Harvest your own sprouts

Photo: istockphoto/karma_pema
Head to your kitchen, not your grocer, for a bounty of healthful sprouts all year-round

Spring is here and many of us are busy planning our soon-to-be-bountiful vegetable gardens. While we wait for those gardens to start producing (or for those who lack outdoor space or a green thumb), having a steady supply of nutritious, delicious, homegrown sprouts growing on your kitchen countertop seems to me the perfect solution. And happily, growing them is so easy and instantly gratifying that it makes a great project for kids and adults alike. The seeds of many vegetables, beans and grains are suitable for hydroponic sprouting into tasty young shoots that will be ready for the table in less than a week.

Studies (including one last year at the University of Saskatchewan’s College of Medicine) show that broccoli sprouts can have a protective effect on blood cells, possibly reducing the risks of cancer and heart disease. Other sprouts have also been linked to cancer prevention, so experts agree that a variety should be eaten in moderation as part of a healthy diet. But, be aware that not all vegetables are candidates for sprouting.

Watch what you eat

Tomatoes, peppers, potatoes and eggplants are members of the Solanaceae family and their sprouts contain harmful poisons. Buckwheat shoots have also come under scrutiny, as there is evidence that the fagopyrin they contain may cause irreversible phototoxicity (hypersensitivity to sunlight) in humans and livestock.

Ingesting large amounts of raw kidney bean sprouts may also have unpleasant consequences. As a general rule, the sprouts of large beans—such as kidney, black beans, soybeans and black-eyed peas—taste much better when cooked; the heat also destroys enzyme inhibitors that can cause excessive gas.

Sprouting at home 

Sprouting seeds on your kitchen counter takes only minutes a day, and the reward is a steady supply of fresh, crunchy shoots. While there are many inexpensive kits such as SproutMaster on the market you may want to consider, here’s all you need to get started:

  • A large, clear, sterile glass jar (1- to 4-L capacity)
  • A bowl large enough to hold the jar at a 45-degree angle
  • An elastic band and a piece of fine mesh fibreglass window screening or cheesecloth large enough to cover the mouth of the jar
  • Fresh water and organically produced seeds specifically intended for sprouting

Sprouting secrets
Some seed packaged expressly for sprouting will indicate how much is needed to produce 100 grams of sprouts. The seed-to-sprout ratio can differ substantially—anywhere from 1.5 to 8.5 units of sprouts or more per one unit of seed—so follow directions carefully and make sure your jar is large enough to accommodate all the sprouts while still leaving room for good air circulation. As a rule, begin with 1 tbsp. (15 mL) of seeds for small varieties such as alfalfa and radish, 2 to 3 tbsp. (30 to 45 mL) for medium ones such as lentil, and up to 4 tbsp. (60 mL) for large seeds such as beans and peas.

Put seeds into jar and position screening over opening, using an elastic band to hold the covering in place. Fill jar one-third full with warm (about 40˚C) water and swirl seeds around for a minute or so. With the covering in place, drain water. Refill jar one-third full with cool water and let seeds soak for four to eight hours.

Next, begin daily regimen of rinsing seeds three times a day at roughly eight-hour intervals. Drain and refill jar with cool water, swirl seeds for about 30 seconds and drain again. Then, invert jar so screening is at the bottom and rest it at a 45-degree angle in the bowl. Place on the kitchen counter out of direct light (place bean shoots in complete darkness, as they often taste sweeter when they’re grown this way). Repeat this process for three to five days.

You can start to harvest your sprouts once they’re three to five centimetres long. Rinse and drain them thoroughly, place in an airtight container and refrigerate immediately; they should remain fresh for up to five days.

Practice safe sprouting

There have been many reports in the media about E. coli and salmonella contamination associated with eating raw or lightly cooked sprouts. Scientists agree the likeliest culprit is seed that has come into contact with bacterial pathogens and then sprouted. That is why it’s essential to use organically grown seed intended for sprouting; this seed has been handled under stringent guidelines and has been treated as a food crop from start to finish. Seed that has been chemically treated with fungicides or that is intended for growing vegetables outdoors should never be used for sprouting. For more information, visit the Canadian Food Inspection Agency’s website.

Seeds for sprouting

Alfalfa
Contains phytoestrogens, which have been linked to the prevention of cancer, heart disease and osteoporosis. Use raw in salads, sandwiches and omelettes.

Broccoli    
High in sulforaphane, which has been associated with cancer prevention. A mild peppery flavour; excellent raw in salads.

Clover
    
High in isoflavones, which have been associated with cancer prevention. Use raw in salads and sandwiches; texture similar to that of alfalfa.

Lentil
    
Sprouts contain 26% protein. Can be eaten raw or added to steamed vegetables, stir-fries and soups.

Mung bean    
Good source of vitamin C, protein and fibre. Best flavour achieved when lightly cooked.

Mustard    

High in vitamins A and C. Very spicy; use raw sparingly in salads and egg dishes.

Onion    
Good source of vitamins A, C and D; 20% protein. Distinct onion flavour; good added raw to sandwiches and salads.

Radish
High in calcium and vitamins A and C. Peppery flavour; doesn’t stand up well to heat; eat raw in salads and sandwiches or use as a garnish.

Soybean    
High in vitamin C, folate, fibre and protein. Flavour is improved with cooking; use in casseroles and stews.

* Find recipes for your fresh sprouts.

Eco ParentStephen Westcott-Gratton is the Senior Editor of Canadian Gardening, a national magazine aimed at the avid home gardener. The readers are city gardeners with tiny lots, country gardeners with rolling acreage, indoor gardeners, rooftop gardeners and enthusiastic beginners and experienced veterans.