Sprouting & microgreens: introduction

What are they?

Sprouting is a process whereby an edible plant seed is awakened from its dormant state by soaking in water for a specified time, then allowed to ‘sprout’ and grow to a small size, when it can be consumed, usually raw and sometimes cooked, depending on the seed (see below). Seeds used for sprouting include vegetables, beans, pulses, grains and nuts. The most familiar include the crisp, inch-long alfalfa sprouts found in salads and sandwiches; the longer, noodle-like mung bean sprouts in chop suey; or the malt flavour extracted from sprouting barley.

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Alfalfa sprouts in a clay pot.

Here’s more on the terms used in this type of ‘micro-gardening’:

  • seeds are sprouted, then eaten whole, including primary leaves, stem and root
  • beans, pulses and grains are germinated and eaten whole, including bean and root
  • microgreens are micro-plants grown from seeds on a growing medium, and cut at the base when tiny; stem and primary leaves are eaten
  • plant shoots are seeds or pulses grown on a growing medium; they are cut at the base for leaves and stems to be eaten, but not roots; usually a bit bigger than microgreens when harvested
  • grasses are grains grown on a growing medium; only the blades are harvested for juicing
  • nuts are soaked, and the whole soaked nut is consumed with or without skin; it’s called sprouting although no visible sprout will appear
  • many seeds can be either sprouted or grown into microgreens – such as radish, alfalfa, mustard, cabbage, broccoli and clover
  • mucilaginous (sticky) seeds can only be used for microgreens – such as cress, basil, rocket or chia
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Rocket microgreens growing on an unbleached, compostable napkin in a clay pot.

Soaking and sprouting times vary depending on the type and size of seed. There are certain things that sprouts need to ensure steady growth, the main ones being humidity and air circulation. Some seeds require a dark environment, some light, and others require first darkness, then light in the final stages. Sprouting is a soil-less growing method, but a good-quality growing soil or compost can be used when growing microgreens, plant shoots or grasses. However, these can all be grown without soil – see ‘what can I do?’.

The result is crunchy, flavoursome sprouts; fresh, germinated beans; milky-tasting sprouted nuts; herb-like microgreens; plump, leafy plant shoots; and lush grasses for juicing.

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Hummus from sprouted chickpeas.

What are the benefits?

Dry, dormant beans, grains and seeds often contain three things that make them indigestible for humans – enzyme inhibitors, phytic acid (which prevents the absorption of many essential minerals) and a range of mild toxins that discourage animals from eating them. They only became part of our diet after the development of agriculture, and we’re not really equipped to eat them unprocessed. However, soaking and sprouting neutralises enzyme inhibitors, phytic acid and toxins, intensifies vitamins and nutrients and renders them edible when raw.

Make an easy sprouter and start sprouting.

Sprouts are considered among the healthiest of foods, with detoxifying and rejuvenating properties that help your body repair itself; and yet they can be produced cheaply, easily and quickly. We all need fresh, plant-based food sources to maintain optimal health, and sprouts are packed with vitamins, amino-acids, beneficial enzymes, minerals, proteins, phytonutrients and trace elements that are all easily digested and absorbed by the body.

Growing sprouts only requires a small amount of space and very basic equipment. What it doesn’t require is a particular season, fertilisers or lots of hard work and time. Sprouts are therefore a good way to get kids interested in growing veg.

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When, for example, buckwheat hulls are removed, some seeds can get broken; those seeds then won’t sprout but may begin to go mouldy. Try to remove all broken seeds before sprouting, but if some become mouldy, just remove them and rinse the rest – they’ll be OK. However – it’s sometimes difficult to distinguish between mould and perfectly healthy, feathery roots, and you don’t want to throw out sprouts that are not in fact mouldy. See here for more information on how to distinguish between mould and roots.

Fresh sprouts are very versatile – they can be eaten raw in salads and sandwiches, juiced and added to smoothies or soups, used as a garnish or just nibbled whenever you feel like it.

Home-grown sprouts are much cheaper than the ready-sprouted seeds in plastic bags that you can buy in the shops – and you know how exactly how they were grown and what’s in them.

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The familiar mung bean sprouts used in Chinese cooking.

What can I do?

