Winter is the perfect time for sowing seeds. I'm not talking about winter sowing (WS) but rather about sowing seeds you can eat. The garden has been put to bed for the year and unless you have a greenhouse or other comparable set-up, there's not a lot being grown and harvested in the backyard right now. Growing something fresh and green can sometimes help boost morale this time of year, especially if it involves gardening that doesn't require any soil or sun or even a green thumb in order to produce a successful crop.
I first started sprouting seeds in the '70s and have been a big proponent ever since. My initial attempt at sprouting involved alfalfa seeds, and they remain one of my favorite kinds of sprouts. They are easy to grow, productive, and make a good seed choice to begin one's sprouting education if you've not sprouted before. Alfalfa sprouts can be found on just about every salad bar in America, but I can attest to the fact that the ones that come out of my refrigerator taste infinitely better than those on any salad bar. It's also reassuring to know that I'm the only one who has ever coughed or sneezed all over them.
On the heels of alfalfa sprouts came my experience with sprouting wheatgrass (or wheat grass). What can I say about that except to note that in my humble opinion, it tastes just exactly like your yard smells right after it has been mowed. I juiced a lot of my homegrown sprouted wheatgrass in those days. It was my "raw foods only plus copious amounts of juicing" phase. Let me tell you that anyone who thinks juicing sprouts that full of chlorophyll--or juicing anything else for that matter--will be quick and easy has a rude awakening in store. Jack LaLanne swore by it though so I figured it had to be the right and best thing to do despite the fact I had noticed that he was also selling juicing machines. I ended up doing much more swearing at wheatgrass than by it. My first sip of the bilious bright-green juice was a total hold your nose moment on par with a big dose of cod liver oil. I managed to keep it down in spite of the fact that the gag reflex is a very powerful thing. The stuff is super-nutritious, I know; however, in my honest opinion, you can save your time, money and effort by simply going outside and gathering some of your lawn clippings. Having said all that, you probably should try it at least once since it has many proponents. Or so they say. I've yet to meet more than about two in well nigh over 30 years now. You just might like it, especially if you want to put hair on your chest. That would probably make three of you who do. Since I wanted neither hair on my chest nor green juice spewing from my nose, I eventually moved on to trying other types of seeds to sprout. The road to sprouting savvy can sometimes be a bumpy one.
Just about any seed, dried pea, grain, or dried bean can be sprouted. A partial list includes: alfalfa, amaranth, beets, chinese cabbage, corn, cress, dill, favas, fenugreek, flax, garbanzos, lentils, mung beans, mustard, oats, quinoa, radish, red clover, sesame, sunflower, triticale, wheat, and all types of peas. I've tried just about all of those at one time or another and enjoyed them all -- yes, enjoyed them immeasurably more than wheatgrass. So be encouraged about the taste of most sprouts. They really are delicious.
There are a few caveats when choosing seeds for sprouting and those mainly involve which seeds can be spouted as well as which are suitable for human consumption. Not all are. For example, all seeds of the Solanaceae family as well as rhubarb seeds should not be sprouted and eaten due to the possibility of being poisonous. While not all are poisonous, they do all contain alkaloids, some of which can be toxic to humans in certain amounts. Likewise, some seeds intended for sowing in the garden have been treated with chemicals and should not be ingested. Make sure any seeds, grains or legumes you select for sprouting are marked as suitable for human consumption. Better yet, buy organic, if possible. Additionally, while some grains such as whole oats can be sprouted, oat groats bought at the store have been dehulled and then steamed or roasted and will not sprout. You must always use whole grains in order to produce grain sprouts.
Somewhere along the way in my sprouting journey, I was delighted to learn from some folks who live between Sprout Wonderland and Bean Sprout Nirvana (I kid you not) that we lovers of bean sprouts have our own team cheer. It goes like this: Beans are crunchy, beans are nice. Sprout some up and serve 'em with rice. I'm obviously not the only one whose sprouting obsession is firmly rooted in the 1970s. It probably goes without saying that we have our own mascot too, the Chia Pet®, invented in 1977.
One of the most wonderful things about sprouts is the fact that the act of germinating a seed, bean or grain will cause it's nutritional value to increase exponentially. Once soaked and rehydrated for sprouting, the amount of enzyme activity skyrockets and the seed becomes a little nutritional powerhouse many times more nutritious than it was in its original state. Sprouts abound in such nutrients as antioxidants, enzymes, vitamins, minerals, amino acids, and chlorophyll. For those raw alfalfa sprouts I mentioned, 100 grams (3.5 ounces) contains approximately 14% of the RDA (Required Daily Amount) of Vitamin C along with 38% of the RDA for Vitamin K and 9% of the RDA for folate, a nutrient often lacking in American diets and prescribed in prenatal vitamins for the prevention of birth defects. I realize that 3.5 ounces of alfalfa sprouts may be considered by some people as enough to choke at least a small horse, but you get the point. The enormous increase in enzyme activity and nutritional value applies across the board for all seeds, legumes and grains that are sprouted.
