Real Food Right Now and How to Cook It: Sprouts

By Marek / Adobe Stock

It has been a cold winter here in the Northeast. I find this time of year - late winter-early spring - to be the cruelest. The birds are chirping again, there are buds on the trees and the snowdrops have started to bloom. But still, there is no lettuce at the market, no asparagus, no peas, no radishes. Nothing but root veggies, as if we're in the depths of winter. But here's a little secret to getting through this time of year: sprouts! If early spring isn't the best time to grow your own sprouts, I don't know when is. And the little bits of green will surely remind you that the farmers' markets are destined, sooner than we know it, to be full of all of our favorite spring produce. Winter be gone!  

A Brief History of Sprouts

Although you can sprout (and eat) just about any seed, the two most common sprout types we see at the market are bean and alfalfa. According to The Oxford Companion to Food, bean sprouts (specifically mung and soy beans) have been eaten in China for at least 3,000 years. The Soy Info Center has an interesting article on the history of soy sprouts, in which they note the sprouts were first used dried, as a medicinal - specifically to "purify the blood of married women" and to "purify their [breast] milk and increase their strength" after childbirth. In part, they were prized because they never touched the earth (or manure); this probably explains their use as a purification remedy in early Chinese medicine. Mung beans are native to India (cultivated there for at least 3,500 years). They quickly spread to China, where they are used to make bean sprouts and noodles.

Alfalfa is probably native to Iran. Aside from their sprouts, which make up a relatively small portion of the alfalfa market, the plant is primarily used for animal fodder. Food Plants of the World notes that the earliest evidence of the plant being used for fodder was in 1,300 BCE in Turkey. The Oxford Companion to Food says that the Persian Emperor Darius introduced alfalfa to Europe in 491 BCE, but that it was used for human consumption only in times of food shortages.   

Factual Nibbles

  • Alfalfa is called "lucerne" in most of Europe. Isn't that a pretty word? 
  • You can sprout seeds you might not have even thought about. As Kim O'Donnel mentioned in her recent Real Food post, quinoa can be sprouted, as can amaranth, wheat berries, wild rice, fenugreek and barley.

Sprout Cultivation

Large, commercial sprout growing is a generally labor- and water-intensive operation, in which the seeds must be soaked, sprouted (sometimes under growing lights, if the growers want chlorophyll to develop), rinsed, chilled and packaged. Commercial growers must be vigilant about contamination, and many even test the seed soaking water for pathogens (see the Environmental Impact section, below, for more information on sprouts and food-borne illness). But, if you're into the DIY spirit, you can easily cultivate your own sprouts! Cultivating your own is fun because you can grow unique sprouts that are harder to find in the grocery store or even the farmers' market, and because you can control how much you sprout and under what conditions.

Sprout Seasonality

Happily, sprouts are available any time of the year - especially if you sprout your own! 

Environmental Impact of Sprout Growing 

In general, the environmental impact of sprouts is minimal if you sprout your own. However, there are a few things to note about sprouts and the types of plants commonly sold as "sprouts" at the grocery store. First: food borne illness. According to Foodsafety.gov, there have been at least 30 reports of food-borne illness from sprouts since 1996, the bulk of which were Salmonella and E.coli-caused outbreaks. (And because the seed is generally the source of the bacteria, home sprouting isn't necessarily safer than commercially grown sprouts.) Children, pregnant women, elderly people and people with compromised immune systems should avoid all raw sprouts. How do icky things like Salmonella and E.coli bacteria get into sprouts, you ask? As this article explains, contamination is most likely to happen in the fields (due contact with manure-enriched soil) or in the sprouting facilities themselves. To control contamination, seeds can be chemically disinfected and/or regularly tested by commercial sprouters; seed sellers who market to home sprouting aficionados in some cases also test for certain kinds of bacteria on their seeds. (Here's a super detailed article about sprout contamination and the efficacy of seed disinfection, for more info.)

The second major environmental issue with sprouts - specifically with alfalfa - is genetic modification (GM). In 2011, the US Government approved unrestricted cultivation of GM alfalfa, developed in part by Monsanto. GM alfalfa is resistant to the weed-killer Roundup, which allows farmers to spray lots and lots of the stuff without killing the alfalfa crop. Apparently Monsanto's use agreement (with farmers) prohibits sprouting of GM alfalfa seed. However, there is risk of cross-contamination between regular (and organic) alfalfa and GM alfalfa, because bees are primary pollinators for the plants. (Here's an article that describes this in more detail.) 

Finally, as mentioned above, commercial sprouting operations use quite a bit of water in the process, as sprouts generally must be soaked, grown in water and rinsed. In general, stick with organic sprouts or sprout your own to limit environmental impact. 

Sprout Characteristics and What to Look For 

Of course, sprouts from different plants look different - some are bright green, some pale, some yellow. In general, if you purchasing commercially grown sprouts, look for perky sprouts (wilted sprouts are not delicious) with no black or moldy spots. Give them a smell - they should smell clean (or like good dirt) with no off-odors. The same is true for home-sprouted seeds. 

Types of Sprouts

Sprouts (and their cousins, microgreens) are gaining in popularity, so chances are you should be able to find many of these at your local farmers' market (or grow your own!). Many sprouts retain the characteristic flavors of their parent plant (think: spicy radish sprouts).

Here are just some sprout types you may see: 

Bean Sprouts : mostly mung bean; these sprouts are more toothsome and juicy than other sprouts and can withstand stir frying and other cooking. 

