Revisiting the sprout garden

Sunday, 28 January 2018

My bean sprouting jar in use

Totally by chance, I came across my old bean sprouting jar recently, whilst decluttering a cupboard. Seeing it, I was immediately transported back in my mind to the days of eating 'hippie food', which included sprouting my own alfalfa and mung beans. Then regarded as suspiciously alternative, modern thinking on nutrition validates much of that food in a healthy diet, including the sprouts! Having a spare packet of mung bean seeds lying around that I had inherited from a daughter's pantry, I decided to give sprouting a go last week, and found I thoroughly enjoyed the process, as well as eating the product. I realised it was just like gardening on the kitchen bench, and with a lot going on in a short time - a welcome distraction at a time when most of the days lately have been simply too hot to go outside! I wondered if my early interest in sprouting had been the first sign of a proclivity for gardening? I certainly saw it in a whole new light this time around.

Packets of seeds for sprouting

Sprouts are simply the shoots of germinated seeds. They contain surprisingly high levels of vitamins, minerals, fibre and protein, and a host of health benefits are claimed for them. They can be used raw in salads, sandwiches and rice-paper rolls; used in stir fries; cooked in soups and stews; and even added to juices and smoothies. They also make a great garnish! The most popular seeds used for sprouting are alfalfa and mung bean, but other interesting possibilities are broccoli, radish, red cabbage, kale, fenugreek, onion and mustard. It is very important to use only seeds labelled as suitable for sprouting, as many seeds packaged for the production of vegetables are treated with fungicides, which can be quite harmful if eaten, as they would be still present on a sprouted seed.

My mung beans prior to sprouting

The most common method of sprouting is to use a jar - either a designated sprouting jar like my old faithful one (which has a screw-on plastic-mesh lid) or a plain glass jar along with a piece of clean cheesecloth or an unused piece of kitchen cloth (Chux or similar) cut a bit larger than the size of the jar mouth, plus a rubber band that will fit snugly around the jar mouth to hold the cloth in position as a cover. It is important that whatever receptacle is used is cleaned thoroughly before use. Seeds are checked first for any broken or discoloured ones then are placed in the jar, water is added to rinse them, then the lid or cloth cover is affixed to the jar. The water is then drained out through the porous lid or cover, which stops the seeds escaping. Next the jar is filled with lukewarm water and the seeds are allowed to soak for a while (depending on the individual type of seed; details are given on the seed packet). My mung beans were soaked for 12 hours.

After the soaking time is up, the seeds are drained again and rinsed once more. All water is tipped from the jar (if water remains in the jar from this point onwards, the seeds may rot) and it is placed in a dark spot in the kitchen - I simply covered mine with a tea towel. Air must be able to get into the jar through its lid or cover. The seeds are gently rinsed and drained about three times a day (or more often in hot weather) until they have sprouted and are the length required. They are rinsed again and placed in the frig, still in their sprouting jar. They are rinsed each day even then, and will generally last about three days. The time needed to reach the desired sprout size varies with the type of seed; alfalfa sprouts are ready in one to two days, whereas my mung beans took about four days. Information on this is given on the packet for each seed type. The length of time required will also vary with the ambient temperature. Very hot and very cold temperatures in the house will inhibit germination. Some sprouts (such as alfalfa) are greened up with exposure to indirect light at the end of their sprouting time but I kept my mung bean sprouts covered with the tea towel the whole time as suggested on the packet.

Finished mung bean sprouts

To a gardener, it is fascinating to actually see the germination of a seed happening before your eyes. The expansion of a small handful of seeds into a full jar of sprouts was also mindboggling. A little more than a tablespoon of mung bean seeds yielded more than a cup of sprouts! A bit of research revealed that the mung bean is, botanically, Vigna radiata, an annual vine with pale yellow, corkscrew-shaped blooms, closely related to my delightful snail creeper (Vigna caralla), which is actually in flower now, both being in the Leguminosae family of plants. I could, theoretically, grow a mung bean vine myself!

Sprouting seeds is a great way to introduce kids to the world of plants and the importance of plants in a healthy diet. It also offers the opportunity for people without gardens to grow some of their own food. I found my sprouts way fresher than anything I have bought in a packet in a shop: indeed, I often view those packets with suspicion, as they can often look a bit past it. It is important to note that pathogens may be present in sprouts that are improperly prepared or stored (and not just by the home gardener!), so people with a compromised immune system, plus the very young and the elderly, should probably avoid eating bean sprouts. Using seed from a reputable supplier and following sanitary practices in the process of sprouting them are the best ways to avoid the problem.

I plan to do more sprouting in the future. A related technique is raising tiny seedlings in trays as microgreen crops: refer to this blog I wrote about this interesting form of 'gardening'!