So now that I've convinced you to try sprouting, congratulations on an excellent and extremely wise decision! Once you've selected your seeds, grains, or legumes of choice, this is how to get the job done. First, you will need a container for sprouting. There is a wide variety to choose from including plastic trays and containers that can be stacked for ease of storage, glass sprouting jars or tubes with interchangeable screen lids, and hemp bags. Any and all of these are acceptable, and the choice is very much about whatever strikes your fancy. I've used all of them and still do. For me, a simple homemade hemp drawstring bag works well to hang on a peg in the basement stairwell during the germination process. Bags are good for beans and peas but don't work well for small seeds. Glass jars are non-toxic and allow you to easily monitor the progress of the process. They are also easy to clean. The plastic sprouting trays allow for a larger amount of refrigerated storage by allowing you to stack several vertically one on top of the other.
Store-bought sprouters usually come with directions for the most commonly sprouted seeds. The manufacturer will tell you the amount of seeds to use in their sprouter, how long to soak the seeds, temperature required to germinate, and approximate length of days until germination. In addition, they may indicate how long the sprout "tails" should be when the sprouts have reached optimum size for eating. If you decide to make your own sprouter, there are numerous sprouting guides available online for most kinds of seeds and legumes. Growth will stop when you place them in the refrigerator. Sprouts can generally be stored for several weeks but as with most produce, the fresher, the better. In order to have a constant supply, I keep several sprouters in use at the same time with sprouts at various stages of development. Many of the commercially available sprouters include removeable plastic dividers or inserts that allow for sprouting several different types of seeds in the same tray without having them become mixed together. As with any implements or materials that come in contact with food, care should be taken to make sure sprouters are kept clean and sanitary. Wash them thoroughly with soap and hot water after finishing a container of sprouts and before starting your next crop. Occasionally adding a few drops of bleach to the water and letting the sprouters soak is a good practice.
Since there are several variables involved, here I am giving only a rudimentary description of how I sprout alfalfa seeds so as to serve as a general description of the process. I am using my original '70s sprouter because sprouts just seem to taste better when they are grown in that one. Perhaps it's just my imagination. Yes, I still have my very first one (the groovy round sprouter in the photo to the right). The instructions for this sprouter call for a third of a cup of alfalfa seeds soaked for 8 hours or overnight in a container with about three times the amount of water covering them. I use a glass measuring cup so I can easily measure and soak in the same vessel. While any type of vessel will do, I don't recommend aluminum. Next drain the original water and rinse the seeds very, very thoroughly in fresh water. Spread seeds evenly over the bottom of the spouter. Drain as much water as possible by slightly tilting the sprouter. Cover with a damp cloth and place it out of direct sunlight at room temperature. A cupboard is ideal if you think you will remember it is in there. Continue to rinse and drain 3 times a day until harvest. Alfalfa seeds sprout quickly and the average time to harvest for them is 3-4 days. At that time, refrigerate and enjoy! Once the spouts are out of the dark, they will turn greener so don't be concerned about pale alfalfa sprouts. The sprouting process is basically the same for all seeds, beans, and grains with variations in soaking times, germination times, and lenth of time to harvest. Rinsing to keep the seeds moist is most important, but should you forget that they are in the cupboard or wherever, don't despair. Rinse and continue on. If they dry out completely though, starting over is your only option.
Finally, no discussion of sprouting would be complete without a word about the ongoing great debate in the sprouting community. That is whether or not you should ever cook your sprouts or should they only be eaten raw. Personally, I lean toward the latter. After all, they are a food source that is very much alive and heating them will destroy that life to at least some extent. However, I can't be a total stickler about this. I steam and enjoy greens of all types all the time. They are simply delicious. So, too, are cooked sprouts. Thus I add my two-cents worth to the debate and say that with the possible exception of my old nemesis, wheatgrass, grow them yourself and use them either way. They are especially good during the long winter months when our outside gardens are sound asleep.
Mung bean sprouts, Chia Homer, Chia Pet®, and pea sprouts all courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, some rights reserved
Thumbnail photo, dried legumes, wheatgrass, and radish sprouts courtesy of Sproutpeople.com, used with permission
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