“Are ‘microgreens’ just a fancy name for sprouts, or are they different? Can I grow them at home?”
Microgreens, whether store-bought or homegrown on a sunny windowsill, are a real boon in late winter, when we’re all starting to crave intensely fresh flavors. And they have a great story behind them. There’s probably no better example of synchronicity between chefs and farmers than microgreens.
About 20 years ago, the late, influential Chicago chef Charlie Trotter told family farmer Lee Jones, of The Chef’s Garden in Huron, Ohio, that he was done with the Provençal salad blend called mesclun. He wanted something no one else was doing, something cutting-edge, to intrigue customers. Jones, whose sustainable practices are a model for young farmers, had been experimenting with itsy-bitsy greens and herbs, but the idea was ahead of its time. “I got a lot of people saying, ‘Why don’t you let your product grow up?’ ” he said in a phone interview.
Jones resurrected the idea when Trotter explained what he was after. A chef relentless in his pursuit of the finest ingredients, he cultivated a broad network of farmers and other suppliers, and as he made guest appearances in other restaurant kitchens, popping open Jones’ boxes of tiny, pristine greens wherever he went, word spread. The rest, as they say, is history. “It causes you to look at plants in a whole new way,” said Jones, whose collaborations with chefs continue to inspire all concerned. Perhaps the next “trickle-down” specialty item is the garlic that Jones grows specifically for its five- to six-inch-long snow-white roots. “They’re wonderful deep-fried in woks,” Jones said. “You can make a ‘nest’ with the roots and serve an over-easy quail egg inside.”
The difference between microgreens and sprouts is simply a matter of maturity, for they are two stages of a plant’s growth. Sprouts, the earliest phase of a plant’s life, aren’t germinated in soil but in a closed, moist environment under low-light conditions. Seeds from lots of vegetables can be sprouted, but the most popular are green, leafy kinds such as alfalfa, broccoli, cabbage, clover, kale, radish, and onion, according to the National Gardening Association. “All sprout readily in water and are best eaten soon after the first leaves (cotyledons) sprout. These are best enjoyed raw because they are so tender and delicate. Other tasty seeds to sprout include various kinds of beans and lentils: adzuki, kidney, lentil, mung, pinto, and soy. They are best harvested before leaves emerge.”
Microgreens, which are considered the second stage of a plant’s development, require soil (or a soil-free potting mix) and sun. They’re allowed to grow a little taller than typical sprouts, until the cotyledons (which are considered embryonic leaves because they’re present in the seed prior to germination) have fully developed, or the first true leaves (i.e., formed post-embryonically) start to emerge, depending on the needs of the farmer’s customers. If allowed to grow a week or so beyond the microgreen stage, the still-juvenile plants are called “baby greens.”
Microgreens have long been thought to pack a potent nutritional punch, but until recently, no research existed to support the theory. That changed with the publication in the Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry of a study comparing the level of nutrients in microgreens with that in their mature counterparts. The researchers—the University of Maryland College of Agriculture and Natural Resources (AGNR) and the USDA—looked at nutrients (such as vitamins C, E, and K and the carotenoids beta-carotene and lutein) found in 25 microgreens, including cilantro, celery, red cabbage, basil, and arugula. Their conclusion—that microgreens, depending on the type, contained four to 40 times more nutrients than the fully developed versions—was so surprising that they checked their findings several times. Cilantro microgreens, for instance, contained three times more beta-carotene, and the Mini-Me versions of red cabbage and green daikon radish were highest in vitamins C and E, respectively.
“Because microgreens are harvested right after germination, all the nutrients they need to grow are there,” said researcher Qin Wang, Ph.D., assistant professor at the University of Maryland in College Park, in an interview with WebMD Health News. “If they are harvested at the right time they are very concentrated with nutrients, and the flavor and texture is also good.”
I don’t know about you, but I want me some. Rather than depend on the spotty (and expensive) selection at specialty markets, I’m going to grow a microgreen assortment of salad greens, leafy vegetables, and herbs at home. Depending on the variety, the seeds-to-harvest time is about two weeks; if you keep several trays going at once and sow seeds every week or so, you’ll have a continuous supply at the ready. I have a feeling that tending my very own tiny plot is going to be much more rewarding than “Farm Heroes Saga.”
How Microgreens Taste
Their flavors, which are amazingly diverse, evolve as their leaves begin the process of photosynthesis. Carrot microgreens taste just like the vegetable. Beet microgreens are earthy, while radish and mustard greens are spicy. Kale microgreens are sweet, and cauliflower microgreens have a mild pepperiness that’s appealing. Sunflower microgreens are nutty, and clover ranges from sweet to spicy. Teensy cress microgreens can range from mild to pungent. One great favorite of pastry chefs is “popcorn shoots”—that is, microgreens grown from popcorn kernels. They are very sweet, and their eye-catching yellow color is achieved by cultivating them out of the sunlight, to prevent photosynthesis and the production of chlorophyll.
How to Serve Them
Like any raw vegetable (even greens labeled “triple-washed”), microgreens should be rinsed well. Their delicacy and high water content preclude cooking, so use them to augment salads made with more robust (i.e., fiber-rich) mature greens. They add punch to sandwiches, and a pretty tangle of them adds interest and texture to practically everything, including soups or an after-school snack of carrot sticks and hummus.
Need-to-Know Food-Safety Tips
Always buy seeds from a reputable company that guards against soil-borne contamination from pathogens such as E. coli (you’ll remember that nasty microorganism from last week). And if you are cultivating sprouts, which must be grown in a warm, dark, moist environment (a potential breeding ground for bacteria), buy seeds specifically labeled “for sprouting,” rinse and refrigerate the sprouts exactly as directed, and sterilize the containers before each use.
Where to Buy Seeds
Johnny’s Selected Seeds in Winslow, Maine, and High Mowing Organic Seeds in Wolcott, Vt., sell handy seed mixes that yield mild or spicy microgreens. Lucky Leaf Gardens near Charlotte, N.C., sells a convenient microgreens growing kit, as does Gardener’s Supply Company in Burlington, Vt.