Hunkered down in a one-bedroom apartment in Los Angeles throughout the pandemic, I found a way to garden, right on my kitchen countertop. No fertilizers, no yard, no dirt necessary. Just add water. After years of thinking of sprouts as something to tolerate—those of the bean variety found in a Chinese stir-fry, or the stringy alfalfa shoots that stuck in my teeth when eating health food co-op sandwiches, I’ve come to appreciate their nutritional density, the low start-up cost, and the ease with which they grow.
Considering ¼ cup of broccoli seeds (which cost almost fifty cents) yields 4 cups of sprouts, and given the widespread issues of food insecurity, the high cost of produce in “health food stores,” and the fact that according to the USDA “2.3 million Americans live more than 1 mile away from a grocery store and do not own a car,” sprouts ought to be celebrated as the ultimate superfood, the most hyper-local way of eating local, and perhaps the most accessible of all organic vegetables.
Yes, a sprout is the seed of a vegetable—often packed with more vitamins, micronutrients and probiotics than its more mature version of the plant. Scientists at Johns Hopkins University have been studying the disease-fighting properties of broccoli sprouts for over twenty years now.
Doug Evans, author of The Sprout Book: Tap into the Power of the World’s Most Nutritious Food, is a natural foods pioneer who became an expert on the subject in 2018 after moving from New York City to Wonder Valley, California, “Not just an actual desert but a food desert,” he told us in an interview. Sprouts check a lot of boxes for him and other enthusiasts. “To grow 100 broccoli florets takes about 50 gallons of water. But you could grow a pound of broccoli sprouts in one gallon of water,” he says. “You have sustenance, climate, medicinal and nutritional implementations in sprouts. A handful (8 ounces) of garbanzo bean sprouts will get you 35 grams of protein, 380 calories, plus the 9 essential amino acids, the benefits of soluble and insoluble fiber, the antioxidants, the Vitamin C… all of this is an alternative to very expensive plant-based powders that have who knows what in them.”
His book is seen as a sprout bible, spilling the gospel on the little powerhouses, from nutritional facts to recipes and quotes from medical professionals. “In my initial research I reached out to Dr Oz, Dr. Hyman, Dr. Orinish, Dr. Weil, Dr. Goldhamer—some were paleo/keto, some functional medicine, some plant-based doctors, and it turned out that all of them were closet sprouters,” he says. “They all shared their joy of sprouting and there seemed to be medical support for adding sprouts to your diet.” Now he hails sprouts as “food from the heavens.”
Plus, they taste good! Since any plant can be sprouted, turns out there’s a sprout for every palate. Like it spicy? Try radish, mustard, onion or arugula. Need some crunch in your lunch? A handful of lentil or cabbage sprouts will satisfy. Celery and basil add nice flavor to soups and salads. Chia, flax, nuts, and hemp are perfectly subtle enough to throw on top of whatever you’re already eating.
There are fancy trays, racks and kits you can buy online, but basically all anyone needs to get their sprouts popping are seeds, water, and a glass jar. Some people use cloth bags, tubes, baskets or colanders—but the beauty of this food is its simplicity, so let’s keep it simple.
Choose a seed. This could be French green lentils already in your cupboard, or those ordered from an online retailer, or purchased at your local farmers’ market. Evans recommends finding vendors that sell USDA certified organic seeds specifically meant for sprouting, as they have higher germination rates and have been prewashed to eliminate harmful bacteria.
Get a glass jar. These can be bought pre-fitted with screw-on screens on top, or you can measure the mouth of the jar and purchase a screen online, or just use a piece of cheesecloth and a rubber band as a DIY screen. Be sure the jar and screen are clean. You don’t want moldy sprouts.
Just add water. Experts say filtered is best but tap water can be fine, depending on your whereabouts.
Rinse a tablespoon of seeds, then add to the bottom of the jar and cover with water, filling the jar about halfway. Using a roughly 3:1 ratio of water to seeds, soak the seeds in water for about 8 hours.
Drain the water from the seeds through the screen. Add more fresh water. Drain the water right away, then tilt the jar at a low angle with the screen-side lower than the top. Store in a cool, dark place, allowing the residual water to drain out throughout the day. A dishrack or a large bowl can serve as a nice draining station. Repeat by rinsing and draining a second time, at night.
Behold, the sprout tails appearing in the jar! Talk to your plant babies, if it makes you feel good. Rinse. Add more water. Watch them grow.
Most sprouts can be harvested after 3 days but if you like them bigger, let them go for a few more. When you’re ready to eat or store them, pour the last of the water out of the jar. Dry the sprouts in a salad spinner or spread out on a towel to air dry for an hour. Sprinkle onto tacos, soups, sandwiches, Buddha bowls, smoothies or sauces. Mash a bunch into an avocado for a Doug Evans-style salad. Or go wild and eat them raw by the handful!
Store leftovers in a jar or reusable food container with an airtight top. Some people like to line the container with a paper towel to catch extra moisture. Most sprouts keep in the fridge for about a week. Share the bounty with neighbors, if you went a little crazy. It’s easy to do.
Jars of sprouts can be staggered in their starts so you always have sprouts that aren’t too old or wasted. Just clean, add in more seeds, and cap your recently-used jar as soon as you can as you work your way through the sprout cornucopia. And if you get hooked on the taste of certain sprouts, consider growing the full-sized versions with the Million Gardens Movement.
Photos by Kym Ghee.