Real Food Encyclopedia | 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. But sprouts (and their cousins, microgreens) are gaining in popularity, so chances are you should be able to find many different kinds at your local farmers’ market (or you can even grow your own). Many sprouts retain the characteristic flavors of their parent plant (for example: spicy radish sprouts or sweet, mellow pea shoots), so you can really have fun with them. Plus, if the late winter blues have hit you and your itching for spring’s crops, sprouts are an early teaser that can help get you through.
Fun Facts about Sprouts:
- The book Food Plants of the Worldnotes that the earliest evidence of the plant being used for fodder was in 1300 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.
- Alfalfa is called “lucerne” in most of Europe.
What to Look for When Buying Sprouts
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 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.
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 — sweet 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 excellent toppers for sandwiches.
- Arugula sprouts: peppery arugula sprouts make for a perfect match as garnish for shellfish and chicken, and also taste great as a nutritious addition to salads and sandwiches.
Here is a beautiful pictorial spread of the various types of sprouts eaten around the world, including buckwheat, pea, radish, clover, sunflower, arugula and broccoli.
In general, stick with organic sprouts or sprout your own to limit environmental impact. 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.
Sustainability of Sprouts
Sprouts and GMOs
In 2011, the US Government approved unrestricted cultivation of GM alfalfa, developed in part by Monsanto (now Bayer). 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. There is a 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.)
Sprouts and Foodborne 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.)
Happily, sprouts are available any time of the year, especially if you sprout your own!
Sprouts and Water Usage
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.
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.
Cooking with 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). We love 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 yummy 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).
You can freeze fresh bean sprouts (blanch them first), or make this Vietnamese pickled bean sprout recipe, which should keep in your fridge for several days. Other types of sprouts should be eaten right away.
Most types of sprouts are very 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).