Some sprouted seeds are odourless and some have a strong herbal scent. The nutritional value of some sprouts is so high that it’s recommended that they be used only sparingly (e.g. fenugreek or nigella). Some beans can contain toxins even after sprouting, so either don’t sprout them at all or steam them before eating (e.g. red kidney beans). Always refer to a reliable sprouting chart, and do some research online and/or with good books – or you can ask questions in the comments section below if you’re not sure. Seeds suitable for sprouting are listed here.

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Chickpea sprouts.

Sprouting is an extraordinarily simple process. Almost all seeds need to be soaked in water for 4 to 24 hours before sprouting. The soaking will not only make the seed plump but also triggers changes within the seed. Self-protective ‘anti-nutrients’ are released into the soaking water and the inedible, hard seed will slowly start its inner transformation to a ‘superfood’.

After initial soaking (follow a soaking chart), the seed is left in and airy but humid place for sprouting. Once the sprouts reach the desired length, they’re harvested for consumption.

For growing sprouts you will need seeds, sprouter and a water supply for regular rinsing.

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Microgreens in clay pots on a windowsill.

Make your own sprouter

You can make yourself a basic sprouting device from a glass jar or a plastic food container (we advise against plastic in principle, but upcycling a plastic container from a yoghurt pot, for example, will increase its lifespan).

Glass-jar sprouter: there are plenty of online guides (like this one). We don’t recommend piercing a metal lid due to the dangers of sharp edges and possible rust. A cheesecloth attached with a rubber band to the neck of the glass jar will create a simple sprouter. You will also need some sort of base which will hold your sprouter upside-down or tilted for drainage once you start rinsing the sprouts.

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Sprouts in a salad.

Plastic-pot sprouter: take a 500g plastic yoghurt pot or something similar, including the lid. Make drainage holes in the bottom of the pot (from the inside) with the biggest needle from your sewing kit. The holes should be smaller than the smallest seeds you intend to sprout. Put a handful of soaked seeds inside, rinse them well and drain them by putting the lid on and gently squeezing the pot until the water drains out through the holes. Rinse and drain each morning and evening. See here for how this can help prevent seeds from rotting.

Two easy ways to grow broccoli microgreens – with or without soil.

Buying a sprouter

There are many different kinds of sprouters available. Plastic sprouters are common, and easy to clean, but plastic is a bit of an environmental nightmare. Glass sprouters often have plastic lids, but you can easily make one with a cheesecloth lid. Ceramic sprouters are both natural and efficient, although there are various grades of fired clay depending on the firing temperature, and not all of them are suitable. Avoid Stoneware and glazed sprouters because they prevent air circulation. The best are earthenware or terracotta. They’re natural, beautiful and porous – so they imitate natural soil conditions for the seeds, and they absorb and release moisture, but are breathable, which prevents condensation.

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Microgreen seeds on napkins in clay pots on a windowsill.

Growing and cooking sprouts and microgreens

See here for sprouting instructions.

See here for instructions using an earthenware sprouter.

Note that cooking destroys a lot of nutritionally-important enzymes, vitamins and amino-acids. Most sprouts are safe to eat raw – even mung beans and lentils; the only things that definitely need cooking are the bigger beans such as soy, azuki and red kidney beans.

Microgreens are even easier to grow. Sow seeds in a porous / earthenware dish lined with a moist table napkin, covered with a lid that allows air circulation. Organic potting compost in a shallow tray with drainage holes can be used as the medium too, but this increases the risk of contamination. Soil or compost is only required for grasses or shoots that have more than just primary leaves. Put the container on a sunny window ledge and keep moist. Expect the greens to germinate in 3-7 days, and then 1-2 weeks later (depending on the green), you can harvest them by snipping them off above soil level with scissors.

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Pea shoots.

‘Micro’ is often best soil-less and raw; however….

Important:

  • Alfalfa sprouts are mildly toxic and shouldn’t be eaten every day; avoid them altogether if you’re ill.
  • It’s best to eat sprouts in moderation and to vary the types of sprouts you eat.
  • Bigger bean sprouts such as soy and red kidney bean are toxic when raw.
  • Many raw bean sprouts contain hemagglutinins (which inhibit protein and fat absorption), but cooking destroys hemagglutinins; best to cook the bigger germinated beans.

 

Thanks to Lucia Kostelnik of Gaia Sprouters.


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