Alfalfa Sprouts : the classic "sprouts" that became popular in the 70s with the influx of California cuisine and macrobiotic cooking. Alfalfa sprouts are tender and grassy-chlorophil tasting, great for topping sandwiches and avocado toast. 

Pea Shoots : pea shoots, or pea tendrils, are the first early shoots of green peas or sugar snaps. They taste unmistakable pea-like and can withstand stir frying or other methods of cooking. Be sure to look for young pea shoots; the older they get, the tougher they are.

Broccoli Sprouts : nutritious and delicious, with the cruciferous bite of broccoli. These sprouts are great cooked. 

Radish Sprouts : peppery radish sprouts made for excellent toppings for fish (including sushi) and other foods that can withstand their radish-y bite. 

Corn Shoots : corn shoots taste of - you guessed it - sweeet corn. Like bean sprouts, they are able to withstand high heat cooking. Try them stir fried with a little bacon, miso and butter. 

Sunflower Sprouts : sunflower sprouts are nutty like their sunflower seed counterparts, and are exellent toppers for sandwiches and tartines. 

Arugula Sprouts : peppery arugula sprouts make for a perfect match as garnish for shellfish and chicken, and also taste great as a nutrious addition to salads and sandwiches. 

Here is a beautiful pictorial spread from Saveur of the various types of sprouts eaten around the world, including buckwheat, pea, radish, clover, sunflower, arugula and broccoli. 

Sprout Nutrition

Most types of sprouts are super good for you. For example, mung bean sprouts (the most common type of sprout labeled "bean sprouts" in the grocery store) are rich in Vitamins C and K, a good source of folate and a decent source of important minerals, like manganese, phosphorous and iron. Generally, sprouts are high in Vitamin C, although cooking reduces Vitamin C (and it's recommended, for food safety, that you cook your sprouts). 

What to Do with Sprouts 

There is a lot of information out there on how to sprout your own seeds - and it's super easy to do. You don't need special equipment - just a jar, cheesecloth and seeds of your choice. Be sure you purchase untreated (organic is best) seeds, ideally that have been tested for pathogens. (Many seed-supply places that sell seeds for sprouting advertise this.) Here is a really great primer from Vegetarian Times on seed sprouting (including nut sprouting for making nutritious nut milks), with a handy soaking and sprouting timetable for each type of seed (or nut).

Cooking Sprouts

Foodsafety.gov recommends that you cook all sprouts (even home sprouted) to ensure that harmful pathogens are killed. That being said, you can find raw sprouts on many menus as toppers for sandwiches and salads. Like we mentioned above, pregnant women, children, elderly people and people with weakened immune systems should be especially careful about consuming raw sprouts. Cooked sprouts are just as delicious, anyway! 

Commonly, sprouts of all kinds are stir-fried or steamed - this retains some of their yummy crunchiness but eliminates any scary bacteria potentially lurking around. Check out this recipe for home sprouted quinoa salad with feta (with instructions on how to sprout your own, to boot). Years ago, I discovered corn sprouts at my local farmers' market. And I love the idea of spicy radish sprouts, as in this recipe for halibut on radish sprout and fennel salad. But by far the most prolific sprout recipes come from Chinese, Korean and Japanese cuisines - like this Korean bean sprout salad, this one for super-simple Chinese stir-fried bean sprouts, or this super yummy sounding Japanese spicy bean sprout side dish. There are also a ton of sprout recipes over on the International Sprout Grower's Association website, including bean sprout pizza and "mock" spaghetti (in which sprouts stand in for the noodles, natch). 

How to Store Your Sprouts

Most sprouts are rather delicate and won't hold up to long storage. Bean sprouts will stay fresh for 4-5 days in the fridge; other sprouts (like alfalfa) for slightly less. Store them in a zip top bag in your crisper drawer.

Preserving Sprouts 

You can freeze fresh bean sprouts (blanch them first), or make this excellent-sounding Vietnamese pickled bean sprout recipe, which should keep in your fridge for several days. Other types of sprouts should be eaten right away.

Recipe: Stir-Fried Bean Sprouts with Black Garlic, Carrots, Fresh Chiles and Cilantro

Stir-frying bean sprouts is the perfect method to be food-safety conscious and still retain the delicious crunch and flavor of the veggie. Black garlic is a type of caramelized garlic used frequently in Asian cuisine. Luckily my local food co-op sells it; you should be able to find it in most Asian markets. If you can't find black garlic, substitute regular garlic or roasted garlic. When I stir-fry, I find it easiest to ensure I have all of my mis-en-place (i.e., all the stuff you need for the recipe) prepped and sitting next to the stove before cooking. I love serving this with brown rice. 

Ingredients:

1 tablespoon organic canola, peanut, or coconut oil

2 cups mung bean sprouts, rinsed and dried 

1 small Serrano chile (or jalapeño), stemmed and julienned lengthwise into thin strips

1 small carrot, trimmed, peeled, and julienned into thin strips

2 cloves black garlic (or one clove raw garlic), sliced 

1 tablespoon soy sauce

13 cup cilantro leaves (packed), roughly chopped

Lime juice, to taste

Method:

  1. In a wok or a large, heavy frying pan, heat the oil over high heat until hot, but not smoking.
  2. Add the mung bean sprouts, the chiles and the carrot and stir-fry over high heat for 2-3 minutes.
  3. Add the black garlic and stir-fry for 30 seconds. 
  4. Add the soy sauce and stir gently to combine. 
  5. Remove from heat and stir in the cilantro. Squeeze a bit of lime juice on top, and serve immediately.

This post was originally published in March 2014.