Science

What Are Microgreens? Ask Paul

Who's the cutest little leaf? Who is it?
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Published Feb. 1, 2023.

If you’ve been to a “market-driven” or “farm-to-table” restaurant in the last 30 years, or on food-related social media recently, you’ve doubtless seen microgreens: an appealingly tangled garnish of small, vivid leaves with punchy, fresh flavor. But what are they, and where do they come from?

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What Are Microgreens?

Microgreens aren’t a special breed of vegetable: They’re just ordinary vegetables, any kind, that are harvested very young. Among the vegetables that are popularly eaten in micro-form are: peppery radish and arugula; tangy sorrel; ruddy beets; alfalfa; broccoli; and peas; as well as herbs such as basil and parsley.

What’s the Difference Between Microgreens and Sprouts?

When a seed is sown in soil, it germinates, sending out a single shoot, tipped with a proto-leaf (or pair of leaves) called a cotyledon.

Properly nurtured, it can grow an inch or more in a week until it eventually becomes a full-grown plant, but we have other plans for it. We can eat it before it gets any new leaves, when it’s just an inch or two longthat’s called a sprout.

Once it gets a pair of true leaves, it’s considered to have graduated from sprouthood: Now it is a microgreen.

If it grows further, it will become a “baby green,” and finally a full-fledged vegetable.

How Nutritious Are Microgreens?

There’s a lot of excitement about how microgreens pack an enormous nutritional punch for their size. The truth is that it depends on which nutrients you look at, and which microgreens you look at. Some microgreens have more of a particular nutrient than their mature version does; some have less.

But, crucially, the hype around microgreens doesn’t take into account serving size. A quarter-ounce garnish-sized portion of even the most nutritious microgreen is paltry compared to a 3-ounce salad portion of the same adult green.

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How to Grow Microgreens Indoors

If you want to eat a lot of microgreens—they are delicious and tender, after all—it’s more affordable, and more fun, to grow them from seed than to buy the tiny plastic packs of them that pop up at markets. They readily grow indoors.

  1. Purchase seeds intended for sprouting. Make sure they aren’t pre-treated with pesticides.
  2. Soak them for a few hours, or overnight, in water.
  3. Fill a shallow tray with potting soil. The polystyrene clamshell boxes that prewashed salad greens are sold in work quite well.
  4. Sprinkle the seeds on top (calculate how many with this cool tool) and press them gently into the surface.
  5. Place in a sunny spot.
  6. Water daily, keeping the soil damp but not saturated.
  7. After 1 to 3 weeks, harvest your micro-crop!

Note that sprouts and microgreens should not be eaten by pregnant or otherwise immunocompromised people, as the moist growing environment fosters the growth of bacteria that may originate on the seeds.

Ask Paul Adams, senior science research editor, about culinary ambiguities, terms of art, and useful distinctions: paul@americastestkitchen.com

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