Sprouting: A Winter Garden in Your Kitchen

—by Maria Casler, HPC Member

It’s deep into winter; as the snow piles higher, the cold grows harsher, and the price of fresh produce from California skyrockets, what’s a Minnesotan to do? For those of us who aren’t willing to subsist on meat, potatoes, and onions until May, there’s a whole world of sprouting to explore. Sprouting in your kitchen doesn’t take much work or equipment, adds fantastic nutritional benefits to your diet, and provides a desperately needed bit of green when you’re missing spring the most.

Sprouts have enjoyed a spike in popularity over the past several years. Many restaurants serve sprouts with sandwiches or salads, and almost any grocery store offers boxed sprouts for sale. Still, sprouting is nothing new. Centuries ago, the Chinese learned that they could prevent scurvy on long sea voyages by sprouting mung beans on board. In Europe, beers have long been made from sprouted grains, and Russian kasha is usually made from sprouted buckwheat. There’s evidence that, as long as 2000 years ago, grains were sprouted and ground to make bread. While our ancestors probably knew little about the nutritional benefits of sprouting, we now know that sprouts are truly some of the healthiest things we can eat.

The germination process of a seed creates a seemingly magical transformation. Once a seed has sprouted, it contains numerous vitamins, minerals, and enzymes that were not present in the dormant seed. The amount of vitamin C, B vitamins, and carotene increases dramatically. All seeds contain enzyme inhibitors that keep seeds dormant; sprouting neutralizes these inhibitors, thus providing enzymes to aid in digestion. Unsprouted grains (of which Americans eat enormous amounts) are difficult to digest, as they contain phytic acid—which inhibits the absorption of calcium, magnesium, iron, copper and zinc—as well as aflatoxins, which are potent carcinogens often found in grains. Sprouting grains neutralizes phytic acid and inactivates these aflatoxins, thus making the store of nutrients in grains more available to our bodies. In the face of such overwhelming evidence, you’ll certainly be compelled to try sprouting on your own!

Most people are familiar with the now ever-present alfalfa sprouts. Personally, I think most people eat these just because they think they should. Once you’ve branched out and experimented, you may just abandon these no-frills sprouts altogether in favor of some new, delectable sprout you’d never heard of before. For salad sprouts, I like to use clover as a base, adding radish and broccoli sprouts for a spicy kick. I also sprout a mixture of lentils, adzuki, and mung beans to be used as a nutty addition in sandwiches, burritos, and salads. Sunflower sprouts are probably my favorite, with a sweet taste (as sprouts go) and crunchy texture. I’ve gotten into the habit of soaking and sprouting nuts to make them more digestible— these can then be dried in a dehydrator to make them crunchy again. I also make a delicious, granola-like cereal from sprouted buckwheat. For the more brave and adventurous, wheat can be sprouted and made into bread, garbanzos sprouted to make raw hummus, quinoa to make flavorful salads and tabouli. The possibilities are endless. However, you might want to start small and work your way up to such feats of sproutdom.

With any method of sprouting, the seed or grain is soaked, usually overnight, and then rinsed and drained two or three times a day until the sprouts are ready. The length of time to maturity varies depending on the seed or grain; some only need a day or two, while some need up to a week. Room temperature and humidity will also play a part in how fast your seeds will sprout. To store sprouts, place in a plastic bag or airtight container and put in the refrigerator. I like to put a clean cloth napkin or paper towel in with the sprouts to soak up extra moisture and make the sprouts last longer.

The method you choose for sprouting is entirely up to you. Three of the most common methods are jars, bags, and baskets. The most widely used method of sprouting is in a wide-mouth quart mason jar covered with a screened lid or a piece of cheesecloth and rubber band. Seeds are soaked and then the jar is turned upside-down at an angle to drain after rinsing. Some people use sprouting bags, made of either hemp or a nylon mesh. The seeds are soaked and then the bag is hung over the sink to drain between rinsings.

My favorite method is sprouting in baskets. Baskets can be found at secondhand stores for practically nothing, and basket sprouts are less susceptible to mold, get more sunshine, and drain better than jar sprouts. (If you live in a very dry climate, however, some types of sprouts may dry out too fast with this method.) Sprouting baskets should have a tight weave, so seeds don’t fall through, and have no paint or varnish. They can be sterilized either by dipping in boiling water or by soaking in water with a tiny amount of bleach (rinse very well; bleach will kill your sprouts!). This method is probably the most fun to do with kids, since the seeds wind their roots through the basket weave, and the thick sprouts look like a miniature forest!

One exception to the methods listed above is sunflower sprouts. These I sprout in soil spread in a cafeteria-type tray. The sprouts are soaked overnight and then spread over the soil, watered well, and then a second tray is placed upsidedown over the first. When the sprouts begin to lift the tray on top, I remove it and then water daily until the sprouts are ready.

The humble sprout is a great addition to any diet. Proponents of a raw food diet may eat sprouts in different forms at every meal, for snacks, and folded into all sorts of recipes; while a traditional eater may stick to the more familiar salad and sandwich terrain. Whether you choose to dive into the realm of the serious sprouter or simply grow your own alfalfa sprouts, sprouting—especially in the dead of a Minnesota winter—can do wonders for your physical health and your state of mind. You no longer have to wait until spring to see green.

Resources:

  • Sprout It! and Kitchen Garden Cookbook, by Steve “Sproutman” Myerowit
  • zRaw, by Juliano
  • Nourishing Traditions, by Sally Fallon