black beans, kidney beans, lima beans, alfalfa, clover, wheat, barley, rye, buckwheat, millet, quinoa, sesame, sunflower, almond, radish, broccoli, chive, onion, cabbage, and mustard. For more comprehensive lists of seeds that can be sprouted, refer to The Sprouting Book by Ann Wigmore, The Complete Guide to Growing and Using Sprouts by Richard Helweg, or Nourishing Traditions by Sally Fallon (see the resource section at the end of this article).
Some kinds of seeds cannot or should not be sprouted. Below is a chart that contains categories of seeds that cannot or should NOT be germinated and eaten.
|Type of Seed
Do NOT sprout these types of seeds!
This list is not comprehensive
|Seeds that have been parched or roasted during processing.||Cashews, wild rice, roasted buckwheat, and any seed that has been roasted.|
|Seeds without the hull, shell, or germ. Note that some seeds without a hull or shell will sprout but others will not.||Walnuts, pecans, pearl barley, hulled sesame seeds, white rice, and oats (unless you can find oats with the hull included).|
|Mucilaginous seeds. These seeds will sprout but they require special care. It is easy to soak them overnight (flax or chia) or to grow them as micro-greens (arugula).||Flax, chia, and arugula.|
|Seeds that produce poisonous plants.||Tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, potatoes, rhubarb, and all other poisonous plants.|
|Non-organic seeds. Seeds for cultivation as opposed to consumption.||Buy only organic seeds intended for sprouting or consumption!|
Are Sprouts Safe?
Please pay particular attention to the last category on the chart. Much has been written about the potential hazards of consuming raw sprouts. It is true that the conditions required for sprouting (warmth and moisture) are quite conducive to the proliferation of bacteria including those that can cause illnesses. According to a report by University of California Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources: “For most outbreaks [of food born illness from sprouts], the source of contamination appears to have been the seed.”
Gil and Lori of sproutpeople claim that: “organic seed has never been blamed in any of the outbreaks [of food born illness from sprouts].” Whether that statement remains true to this date I do not know. Regardless, it is still common sense to purchase organic seed. Since producers of certified organic seed are required to compost animal manures prior to applying them to crops, their seed is less likely to be contaminated with bacteria from animal fecal matter. Organic seed is also free of synthetic chemicals. Make sure that you purchase seed that is intended for sprouting or human consumption as opposed to growing outside. In order to minimize the risk of cultivating bacteria along with sprouts, some find it important to sterilize (place in boiling water) or thoroughly clean all sprouting equipment prior to use.
If you are still concerned about safety, you can follow the procedures suggested by the University of California Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources on their website. These procedures include the bleaching of equipment; the treatment of seed in a 3% hydrogen peroxide solution; the subsequent thorough rinsing or sprouts; and the cooking of all sprouts prior to consumption. I have never tried these things because I have no desire to use hydrogen peroxide or bleach in the cultivation of my food. Also, since many of the health benefits of sprouts derive from the fact that they are raw, I hesitate to cook all sprouts. Still you may want to consider this option if you have a young child, are elderly, or have a compromised immune system.
How to Sprout
There are several sprouting methods. Regardless of which method you choose, your procedure for tending sprouts will be similar: sort seeds, soak seeds, rinse seeds repeatedly, remove hulls if desired, and eat. You begin by soaking the seeds in filtered water or spring water. Ann Wigmore suggests that, because seeds obtain some nutrients from water, you might add powdered kelp to your soaking water. I have never tried this but it sounds intriguing. Most seeds can simply be soaked overnight. Authors Ann Wigmore and Richard Helweg recommend soaking some seeds, including alfalfa, clover, cabbage, and others, for shorter periods of time. Richard Helweg notes that lettuce and arugula should not be soaked at all. Their books (listed in the resource section) contain charts with recommendations for soaking and sprouting times. I generally soak all seeds overnight and have not encountered problems utilizing this practice. However, I have never attempted to grow lettuce or arugula as sprouts—I merely plant them in the garden.
After soaking, seeds should be rinsed two or three times a day. In hot weather seeds should be rinsed more frequently. Once seeds begin to sprout, discard any that have not sprouted. Sprouting seeds should be kept in a cool place away from direct sunlight. Some authors say that they should be kept in the dark for most of the time that they are growing and only placed in indirect light for a few hours. The chief benefit of this method is tender (and in some cases more delicate tasting) sprouts. There are also drawbacks to keeping sprouting seeds in the dark. Angiosperms require sunlight in order to photosynthesize (a process whereby carbon dioxide and water are converted to chemical energy and oxygen in the presence of sunlight) and in order to synthesize chlorophyll. Hence by depriving sprouts of light you are preventing them from creating nutrients. For this reason I prefer to sprout all of my seeds in indirect light for the entirety of the growing period.
