How easy is it to rush to and fro in our busy lives and overlook the obvious. For instance, bean sprouts may be a mainstay in stir-fries and alfalfa sprouts commonplace on salads, but it never crossed my mind to use herb sprouts until someone suggested it to me. During the winter when fresh-herb options are limited, the thought of having fresh-herb flavor, inexpensively and easily, sounded irresistible to me.
A trip to the garden yielded ripened seeds from various herbs. In my hippie days, I’d started many a batch of sprouts, using mason jars with special lids or special sprouting bags, but I knew all I really needed was a glass jar, some sort of strainer, and a few minutes each day. And so the experimenting began. Some weeks and assorted successes and failures later, I’m happy to report that herb sprouts are definitely worth the time. Just follow these simple instructions.
Besides mung bean and alfalfa, seeds commonly used for sprouting include adzuki bean, barley, buckwheat, cole vegetables (broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, etc.), chia, clover, garbanzo bean, lentil, millet, oat, pea, quinoa, radish, rice, rye, soybean, sunflower, triticale, and wheat. Taking a cue from these, I chose culinary herbs with relatively large seeds that normally germinate quickly, such as basils, chives and garlic chives, cress, dill, fennel, fenugreek, and sesame.
The least expensive way to acquire herb seeds for sprouting is to gather them from your own garden. Wait until they are dry and ripe, then gently tilt the seed head into an open paper bag and cut it off. Put the bag in a warm, dry place, and within a few days, most of the seeds will have fallen to the bottom of the bag. For stubborn seeds, gently rub the seed heads between your fingers over the open bag. If not using the seeds immediately, store them in a tightly covered, clean glass jar in a cool, dark place. If mold appears on some seeds, discard the batch and be more careful next time that seeds are dry before storing.
You can also use purchased seeds as long as they are free of fungicides, insecticides, or other chemicals. Bulk seeds from a health-food store may or may not be viable. Some suppliers sell seeds especially for sprouting, however.
How To Sprout
At its most basic, sprouting requires only a clean widemouth quart glass jar and screening material such as cheesecloth or panty hose. A fine-meshed steel strainer is good for draining basil seeds because, as they absorb water, they develop a gelatinous coating that sticks to fabric.
Starting sprouts is easy. Place 1 to 4 tablespoons of seeds in the jar. Cover the opening with the cloth and secure with a rubber band. Add water, swirl, and drain. Add 1 cup of tepid water and set the jar aside for 8 to 12 hours to soften the seed coat. Drain off the water and rinse the seeds. Drain off the rinse water. Shake the jar so the seeds are distributed along one side and place it on its side in a dark place with a temperature between 65° and 75°F. For optimal drainage and air circulation, tilt the mouth of the jar downward slightly, perhaps by propping up the other end on a dishcloth.
Rinse the sprouts two to four times a day for three to six days, or until they reach the desired length. Be sure to drain off excess water each time to avoid fermentation and spoilage. Taste the sprouts occasionally to determine when they are most flavorful.
When the sprouts are ready, they may be used immediately or refrigerated in a covered container. If you like green sprouts, set them in bright, indirect sunlight for several hours when they have nearly reached the desired size. If you want, you may put the sprouts in a bowl filled with water and discard the hulls that float to the surface.
If you have sprouts on hand, you’ll have no trouble thinking of ways to use them. For salads and sandwiches, add sprouts wherever you might use lettuce: to hamburgers or veggie burgers, subs, pitas, hot dogs, tacos, or burritos. Liven up a grilled cheese sandwich by including sprouts and a tomato slice before grilling the sandwich. Toss them in omelets, stir-fries, and pasta sauces. For a tasty, nutritious addition to homemade breads, add a half cup of sprouts per loaf when adding the liquids.
Consider the flavor possibilities. Not surprisingly, chive, garlic, and garlic chive sprouts have a delicate garlic-onion flavor. Basils are the ideal match for Mediterranean salads. Radish sprouts add zing to coleslaw or potato salad. Try classic cress sandwiches made with sprouts—I like them spread with a velvety, fresh local goat cheese. Combine several kinds of sprouts for a mix of flavors and textures.
Add sprouts to salads or use them alone with a vinaigrette. One of my favorite salads is cress sprouts, sliced mushrooms, toasted walnuts, and bread cubes sautéed with garlic in walnut oil dressed with a walnut oil vinaigrette.
Maggie Oster, who lives alternately in Indiana and Kentucky, writes extensively about herbs, food, gardening, cooking, landscape design, flowers, and crafts. Her books include Recipes from an American Herb Garden and Herbal Vinegar.