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Sprouts: The Ultimate Kitchen Garden

There’s a wealth of plants that can be usefully sprouted besides the usual suspects of alfalfa and mung beans. Among others, you can sprout almond, buckwheat, cabbage, chickpeas, clover, fenugreek, flax, millet, oat groats, quinoa, radish, sesame, sunflower, wheat and wild rice.

Sprouting is compact and portable. Whether you’re already developing your land-living skills or making plans for escape from your cramped urban apartment, you can start sprouting with equipment that can easily be found in health food or hardware stores, or readily adapted from kitchen equipment you may already have.

I first started sprouting with a cheap kit consisting of three plastic lids sized for wide-mouthed canning jars, which I’d been saving and using for years. Although I’ve since moved away from using plastic in the kitchen, the graduated hole sizes in the three lids was very helpful, depending on the bean or seed I was sprouting; as it developed, I’d switch from one lid to another based on the size of the sprouts as they grew and ease of rinsing out the discarded hulls. These days I use canning rims with metal screens cut from standard window screening to doubled “hardware cloth”. I’ve also tried perforated canning lids, but prefer the transparency of screens.

Some people like to use cloth for their screens or for the whole process. Personally, I find cloth messy, and an invitation for overly wet sprouts subject to mold or rot. Most practically for me, using all hard surfaces reduces maintenance during the process and clean-up afterward. If you decide to make sprouts the “soft” way, the same basic processes and techniques apply, modified to deal with the absorbency of cloth.

The basic method is very simple:

  • Rinse and soak, typically overnight
  • Rinse, drain, rinse, drain, rinse, drain, typically once or twice daily for two or three days
  • Finish with a short exposure to sunlight as needed to activate chlorophyll
  • Chill to slow growth as you enjoy your sprouts

I would typically use quart or half-gallon jars, again depending on the bean or seed. Quart jars have the advantage of being able to use canning rims to secure your screen in place. Commercial food processors often use wide-mouthed canning jars, and you can buy the rims separately at a hardware store. Half-gallon canning jars are also available, although less likely to come your way. Of course, everything is available on the Internet, and you can also improvise lids that work for you­—say, from window screening and the kinds of strong rubber bands that often come with store-bought broccoli.

You may be surprised at the tiny amount of seeds or beans needed to produce a full jar of sprouts; my first efforts left me scrambling to keep up with the output. For a half-gallon jar, you would measure out a fine seed like alfalfa by a few tablespoons or even teaspoons; bigger seeds like chickpeas you might measure by the cup. Starting with a quart jar and a few more in reserve, you can always decant and upsize till you find the quantities that work for a particular kind of sprout.

Place the appropriate amount of bean or seed in the bottom of the jar. Secure your screened lid. Rinse the beans by running water through the screen lid, swirling the beans, and straining out the water (it can be used to water plants); then refill the jar for soaking. I’m perfectly happy using tap water for both rinsing and soaking. You may of course prefer to use the purified water of your choice for the soaking stage; you probably don’t want to use water that’s been purified in a way that badly depletes its minerals.

Overnight is a good starting point for the soaking period, and works well for everything I’ve tried, including alfalfa, which some sources say needs to be soaked for up to four days. If you do find longer soaking periods needed, replace the soaking water at least daily to avoid mold and rot.

Once you’ve dumped or recycled the soaking water, rinse the beans or seeds and set them to drain. One of those counter-top dish drainers that hold the jar at a 45-degree angle (lid downwards) is good—you can cut it down or improvise one of your own if you need the counter space, or simply use the drainer you use for your dishes. For that matter, you can set the jar upside down on a saucer, as long as you don’t let water collect and stand in it; the sprouts will compact a little more, so be sure to let them stretch a bit as you rinse. Rinsing in the morning and rotating the jar after it has drained for a bit is usually adequate. If the sprouts look a little limp, they may need an afternoon rinse as well.

I like to keep my sprouts visible so I don’t forget the routine, which is why I use my kitchen counter. You will want to control sunlight exposure. A sunny spot will prematurely green your sprouts; you are mimicking the early development of a sprout in nature or agriculture, which typically happens underground. Development of a little green is not harmful and eliminates the need to “finish” the sprouts when they are mature. An early deep green means you probably need to find a darker spot.

One of the things you want to do is rinse out seed hulls as the sprouts discard them. This is where graduated screen sizes can be helpful. You may be concerned about nutrition loss—after all, aren’t we always told to eat our grains whole?—but you needn’t be. By the time the hull is discarded by the sprout, it is essentially inert vegetable matter. It might provide fiber, but you will be getting plenty of that from the sprouts themselves. The hulls may also contain phytates that interfere with digestion; they’re better suited for compost than for consumption. And the principal reason you want to rinse them out along the way is that they hold excess moisture and expose your sprouts to the danger of mold or premature rot.

The rinsing and draining period will vary from one sprout to another. Two or three days is typical. Basically you are growing a crop, so the rinsing and draining period will end when your sprouts look and taste ready to eat.

Don’t be discouraged if your sprouts look different from some you may have seen in the supermarket or at the salad bar. Commercially-grown sprouts may have a different growth pattern because of their early treatment with mold inhibitors, which helps protect them from the natural process of decomposition while they are grown, shipped, and sit there under the sneeze guard. Rather than resorting to chemical treatment, you’ll watch for and deal with mold the way you would for any other vegetable: rinse, dry, keep an eye out, and use while they are still fresh.

Once your sprouts are ready in terms of size, texture, and taste give them a brief sunning—as little as fifteen minutes—to activate their chlorophyll if they look a little pale. Then chill them in a refrigerator or cool cabinet to slow down their growth.

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