The simplest sprouting methods utilize wide-mouth canning jars. Mesh or special sprouting lids are placed over the opening of jars to facilitate rinsing of sprouts (most food coops have the lids). You have choices if you decide to use mesh: cheesecloth or other porous fabrics; nylon or plastic mesh. If you choose to use cheesecloth, you will need a rubber band with which to secure it. If you choose to use nylon or plastic mesh, you will need to cut it to size and secure it with a rubber band or the metal screw band that comes with each canning jar. In order to sprout in jars you will need to: sterilize jars and lids; sort seeds; soak seeds directly in jars; and rinse as directed above. Keep jars tipped at a 45-degree angle with screens facing downward so that liquid can drain from sprouts.
Another simple sprouting method involves strainers. To employ this method you will need: a bowl or other container for soaking seeds and a large strainer of the sort used for cooking (plastic or stainless steel). You can also use cheesecloth for lining the strainer and covering the sprouts. This is not strictly necessary but it will prevent moisture loss. In order to utilize this method you will need to: thoroughly clean or sterilize all equipment; sort seeds; soak seeds in bowl; place seeds in strainer; and rinse as directed above. If using cheesecloth, line the bottom of the strainer with cheesecloth and drape some cheesecloth over sprouts. If not using cheesecloth, rinse sprouts frequently.
Other devices that can be used for growing sprouts include: bags, trays, tubes with screens at both ends, and bamboo baskets. You can purchase many of these items from the online companies listed in the resource section under “Sprouting Suppliers” or you can make them yourself. If you would like to make these items yourself, you can refer to The Complete Guide to Growing and Using Sprouts by Richard Helweg (see resource section). In order to use any of these devices you will follow the same steps: clean equipment; sort seeds; soak seeds; place seeds in growing container; rinse seeds frequently.
Seeds may also be sprouted in trays filled with soil. This method is frequently used for the cultivation of pea sprouts, buckwheat greens, and sunflower shoots. If you are interested in learning more about this method, please refer to one of the sprouting books listed in the reference section.
The time required for growing sprouts varies quite a bit. Some of the books cited in the reference section offer charts with suggested sprouting times and other information, but for our purposes, it is not as important. Here I will provide a more compact chart with seed amounts, growing times, cultivation tips, nutritional highlights, and culinary suggestions for some common kinds of sprouts. The information in this chart was drawn from personal experience and from many of the works found below. Some of the nutritional information comes from the USDA nutrient database and from apublication of the University of Wisconsin Extension. For more detailed information related to the nutritional profile of various sprouts, refer to the section on health and nutrition which will appear in part 2 of this article. You can also explore the websites and books listed in the reference section. Please note that, because all raw sprouts are rich in enzymes and because many sprouts are rich in chlorophyll, these facts have not been included in the column devoted to nutritional information.
2 to 6 days.
Remove any beans that fail to sprout.
A decent source of vitamin C (13.2 mg per 100 g), vitamin K (33 mcg per 100 g), and potassium (149 mg per 100 g). Also contains folate, calcium, magnesium, and phosphorus.
Great sautéed with onions, peppers, zucchinis, garlic, ginger, and soy sauce. Also good in soups and salads. One of the few legume sprouts that I eat raw upon occasion.
2 to 5 days.
Rinse at least three times per day.
A good source of vitamin C (16.5 mg per 100 g), folate (100 mcg_DFE per 100 g), potassium (322 mg per 100 g), and iron (3.21 mg per 100 g). Also contains protein (8.96 g per 100 g).
Good in soups, curries, dips, and breads. The flavor blends nicely with squashes, sweet potatoes, and sharp cheeses.
1 to 2 days.
Use hulled seeds. Make sure to discard all broken seeds prior to sprouting.
High in protein (24% protein) and vitamin E. Also contains folate, vitamin B-6, niacin, calcium, magnesium, iron, potassium, and phosphorus.
One of the most delicious sprouts. Excellent in vegetable and fruit salads. Also great for sandwiches, spreads, breads, and cereals. A good garnish for soup or yogurt.
3 to 4 Tbsp.
3 to 6 days.
Place in indirect light to develop chlorophyll.
A good source of protein (35% protein). Contains four essential amino acids, vitamin K, vitamin E, vitamin D, and some minerals. Contains canavanine, an amino acid that can be toxic when consumed in large quantities. Should be avoided by people with lupus or inflammatory arthritis.
