Plant Palette

Plant Palette

Sprouts

Photo of Jennifer Schultz Nelson

Jennifer Schultz Nelson
Extension Educator, Horticulture
jaschult@illinois.edu

I am always looking for topic ideas for my columns. Fern Horn, a Master Gardener from Shelby County e-mailed me with questions about her attempts to grow broccoli sprouts, and suggested I write about sprouts in my column. As I researched answers to her questions, I learned there is a lot to learn about growing your own sprouts at home–definitely a column-worthy topic. Thanks for the suggestion Fern!

Though it may seem like sprouts are a relatively new food, they really aren't. Growing sprouts of seeds as a food source is an ancient practice. Records of Chinese physicians prescribing Mung bean sprouts to patients have been found dating back to 5,000 years ago. There are accounts of people eating sprouts in the Book of Daniel in the Bible as well.

If anything, Western medicine and cuisine is just catching up with what the East has known for thousands of years!

Dr.Clive M. McKay, nutrition professor at Cornell University, is credited by the International Sprout Growers Association with sparking interest in sprouts as a food source during World War II. He referred to sprouts as "a vegetable that will grow in any climate, will rival meat in nutritive value, will mature in 3 to 5 days, may be planted any day of the year, will require neither soil nor sunshine, will rival tomatoes in Vitamin C, will be free of waste in preparation and can be cooked with little fuel".

Dr. McKay studied soybean sprouts, but other research has shown that soybean as well as other types of sprouts may contain high levels of the B vitamins, Vitamin A, Vitamin C, and protein. Some sprouts, such as alfalfa, broccoli, and clover produce high levels of phytochemicals (chemicals produced in plants) which research has shown may have anti-cancer properties.

Growing up, I remember people thinking you were a "health nut" if you ate sprouts. Clearly though, sprouts are nutritious, and you don't need to be a "health nut" to enjoy them. They are very commonly found in grocery stores, and more and more different varieties of sprouts are seen alongside the ever-popular alfalfa and bean sprouts.

You might find alfalfa, sunflower, broccoli, mustard, clover, onion, lentil or even radish sprouts available locally. But sooner or later you might wonder about growing your own sprouts at home. Is it possible?

It's definitely possible to grow your own sprouts at home, but proceed with caution. Your choice of seeds to sprout is very important. Some seeds, such as kidney beans, produce sprouts that are toxic if eaten. Seed that is intended for planting in a garden may be treated with fungicides, which are also toxic.

Sprouts have been a known source of foodborne illness. It's tempting to assume that the illness arose due to conditions in which the sprouts were grown commercially, and think you can grow them at home without a problem.

But research has shown the seed to be the source of the harmful bacteria in many cases. It is possible for seed to harbor disease-causing bacteria in low levels which multiply rapidly in the warm, moist environment necessary for growing sprouts.

It is important to note that the FDA has advised that consuming raw sprouts is a risk for both genders and all age categories. They also advise that children, the elderly, and persons with weakened immune systems that risk serious illness due to foodborne disease should not eat raw sprouts.

When growing sprouts at home it is important to buy seed which is at minimum not treated with fungicide. Preferably, you should only use seed marketed specifically for growing as sprouts, certified to be pathogen-free if at all possible.

Even with certified pathogen-free seed, there is still risk that harmful bacteria are present. University of California published an article in 2004 advising people attempting to grow sprouts at home to treat seeds for possible presence of pathogens. They advise treating certified pathogen-free seed by heating it in a mesh strainer on the stove for five minutes in a solution of 3% hydrogen peroxide (available at most drug stores) preheated to 140 F.

Following the peroxide treatment, rinse the seed in running tap water for one minute. Place the seed in a clean container with enough tap water to cover the seed plus one inch. Carefully skim off any floating seeds, seed coat fragments, or other debris and discard. Many cases of contamination by harmful bacteria have been linked to these materials.

There are lots of commercial "sprout jars" available for home grown sprouts, but they're really not necessary. North Carolina State University has published the following procedure for preparing sprouts at home using everyday materials (www.ces.ncsu.edu/depts/hort/hil/hil-8106.html ):

  1. Wash seed (about 2 oz) and soak in lukewarm water 6 to 8 hours or overnight at room temperature.
  2. Next, put the seeds in a jar covered with cheese cloth after the soaking process.
  3. Continue to keep the seeds sprinkled with water at least 2 to 3 times each day. The sprinkling may be done once early in morning and again before retiring to bed at night. It helps to roll the jar (container) around during each sprinkling to allow for easy lengthening (growth) of the sprouts until they are 2 to 4 inches long and ready to eat.
  4. For best results, use only non-chlorinated water such as well water, spring water, or distilled water, because the chlorine in city water can cause poor sprouting. Sprouting is best done at 70 to 80F in a dark place. It will take 3 to 7 days to obtain mature sized sprouts, depending on the temperature.
  5. Place mature sprouts in a water-filled container and wash to remove seed coats and fibrous roots. The seed sprouts will sink to the bottom and seed hulls will float to the top. Gently skim the seed hulls off by hand or with a small wire strainer. Allow sprouts to drip drain.
  6. Sprouts are best when used immediately after washing, but can be stored for several days in the refrigerator (38 to 50 F) in closed glass or plastic containers, or freezer bags.
  7. The size of mature sprouts will vary. Allowing the sprouts to grow too long (over 4 inches) may cause them to become bitter.

When "sprinkling" your sprouts the water must be allowed to drain from the sprouts. If sprouts sit in water for extended periods of time, they will quickly rot and "sour". Typically sprouts that have soured have a musty smell and you may even see fungi or bacteria contaminating the sprouts. If this happens the sprouts are inedible. Make sure you thoroughly disinfect your sprouting container before trying a new batch.

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