One of the most popular sprouts. Great on sandwiches with cheese, tomatoes, and other vegetables. Good in smoothies, juices, salads, and raw soups.
4 to 6 days.
Mix with other sprouts or grow in a tray.
Rich in enzymes. Contains vitamin C.
Good on sandwiches and in salads.
3 to 4 days.
When soaking seeds, push seeds that float below surface of water.
Very good source of vitamin C and iron. Contains glucoraphanin, a precursor of sulforaphane which has been extensively studied for chemo-protective effects. Broccoli sprouts contain significantly glucoraphanin than mature broccoli. See section on nutrition.
Broccoli sprouts are great in salads, on sandwiches, and in soups. They have a flavor which marries well with strong cheeses, apples, and nuts.
3 to 4 Tbsp.
3 to 5 days.
Contains vitamin C, folate, iron, zinc, and other minerals.
Radish sprouts are spicier than mature radishes. They taste great on sandwiches with cream cheese or other cheeses. They mix well with beans, grains, apples, and nuts.
Richard Helweg suggests that these seeds should be soaked only 15 to 20 minutes. I generally soak them overnight.
Provides vitamin C, vitamin B-6, calcium, magnesium, iron, and essential amino acids.
Great in breads, pancakes, and cereals.
2 to 4 days.
Taste seeds periodically in order to determine when the desired flavor is achieved.
Contains decent amounts of potassium, phosphorus, iron, and zinc.
Good for breads, cereals, desserts, and beverages.
1 to 2 Cups.
1 to 2 days.
The sprout may not be visible.
Contains protein, calcium, potassium, and vitamin E.
Good in smoothies, nut milks, desserts, fruit salads, and dips. Great for snacking.
1 to 3 days.
Rinse at least four times per day. Ann Wigmore advises sprouting for no more than 2 days in order to minimize bitterness.
Provides protein, vitamin C, calcium, magnesium, iron, and phosphorus.
Good in salads and breads.
Once seeds are ready to be harvested, they should be drained for several hours prior to storage. You can rinse the hulls off of the sprouts prior to draining them by placing the sprouts in a large bowl of water and swirling them around. The hulls will float and can be poured off. This practice may produce tastier and more digestible sprouts but it is not necessary. Drained sprouts can be stored in the refrigerator in a glass or plastic container.
Fallon, Sally (1999). Nourishing traditions: The cookbook that challenges politically correct nutrition and the diet dictocrats. Warsaw, IN: New Trends Publishing.
Fryer Wiboltt, Anne-Marie (2008). Cooking for the love of the world. Goldenstone Press.
Helweg, Richard (2011). The complete guide to growing and using sprouts. Everything you need to know explained simply including easy-to-make recipes. Ocala, FL: Atlantic Publiching Group, Inc.
Meyerowitz, Steve (2008). Sprouts the miracle food: The complete guide to sprouting. Sproutman Publications.
Mollison, Bill (1993). The permaculture book of ferment and human nutrition. Tyalgum, Australia: Tagari Publications.
Prentice, Jessica (2006). Full moon feast: Food and the hunger for connection. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing.
Ruppenthal, R. J. (2008). Fresh food from small spaces: The square-inch gardener’s guide to year-round growing, fermenting, and sprouting.
Schmid, Ronald F. (1997). Traditional foods are your best medicine. Rochester, VT: Healing Arts Press.
Wigmore, Ann (1986). The sprouting book. New York, NY: Avery.
Information About Growing Sprouts:
City Farmer, Canada’s Office of Urban Agriculture. Sprouting at Home by Jim Mumm.
Information Related to the Nutritional Attributes of Sprouts:
Information About Vitamin K:
Information About Enzymes:
Information Related to Phytic Acid:
Phytic Acid at phyticacid.org.
Information About Chlorophyll or Photosynthesis
Linus Pauling Institute, Research Newsletter – Fall/ Winter 2006. Cancer Prevention by Chlorophylls.
Check your local coop or natural food store. The Wedge Coop in Minneapolis offers sprouting screens and an excellent selection of bulk seeds for sprouting. If you cannot find what you are looking for at your local coop, visit one of these online sites:
Bernadette Miller is a student of silences, wild places, and children. Those sages teach that savoring the substance of existence is a serious frivolity. So she aspires to spend more time mucking about in gardens and streams, sunsets and impossible dreams. She has a masters degree in Health Arts and Sciences. She loves gardening, cooking, playing music, playing with children, playing with words, and watching sunsets. She hopes, some day, to find the foreign land where opinions lose themselves in the original passions and stories that birthed them. Her last article for us was, Fermentation: Living With Wild Things.